Saturday, June 26, 2010

Some Advice On Critique Groups

By Pat Browning

Michael Larsen’s blog at
covers topics from storytelling to publishing and everything in between. This week I’m reprinting “Using OP’s Suggestions For Your Book,” a look at critique groups and how to know if you’re in the right one.

It makes me envious that I have no access to a face-to-face critique group. Trusting your own instincts is fine but it can get a tad confusing at times.

About Michael: The husband and wife team of Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada left New York for San Francisco and opened their own literary agency in 1972. They founded the prestigious San Francisco Writers Conference almost eight years ago.
The agency web site is full of helpful information for writers, and it’s great for browsing. Check it out at
Using OP’s Suggestions For Your Book
By Michael Larsen

Your book is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good. --Samuel Johnson

If you want to write a book that is both good and original, the right critique group will help you. My previous post answered novelist Pam Chun’s question about critique groups, but Pam, author of When Strange Gods Call, had another question about them: How do you decide if the group has workable ideas for your book?

The short answer: Trust your instincts. If you think the ideas will strengthen your manuscript, try them. If they consistently don’t help you, you’re in the wrong group.

Your Book as a Frigate
Emily Dickinson was right: A book is a frigate. It’s hammered together with thousands of pieces of wood. Changing a piece at one end of it may affect the other end of the ship and make it less seaworthy.

An editor once said to me that a good writer always knows when an editor is right. But the more effort an idea will take, the surer you want to be about its effectiveness. Thinking through how an idea will affect the rest of your ship will help you decide if it’s worth pursuing.

The more effort trying an idea will take, the more reluctant you may be to try it. Yet you may not realize the value of the idea until you do, because its value may not be the idea itself but what it leads to.

One of the joys of writing is discovery: trying something that sparks a new idea that illuminates or transforms your work. If you don’t let your ship explore the high seas of creativity, you won’t discover the treasures your imagination has waiting for you to find. Let the spirit of play inspire you to explore new possibilities.

Getting Past Sweat Equity
The more you’ve done on your manuscript, the more committed you may feel to it, although your sweat equity may make you less able to judge its value. How far along you are with your manuscript, how many drafts you’ve already done, your patience, and your determination are also factors that may influence your decision to try an idea.

Jacqueline Susann did each draft of her novels on different colored paper. But computers make it easy to experiment and to keep track of your drafts by just numbering them in your header. It also simplifies making use of a previous version if you decide it’s stronger.

You will spend your life trying things, not all of which will work. You must trust your instincts and your common sense. Ultimately, it’s your book, you must decide how best to write it and whose advice to follow. As you mature as a writer, you will become better able to decide whether to set sail for parts unknown.

Three Ways to Keep Making Your Group More Effective
•In the rapidly evolving world of publishing, you have to keep learning if you want to keep earning. You want to belong to a group whose members are committed to keeping themselves and each other up to date on industry news and trends.
•Have an annual get-together or retreat in a new setting to discuss how to improve the group.
•Some writers don’t like to read while they’re writing, because they’re afraid of being influenced by other authors. But one way to increase the value of your group is to make it a reading group as well. Discussing what writers can learn from favorite books and successful authors will improve your work and your ability to help others.

Talking about books—about writing and publishing as well as books the group discusses--can be a good way of auditioning each other before starting a group. It will give you a sense of how compatible members’ tastes are with yours, how perceptive they are, their ability to help you hone your craft,
their commitment to learning and growing as writers.

A critique group will enable you to be a better, more knowledgeable writer. It will also be a source of enduring relationships. For the sake of your craft and career, join or start one as soon as you have something to share.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Interesting post, Pat. If you can't find a critique group, then use your spouse, for they are brutally honest and often the hardest to please. Never use a friend for they will rarely be honest. Always be honest with yourself and trust your instincts.

Anonymous said...

My spouse died almost 6 years ago, but he was my biggest fan and kept me on track while I was writing. I miss him!
Pat B.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Pat. No doubt that our spouses are our biggest supporters -- but they're also the most critical because they want you to succeed. (Dean Koontz still says that about Gerta)

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm also sorry for your loss, Pat. My husband is an avid reader but never read my work until I wrote a Wyoming historical novel, Escape. Now, he's my biggest fan. Mark's right. Spouses can also be writers' greatest critics.

Anonymous said...

My husband was probably the exception, or maybe he was just proud because I actually wrote a book. His last week in the hospital, every time a new nurse came on she said, "I hear you wrote a book," and when I asked, "How did you know?" she said, "Your husband told me." In my mind I can still see him sitting in our sun room reading my book. It's a good memory.

My math is not so good. He died almost 7 years ago, not 6, but whichever, he took the best years of my life with him.