10 Tips for a Successful Critique Group

New writers are always seeking feedback for their novels. Who can they get to read their book and give an honest criticism? They could hire a freelance editor who works with authors or enter a contest that offers judges’ comments. Or they can join a critique circle. It takes hard work and dedication to have a successful critique group for writers.

Critique Groups for Writers

I met my critique partners through Florida Romance Writers. We’ve been meeting for years. We are friends as well as critique partners, and often we’ll celebrate life’s milestone events together.

The six of us meet every other week and rotate houses. While eating a sumptuous brunch, we discuss publishing news, share personal issues, and encourage each other to keep pushing forward. I could not have achieved my current status without my writing friends. In addition, I have to thank them for being taste testers for many of the recipes in A Bad Hair Day Cookbook due out in November.

After exchanging news, we get down to work. We read each other’s manuscripts silently for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, passing the pages around the table, until we’ve read everybody. Then we share our comments aloud, focusing on one person at a time. We discuss character development, emotional reactions, dialogue, plotting problems, consistency, and pacing. We may catch typos, point out clichés, and suggest ways to restructure for more impact.

How can you get started with a critique group? Here are ten tips on what to do:

1. Join a professional writers group and put a notice in their newsletter that you’re looking for critique partners in your geographical area.
2. Limit your group to six members or less.
3. Seek people with compatible personalities and similar, or more advanced, writing levels.
4. Determine what you will be looking for in your critiques. You’ll be examining content, not line editing. Consider holding a separate meeting on occasion for brainstorming plot ideas.
5. Decide on a procedure for your group that is agreeable to everyone. Some groups read aloud. Others, like mine, pass pages around the table and read silently. Still others may email chapters ahead of time. It’s up to you how you want to run your show.
6. Offer constructive criticism. If you see the need for change, make suggestions for improvements in a positive manner. Give praise where it’s due. We all like to hear what works as well as what doesn’t work in our stories.
7. Be sociable. Relax, chat about the industry, and enjoy refreshments. This personal time will draw you closer together and enable you to accept advice more readily.
8. Support each other on social media by retweeting and posting whenever a member has an announcement about their success. Learn from each other’s experiences. Recommend your published critique partners whenever a publicity opportunity arises.
9. Be committed. Try to schedule doctor appointments and other engagements on days other than critique group. Arrive on time and take your turn at hosting on a regular rotation basis. Critique will soon become the highlight of your week.
10. Even if you haven’t written anything new, show up at the meeting. Your other partners need your feedback on their work. Making critique a priority means you are serious about being a professional writer.

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If you’re lucky enough to join a great critique group, it’s like discovering gold. Treasure your partnerships and make a commitment to attend each meeting. You’ll find the incentive to produce increases as your biweekly meeting approaches. Many thanks to my partners in writing—Alyssa Maxwell, Zelda Benjamin, Karen Kendall, Ellen Marsden, and Tara L. Ames. And to our former members who’ve moved away, Cynthia Thomason and Sharon Hartley.

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Keeping A Series Fresh

Once you’ve written several books in your mystery series, it gets harder to come up with new and interesting material. The story has to engage your senses as a writer if you want to entice readers. You’ll want to avoid repetition such as means of murder and motives. And you need to vary the locales without going too far afield. Probably the most important element is to grow your characters. Let’s look at what you can do to bring excitement to each story in a long-term series.
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1. Vary the setting within the setting. My Bad Hair Day cozy mystery series is set in fictional Palm Haven, Florida. But each story has its own milieu. Permed to Death, book number one, introduces hairstylist and amateur sleuth Marla Shore in her hair salon when a grumpy client dies in the shampoo chair. Subsequent stories involve a haunted hotel, a sports club, a wealthy family’s estate, a beauty trade show, a wedding and a day spa. Readers come to love the recurrent characters and expect to see them again, so you can’t deviate from the home town too often. I’ve taken Marla and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, on a Caribbean cruise and later on a dude ranch honeymoon in Arizona. For me, those stories are particular fun, but I can’t do them on a regular basis. Readers like to return to the same environment which becomes a character in itself. To avoid boredom, you have to take the same background and change it up enough to keep it interesting for you and your readers.
2. Avoid using the same murder method twice. Have you poisoned a victim already with a plant potion? Use snake venom next time. Or try shooting, hanging, stabbing, bashing on the head, pushing down the stairs, etc. Avoid repetition and be creative. Also vary the villain’s motives. You don’t want two stories in a row where a jealous lover did the deed. Think of your negative motivators—greed, envy, protection of a loved one, guarding one’s reputation, revenge, righting a perceived wrong—to provide variety.
3. Character growth is critically important. Your protagonists should evolve like people do in real life. Who surrounds them in terms of family, friends, and colleagues? How do their relationships change in each story? What’s the overall emotional journey for your main character? What new person can you add to spice things up? It could be a new friend, an old flame, a secret baby, a new boss, or a romantic interest. Keeping your main character static won’t work. The protagonist must continually adapt and develop expanding goals while letting insights guide her along the way.
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4. Include a research or historical angle that excites you in a story. In Facials Can Be Fatal, I used excerpts from my father’s true life 1935 travel journal, which detailed his trip to Florida in simpler times. History plays a part in this story that includes tales of shipwrecks and pirates off the Florida coast. For Trimmed to Death, I’m researching olive oil scams. I am an olive fan so learning about this product interests me. Other topics I’ve explored have included the pet fur trade, biohazardous waste disposal, tilapia breeding, the prepper movement, and more. These tidbits of information snag my interest and provide something fresh for readers, too. Avoid info dumps, however, where you have long expository paragraphs with too much detail. Your research shouldn’t show. It should enhance your story.
5. Sprinkle in local issues or social problems that concern you. In Hair Brained, one character tells Marla about the risks to children left in hot cars. This is a big issue in Florida where child deaths from this cause are notable. It’s a preventable tragedy and I include tips for prevention in my story. My books also touch upon child-drowning prevention, another issue in a locale with so many backyard pools. These types of issues provide added depth to your story, but do it in a way that matches your chosen genre. If you’re writing humorous cozies, for example, things can’t get too serious. There are “edgier” cozies, but is this what you’re known for? You want to meet reader expectations. It’s okay to change things up once in a while but keep your author brand in mind and don’t stray too far.
6. Introduce enough of past events and relationships to clue in new readers when they pop into your series later down the road, but not too much that you give away previous plots. You also don’t want to bore your long-term readers, so keep this backstory to a minimum. It’s a delicate line to tread. Each story should feel like a standalone to newcomers but make fans happy to see what’s evolved personally for your characters in this latest book.
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It gets harder to find a fresh angle as you get further along in your series. While avoiding repetition, you have to maintain the setting and characters that readers have come to love. What tips do you have to offer? As readers, how do feel about this topic?
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When hairstylist Marla Vail’s best friend is hurt in a suspicious car accident, Marla assumes guardianship of her infant son. No sooner does Marla say, “Baby want a bottle?” than she’s embroiled in another murder investigation. Her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, determines the crash may not have been an accident after all. Can she find the culprit before someone else ends up as roadkill?
“This is Nancy J. Cohen’s 14th Bad Hair Day mystery, and given its vigor, humor and inventiveness, the series has a lot of life left in it.” Florida Weekly
“It is wonderful to watch Marla’s emotional journey from suburban housewife to investigator and, dare I say, Mama Bear.” Back Porchervations
“This is the 14th book in this series. It is the absolute best one so far, and they are all pretty darn good. It is fresh, believable and timely.” Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book
“WOW- a complicated and intense mystery with strong emotional elements that may make you look closer at your own friendships and personal values.” Laura’s Interests 
“You are always thinking and on your toes while reading this book.  And when you get to the end and everything is revealed….it will blow your mind!” Cozy Mystery Book Reviews
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In case you missed my earlier guest posts, check out these topics:
“What’s in a Name?”
“Chocolate – Healthy or Harmful?”
“Killing Off a Character in Your Book
“Character Guest Post by Marla Vail”
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