Writers need critique. All of us, even professionals. And the only people who can give us good critique are other writers (and editors, but unless you know a tame one, you want the ms. in good shape before they see it).
Forget about the opinions of friends and family; as Paul Park says, ‘like’ isn’t useful feedback for a writer. What you need to know about your story or novel is what’s working and what isn’t. Why and how to fix it are icing on the cake.
When in 2006 my wife and I moved to the tiny Greek island of Skópelos*, I left my East Bay crit group 6,000 miles behind. How was I going to get that vital feedback now?
There are two kinds of critique groups: the face-to-face kind that typically meets weekly, monthly, etc., and the distributed kind where business is conducted online. The former works very well if you live within range of a half-dozen or so other writers. One big advantage of the face-to-face group is the social aspect. Writing is a lonely business and a peculiar one, and hanging out with like-minded people is both enjoyable and nurturing—assuming that you have a good, cohesive group, which is by no means always the case. Living as I now was on an island of 5,000 Greeks and no writers, especially of SF and F, I was going to have to go online.
I’d looked into Critters, probably the largest, best-structured, and longest-established online group, and it wasn’t for me. I’ve known lots of people in Critters, and though some report good experiences, everyone agrees it’s very hit-and-miss. The group is huge and the spread of talent and personalities likewise; there also seemed to be a good deal of cumbersome structure and protocols. I wanted something both more intimate and more responsive. I was going to have to set something up myself.
Like any social group, a writer’s group is a product of the personalities which compose it, perhaps amplified. Most crit groups I’ve seen or heard of are to some degree dysfunctional. The biggest problem areas are typically flakiness, ego and temperament issues, and lack of structure and direction. Beyond avoiding those pitfalls, I also believe the ideal group size is between six and eight members: any less than six (six means a writer gets five critiques) and you risk too narrow a spread of opinion; more than eight, the group becomes unwieldy. I also felt it was important to have a group of writers at roughly the same level of craft and skill as myself, which I defined as intermediate or semi-pro.
But an online group is very different to a face-to-face one in that weekly or monthly meetings aren’t practical or even sensible. So the tricky thing—beyond finding the right six or seven writers—was going to be setting up a system that was balanced and fair to everyone, so that everyone received timely critiques when they needed one. Some writers are more prolific than others; some may produce a short a month, others a novel once a year or less. How was I going to structure this?
Trust, I thought. Put that right up front and center. Since flakiness and unreliability are the bane of most writers’ groups, I’d make mutual trust and support, loyalty to the group, the core tenet and build outwards from that. Like the Marines Corps’ Semper Fi, my group would be composed of people who never let one another down. Our loyalty to one another would be like a blood oath. To underscore that, I’d call the group, Written in Blood.
Thus afire with this new ideal, I banged out a draft of what would become the group’s constitution. (For those interested, I’ve posted the entire manifesto on the Written in Blood page of this blog). The key points were (and still are):
- The group is open to writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and allied subgenres only
- Each member’s commitment to the group shall be absolute in return for absolute commitment from every other member.
- The group convenes at short notice anytime a member has a story ready for critique.
- Egos and politics must be checked at the door .
- Criteria for membership are either professional publication credits or numerous semi-pro publications, though exceptions may be made.
- The group runs on democratic lines whenever possible, but as founder I have final say on all matters.
But, absolute commitment? How the heck do you ensure that works? People get busy, stuff happens. And I was proposing a group that commits to a five-day turnaround of any story up to 15k words in a five-day period and twenty-one days for novels up to 100k.
Easy. You make it the central principle, inviolable and (except for extreme circumstances, see detail on the Written in Blood page of this blog) non-negotiable. Do that, and people who are less than a hundred percent serious likely will balk at it and not even apply. But commit to us, I was saying, and we promise to commit to you. It’s Written in Blood.
Once I’d got the manifesto written, I contacted my SF/F author friend Juliette Wade; she liked the idea and became our first member. Next, I contacted Traci (T.L.) Morganfield, from my Clarion West 2002 class, and Keyan Bowes, who was in the same East Bay crit group as Juliette and myself. Juliette proposed budding YA Fantasy author Janice Hardy, and Traci brought in fellow Aztec Fantasy writer Aliette de Bodard. We had one unpleasant hiccup with a male author I’d brought in, which ended quickly with me booting him when he turned nasty and spiteful towards one of our members—you can not allow that in any group: it’s poison. Finally, in the course of the next year or so, we brought our total to eight with Doug Sharp and Genevieve Williams, both ex- Clarion West.
Five years since its founding, Written in Blood has produced and critiqued scores of short stories**, around twenty novels; half of us have agents and all have one or more books or short stories in print. Most amazing of all, there has been zero turnaround in membership, and only three or four instances of crits not being delivered on time, and with strong extenuating circumstances. In short, a successful, high-functioning, kickass writers’ group. All of us have become good friends, and learned an immense amount from each other. And though I feel at times like a dullard when I compare my abilities to some of these people and wonder why they put up with me, I’m immensely proud to be a part of this group.
If you think this kind of structure may work for you, by all means peruse the WiB constitution I’ve posted and feel free to borrow or improve on it (though I do ask that you acknowledge and respect my copyright, per attached Creative Commons notice).
A couple more items. First, be very selective in who you allow in. Next, it’s very useful to set up a private group on Yahoo!, Zetaboards, or some similar free service. This gives you a place to upload files for sharing as well providing a group listserve. We’ve also found it helpful to have a ‘crit wrap’, i.e., a group discussion period of a day or two via email once the current crittee has received all their critiques and wants to ask further questions or discuss specific points, as well as generally thanking everyone.
However you decide to go about it, if you’re serious about your writing, I very strongly encourage to find or create a good critique group; you would also do well to look up the many articles and blog posts available on giving and receiving critique. Good critique can make the difference between failure and success, between having your work in print or languishing in a drawer. What your Mum or your spouse say about your work may give you the warm fuzzies, but it’s unlikely to help you; what a good writer tells you is beyond worth.
* The full, tragicomic story of our year in Skópelos is told in my book, ‘Aegean Dream’.
** As well as an anthology of member stories, ‘Eight Against Reality’.