The Value of Critique Groups, by Mark Magro

Writing is not a team sport.

Really, if I had to give an analogy, I would say writing is like starting an epic solo hike. You pack your gear and tools, all ready to go, with dreams of how wonderful the journey will be. You plot your points on a map and go, things all going according to plan the first few miles. Then you stub your toe. And it hurts. You fight through it and keep going, but then it gets cold. Then it starts raining. Suddenly hurricane force winds are blowing in your direction and it feels like mother nature is doing everything it can to stop you in your tracks. Sometimes you plow ahead and come out the other side tired, but stronger. Other times you get blown off the path and end up having to back track. Then there are the occasions when you just tuck yourself into the fetal position and feel completely and utterly helpless.

And that can all be in the same week.

As I near the end of my first decade of writing, one lesson it took me all this time to learn is that, yes, writing is not a team sport. But it doesn’t have to be a journey you embark on alone. Thanks to the amazing connections available through SCBWI, I finally stopped making excuses that it would simply be ANOTHER thing I have to worry about and joined a critique group. After six monthly meetings with some other amazing writers, I can honestly say it has completely revolutionized my writing process in the best way. I’m still on my hike, and it’s really hard most of the time. Now, though, I have camps I can stop on along the way and go over my map with others. I can rest my stubbed toe and collect enough encouragement to send me striding along the journey again, feeling just as rejuvenated as when I first started.

Still not convinced that a critique group is for you? Well, let me put it in a different way. Here are five reasons why I think joining a critique group is totally worth it.

#1 Valuable Feedback

Out of all the memories I have of being a kid in school, one of the most vivid ones is of a trivia contest I was in during 5th grade. My teacher, Mrs. Costa, used to pit us against each other in a trivia match that was more cutthroat than a battle between pirates on the high seas. Legends were made. Dreams were crushed.

On one sunny Friday afternoon, I will never forget being in the spot to win the whole shabang by answering, “What is the capital of Montana?” Upon hearing the question, everyone in the class groaned. Complaints were shouted of the game being rigged. I just stood there, frozen. I had no idea what the capital of Montana was and, when the timer went off, everyone  was shocked how I missed it. “How was I supposed to know that?!” I pleaded.

Little did I know, about three feet to my right was a map of the United States, complete with the capitals.

This one seems kind of obvious, but one of the greatest advantages of being part of a critique group is the steady source of feedback on your writing. When you’re knee deep in a manuscript, going back and forth with every finer detail until it all begins to mush together in your brain, sometimes you begin to miss the forest for the trees. And when that happens, nothing helps more than a set of fresh eyes. A critique can point out the important points that you might be failing to see because you’re too wrapped up in the muck of it all.

The capital of Montana is Helena, by the way.

#2 Being With Like-Minded People

Maybe you’re like me in that one problem I have with writing is I can never leave my work completely behind. When I’m not pounding on the keyboard and hoping what is coming out is halfway decent and just going about my day, my manuscript is still there. It’s always sitting in the back of my mind, poking at my brain and finding its way into my thoughts. Would my main character be friends with some of my students? Do the trees in that scene look like the one across the street? I bet that side character would hate taking out the trash. I certainly do.

So when I hit a roadblock with a certain part or feel unsure on where to go with a chapter, naturally, I need to speak at length about it with my friends and family, who are mostly not writers. They are always supportive and willing to listen, but then can never quite get how those struggles really affect my mood. How I just can’t put it to the side easily and go about my business.

My critique group does get that. In a lot of ways, our meetings feel like not only valuable workshops, but therapy sessions. It’s refreshing to be around those who can relate and create, together, a place where we can all just vent on the struggles of the writing life, not only writing. Driving home from my meetings, I always feel like a burden has been lifted off of my shoulders, realizing I’m not alone with my struggles.

#3 Networking

Everyone has heard the famous expression, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” While having supreme writing chops certainly is the foundation, I’ve realized over the years that the dream of just creating good pieces of writing and the masses will flock to you is just that. A dream. To be successful, knowing people in the writing world helps, whether they be writers, readers, booksellers, agents, etc. And one thing is for sure, if they are in your critique group, they probably have some connection in the writing world.

Networking has the negative connotation to some of being pushy. Of taking advantage of people who have been nice enough to work with you. But really, especially in a critique group, it’s friends helping out friends, introducing them to their friends who might be able to help take your writing to next level. The connections you make in a critique group might lead to nothing. Or it might lead to meeting an agent, or an editor, or a bookseller who would love to work with you. Life is full of possibilities, and being part of a critique group gives you just that: more possibilities.

#4 Sharpen Your Editing Skills

After completing five manuscripts, one of which will be published this month (yay!), I think I know how to write. I have stories in my head and, over the course of a year or so, I’m usually am able to write down some form of it in a document in the voice that I think will tell it best, critiquing my work as I go. The storyteller in me takes that mindset to what I read, thinking about the books I absorb and wondering if there are elements in them that could be better. If certain changes could make stories stronger. But, in the end, I can’t change anything. I can’t make a suggestion to an author and see, along with them, if it would improve a story.

But with a critique group, you can.

Over the past few months, not only have I been developing my own manuscript, I’ve been helping others with theirs, giving me a chance to think about narrative arcs and character building critically. The practice of helping others edit their work and seeing how stories can be changed and tweaked for the better has better prepared me to write. It’s an invaluable practice that I really feel has taken my writing to the next level. And the members only hate me for my critiques sometimes. So I got that going for me, which is nice.

#5 Forces you to WRITE

Every day, without fail, a part of my brain tries to come up with excuses for why it’s okay not to write today. I got home late from work. I’m not feeling well. We don’t have my favorite tea. The world might be crushed by an asteroid and I want to spend my last moments being lazy on the couch. Some days, I’m able to fight through it and sit at the keyboard, but not always. I try giving myself self appointed deadlines to hit certain points in manuscripts but, unless it’s an editor laying down the law, I always find reasons why pushing those dates back feels acceptable.

Enter your critique group. You can’t send them some random scribbling a night before a meeting and expect solid feedback, right?

Knowing that I’m working with a group of writers who have their own lives and deadlines, I find myself much more motivated to work and get things written in a timely fashion. I don’t want to inconvenience them. To get the most out of their wisdom and the experience of being in the critique group, I know I need to get my work to them as early as possible. It’s just enough fire to light under my behind and, these past months, I’ve been the most productive I’ve been in ages.

So did I convince you? Ready to sign up? Well go to SCBWI’s Region List, pick yours, and find a critique group!

Mark Magro’s debut novel, SURFACING, is set to launch October 20, 2015, with Jolly Fish Press. (Thats in 11 days!!!)You can learn more about Mark by visiting his web site. 

Surfacing Cover

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3 Responses to The Value of Critique Groups, by Mark Magro

  1. Pingback: The Value of Critique Groups, by Mark Magro | Through the Prairie Garden Gate

  2. Absolutely true Mark. I love my critique partners.

  3. Elizabeth Loanr says:

    Yes our critique group is pretty awesome! Congratulations on your first book. I hope there are many more to follow, for you and all of us.

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