I have a book due today. TODAY! I thought I was done. I. AM. Not.
Arrrrrg! Okay, deep breath. Another. Slow and deep. You are *nearly* done, Faith. Nearly done. Maybe I should call mama and have her talk softly to me. Reassure me. Heck, maybe I should just ask the woman to come sing lullabies to me. At any rate, the book deadline…TODAY!!!!…is why I am pulling out a seminar I was asked to give years ago at a week long writing con. I was asked to teach people how to form critique groups, how to properly critique other writers’ work. It ended up tongue-in-cheek but it was fun. And the seminar resulted in several long-running groups. Here goes:
The mind learns best by doing, which is why I tell writers that their first book teaches them to write a book. It is a learning experience, like the way a baby learns to walk: seeing, desiring, acting, wrapping his little pooping, spitting, nannering creative mind around this new task. Not that you, as a writer, are a pooping, spitting…mmm…then again, you may be. But back to task. Often that first book – well – sometimes it stinks. Mine did. Not what any of us want to hear, but what many of us need to hear: “Burn the first book to ash!” (my mental voice when I look back at the unpublished thing.)
So where can a despairing writer, one full of stories and the desire to write, go to find the skills that make a book publishable, or to hone skills to create a book a publisher will want? Someplace where he can learn how to walk, er, write, without banging his little head on tables and falling onto his little tusshie? Where? A well balanced critique group can take a writer to the next step or level of writing, teaching writing technique the old fashioned way – by trial and error! A critique can help a writer to see what is *wrong* and what is *right* with a story, and then make changes that work, all without a hearing the words, “Did my sweetums fall and go boom?”
Certain elements are necessary to make a critique group work. Some, like the proper blend of personalities, may be hard to control. But other things, if chosen carefully, can make a group successful. If it is to be an *in person* group, you will need slightly more than a PC and a good cup of Jo. If it is an *in person* group, be sure to wear real clothes and not your PJs. And take care of personal hygiene. At home, before you show up to a meeting. Wipe the dog poo off your feet if you work in a kennel. Sorry – just a personal memory of a writing group that was pretty stinky at the time.
I suggest that you:
First, establish the kind of group – poetry, fiction (novel / SS), etc. – as the primary focus. If someone says “I don’t want to read sex,” and most of you write erotica, you may need to establish ground rules on subject matter and provide a copy to every participant on the first visit. Nothing much worse than seeing a pasty-faced writer running out of a critique group with hands over his ears.
Second, find a place that allows meetings, considering lighting, seating, availability (closing time), and noise factor. Many restaurants and coffee houses will allow groups to meet, but can be noisy. Bars are often willing on week nights, but when copious amounts of alcohol are consumed during the meeting there might be a physical altercation of a sloppy and unbalanced nature. Also, it’s a pain to have to call cabs for the over-drinkers (there always are some) and arrange to pick up cars in the morning. And the wife or hubby might be hard to convince it’s all innocent if you come home smelling of hops or liquor on group night. I also don’t suggest gentlemen’s clubs as a place to meet, for obvious reasons.
Third, establish formats, both for pieces to be critiqued (word count, font size, spacing, stapled, etc.) and for critique methodology. To keep any one writer from hogging time, set a word count maximum. One group I know allows ten pages, double spaced, 12 font, standard margins, and requires copies for each member. Otherwise you may have a guy show up with 10 pages, single spaced, size 7 font, and he will drone on, er, read on for ever. Format how the group will comport itself. For instance, a writer may read aloud, then the group take turns with short, spoken, macro critiques, putting micro critiques (spelling and smaller suggestions) on the hardcopy. Other groups may require hardcopies be critiqued before the meeting, then use group time to discuss them. Some critique groups may go around a circle with each critiquer speaking only one time, not allowed to add on later. The author of the work being considered may not be allowed to speak or defend his work except when asked a specific question for clarification purposes. I’ve found this cuts down greatly on the length of critiques and the defensive, haranguing monologues some writers will give if allowed. (See number 4 below.) Some groups allow a free-for-all, with critiquers responding to each other, approving or disagreeing with comments. While this critique method will be more in-depth, it can slow things down and is better with small groups, and not in a library as it can be distracting to the patrons. I recommend establishing ground rules but remain flexible. When something doesn’t work suggest changes. Or if one writer is the cause of all the problems, and is resistant to following group rules, ask him to not return. If does anyway, I suggest changing the meeting place and don’t tell the offending writer… Of course if you show up one night and you are the only one there, that may tell you something about yourself that you would rather not know.
Fourth, start with a strong emphasis on LISTENING. Remember to praise first, then bleed all over the manuscript. If you have a member who argues with your critique, you may suggest he be bound and gagged, but when the police come to arrest you, this can interfere with the meeting.
Fifth, work to keep it non-cliquish. Groups that become cliquish lose an edge and may die off. If you see cliques developing, threaten to tar and feather the offenders. And if you see a romantic entanglement developing between two (or more) of your members and they get PDA-icky, ask them to get a room. A different room.
Sixth, learn your members’ strengths. One member may be really logical, finding holes in plot, one may do great description. Compliment critiquers on their suggestions. Compliment writers on changes and improvements, but resist the pompoms and cheers especially if you are in a library as this may get you thrown out.
Lastly, work to find a published writer in the area and ask him/her to attend one meeting. Then, if he seems simpatico, woo him to join the group or to attend as many meetings as possible. If you find one, resist the temptation to kidnap him and force him to attend. This too will result in police interference, though time in jail may well improve your work if you are writing a thriller or police procedural. If you can’t find a published writer willing to donate time, the group can still work.
MACRO ELEMENTS TO CRITIQUE, in no particular order:
1. Genre and commercial points. (Silly Example: cursing in young adult or children’s books is a no-no!)
2. Dialogue and dialect (Dat dere woman be mine. Gitchur hans offa her.)
3. Point of View (She thought what? Why? Aren’t we in Tom’s head?)
4. A strong beginning (Body on the first page or the third?)
5. Character strengths and weaknesses (Unless you are writing superman, he needs some flaws to add spice)
6. Transitions (How did she get there?)
7. Five senses (He’s in a barn and you smell no cow pies?)
8. Voices (character’s mental voice and narrator’s voice are different)
9. Tone (see previous blog on tone)
10. Setting and Grounding (keeping reader in place and aware of time passage)
11. Factual details (Nope, you can’t die of bleeding through your kidneys from drinking ground glass in a milkshake. I don’t care what your mama told you. You have to add poison to get that reaction.)
12. Stage direction (Physical movements of characters)