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Has self-publishing killed the in-person critique group?

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I belonged to an excellent critique group for many years. More than one member of that group went on to commercial publication of the works that they refined in that group. But since we moved a couple of years back, it seems very difficult to find anything remotely equivalent. One group I joined fizzled for lack of consistent participation, and another, which has struggled to attain critical mass, has not met for lack of contributions for the last few months.

I'm trying to figure out what the problem is, because my experience in that original group was very valuable. A few things occur to me:

  1. The original premise of critique groups was to bring work up to the standard required for commercial representation and publication. But many people are impatient with the commercial process right now and are choosing to go the self publishing route. Are people turning to self publishing rather than critique groups?

  2. It seems like professional writing teachers have adopted the critique group format. There is a teacher around here (actually, an hour down the road) who conducts multiple classes at multiple levels, most of which appear to essentially be moderated critique groups. You have to pay to join, and the classes are large, so you might only get four pieces reviewed in a 16 week class, but they all sell out and many people seem to sign up over and over again. The teacher is a former book editor with connections in the business, so there is an obvious appeal there, but it is a lot of time and money to get through the critique of one novel.

  3. Could it simply be that online critique groups are now a preferable route for most people, leaving not enough people to form in-person critique groups?

  4. Has the writer support industry done such a good job of marketing itself that most aspiring writers now accept it as a given that they are going to have to pay for all kinds of educational, editorial, and critiquing services in order to get their work to a publishable state? The idea of paying anybody for anything in the learning to write process used to be anathema to many. It is generally accepted now?

Are in person-critique groups still viable, and/or has self-publishing or other factors made them obsolete?

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5 answers

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I'll offer more rambling thoughts, today being two years down the road from my previous answer.

I still participate in the critique groups I belonged to two years ago, and I still find them valuable. However, each one has its own tone and style. I've tried out half a dozen in the area. Some I will not touch again, but others now define my core group of writerly colleagues.

So, my answer is: I believe good in-person groups still exist. However, with that said:

I know people who prefer to post their work on Instagram. I know writers who prefer to post their content elsewhere online, their own server, and use Patreon to generate cash flow for their art. Some authors use Radish and Wattpad and so on, to grow a following. Some tell stories one line at a time on Twitter.

Basically, storytelling media change and if the past is any indication, there will be new kinds of opportunities every year.

A thought about querying: My experience with querying lines up nicely with one of the agented writers on this site: Agents want what they can sell, period. Enough agents share their numbers to make this point clear. They're barely scraping by, at least the newer ones. Some have abysmal sales. They might sign dozens of authors and sell nothing. If bringing a piece of work 'up to publishable standard' was no more than a qualitative judgment, some of these books should be sellable at some point. But as one writer here said some months back, "I listened to the agents, wrote what they wanted, and the doors flew open." In other words, to publish traditionally, one might need to write to market and a critique group doesn't usually address that angle. I know plenty of local writers writing vampire and shifter stories--these are not currently 'to market.' But the writing is good.

I doubt self-publishing has led to a decline in critique groups.

In my experience, novice writers come to critique groups and they either learn, or they leave. I learned a tremendous amount. I'm now one of the more senior members in the group and some of the amateur work (what mine was two years ago) is painful to read. You don't know where to start to help the person. The next issue is that you can only learn so much from the same group. You hit a point where you know that Joe is going to say your piece is too purple and Beth is going to say she can't follow the dialog and Syd is going to say it's great. Every week. And Joe's work is going to still be too gratuitously violent, and Beth is going to still be telling not showing, and Syd is going to bring a piece of poetry that is... well, poetry. One guy was high every time he showed up. Another guy, I think he was homeless and schizophrenic, occasionally sat at our table and started telling us (orally) about his life story, and we were all very confused by it.

But, there are other ways to get critique. On-line groups are fantastic. The size of these groups, and the ability to connect with people from vastly different cultures and perspectives, is tremendously valuable. If I don't attend an in-person group one week, it is in part because I am looking for fresh feedback on my work. So yes, checkmark this one: Online groups may contribute to a decline in attendance to in-person groups.

Hiring professionals: I doubt this really impacts attendance at in-person groups. In my experience, people who hire professionals want the best finished product they can make. They won't cut any corners.

You didn't mention it, but what about craft books? Agents often write these; authors write these. Or, for that matter, blogs on writing. The best advice I ever received on immersion into viewpoint was from a blog. "Voice," best advice was from a random comment on twitter. Effective description, best advice was reading great authors.

There are master classes. There are you-tube classes. There are contests to win mentorship and the like. There are dozens of ways to improve one's writing.

I am skeptical that any decrease in in-person groups boils down to self-publishing. It seems more likely that your new neighborhood just doesn't have a good group yet.

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1

I'm an aspiring novelist and will answer from my personal perspective. I've published scientific literature for many years. My experience with scientific manuscripts is that there are levels of critiques as a manuscript approaches the peer review process and final editing of the accepted version. Each level of critique and review serves a different purpose. But this is somewhat irrelevant here, it just provides you some context of my background and relationship with writing.

I started thinking about writing a novel at the beginning of this year. I found many resources online, and have been surprised by how useful they are. When I began writing (research papers) years ago, the internet didn't exist. Now, I am relying heavily on internet resources to learn how to build a novel well.

I'm also in a critique group (about 8 people, varied ages and interests), and planning to join a second. They have pros and cons. The pros include that I am learning both from the feedback I get on my work, and by observing others' work. The cons include that there is a level of 'group think' that is kind of insidious. Another con is that on any given week, only 2000 words per person is shared. Depending on who goes and which subgroup you are sitting in, you may miss an important part of someone's story which leads to problems the next week. (or vice versa.).

I would not pay for a personal writing trainer, or class. But I've also taught (not english or writing) and I have seen how poor the writing skills generally are among many young adults. This includes my (amazing) kids. So, it may well be that young adults would want writing advice/training/etc. and might pay?

You asked specifically about self publishing. Although I can't speak to that, it does definitely strike me as a 'mixed bag' option - My aunt self-published a fantastic memoir, but there is evidently a lot of junk too. The self publishing option probably helps to keep me writing, because it provides a possible fall back.

It could be that as we individually improve in our writing skills, as you have certainly done since you started writing, the caliber of writing groups stays objectively the same - but seems diminished to any of us individually.

My guess is that all of the online resources are contributing to a decline in the need for critique groups. But, there are several where I live. I'm novice enough to benefit from them considerably.

^ This answer is somewhat stream of consciousness. Let me know if you'd like me to bullet it and make it more parallel to your 1-2-3-4 questions.

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The short of it, I think not.

In my experience a cohesive powerful group process like you experienced is a rare thing indeed. The better, the rarer in fact.

Why so rare?

It requires a lot of thinking power. That means there has to be ample energy, which always has the potential to explode in your face ruining everything the potency could have brought.

It requires brain storm level flexibility so whatever happens is embraced if potentially fruitful and abandoned if ultimately an energy sink. What is what? How to handle disagreements?

Precision, vagueness, both must be possible and applied correctly making the actual matter that is processed a valuable and very fragile thing indeed. Hard to gain, easy to lose.

Chances are..

To get there you need very special people gathered together with a high level of trust and connectivity. Few qualify. Synergy between the talented is rare. It cannot, I think, be enforced or commanded. It may take years to get there even if all else is in place.

It CAN be nurtured, usually around a core of one or two very wise individuals who give it their best knowing how special it is. I think the Inklings is one of the best examples of getting it right.

So, keep trying, and good luck to you (and all of us big dreamers)!
(On-line channels will offer extra chances I think; different but more.)

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I don't think it helps that a lot of the personality today is "I want it done, and now, and instantly, and be perfect, and if you say it's not I don't care because I did it, so therefore it is perfect". Then when they get turned down, they scoff at the system and blaming it for being "out dated" or bothersome... so they go to the self publication route thinking they can do better there, only to end up 90% of the time utterly disappointed.

I think also, we have a lack of people dedicating themselves to writing. If there is one thing I gathered from this site, only the elite of the elite writers can turn this into a full time well paying gig.

For the rest of us mortal humans, it's a side hobby/job. Due to this, the desire to be the next Tolkien is few and far between as only people with the drive will be willing to go into an area that truthfully does not pay well for the average person.

This will then translate into low turn out, and low quality of material for critique groups. Probably most of them are filled with your average dreamer like myself who probably has no business even attempting to write a book but is anyways. This then gets frustrating for people of higher skill quality as they lack the equal to soundboard off of and they stop showing up.

People's lives are also busy. Kids, work, bills, running around doing chores, distractions. We have SO many more distractions these days than in the past. This takes away from the quality of writing people will do, and the volume of writing people will do. Instead of the average writer turning out say 100,000 words in a month, this could be reduced to 50 or even 10,000 and lack the focus needed to feel they are able to show up to these groups.

I can also attribute the same sentiment that the internet is more helpful. I feel this way especially for medical issues. "Why pay 100 dollars for a doctor visit to tell me I have a cold when for free I can go online see I have a cold and use the nyquil in my closet". There are tons of guides out there for writing and helpful tips. The bigger issue is knowing which advice is good to follow and not overwhelming yourself with the amount of information out there.

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I have never tried for a group, for some of the "downside" reasons DPT outlined. I have found readers that enjoy my work, and aren't writers but avid fiction consumers. My rule for critique is basically that I need help finding errors or problems, so I am really hoping they can help point at parts that need improvement, and they don't need to praise anything, and they can't hurt my feelings. They still praise me and try not to hurt my feelings, I thank them and then ask what was the worst part? Does the sex scene make you wince? Any place where you wanted to skip ahead? Anything you had to read twice? Did the battle make sense and flow while you were reading it?

You have to work to pull critique out of some people, but I don't like advice on how to write from writers I don't think write very well. Not in person. I'd rather just hear from a consumer of fiction that recognizes bad writing when they read it, even if they don't know the mechanics of writing. I can figure it out from there.

On a site like this or SE, I can read advice and stop reading without telling anyone to stop talking, I can dismiss advice I find dumb, and because of that find some good advice on questions that I can use. But I'm not going sit for two hours to hear that, all while everybody else continues to make the same mistakes week after week.

An online group, maybe. I paid for help with my first query letter and synopsis, and I paid for professional critique of the first chapter of my first novel. I found those services extremely helpful, and professional.

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I have yet to read a sex scene that did not make me wince. Mark Baker about 1 month ago

@MarkBaker I have a reader that feels the same way. But, if it is part of my female spy's job to seduce men that disgust them for access and information, I feel obliged to show her thoughts and feelings in the act. It is a part of her character I think readers want to be believable. I thought that dichotomy would be an interesting scene to see through. It seemed like an obvious and necessary Rite of Passage. (Years before Maria Butina confirmed that for me). Amadeus about 1 month ago

@Amadeus Nobody writes for everybody. Mark Baker about 1 month ago