Thursday, November 11, 2010

Vanilla or Chocolate? What are Critique Groups?

An interjection before the blog: Veterans and active military, thank you on the day we remember your service.

I know a lot of writers. Most of them are in some sort of writing support group. Over the last couple of years, since I have been devoting myself full-time to my writing, I have been in six different groups, some of which I am still in. Over the years prior to retiring, I was in three other groups. Does that make me a groupie of another stripe? Probably so.

I am a social critter. My husband hates group exercise classes; he wants to do it on his own. I would never exercise were it not for the motivation I get from a group. (And I can show you my virginal home DVD exercise collection to prove it!)

Same concept. While I will happily write in isolation (the easy part for me), I would probably not work much on revisions (the hard part for me) did I not receive feedback from critique group members.

So, let’s say you’re convinced. You are not currently in a group and want to be in one. Where do you find critique partners? What are these groups like? How are they organized? What should be the purpose for the group? How do you run the meetings? What if it doesn’t meet your needs?

If you are curious, this blog and the next one will describe the experiences I have had. Maybe one of them will resonate with you.

To begin, for group dynamics, the experts tell us the largest a group should be is 6-8 people. This allows sharing time for all and provides for a range of writing styles and genres. Some critique groups have only two people, typically called “critique partners.”

How do you find these folks? One group I’m in ran an ad in the local paper of the small town asking for people wanting to write. In another group, a pair of us splintered off from a Vanilla group (explained below). Tell people you are an author. You’ll be surprised how often someone says, “Oh, talk to Susie. They have a writing group you could join.” I joined one group after meeting someone at a writing workshop put on by a writing association. Like-minded, like-focused authors are everywhere. Reach out and you will find a critique group. If it isn’t happening in your neighborhood, attend workshops where writers hang out.

Once you have found a compatible group, you need to decide on logistics like meeting times and mission.

Most critique group meetings last two hours. Some go longer with the agreement of its members. When 6-8 people share, the time per piece is less; groups of two get more in-depth analyses.

There are several “flavors” of critique groups, just like ice cream. Additionally, each flavor can have add-ins or toppings. So, for purposes of beginning the sorting, we’ll call the two major group categories “vanilla” and “chocolate”.

A Vanilla group meets regularly, but not often. They likely meet once a month, like a book club, or, in a few cases, weekly. For members, there is likely a strong social reason for the meetings as well as a professional one. The raison d’etre of a Vanilla group is to support writers, whether they have publishing goals or not. Often these groups include a workshop, presentation, or other writing craft segment into the meeting. Some Vanilla members attend writing conferences or take on-line courses and share what they learned. Also, some read writing craft books and get professional magazines which they tell other members about.

A Chocolate group meets weekly. Socialization is not a focus. Their mission is to support one another in their publishing goals since every writer is focused on publication. These groups never include a workshop. Typically, all members of a Chocolate group attend at least one writing conference a year. Chocolates belong to professional writing associations. They probably take on-line writing courses or attend workshops sponsored by professional writing associations. All members have a professional library of books on writing and likely subscribe to writing magazines. Chocolates are the most likely to be focused on the tax implications of being writers, with receipts collected for lunches with other members if writing was discussed.

Today focused on group composition of membership. Tomorrow I’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of how meetings run. See you then.

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