We are often asked how we cultivated and maintain such a “large” critique group. When we started out, most of us didn’t have agents or book deals. As the years have gone on, many of us have moved on to different stages in our publishing careers. But given that we all have very different experiences and timelines, we thought we’d sit down and actively think through our process for becoming a group that provides consistent and stable support to each other no matter what stage of life or writing each person is at.
This part 2 of a 2-part series about cultivating a critique group and writer community! Part 1 discusses how to build your community!
(Note: when talking about building community, we can only speak to the specific communities we have successfully built. So please take our journey and advice with a grain of salt. What worked for us might not necessarily work for you and your community)
Establishing and Growing our Community
“Rules” of sensitive discussions
It might sound strict to establish rules in a friend group but because we all came together for our writing, which is a professional endeavor, we understood that there were more layers if we wanted to maintain smooth communication. Because our community includes voices from a lot of different perspectives, and because we wanted to allow sensitive topics of complicated social/political nature to take place, we created some guidelines to make sure that everyone felt heard and protected. This is because writing can often become political as our diverse identities are more deeply interwoven into our work. And to ignore that fact would be a disservice both to our work and our friendships.
“Rules” of critique
In the beginning, we were all very enthusiastic about reading everything from everyone. This is partly because when we all first met most of us weren’t agented or under contract for their books and so we had more time to pour over each other’s manuscripts. However, as people became agented or sold books, we all had stricter schedules for our writing. And with these tighter deadlines, not everyone had time to read each other’s work.
This was a slow progression, so it was easy for us to adjust to, but we did eventually have some conversations where we acknowledged this change. We don’t expect that every other person in our group is going to read every single other book. Depending on deadlines, who has time, who might know a project better, or even who is good at a particular craft thing dictates who is critiquing at any given time.
This doesn’t mean we’re any less enthusiastic about each other’s books or writing, it just means that we’re all busy (which is kind of great because it means we’re all moving forward with our writing careers!) However, it can seem like people are less enthusiastic, so it’s important for us to have check ins to make sure we’re all on the same page. And, in response to people having less time to read a lot of each other’s work for meaningful critique we created a channel where we can share small snippets and blurbs and gush about each other’s writing! (Note: see our discussion about “anti-salt.”)
Limiting number of people to create manageable safe spaces
As you probably know by now, there are a lot of people in our critique group. In addition to the WBP contributors we have about six other people in our critique group. That’s a lot of people to be sharing your work and publishing experience with!
But we make it work–not because we’re all just magically amazingly perfect all the time but because we knew that we needed boundaries. Setting boundaries isn’t a matter of trust but a matter of self-care and knowing our personal limitations.
When it came to the space we created for WBP (+friends) we wanted to make sure it didn’t get so big that it was unruly. We wanted it to be a space where every person could genuinely say they personally knew and enjoyed/respected each person in the slack. We didn’t originally intend for our critique group to get as large as it did (or rather we didn’t actively think about it) because the growth happened over a period of several years. We didn’t just grow it for numbers sake. We had to balance the desire to provide a space that we could invite other writers into and have a space that felt completely safe for everyone included.
Allowing the creation and cultivation of smaller (one-on-one) relationships
Sometimes the failing of a big group is the idea that when you do something you have to invite everyone. However, this is not only not feasible, it’s unhealthy. We are each individuals which means the way we interact with each person in the group will vary based on who we are and what shared interests we have. And the group as a whole recognizes, supports, and even encourages this.
For example, we understand that some people in the group tend more toward a love of true crime. So the fact that Kat and Ashley talk about murder a lot is a given and it’s not required that anyone else share that love (though some others do). Alternatively, Kat doesn’t love tacos, and it’s literally the source of fights (don’t worry, those have been resolved!), but if there’s ever taco talk then Kat just isn’t involved and that’s fine. (Note from Kat: I need to be clear that I don’t actively dislike tacos. I just grew up around a lot of badly made tacos.)
In thinking about how this dynamic evolved, it’s potentially because there are natural geographic groupings of people that just makes it easier for smaller sub-groups to have more one-on-one time. If everyone in New York happens to have more regular get togethers, it’s normal and doesn’t disrupt any greater group dynamics.
Also, we all do a lot of different things within the industry, so we have friendships outside of our “core” slack group as well. This is to be expected and is a healthy way to ensure that we’re not solely reliant on one person and/or group for all of our emotional and professional needs (which tend to be a lot when it comes to publishing–because let’s be honest writers are very emotional).
Know your own boundaries: Stepping back as needed
Just because we have this space for everyone, it doesn’t always mean that everyone is actively participating all the time. Slack breaks are actually quite common in our group. Sometimes it’s just life stuff–a busy day job season, travel, deadlines, health etc. There are natural rhythms of activity, too. For example, it’s always quieter around the holidays when most people are with families or friends.
Other times, the space can be overwhelming just by nature of what it is. Constant publishing talk can be stressful. The personal needs of each individual changes as the seasons change. And our own individual reactions to our journeys are varying as well. For example, as one gets closer to their pub date, some of us are constantly in the Slack to talk about things happening or share news. And others tend to hermit because that’s what works best for them!
If one person is on submission while someone else is announcing their next big book deal, that could create a complicated mix of emotions. So, some of us just tend to take a break from the chat when we need to knowing that it will always be there and welcoming when we return. Or if someone is in a bad headspace and everyone else is discussing the latest “Twitter drama” then it’s understandable that this person needs to take a few days off the Slack until things quiet down. It’s all based on personal needs and preference (but, we also know that they are free to just Gchat or text other individuals even if they’re not on the Slack. See above for “cultivate one-on-on relationships.”)
The point is, we leave communication open and understand that everyone has different personal limits. Not everyone might want to engage with a particular topic at a given time–or at all.
When you’re building a community, the needs shift and change based on what the goal of the group is! For WBP, our goal was equal parts writing support and friendship, so we made a point of cultivating both equally. For some, just having a critique group is the most important, for some, emotional support for the journey to publication is the most important. So, please take all of our advice with a grain of salt. And we hope that you’re able to grow and cultivate your own communities!