1. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Any Advice for New Real Life Critique Group?

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by Catrin Lewis, Jan 9, 2017.

    I've been looking for a real (physical) life critique group for over a year and a half, and it looks like it's finally coming together. I and two other writers, all members of a larger writers' association, will have our first meeting on Saturday the 28th, at the local library. :superyesh:

    It's three of us so far. The other two write contemporary YA. I write contemporary and historical whatever-strikes-my-fancy, so I hope it'll be a good fit and I won't feel ganged up on.

    We still have to organize this thing. Who here has been in a face-to-face critique group? Any advice? What rules have worked out for you and which have just gotten in the way? Links appreciated!

    (The ironic thing is that when I called the library today to book the room, the librarian said oh, there's another writers' group meeting there on the alternate Saturdays. That must have started after I first inquired about meeting space in October or so, because then the room was available every week. So now I'm wondering what they're all about.)
     
  2. KhalieLa

    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    I've been to the real-life face to face thing for a couple years now. I learned the hard way that some groups are better than others. Some groups just suck, there is no way around that.

    I made this as a resource for people looking for a critique group, but it would work as a guide for those trying to start one as well.
    http://khalielawright.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/20-Question-Critique.pdf and http://khalielawright.com/finding-the-right-group/

    I think the biggest thing is to be with a group of people where everyone contributes. I've found that the people who spew the vilest comments are those who never bring any work of their own to the table. I would also avoid the trap of "we only write X or only read X." Things like that set you up for trouble down the road and gives people a gateway to say, "I won't read Catrin's work because I don't agree with the use of X as a metaphor for Y," or "I won't read Cartin's work because it goes against my deeply held religious beliefs," or "I don't like poetry," or "I hate short stories," or "Even though this techinically is sci-fi because it's set on a spaceship, it's just to romancy for me, and I don't read romances."

    Also, be heavy handed when it comes to snarky critique. Just don't allow it. I was a member of a sci-fi/fantasy group where one member gave the following critique, "So you're basically writing 'Days of our Lives' in space and you had the audacity to blaspheme while doing it. It's not good and will never sell. No one will believe in a world where women can have sex with whom ever they please, when ever they please, where ever they please. You need to throw this out there is nothing worth saving." That's not a critique because it didn't focus on the writing, plot, characterization, structure, consistency of style and tone, elimination of redundancies, etc. It was mean for the sake of meanness and offered nothing of value. These people should get one warning, then be invited to leave.
     
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  3. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Contributing Member

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    Best advice I can give, as many moons ago I belonged to an artists group that met every month... bring donuts.

    If you've just fed everyone donuts they'll likely go easier on you when it's your turn to be critiqued.
     
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  4. Phil Mitchell

    Phil Mitchell Contributing Member Contributor

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    On the contrary I'd go much harsher on you. People chewing on donuts when I'm trying to get a mature discussion going would make me want to quit prettty quick.
     
  5. Mumble Bee

    Mumble Bee Custom Title. Contributor

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    Make coffee.
    If necessary, spike said coffee.
     
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  6. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, lordy. We're not set to meet till the 28th, but already yesterday one of the prospective members (not the convener; that's me) has said, "Hey! Let's upload our first two chapters into this Google Docs folder I've created and get started doing online crits for each other right now!" Wanting to be agreeable, I wrote back, said sure, and uploaded the first two of my WIP.

    But late last night I began to have serious (grim, dire, worried) second thoughts about the procedure, and I've just sent the other two an email calling time out. Ladies, we definitely should wait on the crits until we actually get together. It'll avert all sorts of problems.

    We'll see how the the others respond.
     
  7. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    I read your pdf checklist and I particularly like the one about whether members expect you to prove you made the changes they recommended. I take it the answer to that should be no?

    I see where you're coming from with "I would also avoid the trap of 'we only write X or only read X.'" We can learn from writers of various genres. And it's useful to leave space for any author in the group to explore new areas. However, I believe establishing the general scope of the group is a good thing. I would hate to end up in a group that contained primarily fantasy and science fiction writers, as I have scant patience with the world building process and almost no sympathy with a great many of the tropes. I'd be of little use to those authors, and it'd irritate me no end to have them telling me I should jazz up my contemporary romance thriller by creating a magic system or inserting a vampire or two. Similarly, it might be good to restrict a group to all fiction writers. If the writers of memoirs or technical manuals want to be in a group, they can convene their own. And if I should decide someday to focus strictly on Antediluvian Nephilim fantasy, maybe I should move to another group that critiques that sort of thing.

    I agree that generalized, summarily-judgemental criticism should be excluded. "It's not good and will never sell" is a waste of time. And oh, yes, no non-contributing silent sitters. Or non-contributing loudmouths, either.
     
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  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Just as a quibble, I would think that some types of memoirs, biographies, and other books that narrate a series of events in a somewhat novel-like way would fit moderately nicely into a group mostly about fiction. You can't really suggest plot changes :) but there are a lot of things in common. To use a movie metaphor, if the book "plays" like a feature rather than a documentary, it seems like it would fit.

    I also feel a little miffy about a slight implication that nonfiction is just memoirs and technical manuals. I know that you didn't mean that and you're aware that there are countless other types of nonfiction books; I'm just suggesting that if that were to land in the rules unedited other people might also get miffy.
     
  9. Arcadeus

    Arcadeus Contributing Member

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    The way I've experienced that I believe was the best.
    When critiquing a specific piece:
    Readers should be given time to read and critique before the physical workshop is in session. (So I can understand putting the first few chapters online)
    Readers should bring if able a physical copy of the work with annotations/notes added.
    Now the actual workshop session-
    First- Author can't speak. Critique is spoken aloud and discussed between the remaining members of the writing group.
    Second- Readers can't speak. Author says anything that is pent up from keeping his/her mouth shut. The delay before speaking usually keeps someone from being too defensive during this phase.
    Third- Writer asks for questions from readers.
    Fourth- Writer can ask questions of readers.

    This method has worked very well for me. It might not work as well for your specific group. Figured I'd give my 2 pennies.
     
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  10. KhalieLa

    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    If the answer isn't no, find another group!

    Defining the scope is a good thing. Just don't make your scope too narrow, as in we only read/write historical fiction novella's set in the 1820's & 1830's and told from the point of view of French-Canadian fur trappers in the inter-mountain west.

    If you are dedicated to historical fiction be open to all of it. Don't turn someone away because they jumped ahead and wrote about the pony express, covered the great depression, told their story from the point of view of a adolescent Native American girl, or wrote about Irish immigrants who migrated west after the influenza epidemic and Boston police riots of 1918, or whatever.

    ETA: You can exchange chapters, read ahead of time, then deliver the critique when you are there. The extra time to read would give you more time to deliver a higher quality critique.
     
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  11. Raven484

    Raven484 Contributing Member Contributor

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    You should definitely stay with the email system. It saves a lot of time and gets the group on track right away. Set some ground rules, new members can only send 10 pages max for 3 months or something along those lines. This will weed out the one meeting wonders who just want one thing critiqued an then move on.
    Make it so everyone is required to write something. Nothing worse than the guy who comes to six meetings and has nothing to show for it. Make it simple, even a one page essay is okay on any topic. If a person does not have time to write one page on anything, do you really need them in your group.
    Mix it up sometimes also. Meeting at the library is fine, but maybe one of the summer months meet at the nearby park or something like that. A group I am in now that meets at Barnes and Noble had everyone who wanted to go to a Christmas dinner at a nearby restaurant.
    Try to make it as enjoyable as you can.
     
  12. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Alas, as it turned out, one member has a gluten allergy and the other just said, "No, thank you." I was left with eight donuts that by Sunday night had gone straight to my waistline.
     
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  13. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thought I'd check in and say how it went on Saturday.

    After that first meeting, do I think the group will be a success? Meh, the evidence isn't all in yet. It wasn't brilliant, but not positively awful, either.

    I found out Saturday morning that two members of our statewide organization, me and a woman I'll call Beth, had separately had expressed interest in forming a crit group in our county, and the area chair decided on her own to combine the two. It was logical for her to pick Beth, the member she knew, to lead it.

    Me, I'd hoped we'd agree to rotate moderating duties. But if Saturday is any indication, Beth is in the chair and that's that. Moreover, we won't have written rules or a purpose statement--- she doesn't believe in them. "Let's just stay positive and follow the Golden Rule."

    We'll see how that goes. I'm the first one to champion the Golden Rule and the One who reaffirmed it, but I've discovered from painful experience that it takes wisdom and knowledge to put it into practice. Hopefully, we'll get better at it as we get better acquainted.

    We did stay positive for the crits, which is a good sign. Each member did a decent job keeping her mouth shut while her work was being critiqued. And cogent and useful things were said about everyone's writing, which should make us all better.

    If I'm dubious that this'll work out for me in spite of that, it's for two reasons.

    First, because Beth and "Elspeth," the third member, seemed to form an instant bond and left me feeling like the odd (wo)man out. It wasn't a good sign that in times of general discussion Beth the moderator would concentrate on Elspeth and rarely made eye contact with me. It's not surprising: They write the same genres (Children's and Young Adult), they're both young professionals with school-aged children, they both live in the eastern part of the county on the other side of the ridge, they look a lot alike--- heck, even their names are similar. Me, I'm nearly twice their age, live in the western part of the county, and my fiction is pitched to a more mature audience. Call me petty, but I have this thing about being made to feel invisible.

    The second thing that's bothering me is that Beth doesn't seem to be a good moderator. How efficiently will we be using our time, I wonder? We each admitted upfront to being a little nervous; perhaps that's why we all ran on at the mouth from time to time. But I seemed to be the only one who noticed she was going long or getting off-topic and made herself stop. We were taking turns introducing ourselves, and I, in an attempt to build rapport with the other two, mentioned I was also trying my hand at some Middle Grade short stories. Whereupon Beth interrupted me and started telling me at length how I could market them to various children's magazines. Nice of her, I guess, but that had nothing to do with me introducing myself and was irrelevant to me anyway. When at last I got the floor again, she directed me to hurry up and finish, because we had to get to the the critique itself. :wtf: Then, towards the end of our reserved room time, Elspeth praised a philosophical idea Beth had introduced in her book. Okay, fine. But should the moderator allow members to use that as an excuse to tell their personal stories, particularly ones starting with their childhoods and on to their youth and adulthood with no end in sight? It was nearly noon, I hadn't had the chance to offer my own critique on Beth's work, but Beth sat there letting Elspeth talk. I had to call time on her myself.

    I'll see what happens at the next meeting in two weeks' time. I need to model the behavior I hope to see. If I have to, I'll ask Beth to please keep us on-topic, and practice ahead of time the most gentle and effective way to put that.

    And if worse comes to worst, I'll get in touch with the area chairwoman and tactfully let her know that our county needs two writers' crit groups after all.
     
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2017
  14. Elven Candy

    Elven Candy Pay no attention to the foot in my mouth Supporter Contributor

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    Wow, I'm glad you got something out of it, but I hope the next one goes better! Maybe someone who writes in your genre will join the group soon.
     
  15. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Contributing Member

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    They're probably bran muffin people. So contrary and condescending.:)
     
  16. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    In my experience, have rules, that are followed.
    From memory:
    Have entry requirements...such as providing a sample for members of the group to evaluate and vote on.
    Have probationary periods.
    Have minimum requirements of participation, including critting, submitting work for crits, and attendance.
    Have a way to remove a member.
    Have minimum critique guidelines--what is expected from each member.
    Have etiquette rules for giving and receiving critiques.
    Have provisions for leaves of absence.
    Have all the rules written out, and a way to amend or change the rules.

    Not immediately upon you three forming the group, but it should happen. May seem like a lot, and even unnecessary, but a year or two down the road, with clear expectations, hurt feelings and concerns with troublesome members or the like may be avoided. You'd think adults and like-minded writers would be professional--but that doesn't always happen.

    That's my two cents.
     
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  17. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know. I submitted a list like this ahead of time via email. I've already related what "Beth" said about making official rules, while "Elspeth" replied that "lots of rules" make her nervous. So if the group gets off the ground, guideline generating will be ad hoc, at best.
     
  18. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm really betraying my age here, but I remember a time when, if someone took the effort to provide hospitality in the way of food and drink, out of politeness you took a little of it whether you wanted anything or not. You didn't have to finish it, but there it was on your plate as a sign that you were breaking bread in fellowship with your host. Food has lost its symbolism, I suppose.

    (This didn't apply, of course, to the offer of a casual cup of coffee or glass of wine to a visitor who happened to drop in. Declining that was perfectly good manners.)
     
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  19. KhalieLa

    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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  20. KhalieLa

    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    Ugh!
     
  21. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Contributing Member

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    I'm probably in the same age group as you, and yeah, there are some formalities you abide by that give structure and meaning to fellowship.
     
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  22. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    This reminds me of an occasion when I was part of a panel of three interviewing for my replacement.

    One applicant spent the entire interview looking directly at the MD, sat to my left, and never even noticed me (evidence to follow!). When I did some digging into his work experience ("I made the job so efficient that I made myself redundant.") I discovered that, in fact, he'd been such an idle sod that he'd left all the work to his assistant...Needless to say, on my recommendation, he didn't get the job! A couple of years later, I turned up for an interview, and guess who was doing the interview! And he didn't remember me at all...
     
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  23. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'd say the smaller the better, especially if you are a group of novelists. Novelists flung in with poets, short-story writers and memoir writers doesn't always work. My regular group consists of three of us (all novelists), with an occasional fourth if he can get away from work and home committments. We started out not knowing each other at all, and are now really close friends who do stuff together outwith the meetings. Sometimes just for fun, and sometimes to attend writing-related sites or events. I realise all groups aren't going to be this cozy, but damn, it sure is nice when it happens.

    Another reason small works is because everybody gets a shot at displaying their own work and critiquing it. We are all very supportive of each other. It's just nice to hang out with other people who are trying to do the same kind of thing as you are. We're all writing different kinds of novels, but our attitudes are compatible—and everybody's insight has value.

    Of course the downside of 'small' is that it costs more per person to rent a room. So if that's an issue, maybe you could find a place to meet that would give you a fair amount of privacy, without costing anything. We have a regular meeting place, but there is also a local pub in a nearby village that serves a fantastic macaroni and cheese dinner at the fireside, and has a wee room off the main bar that nobody seems to use at that time of day but us. So we do meet there sometimes as well.

    I consider myself VERY lucky indeed.

    PS - Don't feel the slightest bit guilty about preferring to get together with people who write the same kind of stuff you do. The whole purpose of the writing group is, I assume, to better yourself as a writer, not sample the wide world of writing. Getting together with people who enjoy each other's writing and engage with each other's specific problems because they face these problems themselves, is a huge advantage. For example, I am not a poet, and, in general, don't think like a poet thinks or enjoy reading poetry very much. So when confronted with poetry in a critique session (I've had this happen in workshops) I just sort of sit there going ...um.

    I'm kind of a funny fit in my group, in that I'm not keen on showing unfinished work to anybody. I have certainly read out parts of my novel and got feedback on them, but I don't bring something to the table each time. The others seem happy enough with my 'non participation' because it gives them more time for theirs! And none of us is EVER the least bit snotty or detrimental to the others, so the fact that they don't have mine to pick apart every week seems to not be a problem for them. Or for me. We don't all work at the same pace, and I don't feel I need to churn stuff out, just so I can participate on that level. Obviously if it was a problem for them, they'd say so. I was upfront about this when I joined (I'm the newest in the group) and they didn't mind at all.
     
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2017
  24. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think we could accommodate five in all, provided the group is moderated efficiently and no one member is allowed to monopolize the discussion or get off on tangents. If others want to yield their time to the one speaking, fine. But that should be managed intentionally.

    We may be able to get our ship on an even keel. As I said, the crit itself was pretty helpful, and even the crits I couldn't adopt wholesale gave me something to think about.

    They've left it up to me to advertise for additional members on our unbrella organization's Facebook page. I'm holding off until I figure out what kind of group we'll turn out to be.
     
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2017
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  25. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, I would stay small for a while, if I were you. Think about it. How much time would each person get if there were 20 members who turned up at every meeting with stuff to share? I don't know how often you meet, but if it's only once a month for, say a 2-hour period, that's only a few times a year for each person. Either that or the stuff would have to be printed out and sent around to everybody before the meeting, and you'd all have to read 20 pieces of work and be prepared to offer critique on each one of them—each time. I think that kind of number is fine if it's a 'class' sort of situation, where there is a speaker and a learning situation. But that's way too big a group for sharing each other's work.

    I'd say five members is about right. Certainly to start with.
     

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