I got an email asking my advice about forming a critique group. I answered, but I’m going to expand on it here, so if I get asked again I can just point.
A couple of things by way of introduction: First, get it out of your head that you need a writers group. You don’t. You need to write. If you get as lucky as I did, you can find a group that helps; but you’re just as likely to find one doesn’t, or is even harmful. Second, the point of a critique group is not to improve the manuscript (though that is a very nice bonus), it is to train the editor who lives in the back of your head. If you are very good at revisions, then skip the critique group and just hang out with your friends and drink coffee and scotch and argue about politics and season 6 of “Buffy.”
There, that said, if you do form one, what should it be like? Fortunately for you, I know the answer. Herewith, the Exactly Right Way to do it, and no other way will work. I actually believe that, except that I can point to groups that violate every one of these rules and work just fine. So, oh well.
And note I’m talking about a group that meets in person; for those of you meeting electronically, I have no idea, but I suspect much of this is different. So, then, without further ado, here is the Ultimate Truth about writers groups.
1. The correct number of people is 5-7. Any fewer and you don’t have enough diversity of opinion; any more and it becomes a pain for everyone to talk.
2. You must respect every member as a writer, a critic, and a person. That last one is not just something I’m saying because it sounds good; it has immediate, practical value. Here’s why: At some point, Jim Douchebag is going to say something about your book that makes you go, “Oh, crap. He’s right.” And you’ll fix it, because you have to. And for the rest of your life, every time you look at that book you’ll go, “Fucking Jim Douchebag has his greasy thumbprint on my beautiful book!” So don’t go there. Don’t work with anyone whose greasy thumbprint will upset you.
3. Do not have a leader. I mean, seriously. What the fuck? A leader? Pfui.
4. None of this read aloud bullshit. You pass out manuscripts ahead of time, find out when people can get together (another reason for the small number: it’s manageable), and talk about what you’ve read.
5. None of that artificial crap about how long people get to talk. First, you go around with general comments–the sort where it doesn’t really apply to any specific moment in the book. Then you go through it chapter by chapter, page by page, even sentence by sentence if necessary (“My next comment is on page 41.” “I have something on page 38” “Go fish.”). I’d skip the persnickety copy-editing type details (though it’s nice if someone marks those for you and then hands you the marked-up manuscript after the meeting), but on the other hand, sometimes grammar can be very useful. In fact, having a grammarian in the group is really, really nice (bless you, Pamela, and bless you again).
6. Mention passages, scenes, sentences that you like. This is not about stroking the writer’s ego. It’s because two years from now, when you’re gleefully reading the book that you helped with, and your favorite passage is missing because no one told the writer it was good, you’ll feel like an idiot.
7. Do not be afraid to argue. I mean, the writer shouldn’t argue, but there’s nothing wrong with strong disagreement among the critics. If someone likes a particular way of handling something, and you thought it sucked, that is a good thing. Argue, and let the writer listen to the argument; the writer will then be able to form a useful opinion, and possibly even pull a general rule out of it. (General rules and laws about how to write or how not to write are the Big Bonus Prize. You can’t make them happen, but when they do it’s the big payoff.)
8. The argument (see above) is over when the writer says it is. (We use the code-phrase, “Thank you. I’ll think about it.”)
9. Oh, right. You meet as often as you need to in order to cover as much writing as the group is doing.
I may be adding stuff as people point things out, but in general, there. The final and ultimate truth about writers groups, and anything else is a mistake.
Except that, yeah, well, never mind.