I couldn’t do without my crit groups. I’m currently a member of three crit groups (remember I said that I was a compulsive group joiner?). Four, if you count Critters, but more on that later.
My first experience with writers’ critiquing groups came when I was studying online for my Diploma of Creative Writing through Whitireia Polytechnic in New Zealand. Each week, the students were required to produce short pieces and to critique each others’ work. It wasn’t what I had expected. I was stuck on the traditional ideal of the classroom, with an omniscient teacher at the front imparting his or her wisdom to the students, and I craved more input from my tutor. The peer critiquing model felt like the blind leading the blind at first. But that’s the thing about learning to write – by applying a critical eye to other people’s work, you learn to be more objective about your own.
It was a gentle introduction to crit groups. The physical distance afforded by the Internet made it easier for our group of newbies to give and receive criticism, and my fellow students were unfailingly polite throughout the course. It was such a positive experience that, nearing the end of my course, I went in search of a face-to-face crit group.
That group was the Wellington-based Phoenix Writers’ Special Interest Group, a subgroup of the Phoenix Science Fiction Society. The Phoenix WSIG does things a little differently to most other crit groups; instead of distributing copies of one’s story before the meeting, members rock on up to the monthly meeting with their work in hand and read their pieces out loud. There are pros and cons to this method. For example, if you are prone to the odd making the odd typo, spelling mistake or grammatical error, it’s less likely to be detected. And it does dictate a lower limit on the word count of your piece. But novice writers are constantly advised to read their work out loud, and you’re far more likely to do so if you have an attentive and experienced audience.
I still remember the first time I read to the Phoenixers. They were an infinitely tougher crowd than the Whitireia lot. I was nervous and dry-mouthed, my story was too long and appallingly crafted, and although they were tactful in response, the awkward silence and pained looks at the end of the reading told me all I needed to know. I went home and beat my head on my desk for the next week, and wondered why on earth I had ever thought I could be a writer.
And then I went back the following month. And the next. And the next. Some months I even got some praise. It took me the better part of a year working with them, but thanks to their patience and my persistence, I finally got my first paid credit.
The Phoenixers were instrumental in many other milestones in my writerly life. They took me to my first science fiction convention. They cast me in their crazy amateur films. They gave me the impetus to produce something new every month, and they supported me in three years of hard writing slog, which culminated in my receiving a Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent for 2007. And I would still be an active and enthusiastic member, were it not for my family moving to Melbourne.
Cheers, Phoenix WSIG.