Finding a critique group that’s good for you is based on one question:
My goal is simple and direct; improve my storytelling and storycrafting/increase my skill levels/learn my craft.
Any time or place a group of people get together for a single purpose, rules will apply. The best rules are those shaped by consensus and accepted democratically. They may be spoken, unspoken, written, tacked on a wall, handed out, understood, …
Rules offer cohesion, community, identity, order, protection, all those good things that keep societies moving forward. The danger comes from rules that transform into laws until the group adheres to them as if they’re the third tablet from Mount Horeb.
Every workshop or writers’ critique group I’ve been involved in has had rules, every writers’ group or workshop that functions well has rules. I like rules (when applied equally to all involved) and adhere to them. The great thing about group rules is, when you don’t like the rules, you can walk away. You can find another group with rules more suited to you.
Any set of rules/laws are only as useful as the force behind them (think Klaatu and Gort in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still). This means you need a group leader who is more interested in the group than themselves (more on this later, perhaps. Nutshell: a benevolent dictator, not an autocrat), who is willing to check egos, keeps people focused on the work, not each other, is willing to jump between two folks with strongly differing views, you get the idea.
And remember, “leader” is singular, not plural. One person has the final say. You can all get together once the critiquing is over and change the rules but during the actual critiquing session, no (or little) discussion about rules.
With all that out of the way, some examples of being Ruled to Death:
- These are our rules and we’ll stick to them even though they strangle us – Sadly, some groups don’t exist for the betterment of the work and the members, only to preserve the rules because “order” is more important than “growth” (unless you’re a Bonsai tree, I guess).
- You only have ten minutes to offer your critique – This is an example of the above and WTF? Critiques vary because people are differently gifted. If Stephen King is in the room I’ll give up my time to him, no questions asked. If the Editor-in-Chief of the NYT is in the room, ditto. If the editors of markets I want to crack are in the room, let them ramble on as long as they wish. If a multiply published author is in the room, talk on! I say.
Some people may be able to say all they need in ten minutes. Others may have experience, wisdom, et cetera, that goes well beyond ten minutes worth of words.
One group I attended was visited by an author traveling incognito. I recognized him because I 1) read voraciously 2) across multiple genres, disciplines, fiction, non-fiction, … One person’s work had real promise. It was rough but easily improvable. The incognito author didn’t get past suggestions to the third of ten pages before they were cut off by the moderator. Another attendee had a great piece, ready for publication but was submitting it to the wrong markets. The incognito author started asking about submission history (the incognito author had over 1,000 pieces published in different markets, on and offline) and again, the moderator cut them off.
The author was amused, the people being helped were frustrated. More importantly, the author never returned to that group (or didn’t while I was there).
- We don’t accept xyz but we’re not going to tell you we don’t accept xyz – Another variant of WTF?
Go into a group or workshop where it’s clearly stated they don’t do xyz, okay, no problem, forewarned is fivearmed and all that.
Submit your work that includes xyz as an element of the story and have someone refuse to read it because they don’t want to deal with such content?
Get out while you can.
Worse, have the group members talk about it amongst themselves but nobody tells you ahead of time, you walk in expecting a critique and get a scolding for submitting something the name of which we shall not speak. Note, they aren’t refusing to read your work because you suck as a writer (something a good critique group will help you with), they’re refusing to read your work because you write about something they’re uncomfortable with.
Well buck up, kiddo!
Critique groups/workshops/writing groups will always have rules. The best such groups and workshops have rules fostering individual creativity and enterprise, that have rules guiding writers to greater and greater achievement.
Join a group, definitely. If it’s not for you, the rules don’t fit, you’re uncomfortable, go to another group. There’s plenty out there. I’ve found groups through online searches, Meetup, you’ll find them on Facebook, LinkedIn and elsewhere.