Evolving Critique Groups

Literature Blogs

First, if you are a writer and not in a critique group, quit reading this and go find some writers willing to read your words and you willing to read theirs. When you give a critique, be positive and encouraging. When you receive a critique, don’t get defensive nor wounded; know that these are simply one person’s opinion. (However, if four or five people say the same thing, it may be time to pay attention and re-evaluate your writing or that particular part of your writing.)

I have learned much from fellow writers through the years, and a great majority of that learning has been through critique groups. I’ve been in various face-to-face groups, both the read silently and critique on your own, and the read aloud and bare your chest for the arrows to fly straight for your heart. I still keep contact with my very first on-line group which I had to drop when we switched our internet server, as we all met each Monday night in a chat room. I’ve exchanged partial and full manuscripts with individuals both through the post and through email.

I’ve  been in another on-line group for the past 9 years. When this particular group started — oh, and it was a rocky start, settling down to the six of us, with about 20 others coming and going — we had a weekly schedule of two people submitting each week up to 1,000 words, one on Monday and one on Thursday. The others had to send their critique of Monday’s writing by Wednesday to everyone in the group, and do the same by Sunday for the Thursday submitter. There were weeks we would take off around holidays, and there were also weeks we had for group learning — like a picture book writing workshop and a playing-writing week.

I found it interesting how the individuals critiqued. One was more grammar and spelling conscious. One was terrific at highlighting in yellow all the unnecessary words or sentences. One was good at characterization (emotional motivations) and story arc. Another was good with language flow. Another was quick to find inconsistencies or point out confusing parts which didn’t make sense. One was good at thinking outside the box.  We make a great team. But unless we shake things up now and then, we become stale.

We followed our submitting up to 1,000 words format for years, until we each settled into writing novels. We often found our chapter lengths to be over 1,000 words. We needed bigger chunks. We needed to evolve.

We decided to have only one submission per week, but upped the word count to 5,000 words. This way, we not only were assured to get in a full chapter arc, but could also send 2-3 chapters, depending on length. Of course, there was always the option to skip your week — an option rarely chosen. Or we could sub a synopsis or a magazine article instead. The 5k limit was only for novels. We continued this way without breaks for holidays or on-line workshops for a whole year. However, we decided as a group to take November off to either participate in NaNoWriMo (4 of us did so) or get caught up with other writing or illustrating projects. The first week of December, we shared (without expecting critiques) short bits of our NaNoWriMo stories (most about 500 words). It was good for accountability, and curiosity.

The subbing and critiquing 5k each week was wonderful discipline, but it also made us crave both the writing and the reading all the more. Two or three chapters were not enough. We wanted even larger chunks. Time for our critique group to evolve once more.

2010 is a challenging year for us. From January through June, each of us will have the opportunity to submit a whole novel (any length; and we write middle grade through adult). We will do one novel per month, with the other five critiquers reading the piece during the first two weeks of the month, then sending in a critique. The remainder of the month will be for discussions of the novel as a group, for often one person’s thoughts will lead to another’s person’s suggestions. This will not be a time for line edits, although we’ve agreed if we found some glaring errors, we would be free to point them out. As there are dozens of resources for novel revisions, each author will choose what needs she specifically wants us to look for. It is not to be simply a check list, and we critiquers are not limited to the revision categories.

Last summer one member of our group had her first MG novel published. Last year another member received a 4-book illustrating contract. Last fall, another started negotiations for her adult thriller contract. We each step closer and closer to better writing, and book publication.

What will happen with our critique group in July? No clue. I’m already shaking in my shoes with this huge step we are taking this year as a group. Each of us have published small pieces over the years. Each of us covets those book contracts.

Here’s to a better writing year ahead.

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