The Self-Critique Group

writerThis month, we’ve been talking about “what made a difference” to our writing, from pursuing a degree to taking a professional course, from festivals and residential retreats to getting manuscript assessments before submitting a book.  All of these have one thing in common – aside from giving Prime Writers their start:  while writers were full of praise for their degrees and courses, most said it was the continuation of the group, fellow students and like-minded writers, for ongoing critique, evaluation, and support that made the REAL difference.
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire FullerClaire Fuller, author of the Desmond Elliott Prize winning novel Our Endless Numbered Days, took an MA in Creative Writing at Winchester University.   What she didn’t know was how the term times would affect her writing.  “I didn’t realise when I started that it was a two semester uni until suddenly my first year (part time) finished in April. What am I going to do until the end of September with no one to set me deadlines or critique my work, I thought. I’d better start writing a novel then, and set up a critique group with my fellow students… and went on from there. “  Now, 3 1/2 later, Claire is still part of the group, though the writers have changed.  “We meet every month in a local pub and share work (short story / part of a novel / poetry) in advance and then talk about when we meet – making sure we say what works as well as what doesn’t. The main rule is that the writer isn’t allowed to join in until after the discussion about their work. It is a huge motivator to get some work done (and not just a first draft) before we meet, and the different views of 6 or so readers on one chapter, say, are invaluable. I don’t act on them all, but if everyone is saying the same thing, then I will seriously considering changing whatever it is.”  
Penny Heart Hodder finalMartine Bailey, author of An Appetite for Violets and The Penny Heart, had a busy career in HR when a psychometric test showed her she had a gift of imagination that she wasn’t using. “As an English Lit graduate it was a sort of epiphany. Within a few weeks I was obsessed with writing a first historical novel that I didn’t sell, but that did (eventually) lead me to my agent. I was also single at the time and have a theory that many writers get going when single because of ‘permission to be selfish’ (essential!) but also for practical reasons as writing is so completely consuming. She’s also part of a group, “a small writing support group who meet 6-weekly to swap up to 10,000 words and trusted advice.” 
DEVASTATION RD NV 14.5 (1)As a student, Jason Hewitt, author of The Dynamite Room and Devastation Road, worked closely with the other writers on the Creative Writing MA at Bath.  “When the course finished we decided that we still needed to meet up and continue critiquing each other’s work. This was in part to ensure that we kept in touch, having got on so well and having been through so much together over the course of the year. But it was also in part a way of ensuring that we kept the momentum up, and no one flagged by the wayside once the support structure of the MA was taken away.”  They meet every few months, rotating houses and sharing lunch and “literary woes” before workshopping people’s work. “Sometimes it was just a few pages of a work in progress. Sometimes it might be a sizeable chunk of a novel or perhaps even the whole of a first draft. We’d feed back one by one, eventually all piling in giving each piece of work anything up to an hour. It was hard sometimes to get the balance right between being supportive and being critical. We all learnt over time to take piece of criticism with an open mind (which has also thickened my skin in preparation for those less than positive book reviews we all get once we’re published!). You know your novel better then anyway, and – more to the point – what your intention with it is. Some pieces of advice I chose to ignore. But more often than not what someone said about my work would ring true, often being a flaw or a problem that I secretly had suspected but just needed to hear someone say.  Ten years on we still meet although a lot less often than we used to. The group read several drafts of The Dynamite Room and without their feedback I’m sure it would not have got published. When they then read the first draft of Devastation Road and told me that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as it should be, I knew that were right. Their feedback was, once again, invaluable in turning the book into what it has now become.”  
Beyond the SeaMelissa Bailey, author of The Medici Mirror and Beyond the Sea, studied at City University, “essentially a weekly workshop in which writing was critiqued by the tutor and the group. It got me into a routine of writing, deadlines and being able to deal with criticism, I loved it! A group of us from this workshop (we met in 2008) formed our own critique group and still meet up now every few months. We have workshopped single chapters/short stories/poems through to whole drafts. We email the work to be critiqued a couple of weeks or so before we meet (there are 5 of us) and then we provide the level of response requested – usually more broad overview than line by line attention to grammar.  I have found working with a group SO helpful. Often it will bring into sharp focus niggling doubts about my writing that I can feel but can’t yet ‘see’ clearly – simultaneously it’s taught me to have the confidence not to take on board everything and to filter out what I don’t find helpful. But the support of the group has been brilliant – I’m not sure I would have finished my first novel without those guys.”
There you have it!  If you’re thinking about a degree, course, or residential retreat, use it as a way to find a group that can continue, offering support and encouragement over the long-haul of rewriting.  If studying isn’t an option, look for ways that you can find like-minded writers, whether through your local literature development office, your arts centre or library – and if you can’t find one, start one!  There’s great advice on how to run a self-critique group in Ursula K. LeGuin’s recent update on her how-to classic, Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.  You can read the first chapter here, at The Literary Hub.