I know I've talked about critique groups before, but there's something so fraught in joining them and in staying in them that the topic keeps coming up in the blogs that I read. For example, here is a great entry from Becky Levine about what makes a group the right group for you.
Right now, I have the good fortune to be in a group that is working well for me (and, I hope, for the others involved). Here are the things that work for me:
1. a set schedule. We meet once a month, on the same day every month. We only vary that rarely, when the date conflicts with a major holiday. If people can't be there because they're on vacation, or traveling, or sick, or what have you, that doesn't matter. The group goes on. With or without me or whoever else is missing.
2. a process. We send in our manuscripts by email, which means that we aren't constrained to what we have time to read in the meeting. Most of the people in the group are working on projects for middle grade or older, so that means that our chapters are going to be more than five pages, usually. Sending them in via email means that people have time to read and digest before the group meets.
3. a focus on writing. Your mileage may vary on this one, but I didn't join a writing group so I could do book drives, or listen to guest speakers, or organize a conference. I joined a critique group so that I could have my work critiqued and critique others. That's what my group does. Of course, many of us are members of other organizations (like SCBWI) that do these other things, but the critique group is primarily about critique.
4. a mix of people. In my group, there are writers who write historical fiction, high fantasy, realism, essay, middle grade, older YA, picture books, etc. There are also people who have been on the NY Times Bestseller list, people who have not yet acquired an agent, people who have been published, people who have not. All of these people (some of them overlap, by the way, there aren't 50 people in this group) bring something different to the work they write, and the work they look at. Seeing their stuff, and seeing what they have to say about mine, has elevated my game considerably.
5. a willingness to speak the truth. True story: this last time we met, my group said to me "Jay, this is fine, but it's not your best." Did I want to hear that? No. What writer does? But that's something that every writer needs to hear when the person reading thinks it. I've talked before about this, and I think it's one of the things that a writing group can be great for over the long term. When they've seen your work at its best, they can point out when it's...less than that. They can prevent you from pulling the wool over your own eyes and pretending everything in a chapter is "fine."