Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On writing groups, some expert advice

HALLIE: Authors depend on other writers to critique their work. Some of us belong to a writers group and swear by then; others not so much.

I was lucky with my first writing critique group, a mixed group that included a travel writer, a memoir writer, a novelist, and a short story writer. They were all terrific readers and gave the kind of supportive feedback that helped me get my first books published. Later, I moved into a writing group of published mystery writers and got a different level of feedback that helped take my writing to a new level.

Becky Levine
has just published a brand new book, a most practical guide to forming and getting the most out of a writing group, The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide.

Becky, welcome to Jungle Red! Why do you think some authors are wary of writing groups?

You hear so many horror stories about too harsh criticism or being told that you shouldn’t be writing. I also think some people are afraid to critique; they think they’re not qualified. I say, step out there and start learning. Hopefully, my book will tell people how they can do this.

How can you tell if you’re in a toxic group?

If you’re consistently feeling so drained that you can’t go home and write when you leave the critique group, then it’s probably not a good place. Any group that leaves you feeling tired or angry or frustrated and that keeps you from writing is the wrong group. Often, you and your partners can fix the problem, and it’s worth trying. There’s a whole section in the book about troubleshooting group dynamics.

How to find the right group?

BECKY: First think about your goals. That will help you decide whether to join:
- a mixed group or writers working at the same level and in the same genre as you
- an online or in-person group
- a group that meets frequently enough to meet your needs

You can find other writers at local writing classes, regional meetings of writers’ groups, bookstores, and libraries. If you find an existing group, go to a few meetings before you commit. If you’re feeling intimidated or bored or frustrated or aren’t interested in what others are writing then maybe it’s time to start looking for a different group.

How can you tell if the advice you’re getting is good or not?

One thing to look at is quantity. If two or three people tell you the same thing, then you’d better look closely at what they’re saying. That’s the advantage of a group rather than back and forth with one person. Sometimes, even if it’s the right thing to change, we’re resistant. That gut “I don’t like this” feeling may be just the change you need to consider. If you’re confused, you can talk to that critiquer or bring it up at next meeting and brainstorm around the problem.

How big should a group be?

I like 4 to 6. Of course it depends on how much writing you’re turning in, but I get very uncomfortable with large groups - it’s too much work, and it can take away from your own writing time.

Your book is full of wonderful tools. There’s an excellent tools for critiquing fiction and another for critiquing nonfiction.

Those worksheets and lots of other examples from the book are online at Writers Digest. Go to and download free worksheets and excerpts.

Thanks, Becky! Now here’s the Jungle Red quiz...
Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Miss M
Sex or Violence
Pizza or chocolate?
Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?
Pierce Brosnan
Facebook or MySpace?
Katharine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
Your favorite non-mystery book?
The Secret Garden
Favorite book as a kid?
The Secret Garden :)
Making dinner or making reservations?
Making reservations

And now, the Jungle Red Big Lie. Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess which one is false!
My first job was selling Jordache jeans to eight-year-olds.
I rode in a helicopter for my 21st birthday.
My dream car is a 1967 Jaguar XKE, British Racing Green.
I had an allergic reaction to my cellphone.

Becky will be checking in today so please, join in the discussion and tell us what you think about writing groups. Share your own experiences and one of you will win a copy of THE WRITER & CRITIQUE GROUP SURVIVAL GUIDE - winner will be announced tomorrow so check back for the Big Lie.


Sheila Connolly said...

I was a member of an on-line critique group for a time, and one problem we had was that we were all too nice. Our comments were always very carefully phrased and self-deprecating ("this is only my opinion, and you don't have to take it if you don't want to, but maybe your protagonist is a little too, I don't know, kind of boring, sort of?"). All of us were women, and all of us were new writers.

Do you find there's a difference if the critique group includes both men and women?

Terry Odell said...

My first writing group was the Pregnant Pigs. Although I'm no longer with them, they taught me a lot, since I was clueless about writing. Now, I'm with an on-line group but I miss the face-to-face. I'm hoping that when we move, I'll hook up with a new group.

4 Things about me:

1. I got engaged on Groundhog Day

2. I sat behind Liza Minelli in Jr. High Science class

3. My first paid writing was for an essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson.

4. I'm a terrible cook.

Dina Berry said...

I'm in a successful critique group in that my writing has improved but I worry that none of us is pub'd yet.

We sort of get into meaningless discussions about what you can and can't do in your ms. What rules to obey that we've heard of or been told of.

Once pub'd, how do I find an all pub'd critique group? Secret handshake?

Jan Brogan said...

I'm going to go with Liza Minnelli as the lie

Becky, what a great idea for a book. My own writing group has been in existence for twenty years and we've adapted a style and way of working that's right for us, but not for everybody.

We get annoyed if the criticism is too kind.

Joanne said...

The critique group that I'm in and moderate, The Written Remains, has been around since 1995. Until recently we were an open group and had anywhere from 8 to 12 members. Our biggest problem was a lot of turnover. There was, however, a good group dynamic with the core members -- 5 of us who were always there and worked hard at improving our skills both as writers and as critiquers.

Recently, we decided that as people dropped out for various reasons we would not take in any new members and see what happened. Well, the core members are still together doing what we always done. It was great; we love it. We each submit a manuscript every other month and knowing we need to do this supplies a bit of pressure to keep our writing moving along.

We recently made the decison to search for an additional member to round out the group to six. We discussed what are expectations were of someone new joining our group so we can give a candidate a clear idea of what we are about and what we expect -- primarily a commitment to regular and effective participation in the group, commitment to one's own writing and a strong desire to continually improve our work.

Making these changes has improved the quality of our critique group experience a lot!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi Becky!Wonderful to see you...One is false...maybe your dream car is actually a red Jag?

Terry, I think you're not really a terrible cook...xox..maybe invite us all to dinner and we'lll see?

And oh, gosh...don't kill me. I wouldn't want to be in a writing group. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. To each her own, right? Write?

Jungle Red Writers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hallie Ephron said...

Hank, you're by no means alone... but why do you feel that way?

Sheila - YES, too nice is deadly. I do think some of the tools in Becky's book would help counteract that...because people are nice when they just don't know how to be specific enough.

Terry - Pregnant Pigs? Oh la la. And I was in an online group once and found it quite can get so much out of just reading your readers' body language.

Dina - YES, there's something so affirming when a member of the group gets published. It also introduces some interesting and not always helpful dynamics.

Joanne - yeah, turnover is the big problem with large/open writing groups. For a really serious, productive writer aiming for publication I'd be thumbs down on them.

Becky Levine said...

Sheila, My guess is that some of that niceness, and not knowing how to dig in had more to do with being new writers than with gender. :) The longer you critique, I think, and the more you push yourself to dig deep for feedback, the stronger (but still nice!) the critiques will be.

Becky Levine said...

Terry, I love the group name!I'm guessing the Groundhog Day engagement isn't true. :)

Becky Levine said...

Dina, I don't think those discussions are totally meaningless, but a lot of those rules are more guidelines to understand, probably! You can talk to the group about trimming those talks down and sticking to actual critique discussions. You don't/won't necessarily need an all-pubb'd group; my own group has been together since before any of us was pubb'd, and we're a mix today--it works great!

Becky Levine said...

Thanks, Jan! My groups been together for nearly ten years, and, yes, that time has built us into a definite way of critiquing that works for us. Although every now & then we still need to remind ourselves to refocus and shift things around a bit. I'll take the kind stuff, but that better not be ALL I get! :)

Becky Levine said...

Joanne, I love that you guys thought out what you wanted to do, and it sounds like it's really paying off. I think you've got a great number and a great group going. :)

Becky Levine said...

Hank, it IS different for everybody. I think critique groups are wonderful, but I know that they're one of my big motivations to keep working & writing. I don't see you having ANY problem that way! :)

Roberta Isleib said...

Thanks for being with us today Becky! Your worksheet looks very thorough and helpful.

I've been with the same group for over ten years. we went through the revolving door stage and realized it was not productive. Too much time was spent catching folks up and dealing with one-shot prima donnas. Now we are at four, meeting twice a month and that seems to work well. I also have a couple of writing pals who are willing to read a whole manuscript once it's drafted. So I have the best of both worlds--a trio who read everything as it spills out and a couple of pals who read the end result with fresh eyes.

Someone asked how you find published folks to join a group--workshops, listservs, conferences--these give you a taste of the writers and their work, too, so you have a chance to see if they're a good fit.

Becky Levine said...

Roberta, your process sounds a lot like mine. We're at four also, and I have a few people--kidlit writers & readers--who I swap with outside my group. The biggest thing, I think, is find a core of strong critiquers, who you trust, then be flexible with what else you need.

Rhys Bowen said...

Thanks for visiting, Becky. I am interested to see that almost all of my Jungle Red sisters are part of a critique group. I've never dared share my writing with anyone until a first draft is done. Then I give it to three people to read and take their critiques to heart.
I'm afraid my ego is too fragile to have other people critique while I'm writing

Hallie Ephron said...

How interesting, Rhys - that's what happened to me with the book I have underway. I found that getting critique as I went along was keeping me from writing the I just kept writing. And I ended up with a book that needed a LOT of fixing, but I can do that. The hardest part for me is getting something on the page in the first place.

Becky Levine said...

Rhys, I started critiquing way before I was anywhere near ready to submit, or even, honestly, to get through a complete 1st draft! So I'm used to it in the early stages, I guess--plus, I've built up a lot of safety with my current group. I thought, on my current WIP, that I was going to write the 1st draft, alone, but--for me--it got too lonely! :)

Roberta Isleib said...

Becky, I can totally relate to that lonely feeling!

ramona said...

Becky, I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of your book.

I have belonged to a fantastic critique group for a couple of years now. It had been going for over 10 years when I slipped into an open slot. It is very strict; we have a trial period for new members, acceptance must be unanimous, critiques follow a particular procedure. People hav been kicked out for not meeting expectations. Niceness is not a problem for us, LOL. BUT--the group's influence on both my writing and critiquing skills has been invaluable. The focus remains on what is best for the group, which in turn is best for our work. I have produced more and better work because of it, and you can't beat that.

Becky Levine said...

Ramona, that's what it's all about--our work getting better from the interaction. :)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ah...interesting question, Hallie. I'm not sure. It's not that I'm not intersted in other peole's opinons, it's just that, I guess,in the end, I want to do it my way.

And I also don't want to spend all that time talking--I'm so sorry, I feel this is making me sound standoffish, and I'm a little apprehensive about that.

When I'm finished, I have one other person who reads it. And I rely on her to be tough tough tough.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...


I do LOVE to read (and critique)other peoples' work. LOVE to. And I'm a real sucker (!) if someone asks me.

And Becky, I'm so intrigued by your book. Maybe I'm really missing out. Hmmmm...

Becky Levine said...

Hank, if you told me it would be a good thing for me to put on a suit and do your job in front of a TV news camera, I'd tell you that you were crazy! :) Everyone has to do things their own way. I know there are people who don't want/need a critique group. I think, though, that a lot of people don't go there out of fear, rather than confidence. Hopefully, the book will help them some. :)

Becky Levine said...

Hey, everybody, Hallie asked me to stop by & pick a winner. So...Joanne! If you'll email me at beckylevine at ymail dot com, I can get your info & send the book on to you!

And...the lie. I did NOT go for a helicopter ride for my 21st (although I'm seriously considering it for my 50th!). Instead I want to Los Vegas and played blackjack for two days with my dad. :) And since you're probably all going to ask--the cellphone allergy was actually a nickel allergy, but it just doesn't sound as good.

Bobbi Mumm said...

Hi Becky! Nice to see you here on Jungle Red. I think you are brilliant; in part because I agreed with all your quiz answers but mostly because you've written a great book. Congratulations!

Becky Levine said...

Thanks, Bobbi! :)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hmm, Becky, that is fascinating. "...don't go out of fear, rather than confidence."

I never thoght of it that way. ANd given that, it shows (again) why your book is so valuable. If someone is staying home, hidden, with a wonderful manuscript that they're afraid to show anyone for fear of --whatever--that's so sad. And you can open the door to a whole new writing life for people who take a chance with a group!

Remember, I've been writing for tv for 30 years! With editors and producers and collaborators and bigwigs who want to change every word. So to me, writing by myself is new and different!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Terry, did you really sit behind Liza Minelli?

If not, that's a terrific lie!

Terry Odell said...

I didn't see a lot of others playing the game, but I'll fess up to my answers.

1. True. We were engaged Feb. 2, 1969 and for us Groundhog Day is a reason to celebrate regardless of what Phil sees.

2. Liza Minelli went to public Jr. Hi for about a month or two, and she sat in front of me in Science class. Of course, I was totally clueless and had no idea who she was. I went to school with a fair number of celebrity offspring. Jayne Mansfield's daughter rode our school bus.

3. I went to Ralph Waldo Emerson Jr. Hi (in case anyone's Goggling Liza Minelli) and all 7th graders had to write an essay about him. I won 5 silver dollars, presented in a small plastic box lined with blue and yellow velvet ribbon.

4. I like to think I'm a decent cook. The hubster does, which is probably the most important. My brother is a chef, so I have an "in" if I need help.

WS Gager said...

Great book! I have been very lucky and am in a great critique group. Your advice affirmed that but great suggestions for if you are wondering if you group is not helping to make a decision.


P.S. The Jag is the lie.

Joanne said...

Thank you, Becky! I never win anything, so having won your book is so exciting. I emailed you my info. I am looking forward to reading your book and will recommend it to my critique group. Thanks, again!

Hallie Ephron said...

Terry - i went to the same day camp as Liza and as Jayne Mansfeld's daughter.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hallie....we are crying out for more info about that...xxo

Lisa F said...

Years ago I was expelled from my first critique group for not being "good enough" (I was just starting out) but I stayed in touch with the member who invited me, and we have forged a strong writer's group of two over the years which has proven to be much more useful. We can examine issues of story structure, for example.

Becky Levine said...

Thanks, Wendy--your group sounds great. The Jag is NOT the lie, I would LOVE to have that car. ALthough I did see a beautiful old black hardtop Thunderbird the other day that would do, also.

Becky Levine said...

Lisa, "not good enough" stinks! There are better ways to ask someone to leave, if the group feels they're not the right fit. I'm glad you developed a relationship with a critique partner that's working for you!

Becky Levine said...

Hallie, you had the most glamorous childhood. It's like I compare mine with Peter Jackson's kids--when they worked for their parents, they got to star in an incredible movie. When I worked for my parents, I got to clean dog & cat "stuff" out of veterinary cages. :)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yikes,Lisa. That's difficult! Good for you that you persevered...!

Hallie Ephron said...

I've been in writing groups that have had to ask members to leave. It was never that the writer wasn't 'good enough' - though I think it's best to be in a group where most of the writers are at your level and slightly better. Problems arises when someone keeps bringing in material with exactly the same problems, over and over again, and never rewrites or address the issues. These writers often defend...explaining they did waht they did instead of listening to the critique. You don't have to change it the way another writer suggests, but you do need to hear what they're saying.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hallie, I've heard you, and Roberta, I think, talk about the importance of "hearing" and "listening" in critique groups...Becky, what think about that?

Becky Levine said...

One thing I try to do in the book and when I speak is counter the idea that all the respect is due to the writer. Yes, absolutely, a critiquer has to respect the author's writing and work, but you have to flip the coin & give that much respect back to the critiquer. You do have to listen to what they're saying and remember the time and energy and thought they put into their feedback. Just because you disagree doesn't mean they didn't work hard and didn't think things through. You don't interrupt, you don't dismiss, and you NEVER tell them they're wrong or stupid. Besides, I'd guess that at least 50% (75? 90?) of the time that I think a critiquer is "off" on what they've said about my project,I find out later that it was really something I needed to listen to. :)

And, while it's not a writer's job to make sure every piece of feedback they get makes its way into the revision, they need to think about what the critiquers will feel like if they don't see changes/differennces in revised drafts. Plus, if you're NOT incorporating a lot of that feedback into a revision, you're losing a lot of the benefit of being IN that group.

Whew. You guys got me rolling. :)