How to Form Your Own Manuscript Critique Group
Find a few others who want to share work in progress.
Conferences (Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, regional SinC and MWA such as Crimebake and Sleuthfest, reading groups, bookstore and library author appearances, writing workshops, meetings of local chapters of writer's organizations (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime).
As few as two. My group went as large as eight. We finally settled happily with four.
People who are committed to writing or share the same level of commitment. Not necessary to have everyone working in the same genre, but those involved have to accept the ground rules for each other's genres (in other words don't critique a romance plot from the point of view of a mystery reader, or a children's book from the point of view of an adult reader). In my group, Dina and Jeannine write children's books and adult novels. Bruce has written contemporary and historical novels. I write mystery and literary novels.
How about publication credits?
When my group started no one had published a book and no one had an agent. Bruce had been to several writer's colonies, which I considered an impossible dream. Now three of us have published books, and we all have agents. Plus—with a kind reference from Bruce I was able to attain two month-long writing fellowships at the Virginia Colony for the Creative Arts. (Thanks, Bruce!)
Set ground rules.
Some groups mail manuscripts and read in advance. Others give each member time to read aloud (5-10 minutes is good for a start).
On meeting structure
How often will you meet—weekly, biweekly, monthly? Are you going to chat over coffee before critiques? Or are you going to cut chitchat to a minimum? Or does everyone want mainly to chat about finding agents, negotiating with publishers, organizing publicity, dealing with editors—in other words, shop talk? I participated in a nonfiction writers' shop-talk lunch group for a while, and it was great fun. It also helped me decide that with all the effort required to place articles, I might as well go for broke and write fiction.
On critiquing and "sensitivity" level
Our group's rule is that you have to say three positive things first. Starting positive is a good rule, as it is easier to take "constructive" advice about what isn't working after hearing a few nice things. Framing criticism neutrally helps, too. "This stops me (or the flow)." "Wording seems a bit clunky." "Clarify."
On "showing up" both in person and in copy
Does everyone have to show up at every meeting? (No using the group as cover for having an affair!) How often will each be required to contribute a manuscript? Will you read first drafts and partials? Page limits? My group reads anywhere from a few pages to an entire novel. We would never meet if we didn't read pretty raw stuff. We keep critiques gentle with early drafts. "I see what you're going for here." "This character's really got me hooked." "I don't get who this guy is. I'd like to know more about him." "Maybe you could combine these two characters."
Have your first meeting.
- Ground rules
- How often, time of day, and where to meet (coffee house, bar, restaurant, homes)
- What each person wants
"I have an idea I've wanted to write for some time, but never got around to it. Maybe being in a group will give me the discipline I need." "I've written a short story that an editor told me sounds like the end of a novel. I'd like to write the first 150 pages." "I've published nonfiction, but need feedback on fiction." "I've been writing and publishing for several years, but it's begun to feel lonely. I want a group that will hold me to high standards."
Fish photo credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
© 1999-2007 by Lisa Kleinholz.