Friday, November 12, 2010

Critique Group How-To's

In my last blog, I described, from my experiences with critique groups, some basic organizational patterns. Today, I take on the structures of the meetings.

Whether Vanilla or Chocolate (see Nov. 11, 2010 for a description), the groups I have been in run the meetings similarly. Either materials are sent in advance for members to respond to at the meeting or they are read aloud at the meeting by the author or another person.

Vanilla groups tend to have everyone present manuscript pages at each meeting, but they can also alternate with half the group at one meeting and half at another. If Vanilla groups alternate, it is likely because they are meeting more often.

The size of the group determines whether Chocolate groups have each person on deck each meeting or whether members alternate who is discussed at meetings. In groups where each member has to have materials for weekly meetings, the structure challenges the members to keep actively writing, but that is what Chocolates are about.

Because we all read more slowly aloud than silently, the number of pages that can be responded to varies with the format chosen. With my groups that use materials sent in advance, we each send 20-25 pages for others to read and mark up. The marks might include the grammar and punctuation errors found, but the focus for the markings is on the content. What works/doesn’t work and why. Questions about the focus or character motivation. The authenticity of the dialogue. Stuff like that.

In groups where pieces are read aloud at the meeting, the focus is on how the piece sounds to the ear. Authors get little if any help with errors, and the deep processing that comes with having read the piece before the meeting is harder to come by. Not impossible, however. In read-aloud groups, the author will often be asked to re-read a section so that deep structure topics can be dealt with.

The added advantage of works read in advance and marked up is that the author takes away the comments for later review to refresh the memory of the discussion of the piece. I know that I treasure those marked manuscript pages. There is never enough time to do it all, no matter what the structure, so being able to refer to the responders’ comments and error corrections is very helpful.

In almost all the groups I have been part of, we have response rules:

1) Keep the focus on the piece not the author. You can ask, “Why would Alli (the character) do that?”; but don’t ask “Did that happen to you?”

2) The author must keep silent during the responses from others and can only speak after all group members have responded to the piece. Then the author can respond to questions or explain something the readers missed.

3) Don’t get defensive and try to talk the responder into understanding what you meant. You will not be there when someone buys your book and is reading it at home. If readers don’t get what you are trying to do, you have to make changes. I typically say, “Help me fix this. Here’s what I meant. What can I do to make it clearer in the manuscript?”

I hope this helps some of you who want to form writing groups or who are in groups that aren’t working well. The most important thing is honesty with one another. Have a discussion about what each wants and needs from a writing group. Set a mission for your group and establish guidelines for how you want your group to function.

And have fun. If you don’t look forward to your group meetings, it’s not working for you. Make it work or find another group.

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