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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?

  • How would self-publishing kill critique groups? Wouldn't it be more likely that online critique groups kill local critique groups? – raddevus Sep 19 '17 at 18:46
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    @raddevus Well, my speculation is that people my go to critique groups because they don't know what to do with the one sentence critique they get along with their rejection letters from publishers and agents. Self publishing now gives them an alternative to doing the hard work of becoming a better writer, which is what critique groups are supposed to help you do. – Mark Baker Sep 19 '17 at 19:00
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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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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'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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