Monday, June 29, 2015

Critique Group Panel Discussion

I sat on a critique group panel a few weeks ago for Pikes Peak Writers. There was a lot of information exchanged, with several different types of critique groups, so I thought I'd pass along a little of the information discussed in case you're thinking of starting one or looking to join one. I couldn't take notes, really, since I was up there and wanted to stay engaged in the conversation, so this is what I remember.

Damon Smithwick, me, Donnell Ann Bell, Chris Mandeville, & Ron Cree

Type of Critique Group

First, we discussed the types of groups we had. They fell into the following categories:

Hybrid (some online via Facebook, some in person)
Online Only
Classic (in person)
Critique Partner instead of a group

For the hybrid group, they post a certain amount in a closed Facebook group, but do not give feedback there. They then print it up, critique it at home, then meet in person to go over their critiques. Note: If you are interested in something like this, be aware that Facebook claims ownership of anything posted (the reason I don't post my photos there if it's something I think I might want to try to sell someday.) If you'd like to know the specifics of this hybrid group, Damon posted about it on his blog. (And he said nice things about me there, so hey, go check that out. ;) )

I was in an online only group, where there was a free forum created specifically for that purpose. We had an area to chat, plus an area to post our pieces for critique. We were expected to critique all work posted once per week by replying under that post with our critique. Another way to do an online one is to simply exchange pieces and critiques via email or another online format. 

The critique partnership is just what it sounds like. Two people exchange work back and forth. This gives them the freedom to set the pace, so if there's a deadline looming they can agree to submit more of their work, and to submit it more often if needed. This is probably the fasted way to work through a novel other than just sending it to beta readers. (For a definition of beta readers vs. critique groups, you can view this post I did previously.)

I saved classic for last, because it was the most common. It can work in several different ways, but the general idea is to exchange your pieces then meet to go over the critique. You can exchange them on paper at the previous meeting, over email at some designated point in advance, and an audience member said they exchange them via Drop Box, where they have a folder for that purpose. 

How do you do the critique?

There are also a couple different ways to do the critiques (and I'm sure more than this, but these were ways discussed). One group reads them aloud, then gets comments from those around them. You have to be able to quickly give feedback with a format like this. The typical format is to send them out in advance, as mentioned above, and to critique them on your own time. Then you can discuss what you wrote down and what your thoughts were after having had time to give it more thought.

What do you critique?

It was addressed what is actually critiqued. By this I mean, do you critique the grammar/spelling/punctuation, plot, character, details, etc. Overall, it sounded like everything is usually covered. Whatever catches your eye. My group will specifically ask if there's something they want you to look at when they send it out. Otherwise, each of us brings our own personality and style to the critique, addressing those things that we tend to look out for. 

Are you all at the same writing level?

In general, the groups were at the same level. One of the panelists said he hand chose his group to have only already published authors in it. My group has a range of experience, from beginner to a member who worked as a journalist before switching to fiction. One panelist said it can be valuable to have someone who is more advanced than you in the group (of course, there is a point at which someone has to be the most qualified.) 

In my experience, someone at a higher level is going to address the specifics, the rules, the technicalities. Whereas someone at a lower level tends to view the story from the point of character and story. Both of these are valuable (and my experience is by no means the be all and end all.) One group will catch the things others will miss.

What do you do if there's a member who isn't participating/following the rules?

This one was split along gender lines, which was interesting. The ladies wanted to try to be polite and/or nice about it and find a discreet way to encourage that member to either step up or step out. The men both said, "Tell them to leave." 

Do you set rules? What are they?

Overall, having rules was thought to be a good idea. For my group, we didn't set them in the beginning which has complicated things at times and led to frustration. Rules to consider would be: a required participation level (how long can you go without submitting/critiquing before being removed), frequency of meetings, how much to submit (words/chapters), how often you'll meet (weekly, monthly), when/how to submit, and anything else you feel should be established in advance.

Where do you meet?

Meeting places vary from homes to libraries to restaurants/coffee shops. If you meet in a restaurant or coffee shop, you have to take into account background noise, interruptions, and if you write something like horror, mystery, erotica, or anything else that might be tricky to discuss in public. Given, sometimes it's a kick to discuss where the body's hidden or how you killed victim in public, but will there be kids there? In that case, not a great idea. Homes seem to allow for better concentration and less interruption.

Do you socialize or just critique?

This varied, as well, but it seemed like most of the panelists did a little socializing at the beginning then jumped into work. One panelist said she was in it to work, not to socialize. My group chats for about half an hour before getting down to business.

How do you form a group? Where do you find other members?

As I said above, one panelist hand picked the members of his critique group from published authors he already knew. My group was made up of friends, and started when two of the ladies discussed the need for a group and put it together from there. In general, they were started with friends with mutual interests.

If you don't have a bunch of writers living around you or in your social circle, try checking out local writer's groups. Look at meetup.com for writer's groups. Attend local writer's conferences and talk to people. Join online groups of writers and see if you can put your own online group together. After you've found likely candidates, you just get together and talk. Put together the group you'd like to have.

How do you choose who to let into the group?

Overall, it was preferred to have a closed group. By closed group, I mean you choose who you let in and keep the number relatively small. Choose people you get along with, whose opinions you will respect, and who won't be too nice or too nasty. You don't want someone who will berate you, but you also don't want someone to just pat you on the back and not say anything helpful. 

I had to submit a writing sample and answer a questionnaire to get into the online critique group I was part of. These were posted on the forum and voted on by the other members. They agreed to let me in. This isn't a bad idea. I'd definitely recommend it if you're putting together a group of people you aren't friends with, so you have a means of screening the group and seeing who is a good fit.

Do you all write in the same genre or does it matter?

For the most part, each group had a variety of genres. However, it was important that you had an interest/general knowledge of the other genres. My group has a horror/fantasy/young adult writer, an urban fantasy/mystery writer, two fantasy writers, a memoir/fantasy writer, and a middle grade fantasy writer. As you can see, there's a variety in some ways, but a lot of fantasy is represented, as well. It's also worth pointing out that, while most people in the group are submitting novels for critique, out of all the panelists and my own group, I'm the only one currently using it for short stories. 

How do you know a critique group isn't right for you/that it's time to leave?

If there is someone in your critique group that makes you feel bad about your writing, that discourages you, leave. If you aren't getting a helpful critique, leave. If all they do is pat you on the back and tell you how great your writing is without contributing any helpful criticism or feedback, leave. 

If it's not working for you in any way and it's not something you feel you can work on changing, leave. Only you can know if your group is helping you or holding you back.

How do I know I'm ready for a critique group?

If you are just starting, it may not be a good time for a critique group. Getting criticism that hurts you and kills your desire to write, or that makes you think you're writing crap and should just give up is not what a critique group is for. You need to not only be at a point in your writing where feedback is going to be valuable, but you need to be confident enough in your writing to wade through the feedback you're going to get. Some things they suggest will be right for you, and some won't. I comb through the feedback and keep those things that make me nod. Chances are, they've said something I was already thinking. If more than one person says the same thing, it probably at least deserves a second look, even if you ultimately decide not to accept that change. But you need to be at a point in your writing that you won't just blindly accept every suggestion of a change you get. You need to know what works for your piece and what doesn't. And you need to have the conviction to ignore feedback that doesn't benefit you.

In closing

I can't remember what else we discussed, but if you have questions feel free to leave them in the comments. I'm sure I forgot to mention a bunch of things that were discussed. The panel was a success, with lots of audience questions and interaction, which was wonderful. We panelists agreed on some things, but not on others, which was perfect and allowed for some discussion. 

Basically, what I'd like to leave you with is that you should look at your personal needs before deciding whether to join a group, and which group to join. What do you want out of it? What are your expectations of the group? Can the people in this group help you? Can you help them? Are you prepared to give critiques, as well as receive them? What is your end goal? What do you feel you bring to the table?

Finally, I figured I'd share my fellow panelists' books.

Damon Smithwick (writing as Damon Alan) - Amazon Author Page

Donnell Ann Bell - Amazon Author Page

Chris Mandeville - Amazon Author Page



Do you have a critique group? How does it work? Online or in person? Did you set rules? What are they? How often do you get together? What has been your worst critique group experience? Do you agree or disagree with anything above? Any questions I didn't address?

May you find your Muse.

10 comments:

  1. My first critique partner and I would meet in person when we first started and then we went to online.
    I currently attend a monthly group sometimes but I don't always make it.

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  2. We are each other's critique group for the most part, and it works out well since we're honest with each other and don't sugarcoat things. We'd love to be more part of a formal critique group with some of our PPW friends if it weren't for that whole distance thing. :)

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  3. Nice picture! I'm not part of a critique group. I think I would be too scared and too nervous to share my work like that and get feedback. I don't really have a critique partner either. I just use beta readers but they do, in a way, critique my work so I can fix things.

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  4. I've always wanted to be involved in something like the Inklings, but I don't think that's in the cards (or pages) for me. I've lost patience with the few groups I have been involved with, mostly, though, because the goals of the other members never lined up with mine. Specifically, every group I've brushed up against has been focusing on memoir writing and, well, it just makes me roll my eyes.

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  5. It sounds like they did well to cover everything important about critique groups. I'm a member of a local writers' group where we host critiques each meeting. 4-6 people will raise their hands via email to read their work, we all get a copy of the pages (up to 5), and we'll critique after the work is read out loud. I find it hard to say anything much when it happens as I like to have time to think, but I always try to find things (grammar/spelling) to mark on the paper. I don't have my work critiqued there because I don't like to read out loud and most people there don't really understand fantasy. For my own work, I have a few critique partners where we exchange work to critique/edit via email.

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  6. That's a good breakdown of all the types of critiques.
    They're right that less experienced tend to see more story and plot. I've always used test readers (non-writers who read my genre) in an early draft to get the story right followed by critique partners who are authors for the later critique.

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  7. Very well organized, I love organization. I used to host a writers group, and should start a new one, the need is there. Above all else is the camaraderie, and the sharing, but definitely the feedback to proceed successfully in the right direction, and why I prefer the classic, but find the online group sometimes more helpful. So many variables, but I think everyone can find the one or two that works for them. Thank you!

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  8. Thanks for sharing this round up. I'm in a couple different groups and everyone does it different. :)

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  9. Great recap, Shannon. I'll admit that I'm the one who doesn't use critique groups for social. I have current critique partners and former critique partners, and I adore them all. We socialize all the time outside of critique. But when I'm critiquing I want that to be my singular focus. Perhaps that's why I'm finding more value in online critiquing. Then my social is wide open. Interesting panel and very knowledgeable speakers on the panel and in the audience as well.

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  10. Hi Shannon,

    A lot to ponder here and completely out of my depth on this. I do not have critique group because there's nothing to discuss about my writing or their writing. I stay a smug amateur who does get the occasional suggestion from Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar!

    I'm outta' here.....

    Gary

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