It’s not you, it’s us

Critique groups come and go, form then fall apart, gather and… sometimes keep gathering.  My original critique group belongs in the hall of fame.  They’ve been together approximately fifteen years.  But more often than not, a critique group’s  shelf life is longer than a jug of milk and shorter than a can of tomatoes.    

My last group included a military writer, a Christian mom, a sizzling author of erotic romance, and me.  And then there was *Bess.  I put the asterisk beside her name because the details are messy and I’d rather no one got hurt.   

So Bess didn’t last long.  Reading her work was both a pleasure and a pain in the ass.  She had a professional background in editing.  Slaving over her Magnus Opus for the better part of two decades, her prose was technically perfect, the story engaging, but I didn’t have a clue about her genre… a fan-fiction offshoot of cult-famous sci-fi series published in the 1970s.  


 I wasn’t the only one sitting at the table, slack-jawed and slightly confused. I mean, in her outer-space world, there were warriors, royalty and magical *cats (not really cats, but I figured I better change this animal detail, too).  Though we all tried to come up with constructive feedback, none of us were familiar with her genre. 

 It got worse.  My pages were up next.  She handed me my chapter with “great stuff” written at the top, had no comments, and drifted off, bored, for the remainder of the meeting.  Did she think we were all just such awful writers she couldn’t bear to share her true feelings?  Or was she lazy, and didn’t bother reading?  Or shy?  Or maybe our non-space-cat efforts just didn’t hold her interest.     

This was a five-writer-date-from-hell.  Space cats be damned, someone had to tell her this wasn’t the group for her.   It fell to me and I broke up with Bess. 

That’s where the “it’s not you, it’s us,” excuse came in so well.  Her work was stellar, but the dynamic wasn’t there.  She deserved critique partners who really got who she was and what she was writing about.  A functioning critique group has members engaged in each other’s work, who exchange honest, thoughtful feedback.   

Luckily, everyone got their happy ending.  Bess landed her space cats in a sci-fi group, and the four of us kept critiquing until our group had an interstate move, a divorce, and life in general broke us up.   But I keep hoping to one day open an email and read those magic words: Hey we’re getting the critique group back together!  



About Jamie Brazil

Humor writer, romance novelist, Bloodhound enthusiast.
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11 Responses to It’s not you, it’s us

  1. kendrajames4 says:

    I know what you mean about critique groups. Sometimes we change. We grow with our writing, becoming more serious about getting published. We end up leaving behind those who are content to write only as a hobby. We grow beyond what that group can give us and need more in-depth critiques.

    Then you have people that join the group and change its dynamics so that people did not feel safe sharing their comments. There was one person who joined my first, and wonderful, writing group and all she would write about was her cat. While others were reading she would be rustling papers and doing her crosswords. She didn’t quite get the whole point of giving full attention to the person whose turn it was to read.


  2. Cheryl Yeko says:

    I love my critique group and hope it stays together for a long, long time.

    It’s an online group and not only do we offer critique; we support each other’s efforts across the net. As a new writer, I was at first amazed and then awed by the generosity of my group to help me in my writing. I’m determined to learn the craft well so that I can offer support to other new writers that enter the field.

    I just recently signed up to be a judge with my Romance Association for an upcoming contest, and look forward to the training they offer. Not only will I be able to help new writers, it will be a learning moment for me that I can share.

    Great Post.


  3. Kristi Lea says:

    I’ve had a great group for the past couple of years too, though it’s getting harder to get together. We used to meet at the cafe at a Borders, and since they’re gone we haven’t found quite as good of a substitute meeting place. Then one member went on bedrest for her pregnancy, and I keep getting scheduled to do other things on our meeting night, and another member is frequently sick. I do much better with their help and support, so I think that one of my resolutions for the new year is going to be about making extra effort to prioritize the critique group time so that we don’t lose it.

  4. Jamie Brazil says:

    Kendra, Cheryl, Kristi… if we were going to create a “ten commandments” to give/ receive critique, or be a member of group, what would they be?
    One of our big ones in the last group is never to say, “this doesn’t work” without leaving a suggestion as to what would work. Ditto on verb choices, if you think a verb is weak, you must make the effort to choose a stronger replacement. Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

  5. When a critique group works–it’s amazing. When it doesn’t it’s disaster. Chemistry between the players has so much to do with it.

  6. AM Bishop says:

    I totally agree with Karen, when the writers work well together it’s fun and very productive but when it doesn’t work…it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.

  7. B.J. Scott says:

    Great post! Finding the perfect mix for a crit group is hard. Have been in a few over the years and most have at least one Bess. All of groups eventually gave up rather than confront the problems. I know what you mean about not wanting to cause hard feelings. It is hard to tell someone who genuinely wants to be a part of the group that their efforts are counter-productive. I believe for a crit group to work, you all need to be of similar ability, have similar goals for the group, have the time to do the crits and are open to suggesions. A tough hide doesn’t hurt either 😉

  8. This post brings back fond memories. I loved workshop at the MFA, but I can’t participate in critique groups. Not because I don’t like feedback, and not because I can’t use great response, but I grade compositions and respond to creative writing at my day job, and I don’t have one spare second to read and write upon even one more person’s work. Especially now that I’m writing romance. 🙂 But I do love reading people’s published work and writing reviews. Only so many hours in a day and days in a lifetime. Maybe when I retire from teaching I can find a great critique group…!

  9. I could never replace my critique group. They are my source of much support and good kick in the tush now and again.

  10. I don’t have a critique group, just a bunch of various writer friends sharing and critiquing work. But, uh…I would love to be a fly on the wall at your get togethers. A Christian and an erotica author? Wow!

  11. Pingback: Can you take the Heat? | C.K. Garner Blog Paper Scissor

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