There’s a lot of discussion about the value of a critique group. Those who don’t favor the idea ask: “Do you really want your work critiqued by a bunch of amateurs?” Other familiar questions are: “Are you willing to submit unfinished work for someone to pick holes in?” “Won’t that nip in the bud any spontaneity it might have?” “Is there a risk of turning out something that reads like a book by committee - a book that has nothing wrong with it, but which is completely lacking freshness or originality?” All are valid observations, but . . .
On the other side of the fence are those who insist they need all the help they can get before they subject their manuscript to the scrutiny of an agent or an editor. A fresh set of eyes can spot weaknesses you, as the writer, are too close to see. They can point out gaps that are not apparent because you, as the creator, know the back-story. And they can tell you when you’ve added too much back-story and need to let the reader have the fun of using his imagination.
Both arguments have merit. In the end, it depends on the individual writer – and the group.
I had the good fortune to meet a wonderful group of writers when I was writing my first book. In addition to the writing advice I received from these people was the unexpected bonus that came with having to meet a deadline. We met every two weeks and knowing that I needed something to submit imposed a discipline I had been lacking. And discipline is a huge part of writing. But the real value of the group came from the feeling of being part of a fellowship of kindred spirits. In that group, I was first and foremost a writer. Writing was not something I did in addition to my real life. I believe this is vitally important, especially to someone just starting out. You have to learn to think of yourself as a writer, to make time to write, not merely find time.
When I said I was lucky in my first experience with a critique group, what I meant most of all is that I was fortunate to fall in with the right people. Though we were a diverse group and were each writing a different type of book, we were all at about the same level of competence. We analyzed and advised, but not too much. Often there was agreement that something wasn’t working, but disagreement about how it could be made to work. I found that a good thing. It told me that I needed a new direction, but left me free to find my own path. Perhaps most important, we treated one another with respect. Enough respect that we did not give false praise. We were honest in our criticism, but not so critical that we were crippling. There’s a fine line there–but an important one.
How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.