Monday, August 8, 2011

All For One, And One For All: The Beauty of the Critique Group

I have been blessed with marvelous critique groups. I've had two, one in Texas, and now a new group in my new home in Montana, and both have brought depth to my craft.

Before I introduce you to my partners, I have gathered 10 thoughts about critiquing in general, and should you be thinking about joining or starting a critique group, I hope these comments help.

Me at our recent critique retreat...more about that below.
1. How do you find a critique group? Start with your local SCBWI or other local writer's organization. Go to meetings and conferences. Chat with people. When you find a like-minded person or two, ask if they'd like to partner. (That's how I've found my first group - I met the members at an SCBWI conference and admired their writing.)

2. Don't be afraid to try out the group and decide it's not meshing and won't work. You are all making a great commitment of time and energy, and everyone should be invested equally or it won't fly.

3. Create a regular meeting time/place. Wherever best suits the entire group works. I like to meet at least twice a month for a couple of hours. Less than that and it's hard to make progress with everyone's work.

4. A critique group is an intimate circle, and the relationship is like a marriage. You must be willing to commit your time and energy for the benefit of the group and not just for yourself. Sometimes (as you do with your spouse) you just have to bite your tongue; but most of the time you should be honest, open, and sincere.

5. The best critique groups function symbiotically. No one dominates; no one is allowed to hide. Comments are given free reign to build; often this free-flow conversation generates new ideas and insights for the writer - and the critiquers.

6. Being honest (see #1) does not give you permission to diss another's writing. Ever. If you truly don't like something a partner has written, find a reason for your negative reaction in the context of why it doesn't work - is it the voice, the character, the plot? Or do you just not like the genre (in which case try to divorce yourself from that response and analyze the writing alone.)

7. If you are receiving the critique, other than asking questions, it's best to remain silent. Don't try to defend your work. Trust me, your work is never that perfect.

8. The more you can assess your partners' work in the context of craft, the more you will learn. See the critique you provide as a part of your learning curve. Searching for craft issues or strengths is the best way to see whether you are applying them correctly in your own work.

9. Spend a little time becoming friends. It's okay to stray into conversation about family, life, etc. Just don't let it eat too much into your precious critique time.

Kathy, me, and Shirley
10. Never feel jealous of another's success - there is always more bookshelf space, and your book may be next up. Take pride in the fact that you've helped your partner accomplish her goal.

My two groups? In Texas I was lucky enough to have a group that lasted, if I'm doing the math right, over 8 years. I met Shirley Hoskins and Kathy Whitehead at an SCBWI workshop, and when we shared our work, I was awed by their talent. I sucked in my breath and asked each of them in turn - and they said yes. We met weekly for most of those 8 years, and I'm proud to say that all three of us began as unpublished writers, and now we are all published. I feel that the combination of their wise insights and those weekly deadlines (ten pages each week!) grew me as a writer.

Bailey Jorgensen, Sandra Brug, me, Kiri Jorgensen, Maurene Hinds (Elaine Alphin behind the camera) on our way to our retreat.
When we moved last summer I was at a loss. I almost couldn't function as a writer without my partners. I floundered until last spring, when I was invited to join a group here in Montana. And I couldn't be more thrilled. They are insightful, talented, and motivated. We just came back from a four-day writing retreat (picture: remote mountain cabin with all the amenities; six women spread out in the open spaces; the clicking of keys; coffee brewing; relaxed and delicious meal sharing; laughter; walks; more writing; a couple of hilarious movies. Heaven. Highly recommend.)

Now here's the best part about a critique group that works. When I talked with my editor today about my WIP, my critique partners had already nailed the big issues. I had a handle on what I needed to do to improve my novel, and I had it from their comments.

So, yes, a great critique group is a beautiful thing.

1 comment:

Maurene J. Hinds said...

Wonderful insights and tips. Much needed right now.