We had our critique meeting last Friday and it was bitter sweet. The sweet was reviewing Lisa’s manuscript which was such a fun read. “Slacker Nanny Falls in Love” is sure to find a home. The voice is pitch perfect. Of course we had a few suggestions—nothing is ever perfect. But I hope my next manuscript gets a similar reaction. I won’t have much rewriting to do if it does.
The bitter part of the meeting was saying good-bye to Sean McCollum. The rat is moving to the Virgin Islands. Really, Sean? You have to move to paradise and abandon us right before winter? And while we are happy that he has this opportunity, we’re going to miss him so much.
Getting the right mix of people in a critique group is so important. Having a bad member can really upset the balance. My group once seriously discussed disbanding and reforming so that we didn’t have to tell a member that she was toxic and we wanted her to leave. To avoid that that kind of situation, here are some things to consider if you are starting or looking for new members for a critique group:
- Are you working at your craft? If so, how much have you written? (You need to determine where this person, or the group, are on their writing journey. Are they beginners? Intermediate? Are some published? Is it a mix?) Ideally, you want a mix. If you are a beginning writer and the group is full of published writers it may not be the right one for you. They may demand more of you than you can handle. It takes some time to learn how to tell a compelling story. You would be better off with a group that has beginning and intermediate writers. In my group, which is close to our 30 yr anniversary, we all started as beginners. I think one member had had some articles published. We learned and grew together.
- When do you meet? Once a month? Once a week? At night? During the day? Some groups meet weekly. I know I couldn’t handle that. Too much pressure. Once a month works perfectly for me. I can schedule around it. Night, also, isn’t a good time for me. I know I do better if I can meet during the day. What works best for you? Don’t commit to a group that would be difficult for you to make the meetings. It’ll be too easy to find excuses to miss it.
- How many members does it have? From the picture of my group you can see we have a lot of members. This makes it a little easier when someone drops out. (Although we’re not letting Sean off that easy. We’re going to Skype with him during our future meetings and still exchange manuscripts. Just because he’s lazing on the beach doesn’t mean he can get out of work.) If there are only four members and one leaves, it can be catastrophic for the remaining members. Most groups that have only 3 or 4 members have a hard time surviving. I think a minimum of 7 is necessary to keep a group together. That way if someone drops out or is sick, you’ll still have around 5 people meeting. Never let your group get below 5 members. Look for new members if it becomes a problem. Here’s a link for the local SCBWI members who are looking for a group: http://www.rmcscbwi.org/html/need_a_group.html.
- What are the rules for submitting material for critiquing? If it’s a novel, do members read the novel in its entirety or only a chapter at a time? Picture books can easily be read and discussed at a meeting, but novels have to be approached in a different manner. If you only read one chapter at each meeting then members are forced to only line edit. They can’t see the arcs of the story and the characters if it’s going to take ten months to read the novel. I highly recommend passing out the entire manuscript to members, either through email or at the meeting, and then give members a month to read it. That way they can see the entire story and you will get a structure critique rather than a line edit. In my group, members will write up a critique of the manuscript, 1+ pages. We also mark up the manuscript with noticed typos or where we have questions or if there is something we really like. I love it when I get a manuscript back that has lots of stars and smiley faces for a scene that I was hoping would get that reaction.
- How do you critique other people’s work? It’s important to start a critique with the positive. Say what you loved and what really worked for you before you get into what didn’t work for you. Be kind but honest in your critiques. Sometimes it comes down to how you word things. Try not to use phrases like “you have to” or “need to” or “must.” I confess that I sometimes fall into that trap. I’m always sure I know exactly what has to be done, but it’s still just an opinion. It’s your story and that’s where a critique group can help. If lots of members have the same reaction, then it’s probably something you should look at and address.
- How do you handle critiques? Are you willing to hear that your baby is kind of homely? Or are you going to defend everything—give reasons why it has to be the way you wrote it? If you aren’t willing to listen to how other people responded to your story then you probably aren’t ready for a critique group. If you are willing to hear about it’s flaws then you need to learn to not take critiques as a personal attack. The members are trying to help you. But I’ll admit, it can be a bit like digging at a sore spot. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and take it. This is why it’s important to have a large group. If a lot of members are telling you the same thing, then you should seriously consider their suggestions. If it’s only one person and the other members don’t have a problem with it, feel free to ignore it. Another advantage is brainstorming. When something isn’t working in your book, like the climax, you can brainstorm solutions. With a lot of minds working on a problem you will probably find a solution.
- You are responsible for the people you bring into the critique group. Don’t issue casual invitations to someone you don’t really know. Have the person come to a few meetings and both the person and the group can try each other out. And if it doesn’t work out, then be ready to tell the person so. It will make you think twice about who you are inviting. It only takes one person to wreck a meeting.
- What do you do if you don’t have a story to critique? This is another reason for trying to have a larger group. It’s easier for there to be enough material for the meetings. But even our group will have a dry spell and then we’ll discuss writing craft, the industry, agents, contracts, etc. Anything to do with writing and publishing.
- Cementing the relationships. It’s important that a group isn’t all work. You need to be friends with one another. If you’re not, then it’s difficult to trust what they are telling you. We take time in every meeting to share what has happened with us since the last meeting. It’s usually writing related news, although sometimes the personal does come out because of a major life event. We also celebrate the good news and commiserate with the bad. Celebrating members will bring sparkling fruit juice or champagne and we’ll toast the happy news.
- Set the date for the next meeting before you end the current meeting. That way everyone can check their calendars and agree on a date. Caution—if you miss a meeting you may be out of the loop for picking the next date. If you have to miss, then send the dates you can meet next time to another member so it can be taken it into consideration when choosing.
These are just a few of the things I’ve figured out over the years of being in a couple of critique groups. When you get it right, then a critique group will do more for your writing than you can ever do on your own. You come to value and trust the members and rely on their support when times are tough. And they are great to party with when everything is coming up roses. The Wild Writers are my family and that’s why it’s hard to say good-bye to Sean. You better keep in touch or we may have to schedule a meeting on your island.