Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How to Strengthen a Critique Group

When they are good, they are very good. When they are bad, they are horrible.

I’m talking about critique groups. Having been a member of many groups over the years, here are some things I’ve seen strengthen groups.

Critique groups are cyclical
Sometimes members come to a group not realizing how much work is involved. Life and other commitments happen. People need breaks and they need an opportunity to pull out of the group gracefully. People who want to join the group after it has started do better if they enter at certain point in the cycle. A schedule that frequently works is to meet mid-September to November. Skip December. Meet mid-January to late May or possibly early June. Skip the summer. Bring in new members in either September or January. Allow people who aren’t happy with the group to fade away during the breaks.

Start by having the participants establish guidelines
Write these down and give everyone a copy. Each time the group comes back after a break, do a quick check to see if the group wants to revise the guidelines. This happens frequently as groups mature or as membership changes.
  • Write Murder, Write Now is open to mystery writers who have completed at least 50 pages of a mystery. The group’s goal is to help each other move toward publication.
  • All types of mysteries will be critiqued. If a submission contains excessive gore, graphic violence, torture, or rape, the author is to indicate this on the first page. Members have the option of not critiquing material they find disturbing.
  • Group size is 6, with 2 people being critiqued each week.
  • Participants are expected to submit between 20 and 40 pages (small variations allowed) every three weeks.
  • The group meets on Wednesdays. The two people being critiqued on the upcoming Wednesday submit their material by the previous Sunday afternoon. Earlier submissions are welcome.
  • Submissions are to be sent as an e-mail attachment in Word (.doc) format.
  • Please provide written comments and come prepared to discuss your comments at the meeting. Either provide the author with a hard copy, including your comments, at the meeting, or send them the submission, including comments, as an e-mail attachment.
  • Critiques should focus on plot, character development, point of view, continuity, mystery elements, and the reader’s reaction to the material. Misspellings, punctuation and grammar errors, typographical mistakes, etc. are to be marked in the text, but will not be discussed at the meeting. It is assumed that the writer would clean these things up in her/his final draft.
  • Material submitted for critique is private. Members must not share it with anyone outside of the group or post it anywhere on-line, other than the e-mail exchanges between group members described above.
The Golden Rule applies
Be polite. No personal attacks are allowed, even in fun.
  • Everyone, no matter what their writing level now, has the potential to develop and that no one has a right to do anything to diminish that development or to discourage a person from being a writer.
  • If you can’t say it gently, don’t say it at all. If it’s a difficult call, state it in the form of a question because a question is a lot less confrontational than a negative comment. “How much of your villain’s internal monolog does the reader need?” spares more feelings than “These were the three most boring pages I’ve ever read in my life.”
  • React as a reader. Be sure to include why something worked when you read it as well as why something else didn’t work. Focus on “I” messages that are reactions to what you read, not personal platforms. “I hate books where the victim is a young mother” is a personal platform. “When I read your description of the young mother’s hopes before she was killed, I was too upset to keep reading” tells the writer why she may need to rewrite.
  • Do not reword, unless the other person asks you for this. Words are a writer’s personal stock. We don’t go into a shoe store and pitch the stock into the dumpster because we only like purple shoes. We don’t trash another writer’s stock, either.
  • Learn from the positive, too. Let’s say you read a piece by a person who writes dialog to die for. Or suspense that makes you quiver because you can’t wait to read the entire book. Wonderful! Ask that writer “How do you make your dialogue so realistic?” Or “Why do you shorten your sentences as the action picks up? Or “How did you decide to include only one paragraph of back story?”
Quote for the week:

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
~ Barbara Kingsolver, American novelist, essayist and poet


Sandra Parshall said...

I've found that exchanging critiques by e-mail works very well, because you have everything in writing to mull over at your leisure and you don't get distracted by facial expressions or tone of voice. I couldn't write without my crit partners. I always need feedback and I'm grateful for it.

Unknown said...

Great article. Do you have one on how to find, or start, a critique group?

Anonymous said...

You have given great guidelines and many writers need this! Too often people in the crime field fail to remember their colleagues also have fragile egos - and most of a writing life involves a lot of rejection in areas over which we have no control! I wish you could copy this and send it out to the whole pack of us!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Anonymous said...

Brad, I do have some tips on finding and/or starting a group. Send me e-mail and we can chat.

Thanks, Thelma,
I wish there was a basic training course for new writers that included things like how to behave in a critique group