How to find a critique group

I recently critiqued several chapters for a writer I met on Twitter. She knew it would be beneficial to join a critique group. But how, she asked, was she supposed to find one?

Lots of writers have blogged about the value of critique groups. (If you’re still not convinced you should join one, read these posts by Ami Spencer, Chip MacGregor, and Kristi Helvig.) But Ami Spencer at Write Out Loud and I wanted to take that discussion one step further. So today we’re collaborating. At Ami’s blog, you’ll find a post about how to create a critique group that works for you. And I’m going to give you hints on how to find those people.

Finding people is one of my specialties; it’s something every reporter has to do well. The challenge with finding a critique group or writers to form one is that they can’t be just any writers — they have to be good ones. Writers who are at least at your level, preferably better and more experienced than you so they’ll help you improve. And I can tell you from personal experience that good writers can be difficult to find.

Here are a few ways and places to look:

Join your local writer’s guild. Search for their Web site. My chapter, the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, has a page on their site that’s dedicated to writing groups. Yours might, too! Do any of the groups look like they’d work for you?

If not, tell them you’re starting your own group. When I first moved back home to write my book, I asked the Guild to post an ad for me, one that described the type of group I was looking to create. I got lots of e-mails from writers hoping to join. Most of those writers weren’t a good fit for me because they were in the beginning stages of learning to write. But at least I made connections and had people to choose from.

Ask at the library or bookstore. Your local library might have a group — ask a librarian. The same goes for bookstores in your area. Large bookstores like Barnes & Noble host groups, and smaller, independently-owned stores sometimes do, too.

Use social media. Facebook is probably the most useful social-media tool for this purpose because you’re likely to be friends with people who live near you. (If you’re not on Facebook, you should be.) Post a status update asking whether anyone knows of a local group. Even if your friends aren’t writers, they might have friends who are in a group. You can also search for groups or fan pages for your writing chapter or any local writer’s organizations. Even if you contacted the writing chapter through their Web site as I suggested above, it’s worth posting on their Facebook wall saying you want to form a group because some writers won’t visit the site but will stumble upon that wall.

This same strategy works on LinkedIn, although I think writer’s organizations are less likely to have a presence there.

Use Twitter, too. (Twitter’s incredibly useful for writers.) Yes, tweet that you’re looking for a group; someone might retweet your note so it makes its way to a writer near you. But you can be even more proactive by searching for tweeps who write in your area. Mashable has a helpful post on ways to find people on Twitter.

Look in online groups. Check out SheWrites, Writer’s Digest and Red Room. They’re not location-specific, but you might find someone who lives in your area. Also browse MeetUp — that’s how I found a French group to join that gets together monthly to practice speaking the language.

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Lexi’s Book Club

Just in time for the New Year, I’ve presented five of my friends with a gift: the first section of my book.

Of course, they’re really the ones giving me the gift. These generous people have offered to read my travel memoir, front-to-back, and offer suggestions.

A handful of writerly friends have read pieces of the book, critiqued chapters here and there, but these five will be the first to read it in order, in full. I’m handing over Part I now, and I’ll offer Parts II and III as soon as I’ve finished revising them.

Yes, that means I’m not done revising, that I missed my January 1 goal. But I’m about two-thirds through, and I have to remind myself that’s solid progress.

Who are my lucky readers? I trust each one to give me quality, honest feedback. They’ve got a mix of perspectives. And only one has read even a piece of my book until now, meaning they probably don’t know what to expect.

Two journalist friends. A writer friend from college. My uncle, a college professor and avid traveler who reads tons of travel books. And one awesome friend who’s not a writer, who I’m hoping will read the manuscript like many of my future readers will — like a regular person. (No, I don’t need any more readers. Thank you for your offers, but I’ve got to leave a few of you to read the book when it’s published!)

Part I: West Africa is now in their hands. Am I nervous? A little. I have put an entire year of my life (so far) into this project. But I have confidence in the story. And whatever suggestions, critiques and criticisms they offer will help me improve that story.

On with Lexi’s Book Club!

Why you should reveal embarrassing details in memoir

Now that I’m revising my travel memoir, I spend a lot of time looking at scenes and paragraphs that make me uncomfortable and asking myself: should I really include this?

That’s because in my first draft, I included everything. I included details that were embarrassing, that I wouldn’t even want my mother to read. I was able to do this because no one was going to read them. It was my only first draft.

But now I’m preparing to share my manuscript with five fabulous friends who have offered to serve as guinea pig readers. Now, if I leave those embarrassing pieces where they are, other people will read them.

And so I’m having a little bit of a panic attack. Every once in a while, I’ll send a paragraph to my best friend from journalism school or my critique partner and ask, “Are you sure I should include this? The reader is not going to think I’m totally lame? You’re absolutely positive you’re laughing with me and not at me?”

This morning, in response to one of my e-mail panics, critique partner Peggy wrote this response. Another reason why she’s awesome:

I know that revealing something so personal makes you uncomfortable, but small things like that help make the reader LIKE you even more. They don’t want to read about a superwoman, they want someone real, with flaws and quirks. That is one of the first things you learn when writing fiction, to give your main character a flaw. Nothing too horrible, of course, but why do you think Hugo gave Quasimodo a hump?

Good for you to be willing to be open. You will be happy you did.

I know she’s right. Nothing that I’m writing about is “too horrible.” When you read the book, you might even pass over those parts without realizing they were embarrassing for me to reveal. But to me, exposing my personal feelings and habits is horrifying. Scary. So scary, in fact, that I vow not to think about it for the rest of the day after I finish this blog post.

But I will tell you this: I have not removed a single embarrassing paragraph. Not one. Why? Because they make the book interesting, and as Peggy pointed out, they’ll help the reader like me.

You’d better not laugh at me when you read this book.

Writers’ Roundup

Happy Friday! Lots of good links out there this week:

  • Literary agent Jessica Faust writes about the benefit of critique groups. She says feedback from others is crucial, but it’s most important to trust your own instincts.

Cheers to a productive weekend!

Should you hire an editor for your manuscript?

As I inch closer to finishing a draft of my travel memoir, I’ve been thinking about whether I should eventually hire an editor.

Some first-time authors do so to make their work its very best before submitting to a literary agent. A few published authors have suggested I hire someone because sometimes literary agents and editors at publishing houses don’t spent a lot of time editing. Of course, plenty of them put lots of effort into editing manuscripts. But since I don’t know yet who I’ll be working with, I don’t have a clue how much they’ll edit my book.

The truth is, everybody could benefit from an independent editor, so long as you hire a good one. Don’t tell me you already know how to write, so you don’t need an editor. Even the best writers need editors! After working at a newspaper, I’m a big believer in not getting attached to your work — or at least the way you’ve worded it — and letting editors help you improve each piece. That’s how we get better, with fresh eyes and feedback.

But hiring an editor costs money — here’s a list of rates from the Editorial Freelancers Association — and since I left my day job a year and a half ago, I’m all about saving pennies. So instead of asking myself whether I want an extra editor, I’m asking myself whether I need one.

In some ways, I think a quality critique group can stand in for an initial editor, especially if the writer is looking for content, development and thematic suggestions. I’ve worked with a small group for months, and they’ve critiqued about a quarter of my chapters. But at some point, I’ll need someone to read my entire manuscript from start to finish, making sure it works as a unit. That’s a lot of work for my critique partners, even if I offer my services in return.

So. Should you hire an editor? Check out posts by literary agent Nathan Bransford and blogger Editorial Ass on the topic. And if you do decide to hire one, heed this advice by editor Alan Rinzler about what to look for in a freelance editor.

What do y’all think? Is it worth hiring an independent editor? What should writers consider when heming and hawing over this one?

Playing Hide ‘n Seek With Literary Voice

Everyone agrees a writer’s voice — or lack thereof — can make or break a manuscript.

But what is literary voice? And how do you improve something that’s so hard to define?

Voice is one of those things you recognize when you see it. It’s what a reader refers to when she says, “I really like the way this is written, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.” It’s writing style and tone, a reflection of the writer’s personality.

When I first started writing this travel memoir six months ago, I had trouble getting words down on paper, even though I was following an outline. It wasn’t until later, when my writing began to flow, that I realized what had stood in my way: I hadn’t found my voice. As one of my fellow newspaper friends likes to say, it was buried under years of inverted pyramids.

The best newspaper reporters write with subtle voice. But most of us trade in voice for objectivity, straight talk, low word counts and meeting deadlines. For me, realizing my voice was missing wasn’t enough to make it reappear. It took practice to let it shine naturally through my writing again.

So how did I find it? Partly through blogging. When I write for a blog, my style is rather casual, sometimes funny, showing slivers of my personality. That’s why keeping a travel blog was so great for my book. Sure, the blog provided content that I’m now using in the book, but writing it also helped me escape my strict reporter mentality and embrace writing with voice. My blog writing isn’t perfect — I often rushed to write posts, hoping the African Internet connection would hold up — but it has personality. (Still not sure what I’m talking about? This post about marriage proposals in Cameroon is a good example.)

What I’m suggesting here is that blogging can improve your literary voice. But what if you don’t have any voice to begin with? Is this something a writer can learn?

Perhaps, as Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen suggests, writers should focus more on freeing their voice rather than learning to write with one. She and Holly Lisle both offer ideas about how to develop personality in writing.

At a critique group meeting recently, a fellow writer commented that she could hear my voice in my chapter. To her it was a small compliment. To me, a show of achievement, how much I’ve improved.

The truth is, I can hear it, too. This week, I revisited a chapter I wrote months ago, and I was surprised to see how obviously it lacked my voice that saturates chapters I wrote more recently. Now I’m in the process of going back through that chapter and inserting my voice, not only to improve the writing but also to make it match the personality of the rest of the book.

What’s literary voice to you? How do you work to improve it?

An excerpt: Cameroonian patience

Last Monday, I kicked your butt into gear. This week, a gentler form of inspiration, an excerpt from my book.

Wanna learn about my travel memoir first? Check out this post.

* * *

Packages from home take on new meaning in Africa. Peanut butter? Like gold. A favorite deodorant? More valuable than cash. And batteries for my digital camera that actually worked — they elicited a fist pump into the air.

So when I returned to Dschang, Cameroon, after a week in the village, I beelined to the post office. My sister had mailed me a parcel weeks before, and I desperately hoped it would arrive before I left the region.

The post office’s small main room was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded and loud, with mostly men yelling toward what appeared to be the front of the “line.” What was this chaos? Were they picking up government paychecks? I was about to tap on a man’s shoulder and ask when a post employee recognized me – not many whites frequented the Dschang post office. He gestured to follow him behind the counter, into the package room, where I had collected a parcel from my mom the previous week.

Bonjour,” I greeted the woman behind the desk as I took a seat in one of her office chairs. “Do you have a package for me?”

“I think I remember seeing one here for you,” she said, getting up from her seat to shift through boxes and padded envelopes that crowded shelves, waiting to be claimed.

“Really?” I pulled my passport out of my bag, knowing she would need to see it to confirm that I was the intended recipient.

“Yes, it’s here,” she confirmed, reaching behind a few boxes. “But, oh, I remember this package now.” She pulled the thick envelope out from behind the others. “I’m sorry to tell you there’s a problem. It arrived in poor condition.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said quickly, assuming the mail had been dropped in a puddle or smashed by the weight of other boxes. After all, it had crossed an ocean to reach me. “I’ll take it regardless of its condition.”

Now on her desk, the package clearly had ripped open sometime during its voyage, but the tears were at least partly covered with clear plastic tape. I held out my passport, eager to collect my parcel and leave so I could delve into my gift, but the employee wasn’t as ready as I was.

“You can see this package arrived here weighing one-and-a-half kilograms,” she said, pointing to scrawl on the envelope that apparently was official. Then she moved her pointer finger to a different part of the parcel. “But it left America weighing three kilograms.”

What was she getting at? My package had been so badly damaged that it lost half its weight? How could that happen? I looked at the woman, puzzled.

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