Some of the back-and-forth on the blog has inspired me to write on a topic I previously hadn't thought much about: critique groups.
Truthfully, I don't know much about them or their inner workings. And I suppose that all groups must be different, so it may be hard to generalize. That said, if a critique group has its stated goal as helping writers get published (or making it more likely that an agent or editor will take on the book), then I think I can offer some perspective from this side of the industry.
So, if I were an aspiring writer hoping to get published, looking to join a critique group, and wondering about what my role in that group should be, here's the advice I would offer myself.
1. Be sure the group has a clearly stated goal. Is the goal "to make the manuscript as marketable and as saleable as possible"? Is it "to make the manuscript as well written as possible"? Note that the two are NOT the same thing. I would venture to guess that the best critique groups are composed of people who share the same goals.
Now, assuming that the group's goal is to get published...
2. If anyone in the group isn't familiar with what's on the best-seller lists, and hasn't read at least a few of those books, throw him or her out of the group. Critiquing can't be done in a vacuum; even if you don't care for what people are buying, you need to know WHY people are buying it. I'd pay particularly close attention to breakthrough writers who are getting attention. With many of the mainstays, people buy out of habit, not because recent output is any good. (That's one man's opinion, anyway.)
3. If anyone bad-mouths Nora Roberts, James Patterson, or Mary Higgins Clark, show them the door. Picking on the fabulously successful is a hobby in some quarters. Bad idea. These writers are beloved and at their best represent why people buy books and what they want out of them. Certainly you can THINK, "I'm going to write a Pattersonesque thriller, but I'm going to make my characters more full-fleshed," and that's fine. But don't build up your manuscript by tearing Patterson down. For those writing in mystery/suspense, these people are your competitors. Do you think Ford and Chrysler bad-mouth Honda and BMW? No, they look carefully at what people love about those cars (a process called benchmarking) and plan their development efforts accordingly.
4. Train yourselves to think like publishing professionals. This, I would speculate, is probably the hardest thing for most writers to accomplish. Writers can become so wrapped up in their characters or their story that they can't step back and ask, "Will anyone buy this book?" They think that because THEY love their book, everyone else will, too. If I were a member of a critique group, the first thing I'd do at every meeting is ask members to describe their project - the setting, characters, and story. Then have a show of hands: How many people here would buy this book? I bet many people would be surprised by the number of people who just aren't interested in the concept. I'd go one step further, too. I'd ask my critique group members to take a poll of their friends and family and find out how many of THOSE people would be interested in each manuscript.
5. Rip apart the first chapter. So many signals are sent, and so many decisions made, on the basis of that first chapter. I'd be fairly brutal in terms of my feedback. Have you put in too much backstory (BORING) or too many characters (CONFUSING)? Is it completely lacking in action or motivation (YUCK)? Does it make me, compel me, to read more? (HOORAY.)
6. Break into subgroups. It seems to me that the people who'd give the best feedback would be those who are most interested in and supportive of the "High Concept" as a book on which they'd spend their hard-earned cash. I think this is how it works in the marketplace...first you get interested in the "big idea," and then you buy and read the book. If people like the idea, then the story and writing can be developed. Maybe you have a group of people in your critique group who like the cozy and another group that likes noir. Should the cozy lovers really be commenting on the noir, and vice versa? Hmm, I don't know. The comments could be valuable, but they might also prove maddening. How would a noir writer deal with a suggestion along the lines of, "Oh, there is just too much profanity and violence in this book - can't you get rid of the sex and add a few cats"?
7. Consider anonymous feedback. We all know this is a tough game, ruled by various trade winds, preferences, and moods. And nobody (well, maybe some people, like the folks who review for Kirkus) wants to spend their lives putting people down or implying that their work has no merit. So I can see the value of always finding something positive to say about even the crappiest of work. I'm not sure that does anybody any good on the road to publication, however. This is why it strikes me that anonymous feedback could be read by one party and discussed by the group. Or each writer might read those anonymous critiques, take a few tranquilizers, and then come to the next meeting to discuss the insights garnered from it.
On another note, would the person who has commented here as "Vintage Reader" kindly email me at agathomystery AT yahoo DOT com? I have a question I would like to ask you.