I've been thinking about critique groups recently. I know that while Stephen King doesn't think they are necessary, not everyone is a Stephen King. I'm at a point in my manuscript where I could really use some advice, especially from people who are familiar with middle grade, young adult and the differences therein. I think the challenge is to find someone or a group who is a safe group, but also a helpful group. By safe, I mean these people know how to give constructive criticism without any mean spirit, no sense of "I'm going to tear this person down just for the hell of it." Many people like to offer off-handed remarks about what they think should be changed in a story...I think suggestions of that kind need to be very thoughtfully considered before casually tossed out there. "I think you need to kill of that character," for example or "I think the whole setting is just wrong." These do not help when not offered with thoughtful reasons. I think there needs to be trust built up, that this person really is rooting for you and your book. There is also the very important quality of being able to help...there are many people who enjoy good books but don't necessarily know how to help you pinpoint what isn't working with yours.
I've never joined a writer's group before, but I applied to an on-line critique group through SCBWI and I got the email today saying I was accepted! You had to submit the first three pages of your manuscript to be accepted--invitation only, because they wanted intermediate writers-- and I keep feeling like surely there must be some mistake that I made it! I went and read the introductions of the others and they all seem far more impressive than me. However...a book I'm reading right now by Martha Beck keeps talking about the importance of relevent risk in any life endeavor. If I want to improve as a writer-- and I do-- then the best way to that path right now, I think, is to open my work to the opinions of other writers who write for the same audience I do. This is a huge step for me, but it is exciting! It could turn out to be hurtful or scary or who knows what...but it's a risk I'm going to take!