You’ve spent months alone with your characters. The setting of your novel is more real to you than your hometown. You can quote whole chapters word for word. You laugh and cry at all the right places. But is your manuscript ready to be seen by agents and publishers?
What you need is feedback—an unbiased look at your dialogue, characterization, and plot flow. You need someone to point out lapses in continuity or point of view, someone to catch the typos your brain automatically corrects. But where can you find unbiased readers who don’t demand your firstborn in payment?
One option is to join a critique group. A critique group is a small group of writer-peers who read and give feedback on each other’s submissions. While critique groups can never take the place of a professional editor, they can be enlightening. They are readers. After personally experiencing several critique groups, here are the top ten things I’ve learned:
1. You can’t write a novel by committee.
Critique groups work best when members feel free to express honest opinions and when writers feel free to ignore them. You are the final arbiter of your work.
2. Agree on the guidelines.
Will you meet in person or online? How many pages will you submit? How long will you have to complete critiques? My suggestion is to limit submissions to ten or twenty pages, double-spaced. The fewer members of the group, the more pages you might agree to read. Reading whole scenes or whole chapters is helpful, but the length of scenes and chapters can vary greatly. Talk about this in advance so everyone is on the same page. A week or two to complete critiques is usually workable (depending on the number of participants and length of submissions). The important thing is to agree in advance and stick to it.
3. Limit the number in the group.
More than five is probably too many. Critiquing four submissions every two weeks or so takes time. Most of us have day jobs, families, deadlines.
4. Seek a group with relatively similar skills and projects.
Including an inexperienced writer with those more skillful can work, but it can also be frustrating. Critique partners aren’t teachers or editors. And while good writing is good writing, the norms for various genres vary wildly. Would a group of cozy mystery writers really get dystopian fantasy? Would a writer of steamy romances fit into a group writing Christian historical fiction?
5. Share approximate word count in advance.
If three manuscripts fall in the 75,000 to 80,000 range and one is an epic of 250,000 words, you’ve got a problem. Will three of you hang in there with the fourth for several additional months at the rate of 10 pages per week? If manuscripts are dissimilar in length, agree on a plan. Those with shorter manuscripts might agree to post revisions or another WIP.
6. Don’t expect to be told how magnificent you are.
Be open to both positive and negative feedback. If you don’t want an honest critique, ask your mother to read your manuscript.
7. Don’t argue.
Avoid the temptation to defend or explain your work. You’ve made no promises to agree with or use the feedback of others. Asking questions, however, can be helpful. For example: “Can you tell me why that section didn’t work for you?”
8. Be timely.
Submit on time and finish critiques on time. Period.
9. Give positive feedback first.
Even the worst-tasting medicine goes down with a bit of sugar. Tell your critique group partners first what you loved: a character finely drawn, a passage you just couldn’t put down, a lovely turn of phrase, the places where you laughed out loud. There is always something positive to say.
10. Give group members the right to opt out.
No explanations necessary. If a critique group isn’t helping you, don’t waste time.
If you are interested in forming or joining a critique group, check out a national writers’ organizations like Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, or American Christian Fiction Writers.