Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What Makes a Critique Group Work? Pens Afire Tri-Blog

Visiting today are the other two members of Pens Afire, one of my critique groups. Annie Weissman writes a blog called The Single Senior (at thesinglesenior.wordpress.com) and Sandy Bremser (at sbremser.com). We have a very successful weekly critique group. So why do we think that is?

ANNIE: I think the most important quality of a critique partner is insight. I used to think someone who was great at writing or a broad reader would make the best critiquer but that's not necessarily so.

SHARON: I'd agree that you want someone who knows what good writing is and whether or not your piece has what it takes. But don't you think it is generally true that a more consistently good critique partner does read a lot?

ANNIE: I agree that people who are well read in good fiction (meaning they read good fiction AND think out it) have a feel for story, character, and all the other literary elements.

SHARON: In my opinion, the single most important part of having an effective critique group is honesty with a heart. If you can’t trust that your partners will tell you the truth where your piece isn’t working, then how can you trust them when they say it is wonderful? By the same token, there are ways to give critiques that are critical and ways that are helpful. Being hurtful doesn’t move the piece forward nor does it engender trust.

SANDY: Honesty and insight are important, I agree. There are also practical aspects.

I’d say group members need to be on the same page when it comes to how often the group meets, how earnest each is about writing/publishing, and how focused they are during meetings. My goal is to publish, so I want to meet 2-4 times a month with a couple of partners who are serious about writing and don’t spend critique time discussing their jobs or their neighbor’s barking dog. The perfect time for that is after the meeting when people can stay and chat or not. Large groups require a larger personal investment of reading and critiquing others’ work.

Someone else might be after totally different things, preferring to meet once a month with several friends who mainly provide emotional support for each other’s writing efforts. Both groups could be effective, but a writer needs to seek out those critique partners who have similar goals.

If members of a critique group aren’t evenly matched but want to form a group, they could all agree on ground rules and go from there. There’s something to be said for having similar temperaments and good chemistry, so people can be honest in sharing their insights.

SHARON: How true that the group members have to share goals and a common vision! But, Sandy, that's a management issue. Say that the group does share goals and vision, still within that group some people give better feedback on your work than others. Why is that? And what makes you value some people's input more than others?

SANDY: Offhand, I want to say, “I just know which people give me the best feedback.” Upon reflection, I think the most useful advisors differ depending on the author’s needs at the time. For instance, I belong to two critique groups and receive a lot of great input. One critique partner might catch every typo, while another suggests I’m having point of view problems. I appreciate those responses, and it does save me time, but I probably would have caught them on my own during rewrites.

I benefit most from probing questions such as, “Is each character in this chapter unique and necessary for the story? Could you collapse a few personalities together so I, as a reader, don’t have to keep track of so many?” or “How does this scene move your story along? What could you add to make it more relevant to the plot?” Dialogues like these that make my book richer and tighter are flashing neon signs for me to listen up and take notes. Gotta love those critique partners!

ANNIE: I’ve been surprised more than once at insightful feedback from someone who hasn’t offered much before. But there are some people who routinely give better feedback. I also need the detail people who catch my typos and tense problems. The frequency of a critique group is very important to me to keep on track with my writing projects. If I know I have to get twenty pages ready every week or every other week, I’m much more likely to keep on track with my writing projects. I also think the moral support is very important. Writing is such a lonely profession and publication is far off and iffy.

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