On critique groups

When I sold my first short story, I still lived in St. Louis, and I began poking around in various online communities. I soon found myself part of an online service known as GEnie, and soon after that, I ran into a St. Louis writer, Mark Sumner, who mentioned he was part of a critique group. We got to talking; Mark allowed as how they might have room for a new member; I sent Mark a story to see if my work might be decent enough for the group; and not long after, before anyone had a chance to read it, I got to meet Mark and the rest of the group, the Alternate Historians, at St. Louis’ Name That Con.

It’s not often that I meet a group of people and feel comfortable instantly, but I did, and I spent the entire con–my first con–hanging out with this writer’s group, hoping like anything they would actually like my writing. I was thrilled when they read my story soon after and invited me to join.

I spent the next two years learning more about writing than I realized there was to learn. Before joining the Alternate Historians, I’d sort of thought I maybe didn’t need a writer’s group, because I’d sold a story already, after all. That, more than anything, tells me how young I was–not long out of college, as it turns out. I had no idea how much I had to learn. I might have sold my first story without the Alternate Historians, but it would have taken a lot longer to sell the second, and the third, and the ones after that; and none of them would have been nearly as strong.

At the time, the group had seven members: Mark, Deborah Millitello, Laurell Hamilton, Marella Sands, Bob Sheaf, Mary-Dale Amison, and me. Most of the others had been together for some time, having met at a writer’s workshop at an earlier Name That Con. Most of them had already sold several short stories, too, which impressed me as I struggled to make my second sale. One of them, Laurell, had a book due out soon as well; Mark and Marella sold books not too long after, if I remember right.

These folks were my version of an M.F.A. program, of Clarion. I learned an amazing amount, in those two years. We learned from each other, in the way writers do. And I made some good friends along the way. The camraderie was worth as much as the critiquing; and the critiquing was worth an awful lot.

While I adored my writer’s group, though, I wasn’t much in love with St. Louis itself–and I was in love with both Tucson and lnhammer–so eventually I moved away. The group gave me a hard time about that; “didn’t you think we meant it when we made you sign that contract in blood?” they asked. Most of my college friends had already left St. Louis by then; and my sister, who like me went to college there, was almost ready to graduate herself; leaving the Alternate Historians was the only really hard thing about leaving the city. Secretly, I wondered whether I’d be able to write, without my critique group.

Of course I was; and of course I found other critique groups which I treasure every bit as much–one started by lnhammer and already going for more than a year before I moved to Tucson; another started by jennifer_j_s, me, and other locals just a few years ago. Of course I kept writing, and learning how to write. One doesn’t ever stop learning; I understand that now. But I still think often, of my first writer’s group, and how the things I learned there have stayed with me as I’ve continued writing through the years.

Two things have me especially thinking about the Alternate Historians this month, though: The release of Deborah Millitello’s first novel, Thief’s Luck; and the release of Laurell Hamilton’s Strange Candy, a short story collection with several stories in it that I remember workshopping long ago. Both of which went into my shopping cart pretty much as soon as they came out.

Anyway, thanks–Mark, Marella, Debbie, Laurell, Bob–for getting me started on the writing road with a just few fewer bumps than I might have experienced otherwise.

Every writer is different. But my critique groups have made all the difference, for me.

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