This is a debate between Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Hanrahan of the U.S. Army and myself. Kevin  is a commander in the military working dogs program, and he’s also written a book entitled PAWS ON THE GROUND. (Which I’m really looking forward to reading.)

BARBARA: Before I rant, I figured people might be interested in hearing how you and I have connected, Kevin. My trilogy coming out through Montlake Romance beginning Oct. 23rd,2012, focuses on wounded warriors returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan and finding their happily ever after through the healing power of love. The first book is entitled FAR FROM PERFECT. (Sappy, I know, but that’s who I am.) I don’t do the super heroic, “special ops on secret missions” veteran characters. I know they exist, and I have the greatest respect for them, but I’m more interested in the regular Joe’s/Jane’s experience.

Anyway, during the research part of the trilogy, I started reading Kevin’s amazing blog about soldiers who are handlers for military working dogs, and the bonds they form. Love it. I started leaving comments, and we connected. We’re also both on Twitter. Kevin very graciously answered some of my military questions, and we’ve been talking back and forth ever since.

A few months ago, Kevin posted a piece on the “writer” section of his blog that sparked quite a debate, so we decided to keep it going. Go ahead, Kevin. State your position.

KEVIN: Critique groups are a waste of Resources. To me resources equal time, effort and money. I’m not complaining but I easily put in 60 hours a week at work. I put another 15 to 20 hours for writing, 5 hours for social media. (I tweet way too much on my commute to work though).

Then I try to maximize every other second I have available to for my new baby boy and wife. When in the world would I ever have time to meet with a group of kind hearted folks and listen as they talk about their writing? Maybe, just maybe I would get a chance to talk about my own writing? Thanks but no thanks. Just the thought of driving to the group exhausts me!

Do they serve wine at these critique groups?

When I have the time to focus on my writing I want the person I am working with to also be focused on my writing! Pay an editor and you have their time. Yes, I get it….editors aren’t cheap. Well you can find some cheap ones but again you are just wasting your time. I worked with my editor through phone and email…it was quite convenient and on my terms.

I’m a Soldier in the United States Army so you know I’m not rich. But my writing is important enough to me that I sacrifice other things because I value professional advice. Wait….hold on…….I’ll talk about that next.

All right…I’m gonna let Barbara speak because frankly I am scared that she will yell at me if I don’t.

BARBARA: First, I have to say that I also work a full time day job, plus I raised two kids on my own while working on my masters and writing my first novel, so I get the whole “time is a limited resource” thing. I just don’t agree with it. If something is important enough, you make time. As a writer, I cannot think of a single greater resource than other serious minded writers. There is no greater resource. Period. That’s my position in a nutshell. And, your description of how a critique group works is nothing like what happens, not in my groups anyway.

Depending on how often we get together, here’s how it goes: Prior to our meeting, we exchange chapters. We read each other’s work, make notes, critiques, etc. Then we get together and go page by page through each other’s chapter, explaining what didn’t work, what did, pointing out inconsistencies, characterization/motivation issues, line edits, etc. In other words, if you’re my CP, I’d talk about your work, not mine. Then it would be your turn to talk about my work, not yours. It’s very focused and serious. We get down to business. We rock. Then, I go home with all those marvelous notes and make my novel better than it was without that input. It’s GREAT. The only time we talk about our own work is if we request a brainstorming session when we’re stuck. In which case, we state the problem concisely, and it opens up for discussion after that.

Gah. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate what you described as a critique session either! BORING. Not what happens in the groups I’ve worked with. Ever. Never ever, Kevin. Not once. A writer would be quickly voted off the island in that case.

I work with authors who are committed to their careers and to improving their craft. When one enters into a critiquing agreement, a promise is made. When I am reading your writing, I am giving it my all. I am focusing on your writing 110%, and that includes editing. I do this because I trust my partners to do the same for me. I’ve worked with critique partners since I began writing with the serious intent of getting published, and I wouldn’t be published if I hadn’t opened myself up to that experience. I am eternally grateful to the authors I’ve worked with along the way, and I hope to always have CPs in my life.

My thoughts on unpublished authors hiring editors: There’s an inherent conflict of interest when you pay someone to give you “honest” feedback about your writing. Editors for hire want to please their clients, because it may lead to more money making editing gigs. Just think about it, Kevin. How brutally honest is a paid editor going to be about the marketability of a writer’s book when to do so might mean the job comes to an abrupt, unpaid end? Whereas, critique partners are on the same journey you are. They are learning what works, what doesn’t, developing their own unique voices and helping you to develop yours. It’s a partnership on equal terms. A good critique partner will be brutally honest. (In a respectful way, of course.) They don’t have the client relationship to worry about. They have only your best interests at heart.

Another reason why critique groups are so important: When creative minds get together, good things happen. Say you’re stuck on how to get your plot from point A to point C? Brainstorming with your CPs can open it up for you, give you fresh ideas and help you get unstuck. The brainstorming can be a springboard for so much, including reenergizing your sagging creativity. And yes, sometimes we’ve been known to include wine or beer in our brainstorming sessions.

There’s no bond like the bond you have with a trusted writing partner. You can’t “pay” for something like that. You have to earn it.

I do get that everyone’s path to publication is different. Your way works for you, and my way works for me, but I think you’re really missing out on one of the best things about writing, and that’s the partnerships and the bonds you form with other writers. Once you’re under contract, you’ll have an editor assigned to you. More than one, actually. They’ll do their job, and you’ll do yours, and the next book you might have completely different editors. You don’t choose them; you’re publisher does. Critique partners are writers you choose to work with. You’re all in it together to better yourselves and your craft. It simply cannot be beat. Critique groups decide how often to meet. Some get together once a week, others only once every few months. It’s entirely up to you and your group. It’s an invaluable resource, and a total growth experience.

Back to you, Kevin. I’m certain you’ll have lots to say.

Writers who are reading this debate, we’d love for you to leave comments and weight in. The ball is back in Kevin’s court, and we’ll post the second installment next week.


14 responses »

  1. I’m with Kevin. I would totally join a critique group if wine was involved:) But seriously, I know most of the members of your critique group and know they give amazing critiques, but I couldn’t belong to one myself. There’s definitely the time factor. When awesome critique partners are a quick click away along with amazing editors I can’t justify the time commitment a critique group takes. I also have a problem with too much input a larger group has. Too many good ideas take away from the base of a person’s voice and message and dilute it too much for my taste. And one last thing, thank you Kevin for your service to our country!

    • For the groups I’ve worked with, and there have been as many as six writers, and as few as one, what I’ve found is that if a majority of the group has the same issue with what I’ve written, I gotta take another look. If only one has a problem, it’s a subjective thing. Right now I have only one CP. It works for us. Thanks for commenting.

  2. YES! Another vote for ME!

    Hey Barb……. look……that is me winning!

    Hi Sky. I like your style! Thanks for your insightful advice about wine…I mean critique groups…yes, I admit I am sipping some red right now! I know it is Tuesday…but really……Tuesdays is all right to open a bottle right? Isn’t it……..

    I think what Barb is saying is right about input and listening to other folks……but to a degree. You gotta really trust them. As a new author I ‘m starting to build a list of folks who will beta read for me. But me joining a group of newbie authors and talking about our writings……No way!

    Now if James Rollins lived up the street and wanted to sit and chat writing…..then I would be there will bells on!

    Thanks again Sky 🙂

    • Well, I do think it’s interesting that your mind leaps to “newbie writers like me” when you think in terms of forming a critique group. Why is that? Why wouldn’t you seek out an already established group with mature, published writers? Just saying.
      We’re both winners, Kevin. We’re persistent and relentless in our pursuit.

  3. Guess I see pros and cons to both sides of this coin.

    If your critique group is actually a social club, as Kevin envisions, and your goal is to get published not talk about writing then they are holding you back. If everyone in the group comes out sounding alike – run. (I’ve seen this happen.)

    If on the other hand you have thoughtful input and honest reader reaction there is much to learn. It’s easier to see someone else’s mistake then your own. But once you see their mistake it is easier to translate it over to your own writing. So critiqing for someone else is as helpful as getting feedback on my own work.

    I think paid editors have to be approached with the same buyer beware as anything else. Ability levels vary and they come with own set of writing prefences and prejudges. Even the best editor in the world can’t guarentee a bestseller.

    Barbara M

  4. Thanks for weighing in, Barbara! It’s easy for a critique group to turn into a social club, and writers need to be in the group for the same reason, which is to work on their craft. I like a balance. Let’s work hard, and then let’s go out to dinner when we’re done. I want to work with other writers who are as serious and as driven as I am serious and driven.

  5. Hi Barbara. I really like the thought of learning mistakes from others writing. I think that is a great point. It is a viable option if you have the time to commit to other writers.

    You are so very right about editors and buy beware. I think you really need to do your research before you commit. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

    If an editor is guaranteeing you a best seller…I would turn and run immediately!

  6. I’m all for a critique group before an editor. Maybe if I wrote the ‘perfect’ first draft I would skip the critique group and work strictly with an editor. But, I’m not the a perfect first draft writer. I need and love my critique group. We socialize for about a half hour while eating and then get down to the nitty gritty. Without my critique group, I would not be where I am today. No editor would’ve had the patients to work with me and my writing. With that said, my current release wouldn’t have been as good as it is without the work of my publisher’s editor. Go Critique Groups!

      • Hi Jody. It is wonderful that CG have made such an impact on your writing. It sounds like the other members care about your work. But do they really put as much effort into your work as they would their own?

        Another of my concern lies with a book by committee when you put too many cooks in the kitchen. I don’t want to try and incorporate a bunch of people’s opinions (All who’s opinions are varying in worth) when deciding on revisions for my first draft.

        I just don’t see how critiquing a novel in bits and pieces is productive. Where is the perspective. Or do you really read every piece of work of your group before you start……that would be exhausting!

        Great it works for you though! 🙂

  7. I’ve had critique partners since day one of my serious writing mindset. It started with a large group of total novices but I still learned much. Now I have 3 critique partners that I exchange by email. I owe everything to the writers that have given me feedback. I can’t possibly write without them. And what is really great about critique partners is the variety, the differences in what they see. Everyone, including editors, have what they consider to be the important ‘stuff’ to make a ms better. Getting 3 different slants on my book is a totally, rounded edit. And it’s free – except for my time critiquing their work – which by the way improves my own writing. It comes full circle.

    • Hi Brenda. Great input, thanks. I just wonder if that time spent reading someone else’s MS could be better spent working on your own. I mean, who knows your MS better than you?

      If I were to employ your method it would take me 3x as long to write a novel because I would spend all that time on others work. I think that is great if you do this full time but I don’t. Therefore I can’t commit to someone else to read and critique their work.

      To be honest I don’t want a rounded edit…..I want a laser sharp edit done by an editor who has edited thousands of novels. I want my book edgy, smacking you in the mouth and hitting on all cylinders…… not rounded.

      I guess this is me being stubborn that my way is right but hey……. I am who I am! I’m always right….just ask me!

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