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E x plor ing t h e u n s o v o r sy i d e
o f c rit iqueg r o u p s

of inspiro- writers to large, structuredaffairs, both online and in person.
WilliomArthurWord, the outhorof hundreds
As an example of the latter, my home chapter of Chicago
tionolmqxims, me, ond I moy not believe
North RWA is well known for its critique style. As manuscript
you.Criticizeme,ond I moynotlikeyou.Encouroge me, chair, I lead roughly 30-40 members in three hour-long cri-
tiquesper month, conductedaccordingto formal rules of eti-
ond I will notforgetyou." lf thereis o moreopt quototion quette.
Our membershiphas evangelizedour technique,most
to describe theiightropewolk thotis porticipotingin cri- recently in a workshop at the 2009 RWA Conference,and a
few brave chaptershave taken up our methodsin the hopesof
tiquegroups,I hoveyet to find itl Theycon be q source
tuming ambitious PROs into members of PAN (Published
of inspirotion, ond sonityin qn indus- Authors Network).
So, why are writers attractedto sharingtheir work with a
try thot is, ot best,trying.
Ellen Wehle, a poet and adjunct creative writing profes-
But, the act ofsharing one'sraw creativeproductrequires sor"states""I write best when I have a deadlineand an audi-
a greatdeal of trust, and the relationshipsformed by this bond- ence.Critique groupssupply both." JaneToombs(Nightingale
ing processcanbe fraughtwith specialexpectations. After all, Man) replied that shejoined a critique group to gain a solid
we're not simply sharinga cup of coffeewith a colleagueat grounding in the basics,seeking"...experiencewith every-
the office.We're entrustingthe romanticfantasieswe've com- thing from formatting, to POV to plot, conflict, and making
mittedto paper,aswell asthe deeplypersonal and oftencrit- surethe book was readyto submitto publishers."Inspirational
icized dreamof becominga successfulauthor.Cher Gorman romanceauthor Maureen Lang (Look to the East) also sought
(.WolfIsland) likened critique groups to a marriage: "There is thosebasicskills, but, in addition,she"...wanted the opportu-
a level of trust involved in a critiquing partnershipthat must nity to talk about writing in general.It's fun to sharestories
be honored for the parlnershipto work." about writing, abor.rtthe businessend of things, about the writ-
Thus, when critique groups becomethe dominion of bul- ing process."GarnetMoen, who is unpublishedin romance,
lying personalities,insecurities,jealousies,and plain ol' mis- added,"It would be nice to havethe sorl of long-termeaseand
information, it's time to say goodbye. I interviewed many familiarity that comesu ith knowing your writing buddies for
romancewriters for this arlicle, from best sellersto unpub- years.I u'as l.ropingto find that."
lishednewcomers,with the goal of examiningthe overlooked Justmore thanhalf of my 28 respondents cited somevari-
flipside of critique groups:the drawbacks,reasonsto leave, ant of "carraradcrie"or "suppoft" when explainingtheir rea-
and altemativesthat may better suit your needs. sonsfor loinin-sa critique Otherscited brainstoming,
networking.and receirrnq feedbackfrom sourcesother than
friendsor tarnill For some.the objectivewas more personal.
My Own Personql Guineo Pigs "l uanted !-Lrni-lnratiLru that the imaginingsin my headwere
interestinSiLr Lrih3rpeople." wrote Kelly McCrady, who is
Membersof the RWA how a great deal about critique groups, both a unt:::nd editor fbr The Wild RosePress.Shobhan
often casting wide nets acrossthe globe in searchof the per- Banni al ' fii. S.;r'iSitopllindow) "neededsomeoneto tell me
fect match. They take many forms, from small collections of if mr ethnic "'lie:J.'ters.themes,and sceneswere capableof
engaging American readers. Since both my partners \\rere SoundsGood. Keep on Writing.
Caucasianwomen, born and raised in the U.S.. thev were
ideal-my own personalguinea pigs." When analr'zingthe Even more prevalentthan fears of writing to the middle were
disconnectbetweenour creativebrains and u-hatmakesit onto my respondents'tales of mismatched ambitions and inten-
the page,our own personalguineapigs can be inraluable,no tions. When group membersdo not write at a similar level of
matter what we write. time commitment,professionalism,and craftsmanship,resent-
ments can arise. "I found that I was making the same com-
ments to group members,often about grammaror marketabil-
ity," sharedMira author Mindy Klasky (How Not to Make a
"Th*r* u* m l*v*l *{ trwstznv*lvedin o critiqt:z*g Wish). "They disagreedwith my advice or weren't able to
implement it, which left me feeling as if my time was wasted
thrstr*ast?s*k***r*d for ihe parr**r^
in reading their work." Cara Marsi (Logan's Redemption)
xhiptr: w*rL." revealedthe most basic critique shereceived,one that prompt-
ed her to reevaluateher commitment. It simply read, "Sounds
- {h *r **rrmm n
good.Keep on writing."
Sometimesa writer's skills aren't at issue,but her dedica-
tion to professionalgoals.Unpublishedromancewriter M. I.
Writing by Gommittee Anderson said ofher critique group, "No one had real expec-
tations of being published;their writing was more of a hobby."
These good intentions and hoped-for benefits don't always Lynn Rae Hanis (Cavelli'sLost Heir) also noticedthis tenden-
mateialize. One of the biggestdetrimentscited by my respon- cy. She said, "Some people don't have goals and are simply
dentswas the fear of "writing by committee."About her many there because it's a hobby they think will help them find
critique group experiences, multipublished author Karen what's missing in their lives." An author who wished to
Whiddon said,"I noticedhow everyone'svoiceswere becom- remain anonymoushad this to contribute:"As one friend said,
ing generic." Without individuality, a writer losesnot only her 'Being in the group made me feel like a writer even when I
creative voice and her ability to attract the interest of agents wasn't writing."'
and editors, but her motivation for writing in the first place. This process of tuming a critique group into a stagnant
Patti Shenberger(Candid Seductions) warned against this social club fiustrated many of my respondents.They were
developmentwhen shewrote, "Ifyou stay,you end up chang- forced to decide whether the devotion of their time and ener-
ing your voice to suit the others,and you'11end up hating your gy was worth it, especiallywhen their needfor useful critiques
own work." was not being met...and especiallywhen friendly groups
Sally MacKenzie (The Naked Wscount)referenced her turned mean.
one-time experience with a critique group: "Mainly, I left
becauseI found myself writing to the group. They had become
my audience;I wanted their approval." As she gatheredher Meon Girls, FeedingFrenzies,ond
creative courage and matured as an adist, she no longer felt Enqblers
the need for validation from many sources.Now, her agent is
her supporl. "This way I only hear one voice, and that voice is Nearly every respondent cited examples of mean-spirited
someonewho has a stake in my career." behavior.Although my call for survey replies may have acted,
. ShaylaBlack (PossessMe at Midnight) didn't necessari- in part, as a self-fulfilling prophecy in that discussing cri-
ly write by committee,but she did find herself holding back. tique group drawbackssurely attractedsome with grievances
She toned down her naturally sexy style to keep from offend- to vent-there's no denying how personaldynamicsimpact an
ing other members of her longstanding critique group. "I author's satisfactionwith her group.
sometimesfailed to push the envelopebecauseI knew my cri- Larger assemblies often can deteriorate into what
tique mates would not like it, and I didn't want to hear the Maureen Lang called group think, "where one person's ten-
complaints."Although Black saysshe would've "given up in dency toward negativeinput is joined by othersuntil a feeding
utter frustration" without her group's suppoft, she neededto frenzy erupts."When such opinions dominate,it may be diffi-
break free of their moderating influence in order to achieve cult to hear-or make heard dissenting voices. An anony-
and nurture her true voice. mousrespondentsaidofher online experience,"I did not post
any more commentsbecauseI was gangedup on, ripped apart,

)"t',?i:li ?OOq RNvF,
swom at, and condemnedby many of the group members." voice, story and love of writing co-optedby toxic members.
Moderatorsdo not necessarilyassuagethis possibility when Dominant personalities can dictate the tone of any critique
they aren't strong enough to keep order in the group. Ellen group. Joelle Charbonneau (Skating Around the Law)
Wehle describedher in-persongroup leaderas "a nice per- explained it this way: "While everyone means well, some-
son," but one who refusedto take charge."Members interrupt- times people get caught up in showing how much they know
ed, arguedwith, and belittled each other," Wehle said. about the craft of writing, insteadof focusing on what is real-
Small groups bring their own problems, especiallywhen ly useful to the person asking for the critique." Without clear
a "fishbowl" view of publishing keepsmembersfrom tackling goalsand the selflessapplicationofthe authors'knowledge,a
areasof deficiency.When one anonymousrespondentjoined critique group can deteriorateinto a contestof egosor, as one
a small, long-establishedgroup,she quickly realizedthat dis- anonymous respondent offered, "like one of those reality
senting opinions-no matter the source would not be toler- shows with people forming alliances." Such tendenciesare
ated.Feedbackfrom contestjudgesandrejectionsfrom agents only exacerbatedwhen you throw publishing successand pro-
and editors were not analyzedwith improvement in mind, but fessionaljealousy into the mx.
were instead ridiculed to help members feel better. "They
were hinderingthemselves,"saidthe source."They had inside
jokes, pithy comments,and group storiesto bind them. They A Friend'sSuccess
had ceasedto be a critique group and had becomea clique."
Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Anybody can sympathizewith the
sufferingsof a friend, but it requiresa very fine natureto sym-
pathrzewith a friend's success."My, oh my, is that true among
"l tr*stpr*{*{ t* **ntinu*w
*r:wner*gid*** *t{ t*l\:tr,' wnters.
My own decision to leave a large online critique group
awtk*rtrixnd**** th*n g*ttingi*psy{vryvtt my **t* came when I sold my debut novel, What a Scoundrel Wants.
rg*d&rg.u' Contributors,who had once regardedme as a newcomer,and
then as an equal, began to defer to my judgment. Their cri-
- %kt&*k V'fr:lV"*r tiquesbecamelessthoroughandtheir feedbacklessassured.I
hesitatedto sharegood news for fear ofoffending or upsetting
unpublishedmembers,and I no longer felt comforlable shar-
ing unpublished ideas with online group members I'd never
This same anonymous author advised, "Friendships in met in person.
groups like that are great, but when the friendships become Time commitments also became a significant issue, as
too tight, friends ceaseto be critics." Interesting,then, how they did for ShaylaBlack. She explained,"Before I left, there
this realization standsin direct contrastto what many writers was definite grumbling about me treating my deadlinesas if
claimedas a major reasonfor joining a critiquegroup,name- they were more important than anything else. In my mind,
ly camaraderieand supporl during their publishing joumey. they were."
The very bonding process that helps some women invest in For thesereasons,and becausemy needfor wide-ranging
one another'ssuccesscan becomea barrierto growth. opinions and information had been temperedby experience,I
Another conflict stemmed from issues of self-worth. now work with critique paftnersrather than a large group.
Somepeoplejoin critique groupsto find validation:I deserve The processof narrowing one's field of influence was
this dream of becoming a successfulwriter. But, that need for revealedacrossthe majority of my respondents.Marilyn Brant
supportcan becomean impedimentto honesty.Author Marcia (According to Jane), a long-time member of the Chicago
Jamessaid one critique pafiner "couldn't separateher writing North chapter,wrote, "I, personally,prefer increasinglysmall-
from her self-wor1h.Any gentle suggestionsI made about her er circles of critiquing." As writers becomemore confrdent
manuscriptwere perceived as attacks on her, her intelligence, and skilled. rve often require fewer opinions to judge the suc-
her writing skills, etc." On the flipside is this comment from cess of our ideas. Even authors such as Shiloh Walker
Lori Brighton (Wild Heart) regarding forceful personalities: (Hunter s \-eed) andAva Gray (Skin Game),who eschewpar-
"Bullies canbe very detrimentalto your self-esteem, especial- ticipating in formalizedgroups,have nothing but praise for
ly when you're f,trststarling out." A budding storyteller might their creatir.einner circle.Walker said,"I just preferto contin-
join a critique group with the intention of educating herself ue bouncing ideas off fellow author friends and then getting
about the craft of writins. but that samenewbie can have her input tiom my beta readers." Such personal,low-key altema-

)i:(.,i\/E lF. ?{)i)? Fi}'lF
tives to more strucfuredcritique groups may be just what you
needto balancea desirefor objectivefeedbackwith issuesof
time managementand interpersonaldrama.

An Oceqn of Good Will

If you take anything away from this article, rememberthat cri-
Meet Ol'lerAUTHORS
tique groups must f,rt your needs in order to provide their JearAdams Pattilischer MariluMann
potential benefits. Poor groups that spoil your love of writing l*raAthian fiellyHtupilIrick JuliaMorinlp
FllizebethAmber Marieftxce Na&u4haMorre
or damageyour creativeself-worth-or, conversely,thosethat
Angelique{rnrm Carolne[Se l',iicole
offer nothing but constant,growth-hindering praise-will be
l\anD,Amold DebhieCauthier BreilaNovgk
to your detriment as an artist.
Belinda llarnes JudithCilbefl Claudia Fernbenrm
When it comes time to leave, the authorswho replied to
jenniferBnrsel Pepper Goodticlt JudiPhiliips
my survey offered this advice: do so politely. Some simply
Amanda llrian Hallowell
Jillizrn EfiznbeiliPina
stopped attending in-person meetings or stopped posting
D:niellaBrodikv Jennn'rrie l{anillon Jane Leopold Quinn
online. Others mentioned having waited so long to leave a Saihal
Ravnene llilrgess Narury Henderson Connie
destructivegroup that the break was difficult and fraught with Carerlw Hughry Tex;aRadlry
Chrisfine Butier
hurt feelings. "I regret some of the things I said," wrote Cara Carolynn SueCan1, SanSJames MonaRisk
Marsi. "Lesson leamed:don't let frustrationseat at you." And, Cailo MeKennaJefties liumne Ru:k
always keep in mind how unpredictablethis businesscan be. CadyC;usnn l{'alella Raqqel Rodriguez
Lori Brighton finished her survey with this bit of advice: "Be talla Chase ErinKelliffn Iacq $avage
respectful. Connections are always a plus, and you never Joriil,ynnt)ryeland RutirD.Kerce PuliShenherger
know who could be the next best seller!" PaqCoprlard Svel{nighf Arianna$lwe
Within the confines of a successful,career-enhancing cri- lisaDale Annetelarul Tenl Spuu'
tique group, a friend constifutessomeonewhoseintentionsand l(M,I]:rughtem Michr:lle libbv CricketSuff
ambitionsalign with yours and,aboveall, is honest.Many com- Gaillhyton Cathie tinz HeienScottTavtor
plaints I received about rotten behavior and tetchy dynamics JosieDennis Janiee bnn Xathyc Thomton
stemmed from members' inability to give or receive honest SnanDiekinson AblnryM*clnnis BerhTrissel
feedback.Rememberthat a writer who wishes to submit her tlnn hlan Phoebe ldadison Carolina\hldez
work to the wider world must be strong enoughto acceptthe MA.duBany liusanVaughan
myriad opinions that work can produce.And, while no single 1'eriDulnng JeanMnrieWmd
Michele Dun:rvay findaVan'en
opinion is entirely correct or unbiased,we can expect the cri-
ArianDupre lbnvLeeWilde
tiqueswe give and receiveto comefrom a generousplace.Ellen
Muv f,a.son Brcrd:rWiliianxon
Wehlesaid it bestwhen shewrote, "It takesonly a drop of intel-
Ilam BthnondEon jVihon
lect to gleefully point out a story's flaws; to actually help the
author,howeveqrequiresan oceanof insight and good will."

E:t ffi lG ffii gl

Born in Califurnia and raised in the Midwest, Carrie Lofly
found the love of her life in England She earned her master's
in history with a thesis on Old Westoutlaws and the signifi'
canceoflegend,Iler January2010 release,Scoundrel'sKiss,
featuring a Spanish warrior monk and the troubled woman
he's sworn to protect, is the sequel to her debut, What a
Scoundrel W r i / F oIIow: fwitt
carrielofQ. Frwn The Hesrt RmnunceWriters 6
:t"lt RWA Online Chapter 177 I wwrv.fthrw,colrl rc