writing, Writing advice

Should You Join a Critique Group?

The short answer is “yes,” what do you have to lose? It certainly won’t hurt your writing. It might very well help improve it and give you the opportunity to help someone else with their writing. So yes, join a critique group if one’s available.

But all critique groups are not created equal. My advice is to shop around, ask some questions, and try to find one that fits your particular needs. (This, of course, is assuming that you live in a large enough community to have multiple groups available. In smaller communities like my own, there may only be one group).

So what do I look for in a critique group?

Size. A good, productive critique group should be fairly small. Somewhere between six and ten members is best. It’s large enough to represent a variety of tastes and skills, but still small enough to be manageable.

I once belonged to a critique group that probably had twenty-five people at any particular meeting. Even with a five minute limit on comments, it could take two hours to get through one piece. Even if it’s your work under consideration, that’s a lot to sit through. (There’s a reason that even most college classes are only about an hour long. It’s about the limit of human boredom tolerance).

Genre. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that we can all learn from writing genres we aren’t usually practicing. But I also think that in order to get the most from the feedback of a critique group, a percentage of the members need to either practice or read your chosen genre. If you write horror fiction, having all the members of the group read and write nothing but inspirational fiction probably won’t help you much.

The optimal makeup would be a couple of members who are familiar with your genre and an even mix of everything else among the rest. That includes poets, writers of memoir, personal essay, romance, sci-fi, humor, and anything else someone can devise. The more is truly the merrier.

Mechanics. This is personal taste. I prefer having works for consideration by the group be submitted in writing or be email at least a few days before the meeting. I feel that gives everyone time to read it, think about what they’ve read, and make thoughtful suggestions. I’ve been in groups that simply read their work aloud to the group, then everyone comments. This, I feel, only allows first impressions and often the critique will be as much about the reading as the work itself.

That is just my opinion though. (We all know what that’s worth).

Lastly, I like to make sure that one or two of the members are, if not better writers than I am, at least on a similar level. The primary purpose of a critique group, after all, is to have a sounding board to tell us what isn’t working in our writing and offer suggestions on how to improve it. That can be done best by someone who is better than we are. At least they may have figured out a solution to a particular problem you’re facing.

So, yes, join a critique group. It’s a great way to get initial feedback on your work. And the network of readers/colleagues you create may end up rewarding you in ways you’ve never considered down the road.

Writing advice

Writers’ Conferences

I admit I was late to appreciate the benefits of attending a writers’ conference. Part of this, I’m sure, was because I had finished my college education, which meant I’d taken nearly every writing class the University offered. What more, I felt, could I learn from a one or two hour workshop? I’d just spent more than four years studying the art of writing for several hours a week.

Little did I know.

Oh, I did attend a conference once outside of Portland, mainly because it let you reserve a time slot to pitch your work to a real life New York agent. I did, but nothing came of it. In hindsight, I was over-reaching. I was not yet good enough. But it was an experience.

I attended all the workshops for which I’d signed up, but didn’t get much out of them. They reminded me of freshman-level courses at the University. There was a lecture hall full of about a hundred students listening to someone lecture. There was no discussion, little in the way of question-and-answer, almost no engagement. I also didn’t know a soul there, and it just being a day or two, never saw anyone often enough to make a new friend.

My opinion of writer’s conferences largely reflected that experience: me wandering alone from workshop to workshop, passively listening to the lectures, but gaining little or no insight into what I was trying to learn.

I decided writers’ conferences were not for me. The expense was simply not worth the meager returns.

I was wrong. For ten years I was wrong.

Flash forward to 2006. I had just moved to a little town on the Oregon coast and, as fate would have it, this little town hosted a writer’s conference every winter. Still, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t like writers’ conferences. Remember?

However, a family member talked me into going just once. Am I glad she did? Absolutely. That weekend experience at the South Coast Writers’ Conference truly changed my writing life. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I became one of the cadre of volunteers that help organize and host it every year. I’ve been doing it ever since.

I was converted.

So what made this conference experience so different?

In a word: size. The South Coast Writer’s Conference is a small conference. It usually only hosts ten to twelve presenters and about a hundred-and-fifty participants. Instead of a lecture hall full of student writers listening to the presenter, most workshops consisted of fifteen to twenty students discussing the topics with a presenter. Students actually did exercises and discussed them with their colleagues.

I walked away from the weekend exhilarated and enthusiastic about the craft again. It was remarkable.

Ever since then, I’ve told anyone who asks (especially writers struggling to learn the craft and establish their careers) to by all means attend a conference. But choose carefully because different conferences offer different things. Not all conferences are the same. Like any business expense, you must decide whether the benefits are worth the expense.

Some of the larger conferences (such as the Maui Conference, or Willamette Writer’s Conference) can offer things the smaller conferences can’t, such as presenters who are wildly successful, household names, opportunities to meet one-on-one with agents and film producers, or to have your manuscript critiqued. These conferences, however, are relatively expensive (someone has to pay the higher speaking fees for the big name authors) and they are often so large that it’s difficult to get any personal attention.

The smaller conferences can’t attract or pay for the household-name writers, but they also are usually much less expensive. The presenters who do come are talented, perfectly good writers who just haven’t made it into the stratosphere of the best seller lists. Often, they are young authors who are on their way up. I’ve seen a presenter suddenly have a hugely successful book and become so much in demand that a small conference can no longer afford them.

But the biggest advantage the smaller conferences have is that you can receive much more personal attention. Attendees often chat with presenters over lunch and between workshops. Also, because the workshops are small, the attendees are often seeing the same faces in several workshops. Friendships are made. Connections forged.

And whichever conference you decide to attend, that is probably the most beneficial aspect of all of them. The knowledge that whatever challenges you might be facing in your writing career, there are others out there who know exactly how difficult it can be. Some of them even know how to overcome them.

Sure, the workshops might teach you a new way to handle point-of-view, or a promotional opportunity you weren’t aware of, but the most important thing any person who has chosen this maddening and often frustrating pursuit needs to have is a sense of belonging to a community. Writing is lonely enough without feeling you’re completely alone. Attending a writers’ conference can help with that.

So should you spend your hard-earned on the local writer’s conference? Absolutely.