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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One Writer's Mind: Critique Groups

Beyond reading and writing, I have learned the most about writing from taking part in a critique group.

At the time I began writing (back in the early ‘90s), ACRW was still a gleam in the founders’ eyes, I didn’t yet have a computer, and the internet age was still in its early years. I didn’t have access to the tremendous helps available to writers today.

What I did have was a faithful critique group. We met in Vickie Baker’s home 2-3 times a month, every month, for almost ten years. I would take my typewritten pages to a nearby grocery store to make copies. We would meet for however long it took to critique everyone’s work. Janet Garmon was the first to have a book published (Home Run Rudy and His Tattletale Teeth); Vickie followed with her autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

In the crucible of those biweekly meetings, I learned accountability (who wanted to go to a critique group and not have anything to share?) and caring and ... yes ... what worked and what didn’t in good writing. What did “show don’t tell” look like? What were active verbs? Vickie made a point of writing her book without using any passive verbs except in conversation.

How did we structure the group?

We wrote all across the board. Vickie was a trapeze artist before a broken back gave her a life sentence to a wheelchair. Janet wrote mostly for children. Others wrote poetry, short stories, devotionals, science fiction. We represented the major genres of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

We read our own contributions out loud. We tried to follow the critique sandwich—something nice, something that could be improved, something nice. When we received something back without red marks on it, we wondered “was it that good ... or that bad?:

We also came from all levels of writing. Our core group started as rank beginners and grew together. Others came and went, but we always welcomed newcomers to the group.

We functioned as much more than a critique group. They walked me through my 40th birthday and my son’s difficult teenage years. When Jolene finished her difficult freshman year of high school, they threw her a party. When Vickie grew terrified at the coming millennium, we helped her through the crisis.

The group finally disbanded when Vickie went home to be with the Lord in 2003.

Could I have grown more quickly with a critique group that specialized in romance fiction? Perhaps. But I will always credit my initial growth as a writer to that committed circle of friends.

I’m part of a critique group of published authors now. Anyone interested in hearing how that differs from the earlier group, the pros and cons?