Writing Exercises: "Your First Day of Critique Group"
The first day of critique group. For every writer it is perhaps the most stressful feeling in the world going in to a critique group for the first time ever.
Now, although that nervous itch at the back of your brain never truly goes away no matter how much experience you gain in every critique group you encounter, the good news is it does get easier. That previous sentence sounded a bit contradictory but through the course of this blog post you'll get my meaning.
Before we even begin with what to expect and look for on your first day of critique group, let's say what every writer needs to hear:
On your writing journey you have now evolved from the step of believing you have something to say to the world and are now actually going into the world to, well, actually say something! This step in your career is a very important one that will require a lot of courage. Hats off to you for being so brave in taking this next step!
With that very necessary congrats out of the way, let's dive right in! Here's some immediate etiquette I feel every writer should have when approaching their first day: regardless of the nerves in your belly, expect the best. Seriously, don't stress yourself out to the point where you're not going to stomach any fun. Be open to the fact that you're going into a collaborative environment. What to look for in what will ultimately make-it-or-break-it for you in a group comes after you all shake hands and empty your bags. Before this inevitable list starts however, here's one more thing to consider about a critique group: remember that no matter how great a writing group is just that.
The group may not function flawlessly every time but even if it were to, at the end of the day it will still be you alone at your battle station with the work. This is definitely something to bear in mind when considering what you're taking away from the group your choosing.
1) The initial meet and greet
Here's one of my first potential red-flags. Not to scare you at the get-go, but when joining a new group, first impressions tend to anthem right away. Are you greeted warmly by every member? Are all the members greeted equally? What you're looking for here is that unspoken sense of respect. The biggest red flag I can often find in critique groups is the "in" and "out" crowds within a group. If your sensing a pecking order amongst the group, especially in terms of an off-balance amount of critique towards one another, you may have to continue your search.
Not necessarily a red flag for me, but definitely a pet-peeve. How does the group treat punctuality? Some may be sticklers, others may be much more casual. I'm all for both but I also admit I hate the idea of an entire group having to wait to share because one or two people are way late. Now don't get me wrong, people can run late when the day calls for it. My main problem is when you're facing a frequent fifteen minute late situation with a member or two, or even worse, people leaving group early when its your turn to share. Any of these problems are usually enough for me to resume my search.
3) Is an established group open and welcoming to you?
I got at this earlier in the meet and greet but I'm going further because its important. Past the initial meet and greet, is there a pecking order? Is the group clique-ing in response to you? Many groups will advertise for newcomers but in terms of camaraderie and friendship, they're a clique. Get a good look at their expressions. Are they genuinely interested in your writing? Un what you have to say? This is a particularly easy thing to determine so don't get discouraged if this end of things puts you back on your search. You're having to trust this group with your writing, your time and craft shouldn't be wasted on people who won't invest in it.
4) A room of your own
Location, location, location. Some groups prefer libraries, their own homes or other quieter environments. Other groups like cafés, restaurants, bars and other louder environments. I've dabbled in both and found I can work in either, but this is definitely an important aspect of a group to consider. If you need a quiet place to think, find groups that share that need. If you're fine with the buzz of background noise then find a group that doesn't mind either and join them for a glass of wine.
5) After you, my dear
Is discussion in the group even? Is everyone having their turn? I'll go ahead and insert my prima donna alert here because its important. I've encountered a few in my travels from critique group to critique group. Sometimes the prima donnas were bearable, other times they were not. What I mean by this of course is there are some writers out there who will see their own work as superior and without fault. Every art medium has them, no special circumstances here. Identifying a group's prima donna is easy.
The prima donna tends to dish out harsh criticism towards others but can't take it when its going towards their own work. They'll dominate the conversation and brag about their own work, all the while encouraging a few eye-rolls from you here and there. Sometimes its bearable enough to deal with this prima donna, other times its not. If you're really not getting the chance to share or hear from anyone else, you're in a group that has been plagued with a prima donna and its best to just get back to the search.
Is critique even useful? Is everyone being very specific about aspects of what you shared? Or are they vague comments about, say, "the story in general sounding nice?" Critique groups aren't just social clubs, you're going to get something out of this experience. You're looking for knowledgeable people to really comment on your writing. If the group is worrying about your feelings way too much, you may need to head back to the search.
On the subject of feelings, all critique is objective. Its difficult enough to put your writing out there to be judged but I personally prefer the critique group that will really put my piece through the ringer. This is not to say my piece is being savagely put down, but rather, intelligibly scrutinized. Writing groups are done for the love of writing. Every member goes in for the enthusiastic intention of seeing every member's writing be the best that it possibly can be. Take everything with a grain of salt and listen because part of your training in this group is choosing which critique to accept and which to discard.
8) An active writing, not a publishing group
We're always going to have questions about publishing, especially the closer we get to completing that first draft. Its all fine and good, however, until the critique becomes a moan-fest about publishing. I personally detest getting off track in my critique groups about this topic because we can go on, and on about it until our time is up. Make sure your group remains focused and these questions are kept to a minimal.
9) I beg to differ
In the throttle of critique writers will love to give opinions about what scenes or moments of writing they love and feel the story could do without. Back to the tidbit I mentioned earlier of picking which critique to accept and which to discard is prevalent here. Make sure your group doesn't have people taking sides on what should and should not stay in a story. It is no one's business but the writer's of choosing what is and is not staying in the final draft. Its never a vote, though the enthusiasm should always go appreciated.
10) How do they react to each other's successes?
One of my biggest red flags is the "green-eyed monsters" in the groups. Not the prima donna's in this case, they're on their fanciful little islands not really hurting anyone. The green-eyed monsters are writers in the group that see other writer's successes as their own failures.
Before I explain this any further here's a quick tip to remember: your success as an artist has nothing to do with anyone else but yourself. Your journey, your success, is yours to make happen. No one else has any control over your failures and your successes. You can't rush art, you can't rush what you're trying to tell the world. As an artist you know your art takes time, nurturing, molding, its your baby and you need to let it just flow. It doesn't matter if someone else in your group is a "step ahead." There's no such thing because your journey is tailored to you.
Lecture over. The group should toast to your success no matter what, and your expected to do the same. These green-eyed monsters are a little toxic to the over all experience. If there's one in your group that continually shows up with a despondent attitude, it may be time to get back to the search.
Don't let this list scare you. The first day is nerve wracking. If the group your visiting doesn't work out for you, that is ok. Its nothing personal, especially since this is a group you are confiding in to invest time in your writing. Wether it is the very first critique group ever, or you're simply finding a new one, it will always be a nerve wracking experience. Even so, expect the best because you deserve the best.