While some writers like critique groups, others dismiss them entirely, considering them to do more harm than good. Many in the second camp argue that writing groups, with all those varied opinions, foster a perpetual state of rewriting. Some writers internalize group criticism so much they begin to rewrite their work to satisfy the groupthink rather than themselves.
I understand that writers groups aren’t for everyone. Some people work better independently and are adept at critiquing their own writing. Others prefer to work in partnership with only one trusted fellow writer when it comes time for a second set of eyes to pass over their manuscripts. This was my preferred method of critique until five years ago, when my friend, Yvonne, and I started our own writing group.
Shortly before meeting Yvonne, I’d participated in a few local moderated critique groups. I’d been underwhelmed by those experiences, but still wanted to connect with other writers. I was looking for more than a critique group; I wanted to find a community. Since Yvonne was seeking the same thing, we joined research efforts. Not finding what we were looking for, we created our own solution and founded Write Inside the Loop.
Our mission was to create an intimate space for Houston-area fiction writers to share and receive feedback and constructive criticism, and we especially wanted to encourage each other to seek publication, be it through traditional means or self-publishing. We also wanted to foster a community where we could be serious about our writing and yet, not take ourselves too seriously. We work hard to make sure the presenting writers receive the best critiques to improve their craft, but we also play hard. We have the empty wine bottles to prove it.
Since our first member Phyllis joined in February 2011, we’ve grown to a core group of ten, all of whom bring something valuable to our version of the Algonquin Round Table. We’ve changed meeting locations quite a few times, but we've never changed our purpose: to provide a positive environment for writers to receive feedback and encouragement. It hasn’t always gone smoothly. We’ve had a few people join our group who turned out to be...let’s just say, not quite simpatico. Good thing we have no problem asking people not to return. We’ve also had writers join who were looking for confirmation of what they already believed to be true: that their writing was perfect as it was. After they received feedback to the contrary — and they always received feedback to the contrary — they withdrew from our group.
And then there was Russell Little.
The day he attended his first meeting, attorney Russell Little looked every bit like a character from fiction himself. Dressed in suspenders, a crisp dress shirt, and loafers that looked like they’d only just stepped down from the shoeshine chair, he was Southern Gothic Lawyer personified. If only he’d also been wearing a seersucker suit and a straw boater. When he introduced himself, it was in a voice that sounded precisely how people who have never been to Texas think all Texans sound. Yep. He was a character. And he seemed just perfect for our eclectic group. We went through introductions and Russell told us he had completed a novel and we were his first critique group.
It’s never easy being someone’s first.
When it was his day to present chapters from his manuscript, the usually emphatic and animated Russell quietly absorbed our critiques. When we were done, we told him what we always tell first-timers: that he was brave to share and that we all go home and curl up into fetal position after our day on the hot seat. We reminded Russell that our goal is to help each other improve our writing. We told him his novel idea was a good one and that we wanted to see more. Russell thanked us. Then he didn’t show up for the next meeting. Or the next one. Or the one after that. You get the picture.
Several months passed and he was still a no-show. We were almost ready to write him off as another person who decided our group wasn’t a good fit for his personal writing goals, but the thing was, we kind of liked the guy. We were afraid we'd hurt his feelings. Unintentionally, of course, but hurt them all the same. So I emailed him. Something to the tune of: Hey Russell. We miss you. Are you coming back to writing group?
He was there at the next meeting. Six months had gone by. He admitted he’d been angry with us, but that after awhile — once the sting had worn off — he had been able to see the value in our critiques. We told him that was the thing about our group; we go home angry at each other quite a bit. But we also go home grateful for the honesty of our peers. We go home with more tools to improve our craft. We asked him to stick wth us. And he did.
That was in 2012. Last month, Russell published his first novel, Murder for Me. While several of our members published work prior to joining our group, Russell is the first of our members to publish a novel while a member of our group and the only member to publish a novel that benefited from the critique of our group. I am as proud of him as I am of the little group Yvonne and I started in 2011. Russell’s favorite thing to say to all of us in his Amarillo accent is, “Just get it out there!” It’s his refrain to those of us who have been sitting on completed novels and stories we still don’t think are done. “What are you waiting for?” Russell asks. “Just get it out there!” This from the member who once thought he had the most to fear. Now he’s the member with the most to cheer. Well done, Russell.
And they say writing groups do more harm than good. I think mine is working out just fine, thank you.