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My critique group of 18 years
In the past few weeks I've been involved in an on-line discussion about critique groups and whether or not they are of real benefit to writers.  These discussions have led me to revisit the critique groups I've been involved with during my writing career. 

My first group offered more support than real criticism. We met weekly. All of us were beginners. And for the most part the comments were "fluff"--a lot of accolades and encouragement to keep going, but little input based on the principles of good writing. 

Fortunately, I discovered Jim Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel which clearly outlines those principles. When I discovered he was giving a workshop on the Oregon coast, I signed up. My ideas about critique groups changed forever.  

I came home eager to "educate" my group on principles like conflict--characters who have opposite agendas and are trying hard to get what they want. (This makes conflict a lot easier to write) Stakes--the characters have something important to lose if they don't get what they want. Characters who are functioning at maximum capacity. An antagonist who is a worthy opponent to your protagonist. Rising tension. Descriptions that reveal character. And perhaps one of the most important, your characters are transformed by the events in your story. They are no longer the same people they were when the story began.

If you are clear on your premise (what you want to prove in your story) it makes it easier to decide which scenes move your story forward. Dialogue should be indirect and conflicted. Use narrative to reveal necessary, but sometimes boring, information. In good fiction, there are no "conversations". Periodically, stop writing and ask yourself this question:  Do I have a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal? If you do, many of the other principles fall into place.

When I returned home from my first Jim Frey Workshop and tried to incorporate some of these ideas into my critique group, the other members were resistant. Eventually, I dropped out. A bad critique group is worse than none at all.  

Eighteen years ago, four other like-minded women who wanted input based on the principles outlined above, formed a critique group. Three of us now have agents and published novels, short stories and poems. 

Marjorie Reynolds, the most successful of the group, taught writing at the University of Washington and now gives workshops on the art and craft of writing fiction. I learned something very valuable from her called Central Dramatic Story Question. The main story question that drives the plot and needs to be answered by the end of the book. In one of my own novels, the CDQ is:  Will Catherine Henry face a past in which she murdered her father, in order to save the life of her 6-year-old son? I found CDQ easier to understand than the elusive concept of "premise". Once you know the CDQ of your novel, it is easy to determine what scenes belong in your manuscript. Does your scene move the story towards the answer?

The number one most important rule of our critique group:  No one is allowed to defend their work.  It wastes time and is counterproductive because your critics will become reluctant to tell the truth. The writer is never obligated to incorporate a critique into his work if he doesn't believe it will make the manuscript stronger. In addition to the core group (pictured above) we now have five additional members. We gather  for an entire weekend once a month. And we work hard from 9 a.m. until dinner, with a short break for lunch. Each member has the opportunity to present 2 chapters of about 10-12 pages each. I drive 500 miles round trip in order to attend. We meet in Portland. We have members who come from as far away as San Francisco and Vancouver, BC. The critique we receive is worth it. My scenes are always stronger after incorporating the input of this amazing group of writers and critics. And that is what makes a critique group great.



07/02/2013 10:54am

Attagirl, Susan. You said it all clearly and succinctly. And I agrees 100 percent.

Marjorie Reynolds
07/11/2013 10:30am

Very good advice, Susan. I was in a critique group once where the men seemed pitted against the women. One of the best things about our group is we're all very supportive of each other. If one of the members acquires an agent or sells a story or poem, we all cheer.

12/14/2013 8:04am

Such clear and concise language to wrap up a book! Every time I turn around, I am asking myself some question that a writing colleague has given me. These will raise to the top of the pile. Thanks, Susan

Anne Stabile
12/14/2013 9:27am

I have learned so much from each of you! J: more scene setting; M: Simple story, complex characters; You: agenda, agenda, agenda; and little M: Huh? (What doesn't make sense and why.) Thanks so much for being so kind and truly helpful with my work. I'll write a chapter now, and hold it up to your comments and my work improves tremendously. I have a core Critique group of about 4-5 who are really serious about writing and they have helped, but you four have changed my writing for the better. I can never thank you enough for your support and generosity.


Good article and this article shows the power of a good and successful group in the society. The group always make a unity and become successful.

02/28/2016 11:56am

The most fascinating “aha moment” for many of us reading about the writing process is this concept of the Central Dynamic Question (CDQ). The CDQ, while being “easier to get behind than the concept of premise,” seems like an unwritten challenge for partaking the self-examination necessary to lead us in finding our own unique and potentially CDQs per written work, as each of us struggle to overcome inertia and our ongoing life stories in support of those life goals that we’ve chosen to embrace via our writing.
Thomas Merton has said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Having honest and trustworthy “tell it like friends who can fulfill the need of being critics” has clearly compelled you to perform at your highest level which is evident to your readership. They are a true blessing. Indeed, as Anais Nin proclaimed: “It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”


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