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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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?

Writers’ Roundup

I was pretty annoyed at Amtrak this week for canceling my train home from New York City. But while I waited a few hours for the next available train to Albany, I wrote some quality pages. It amazes me that I can produce some of my best copy while kids scream behind me and a train station employee mops an unidentifiable liquid off the floor in the isle next to my seat. I worked so well in that noisy train station that I may start seeking out loud places to write during the week.

But you’re here for links! So I bring you:

  • At Rachelle Gardner’s blog, guest blogger Margot Starbuck offers A Few Do’s & Don’ts of Writing Memoir. I particularly like her reminders about staying focused on a particular theme (which differs, she says, from your favorite experiences) and about coming across as “real,” so readers can identify with you.

Enjoy your weekend!

Putting it all out there (my book, that is)

For the first time yesterday, someone other than me read Chapter Seven of my travel memoir.

Well, I guess it wasn’t really the first time. Before I sent the chapter to my critique group, I had a slight panic attack, realizing I was about to make myself vulnerable by throwing my work out into the world. I felt like I was preparing to stand on my front lawn, naked, as cars drove by taking stock.

So I enlisted my mother for a confidence boost. “Will you read this?” I asked, holding out 25 pages I had worked hard to produce.

She did. And like a good mother, she said she loved it.

A few friends have read pieces of my book, too, scenes here and there. But they all know me. They followed my travel blog, so they already have a sense of the deliciousness of my adventure through Africa, which taints (or enhances, perhaps?) their experience as a reader.

So it was a big step to sit at Panera Bread with my writing group, writers I met just a few months ago, while they critiqued Chapter Seven yesterday. (They had critiqued scenes before, but never an entire chapter.) I was out there, naked. And it actually felt good, in a nerve-wracking, freeing sort-of way.

Did they like the chapter? I think so. They offered awesome feedback about building more tension in certain scenes, eliminating a few characters so others can grow and turning French translations into more fluid dialogue. Now I’ve got to incorporate that advice.

Since I’ve written several consecutive chapters — albeit in the middle of the book — this same group will vet Chapter Eight at our next meeting three weeks from now. And at the following meeting, Chapter Nine.

Not long after that, I’ll be looking for a few brave souls to read my entire manuscript before I hire a professional editor. Because by the end of August, I’m hoping to finish a draft of the book!

Critiquing my critique group

If I can’t get into a writers’ colony, I figured, I’ll join a critique group.

I found one pretty quickly in my area, through the Hudson Valley Writers Guild. And they met at my local library! How convenient.

But when I showed up at a meeting for the first time, I felt slightly out of place; I was about 30 years younger than everyone else in the room. In some cases, 50 years younger.

What did I expect? I was in suburbia, attending a meeting in the middle of the day. Of course all the other writers were retired. What other writers in their late 20s would be crazy enough to move back to suburbia and live with their parents so they could afford to write full time?

Somehow we got into a conversation about advice their mothers used to give them when they were little: Never get in a car when you’re not wearing underwear. Because if you get in an accident, and paramedics have to treat you, everyone will know you left the house without your panties.

(Yes, this is my life. I’m a 28-year-old living in suburbia with my parents and attending daytime meetings with gray-haired women who talk about their underwear. This book had better be worth it.)

I ditched the group even though they were a welcoming bunch. Not because they were old, but because they wrote poetry and haiku, and critiquing that type of writing requires a different eye than nonfiction. Then earlier this week, I tried a second group, one for nonfiction writers. And bam! We connected. I was still the youngest participant, but I left the meeting with a solid critique of six pages of a chapter. I felt like I helped the other writers, too.

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