Mary Rosenblum, your web editor and Long Ridge instructor, has published three SF novels, four mysteries as Mary Freeman, and more than 50 short stories in multiple genres, as well as nonfiction! Watch for her work these days, in both ‘Asimov’s Magazine’ and ‘Ellery Queen.’
Starting a Critique Group
by Mary Rosenblum
Hold on. Let’s start with WHY! Why join a critique group, never mind start one? What can it do for you? Why hand your story or article to a bunch of strangers?
Well, a critique group can do a lot. All too often, when we hand our sweat-stained, struggled-over prose to our friend, spouse, or parent, what do we hear? That’s nice. That didn’t work for me. While these are reactions, yes, they don’t really help us much if we want to improve an article or story! A good critique is worth gold, (see Giving and Taking Good Critique http://www.longridgewritersgroup.com/rx/wc01/critique.shtml ) In addition, a critique group can offer a lot of support when the rejection slips come in. Everyone has been there, everyone knows how much they hurt.
A lot of regulars on the website have asked the same question: Where do I find a good critique group? You may hear about one locally if you attend local writing conferences or check bulletin boards at bookstores, but then again, you may not. Why not start one? If you have met other aspiring writers locally, you may want to begin one in your living room, or a public library’s meeting room. If you don’t know local writers, why not set up an online group? The Long Ridge Website features private rooms that can be created and used twenty four hours a day, with no permission needed. (For instructions on setting one up, click here: http://www.longridgewritersgroup.com/rx/st01/entrance_to_a_private_room.shtml )
Start With Rules
Many aspiring critique groups fail. Most often, they failed because the group began with no clear cut rules. As problems arose…problem members needed to be dealt with, too many people contributed stories each month, or only a couple contributed and every one else critiqued…groups couldn’t agree on how to handle them. Disputes broke out, feelings got hurt, and all too often, the group fell apart. Those who found the group need to decide on some very important ground rules. Who can join? How is that decided? How often will you meet? How will you handle submitted stories? What are the rules of the actual critique? And perhaps most important to the long term health of the group…how do you handle a problem member?
Who Can Join?
Who are you as writers, the founding member(s) of our new group? Are you three SF writers? A mystery writer? Mainstream? Non fiction? You need to decide when you begin your group if you will limit it to a single genre, or if it is open to everyone. There are benefits to both routes. People who write in the same genre will look at work up for critique with an insider’s eye. However, the observations of, say, a nonfiction writer with an eye to logical order may contribute a telling comment or two to that mystery story that is up for critique.
How will you handle prospective members? Not everyone fits well into a particular group. One person who is excessively negative, or an obsessive and long-winded nit picker of grammatical details can really irritate members. And do you really want to invite that frail flower into the group, only to see him wither right in front of your eyes as you point out the weaknesses in his story? The most successful and long-lived groups that I know ‘test’ their prospective members. In one very successful local group, a prospective member must sit in on one session and listen to what goes on without participating. If she is still interested in joining, she can then submit a story/article to be critiqued at the next meeting. Only then do the members vote on whether to accept her or not. Since they have a long waiting list for members, I’d say that this is a strategy that works well!
Rules of the Road
Now that you’ve decided how to handle new members, you need to decide on the rules of the meetings. How often will you meet? Monthly? Bi-weekly? Weekly? This will, of course, depend on your real life schedules and how prolific your group is. If you are seeing seven or eight ms per month…perhaps a meeting every two weeks would make the event less time consuming and more leisurely! And how will you handle the reading of the ms? Although reading out loud is an extra boon to the writer and saves on copying fees, it can be very time consuming if you have four manuscripts this month and they all take an hour to read, never mind the critique! Distributing the ms for the next meeting at the current meeting is one way to speed up the process. It also allows critiquers to think about the ms over time, and to type out their comments ahead of time. Online, attached files make the distribution process a snap!
Etiquette for the critique session itself should be spelled out. If everyone dives in at once, and the writer explains, defends, and responds to every comment, one session can stretch out for hours! ‘Clarion Style’ is a preferred critique style among many groups. In this type of critique, the author of the story ‘on deck’ must sit silently, taking notes or not, as each individual critiquer has his or her say. ‘Ditto so-and-so’ is a perfectly valid critique and saves valuable time! Once everyone has had his or her say, only then is the author permitted to make a brief rebuttal, explanation, or simply say ‘Thank you’. If you have several stories to critique and you don’t have all day, figure out your time and set a time limit! If six people take ten minutes for each critique, that’s an hour per story, not including the author’s rebuttal! Chip in and buy a timer! Saves arguments about who has talked for too long! If you’re critiquing online, make someone the official time keeper.
Some otherwise excellent critique groups have foundered and dissolved because of a single problem member. It can happen, no matter how congenial a newcomer seems. Slowly, his critiques become more negative, or a conflict arises between one person and another member of the group. Suddenly, critique sessions are tense, colored with the unpleasantness that is going on. If this situation isn’t remedied, members may begin to leave, one at a time. So how do you put a stop to it? The most effective groups are one where there is some sort of ‘governing body’. Usually this is comprised of the original members, although sometimes it may evolve into democratic elections. But it is a good idea to decide among the core group at the very beginning how to handle problems. A secret ballot among members is one method, as long as you decide when and how such a vote can be called. (Or you may spend your time voting, in a fractious group, instead of critiquing!) Or your founding core can simply come to a consensus opinion amongst themselves. Be sure, however, that someone is clearly in charge of delivering the unpleasant letter or phone call. Someone needs to be the bouncer! Consider, too, a gentle warning in the form of a letter, email, or phone call. ‘You need to be less negative in your critiques. It’s quite possible to make all the criticisms you are making without calling the story ‘facile’, ‘worthless’, or ‘trite’. Be sure to assign the role of Bouncer before the need arises, and do consider that tactful intervention is likely to be much less unpleasant than an angry accusation!
How Many, How Long?
Finally, decide on how many words you can critique in a session! Five minutes is plenty of time for a succinct critique, if the person delivering the critique is prepared. Figure out how much time that will require for every critique. If the group includes six people, then your five minute critiques will mean thirty minutes for each story or article. Don’t forget to count rebuttal and chat interludes between those critiques! How long do you want your meeting to run? In the real world, meetings often include a social gathering before or after, perhaps a potluck, or refreshments of some kind. Quite a few ms may be critiqued during a long afternoon/evening session. Online, you may not want to commit four hours to the computer screen! Set your limits and if you plan to limit submissions, decide how best to assign critique times. You may simply choose to go down the list of members in alphabetical order, allowing a certain number of ms per meeting. Start at the top of the list, and when you have the required number of people who have ms ready to read, you’ve filled the next meeting. At the next meeting you begin where you left off and ask for ms from each member in turn until you have the ‘slate’ for the next meeting. If you do this, be rigorous about your rules. Once you start ‘swapping’ times or opening the schedule to changes, you invite some real resentment among members whose ms was preceded by someone else, out of turn!
Full Steam Ahead, For Better or Worse!
Once you have crafted a stable, functional, helpful group, they take on a life of their own. I personally know groups that have been meeting regularly for 20 years. Members come and go, aspiring writers become Big Names, and the groups still function. As a source of sound ‘reader’ reactions, suggestions, brainstorming, support, and a host of shoulders to cry on when you get three rejections on the same day, a good critique group is beyond comparison! It can be one of the most useful items in a writer’s tool kit and the start of lifelong friendships!
So find some like minded writers today, and get one started!
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