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BY WRITINfi COMMITI]]?
BY CARRIE LOFTY

th y E x plor ing e u n s o v o r s i d e g o f c rit ique r o u p s

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of of Word, the outhor hundreds inspiro- writers to large, structuredaffairs, both online and in person. WilliomArthur
As an example of the latter, my home chapter of Chicago North RWA is well known for its critique style. As manuscript me, chair, I lead roughly 30-40 members in three hour-long crime, you.Criticize ond I moynotlikeyou.Encouroge tiquesper month, conducted accordingto formal rules of etiis you." lf there o moreopt quototion ond I will notforget quette.Our membership most has evangelized technique, our in the wolk thotis porticipoting cri- recently in a workshop at the 2009 RWA Conference,and a to describe iightrope 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

me, tionolmqxims, wrote,"Flqtter ond I moy not believe

in ond educolion, strength, sonity qn indus- Authors Network). of inspirotion, try thot is, ot best,trying.
productrequires But, the act ofsharing one'sraw creative a greatdeal of trust, and the relationshipsformed by this bondAfter all, ing process be fraughtwith specialexpectations. can we're not simply sharinga cup of coffeewith a colleagueat we've comthe the office.We're entrusting romanticfantasies mittedto paper,aswell asthe deeplypersonal and oftencritauthor. Cher Gorman icized dreamof becominga successful (.WolfIsland) likened critique groups to a marriage: "There is a level of trust involved in a critiquing partnershipthat must be honored for the parlnershipto work." Thus, when critique groups becomethe dominion of buljealousies, and plain ol' misinsecurities, lying personalities, information, it's time to say goodbye. I interviewed many romancewriters for this arlicle, from best sellersto unpublishednewcomers, with the goal of examiningthe overlooked reasonsto leave, flipside of critique groups:the drawbacks, and altemativesthat may better suit your needs. So, why are writers attractedto sharingtheir work with a group? Ellen Wehle, a poet and adjunct creative writing profes"I sor"states" write best when I have a deadlineand an audience.Critique groupssupply both." JaneToombs(Nightingale Man) replied that shejoined a critique group to gain a solid grounding in the basics,seeking"...experiencewith everything from formatting, to POV to plot, conflict, and making Inspirational surethe book was readyto submitto publishers." romanceauthor Maureen Lang (Look to the East) also sought thosebasicskills, but, in addition,she"...wanted the opportunity to talk about writing in general.It's fun to sharestories the about writing, abor.rt businessend of things, about the writing process."GarnetMoen, who is unpublishedin romance, "It added, would be nice to havethe sorl of long-termeaseand familiarity that comesu ith knowing your writing buddies for years.I u'as l.roping find that." to cited somevariJustmore thanhalf of my 28 respondents ant of "carraradcrie"or "suppoft" when explainingtheir reasonsfor loinin-sa critique Otherscited brainstoming, -eroup networking.and receirrnq feedbackfrom sourcesother than friendsor tarnill For some.the objectivewas more personal. "l uanted !-Lrni-lnratiLru the imaginingsin my headwere that interestinSiLr Lrih3rpeople." wrote Kelly McCrady, who is both a unt:::nd editor fbr The Wild RosePress.Shobhan to Banni al ' fii. S.;r'iSitopllindow) "neededsomeone tell me if mr ethnic "'lie:J.'ters. themes,and scenes were capableof

My Own Personql Guineo Pigs
Membersof the RWA how a great deal about critique groups, often casting wide nets acrossthe globe in searchof the perfect match. They take many forms, from small collections of

engaging American readers. Since both my partners \\rere Caucasianwomen, born and raised in the U.S.. thev were ideal-my own personalguinea pigs." When analr'zingthe disconnectbetweenour creativebrains and u-hatmakesit onto the page,our own personalguineapigs can be inraluable,no matter what we write.

SoundsGood. Keep on Writing.
Even more prevalentthan fears of writing to the middle were my respondents'tales of mismatched ambitions and intentions. When group membersdo not write at a similar level of resentand craftsmanship, time commitment,professionalism, ments can arise. "I found that I was making the same comments to group members,often about grammaror marketability," sharedMira author Mindy Klasky (How Not to Make a Wish). "They disagreedwith my advice or weren't able to implement it, which left me feeling as if my time was wasted in reading their work." Cara Marsi (Logan's Redemption) revealedthe most basic critique shereceived,one that prompted her to reevaluateher commitment. It simply read, "Sounds good.Keep on writing." but Sometimes writer's skills aren't at issue, her dedicaa goals.Unpublishedromancewriter M. I. tion to professional Anderson said ofher critique group, "No one had real expectations of being published;their writing was more of a hobby." Lynn Rae Hanis (Cavelli'sLost Heir) also noticedthis tendency. She said, "Some people don't have goals and are simply there because it's a hobby they think will help them find what's missing in their lives." An author who wished to remain anonymoushad this to contribute:"As one friend said, 'Being in the group made me feel like a writer even when I wasn't writing."' This process of tuming a critique group into a stagnant social club fiustrated many of my respondents.They were forced to decide whether the devotion of their time and energy was worth it, especiallywhen their needfor useful critiques was not being met...and especiallywhen friendly groups turned mean.

"Th*r* u* m l*v*l *{ trwstznv*lved o critiqt:z*g in pffirtner*kip r*ast?s*k***r*d for ihe parr**r^ thrst xhiptr: w*rL." {h *r **rrmm n

Writing by Gommittee
These good intentions and hoped-for benefits don't always mateialize. One of the biggestdetrimentscited by my respondentswas the fear of "writing by committee."About her many critique group experiences, multipublished author Karen voiceswere becomWhiddon said,"I noticedhow everyone's ing generic." Without individuality, a writer losesnot only her creative voice and her ability to attract the interest of agents and editors, but her motivation for writing in the first place. Patti Shenberger(Candid Seductions) warned against this developmentwhen shewrote, "Ifyou stay,you end up changing your voice to suit the others,and you'11end up hating your own work." Sally MacKenzie (The Naked Wscount)referenced her one-time experience with a critique group: "Mainly, I left because found myself writing to the group. They had become I my audience;I wanted their approval." As she gatheredher creative courage and matured as an adist, she no longer felt the need for validation from many sources.Now, her agent is her supporl. "This way I only hear one voice, and that voice is someonewho has a stake in my career." . ShaylaBlack (Possess at Midnight) didn't necessariMe ly write by committee,but she did find herself holding back. She toned down her naturally sexy style to keep from offending other members of her longstanding critique group. "I I sometimesfailed to push the envelopebecause knew my critique mates would not like it, and I didn't want to hear the Although Black saysshe would've "given up in complaints." utter frustration" without her group's suppoft, she neededto break free of their moderating influence in order to achieve and nurture her true voice.

Meon Girls, FeedingFrenzies,ond Enqblers
Nearly every respondent cited examples of mean-spirited behavior.Although my call for survey replies may have acted, in part, as a self-fulfilling prophecy in that discussing critique group drawbackssurely attractedsome with grievances to vent-there's no denying how personaldynamicsimpact an author's satisfactionwith her group. Larger assemblies often can deteriorate into what Maureen Lang called group think, "where one person's tendency toward negativeinput is joined by othersuntil a feeding frenzy erupts."When such opinions dominate,it may be difficult to hear-or make heard dissenting voices. An anony"I mousrespondent saidofher online experience, did not post I any more commentsbecause was gangedup on, ripped apart,

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by swom at, and condemned many of the group members." assuage this possibility when Moderatorsdo not necessarily they aren't strong enough to keep order in the group. Ellen Wehle describedher in-persongroup leaderas "a nice person," but one who refusedto take charge."Members interrupted, arguedwith, and belittled each other," Wehle said. Small groups bring their own problems, especiallywhen a "fishbowl" view of publishing keepsmembersfrom tackling joined areasof deficiency.When one anonymousrespondent group,she quickly realizedthat disa small, long-established senting opinions-no matter the source would not be tolerand from agents ated.Feedback from contestjudges rejections and editors were not analyzedwith improvement in mind, but were instead ridiculed to help members feel better. "They "They had inside saidthe source. were hinderingthemselves," jokes, pithy comments,and group storiesto bind them. They had ceasedto be a critique group and had becomea clique."

voice, story and love of writing co-optedby toxic members. Dominant personalities can dictate the tone of any critique group. Joelle Charbonneau (Skating Around the Law) explained it this way: "While everyone means well, sometimes people get caught up in showing how much they know about the craft of writing, insteadof focusing on what is really useful to the person asking for the critique." Without clear goalsand the selfless application ofthe authors'knowledge, a critique group can deteriorateinto a contestof egosor, as one anonymous respondent offered, "like one of those reality shows with people forming alliances." Such tendenciesare only exacerbated and prowhen you throw publishing success fessionaljealousy into the mx.

A Friend'sSuccess
Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Anybody can sympathizewith the sufferingsof a friend, but it requiresa very fine natureto sympathrzewith a friend's success." My, oh my, is that true among wnters. My own decision to leave a large online critique group

"l tr*st id*** *t{ t*l\:tr,' *r:wner*g pr*{*{ t* **ntinu*w my awtk*rtrixnd**** th*n g*ttingi*psy{vryvtt **t*

came when I sold my debut novel, What a Scoundrel Wants. Contributors,who had once regardedme as a newcomer,and rg*d&rg.u' then as an equal, began to defer to my judgment. Their criV'fr:lV"*r tiquesbecamelessthoroughandtheir feedbacklessassured. - %kt&*k I hesitatedto sharegood news for fear ofoffending or upsetting unpublishedmembers,and I no longer felt comforlable sharing unpublished ideas with online group members I'd never met in person. This same anonymous author advised, "Friendships in groups like that are great, but when the friendships become Time commitments also became a significant issue, as then, how they did for ShaylaBlack. She explained,"Before I left, there too tight, friends ceaseto be critics." Interesting, was definite grumbling about me treating my deadlinesas if this realization standsin direct contrastto what many writers they were more important than anything else. In my mind, claimedas a major reasonfor joining a critiquegroup,namely camaraderieand supporl during their publishing joumey. they were." processthat helps some women invest in For thesereasons, because needfor wide-ranging The very bonding and my can opinions and information had been temperedby experience,I one another'ssuccess becomea barrierto growth. now work with critique paftnersrather than a large group. Another conflict stemmed from issues of self-worth. The processof narrowing one's field of influence was Somepeoplejoin critique groupsto find validation:I deserve this dream of becoming a successful writer. But, that need for revealedacrossthe majority of my respondents. Marilyn Brant (According to Jane), a long-time member of the Chicago supportcan becomean impedimentto honesty.Author Marcia her North chapter,wrote, "I, personally,prefer increasinglysmallJamessaid one critique pafiner "couldn't separate writing Any gentle suggestions made about her I er circles of critiquing." As writers becomemore confrdent from her self-wor1h. perceived as attackson her, her intelligence, and skilled. rve often require fewer opinions to judge the sucmanuscriptwere cess of our ideas. Even authors such as Shiloh Walker her writing skills, etc." On the flipside is this comment from (Hunter s \-eed) andAva Gray (Skin Game),who eschewparLori Brighton (Wild Heart) regarding forceful personalities: "Bullies canbe very detrimental your self-esteem, to especial- ticipating in formalizedgroups,have nothing but praise for their creatir.e ly when you're f,trststarling out." A budding storyteller might inner circle.Walker said,"I just preferto continjoin a critique group with the intention of educating herself ue bouncing ideas off fellow author friends and then getting input tiom my beta readers." Such personal,low-key altemaabout the craft of writins. but that samenewbie can have her

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tives to more strucfuredcritique groups may be just what you with issues of needto balancea desirefor objectivefeedback and interpersonaldrama. time management

An Oceqn of Good Will
If you take anything away from this article, rememberthat critique groups must f,rt your needs in order to provide their potential benefits. Poor groups that spoil your love of writing thosethat or damageyour creativeself-worth-or, conversely, offer nothing but constant,growth-hindering praise-will be to your detriment as an artist. When it comes time to leave, the authorswho replied to my survey offered this advice: do so politely. Some simply stopped attending in-person meetings or stopped posting online. Others mentioned having waited so long to leave a destructivegroup that the break was difficult and fraught with hurt feelings. "I regret some of the things I said," wrote Cara Marsi. "Lesson leamed:don't let frustrationseat at you." And, always keep in mind how unpredictablethis businesscan be. Lori Brighton finished her survey with this bit of advice: "Be respectful. Connections are always a plus, and you never know who could be the next best seller!" career-enhancing criWithin the confines of a successful, whoseintentionsand someone tique group, a friend constifutes ambitionsalign with yours and,aboveall, is honest.Many complaints I received about rotten behavior and tetchy dynamics stemmed from members' inability to give or receive honest feedback.Rememberthat a writer who wishes to submit her work to the wider world must be strong enoughto acceptthe myriad opinions that work can produce.And, while no single opinion is entirely correct or unbiased,we can expect the criplace.Ellen tiqueswe give and receiveto comefrom a generous said it bestwhen shewrote, "It takesonly a drop of intelWehle 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' Kiss, Scoundrel's canceoflegend,Iler January2010 release, featuring a Spanish warrior monk and the troubled woman he's sworn to protect, is the sequel to her debut, What a Scoundrel W anIs.www.car r i eIoffv.com / F oIIow: fwitt er.com/ carrielofQ. :t"lt

AUTHORS Meet Ol'ler
JearAdams l*raAthian FllizebethAmber Angelique{rnrm l\anD,Amold Belinda llarnes jennifer Bnrsel Amanda llrian D:niella Brodikv llilrgess Ravnene Chrisfine Butier Sue Carolynn Can1, Cailo Ji'anne CadyC;usnn talla Chase t)ryeland Joriil,ynn PaqCoprlard lisaDale l(M,I]:rughtem Gaillhyton Dennis Josie SnanDiekinson tlnn hlan MA.duBany 1'eriDulnng Dun:rvay Michele ArianDupre Muv f,a.son Ilam BthnondEon lischer Patti fiellyHtupilIrick Marie ftxce [Se Carolne Cauthier Debhie Cilbefl Judith Pepper Goodticlt Hallowell Jillizrn l{anillon Jennn'rrie Henderson Narury Hughry Carerlw SanSJames MeKennaJefties Lea.me l{'alella ErinKelliffn D. Rutir Kerce Sve l{nighf Anne telarul Michr:lle libbv tinz Cathie bnn Janiee AblnryM*clnnis Phoebe ldadison Marilu Mann JuliaMorinlp Na&u4haMorre l',iicole Xorlh BreilaNovgk Claudia Fernbenrm JudiPhiliips Efiznbeili Pina Leopold Jane Quinn Saihal Connie Tex;aRadlry Mona Risk liumne Ru:k Rodriguez Raqqel Iacq $avage PuliShenherger Arianna$lwe Tenl Spuu' Suff Cricket Heien Tavtor Scott Thomton Xathyc Trissel Berh Carolina\hldez Vaughan liusan MnrieWmd Jean findaVan'en lbnvLeeWilde Brcrd:rWiliianxon jVihon

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