In the fall of 1997, I got a flyer in the mail. Nothing fancy; just a single yellow sheet announcing that Portland novelist Karen Karbo was starting a weekly fiction writing workshop. If interested, please contact.
It was one of those lovely moments in life that happens when you've committed to a drastic course of action, subsequently decided you're insane, and then the exact thing you need to see it through falls smack into your lap.
See, two months earlier I'd quit my full-time job so that I could finish my first novel. I felt exactly as if I'd jumped out of a plane without a parachute. Okay, not in the I'm going to splat to my death in less than a minute kind of way, but in the gut-gnawing, have-I-just-ruined-my-life insomniac kind of way. (Same terror--just slower.) I didn't know how to write a novel. All I had were eighty manuscript pages and a vague idea of what might happen on page eighty-one.
Then the flyer arrived. On the first evening, I was one of ten writers sitting around Karen's dining room table. Over the next few years I did complete my novel, and get it published, due in no small part to what I learned there.
Karen's wasn't the first workshop or critique group I'd been in. But it's been by far the best, which is why, twelve years after that first class, I still take my place at her table. If you're looking to join or start a critique group yourself, here are a few things that you might want to consider:
Critique is specific. No wishy-washy "I really liked it" or "It didn't work for me" without reasons to back it up. Pinpointing why a piece works--or doesn't--can be surprisingly hard to do. And the higher the skill level of the writer, the harder it gets. A really good writer can hide fatal flaws under dazzling wordplay...which means it often takes a lot of thought and effort to put your finger on what exactly isn't working. But the payoff isn't just for the writer; the better your critique, the more you yourself are learning about the craft.
Critique isn't just pointing out the flaws. It's also important to acknowledge what the writer is doing well. Writers need to recognize their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Plus, we all need to hear that our pages aren't pure crap.
Critique what's on the page. Don't impose your vision on someone else's work. In one early critique group (long before Karen's) a fellow "critter" told me that the premise of my book was all wrong and that instead, my two female characters should set aside their differences and form a friendship that would be a testament to female bonding in a society that doesn't value women's relationships. (Gee, projecting much?) Which not only missed the entire point of my book, it bore no relation to anything I'd already written.
I've also been in workshops in which the instructor's critique mostly centered around getting students to write in the same style as the instructor. A good workshop leader isn't interested in creating copycats. Instead, like Karen, she recognizes each student's individual style and works to help her students develop their own unique voices.
Work with people at your ability level or slightly higher. If you're far and away the best writer in the room, it's easy to start thinking you're God's gift to literature and that you know all there is to know about writing. You'd be wrong.
I'm not the best writer in my group; in twelve years, I never have been. These people are wicked talented, which means I'm always striving to up my game. In the same vein...
...Try to find people with similar goals and work ethic. This doesn't mean everyone in the group should be gunning to get published. But if it's important to you to keep learning and getting better at your craft, you'll save yourself frustration if you're not the only one.
Likewise, members need to pull their weight. That doesn't necessarily mean bringing in new chapters every week (although of course that's great.) Members of Karen's class have gone through long periods--months, even--with not a single page. But they still show up, week after week, and give honest, thoughtful, and insightful critique. Does that count? You bet it does. Good critique is damn hard work. In fact, the least welcome member of any crit group is the one who shows up only when she has pages. Critique is a two-way street: if you want to get, you have to give.
Keep the focus on the writing. In some groups, critiquing gradually takes a back seat to snacking and discussing each other's personal lives. When a critique group turns into social hour, its demise soon follows.
And finally, if you want to have a quality, longstanding writing workshop or critique group, there is one thing you must never, ever overlook:
Give yourselves a catchy name. Us? We're the Writers of Renown.
Damn skippy, as Karen would say.
Next time: Receiving critique (aka, You've Shredded My Precious Like Soggy Kleenex And I Think I Might Hate You Forever.) In the meantime, you writers out there: what's your dream critique group like?