Thursday, October 23, 2014

Building a Critique Group

Midwest Writer's Workshop 2008
I'll start out by saying, I am not a group-oriented person. I like working alone. I work faster and better without distractions. As a writer, that is a good character trait to have. You have to spend time alone and palely loitering over a pad of paper or keyboard to get the story out. I can disappear into a project for weeks and forget to eat, sleep, and bathe.

That does not mean I don't enjoy other people. I love other people: witty people, clever people, preferably with a wicked sense of humor and an appreciation of the ridiculous. Writers, artists, and other creatives make the best, funniest, and most interesting friends and acquaintances.

You can write alone, but you cannot publish or promote alone. You need people to help you edit, to point out the things you miss, and make certain you are telling the same story on paper that you tell yourself in your head.

My first experience with a group was when in I lived in my home town of Cincinnati. I started attending classes at Women Writing for a Change. "Class" isn't the right term, though tuition was involved. It helped pay for the building, the session leaders, and the outreach programs, and, quite frankly, encouraged people to show up regularly.

WWFaC was an excellent greenhouse for my budding voice to bloom. It forced me into public speaking at read-arounds, a concept that still makes my knees feel like jelly. I even guested on the radio show where no one could view my panic attack. I spent many happy years there. Then we moved.

My transplant to south of Indianapolis was bumpy. Friends, family, and greenhouse were two hours away and I did not immediately find my tribe. In fact, we had to move north of the city to find them two years later. I was introduced to the Indiana Writers Center and met the first of my critique partners.

I then attended the Midwest Writers Workshop where I met more talented writers.

Critique partners have come and gone along the way, each one mega-talented in my humble opinion. I have been inspired by all of them. I could not have published my young-adult series without their sage advice and encouragement.

I am currently part of a critique group called the Ladyscribes, made up of myself (YA Fantasy and nonfiction), Rita Woods (YA Fantasy/Paranormal), Sharon Pielemeier (High Fantasy), Cameron Steiman (Sci-Fi, Steampunk, and Literary), and Cynthia Adams (YA Paranormal). I decided to go indie. Rita is agented. The others are waiting for that golden ticket to the traditional route.

I feel each member has a unique voice, exceptional worthsmithing skills, and an excellent grasp of plot and character.

We try to meet in person at least twice a quarter, sometimes closer to Chicago, sometimes near Indianapolis. Sometimes we meet in the middle for a day. We make it a long weekend when possible: combination writing retreat and critique session.

We each submit 20 pages (double spaced) and prepare a written critique before we meet. We then take turns giving our feedback for each piece. When time isn't limited, we have hilarious, lively debates.

As with any group, there are challenges. We all have lives that keep us busy, illnesses, and family crises.  Some have kids at home, grandchildren to spoil, and full-time jobs.

Here are my tips for creating a successful critique group.

1. The crucial secret to success is to seriously commit and make it a priority. There is no other way. It's too easy to let life intervene.

2. To build a critique group you have to get out and meet other writers. Local is best. Long distance is harder, but well worth it for the right group. Skype is also a possibility. Email and forming an online group on Facebook, Yahoo, etc. can also work.

3. It helps to be at a similar level of skill. We are all advanced craft. It would be hard to work with someone who has never heard the term story structure. It also helps to be in similar genres.

4. Communicate your wants and needs up front in terms of critique. What exactly are you looking for? Do you want advice on how to fix it?

We do it all: line edits, plot arc, character development, word usage, grammar. We each catch different things.

5. You have to have mutual respect. We've become good friends. That helps. Ego and defense shields are left at the door, along with the cell phones. We do our darndest to never hurt each other, but are honest in our feedback. If you start from a place of caring and want each other to succeed, that is half the battle. It also helps to cross-promote one another.

6. Dissension is okay. We don't always agree. If one person says something, we listen. If two people notice it, we pay close attention to the details. If three people notice it, we change it, period.

7. A sense of humor is a must. If you can't laugh at yourself, you probably won't do well in a group. You have to be able to take the critique for what it is: an analysis of a product, not a personal attack. Which leads to ...

8. Bullies, snobs, and narcissists need not apply. There is no room for anyone in a critique group if they aren't there for the right reason: growing your craft and helping each other create the best product you can.

9. If there is a rift or misunderstanding, heal it immediately. Simmering conflict is counterproductive. Personality clashes can ruin a group.

10. Keep it even. Everyone submits. Everyone critiques. If one of us does not have a submission for some reason, we still have to critique everyone else's work and at least present something story related to discuss.

Most of all have fun. If it isn't fun, you won't make it a priority.

Further reading on critique groups:

Finding a Critique Group

How Not to Burn Your Critique Group to the Ground

Beta Readers and Critique Groups

Readers, Writers, and Pressing the Flesh

The Importance of Communities for the Writer




Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.















6 comments :

  1. I've thought about joining a critique group, Diana, but to paraphrase one of my heros, I'd never belong to a group that would have me as a member.

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  2. Oh, dear. You're awfully hard on yourself, Christopher. LOL.

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  3. These 10 points -- 11 if you count the "have fun" one -- are great starters to begin a group and ongoing guides for maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of that group. I especially appreciate 5 and 8. Constructive criticism delivered straightforwardly and with compassion can be worth its weight in gold. Harsh criticism, on the other hand, does nothing but discourage and alienate. And I've learned the hard way that egotists and narcissists are always destructive in any relationship.

    This post is particularly helpful because I would like to start a critique group in the near future. Thank you, Diana. :-)

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  4. I'm a little lost. Do you critique other than the times you meet in person, say online? I think you're lucky to have three other people you can work with so well. I have one critique partner who is a constant. We switch 20-25 pages every two weeks, no fail. I write much harder stories, and she's lighter. She has strengths I don't have, and vice-versa. It works well for us, but we're not always gentle with each other. Not mean, but very honest and we don't pull punches. I'm thrilled with the arrangement, and she is too. We've never critiqued in person as she lives hours away.

    I have another local critique partner who isn't good at a regular schedule, so if anything comes up, we send big batches. We also read the full at the end. She's a far better grammarian than I am. I feel lucky to have two terrific writers to work with.

    Great post, Diana. I hope you keep your ladies for a long time.

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    Replies
    1. We try to meet 8 times in person a year. Depending on our needs and the others time scheduling, we do critique each other's work beyond that setting. I have the most free time and I love critiquing their work, because I love reading it, and I critique anything and everything they need me to. I've even offered to edit, format, and upload their books should they ever decide to go Indie. I believe in them that much.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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