Archives for category: critique groups

When I returned home to Pennsylvania in September, I had ulterior motives.  I wanted to see my mother, of course, and I wanted to visit dear friends, which I did.  But most of all I wanted to write.

Things, however, didn’t go as planned.

I anticipated a resolute commitment to plot, form, structure and characterization by the time Labor Day weekend was over.  (Yes, I do believe in miracles.)

What actually happened is I came to the conclusion that the outline I had written just a few short weeks earlier bore no relevance to the story I wanted to tell.  Oh well.

Prior to realizing the error of my ways I was forcing dialogue, bending situations, and following a convoluted story arc that led to no satisfying conclusion.  It was like trying to shove my size six feet into size five and a half Stuart Weitzman pumps.  It just wasn’t going to work.  The pumps…er, plot…had to go.

And so, after my long weekend in Pennsylvania, the only thing I was bringing back to California was a new title for my novel:  The Growing Season.

So I stopped writing.  I wasn’t concerned at first.  I knew I needed to process everything; I knew I had to fall back into my normal routine.

A couple more weeks passed and nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  I was bringing old, reworked dreck to my critique group or waiting until the very last moment to pull together fifteen hundred sloppy words.

No – this was not a good sign. I reached the point of feeling comfortable not writing.  I felt all right about giving up.  I convinced myself I’d be happy dropping the occasional blog post to get it all out of my system.  After all, my life would be so much simpler if I didn’t write.  I could read for recreation, watch more television, shift that ten pounds I gained with the first novel.  Heck – I might even develop a social life!

So I stopped showing up.

But then it happened.  They started talking to me.  Nagging me.  No, not in a ‘it’s time for your medication’ way – but in that itchy way we feel when there’s something on the ‘to do’ list that we keep putting off.  Eventually Cora, Wanda and Rose let me know in no uncertain terms they weren’t ready for me to give up.  And when Scott’s grandmother Helen Hamm arrived I couldn’t get a word in edgewise!

During my time away from the computer Cora, Wanda and Rose took flight.  As their characters developed, they liberated me from the burden of true experience.  It’s their story I’m telling now, not mine.

And now the words are flowing again.  Isn’t that the most exquisite feeling in the world?



At the abandoned slate quarry, Lynnport, Pennsylvania

Forming a critique group is a bit like cooking.  If you don’t have the right ingredients, or if you try to substitute soymilk for full fat dairy, you risk culinary catastrophe.

I’ve been attending the same critique group for almost two years.  There have been times I’ve wanted to leave.  Times I thought I could do better.  Last spring I tried to start a group with three women who were closer in age and genre to me and we fell apart after two sessions.  And then, during the summer, I began working one-on-one with an esteemed local writer but the arrangement fell apart when our schedules overwhelmed us.

And so, after a few weeks off, I’ve returned to once-a-week sessions around Terry Galanoy’s dining room table.  It’s a good group.  We seem to have found just the right mix of full fat dairy and unsweetened soy.  I consider myself lucky.  They’re the reason why I keep showing up (see my last post).

We give cold readings and then take comments for ten minutes. It’s a tough job providing constructive remarks on work you’ve heard but once, and it’s equally difficult to receive comments from people who haven’t had time to put your work into a broader context. But, for now, this is what we do.  So my question is:  how do we make it work?  Because, quite frankly, sometimes it doesn’t.

There have been times – and I assume that if it has happened in my critique group then it has happened in yours – when a nice, quiet conversation has descended into a knock ‘em, sock ‘em free-for-all.  At other times, a word or phrase has led the discussion down a path that has little to do with the reader’s work.  I have to be honest.  I hate when this happens.

So to help them with their critique of my work I do the following:

  • I keep my weekly submission around 1500 words.  I don’t want to overwhelm them with information, but I am certain to provide enough “meat” for them to “chew”.
  • As much as possible I submit work in chronological order.  This helps my critique group to follow character development and plot.
  • When I am taking their comments, I remain silent.  I don’t defend or rebut.  I listen, absorb and maybe make notes for a follow-up question.
  • And, as soon as I understand the point they are trying to make about my work, I’ll smile, put up a hand and say, “thank you, I’ve got it”. This brings a sharp rather than a rambling focus to the comments.  My group knows me.  They understand I’m not being rude – I’m simply trying to stay on task.
  • Oh, and I rehearse.  Seriously.  I’ll read the work I’m presenting aloud several times.  I want the group’s experience of my work to be uncluttered by bad cadence and trips of the tongue.  Besides, all writers should read their work aloud – even if they’re not in a critique group.

There’s a skill in offering critique, a skill that I find myself lacking.  But I’m learning.  In the beginning I rambled, I interrupted, I became overly excited – in other words, I was guilty of committing all my ‘critique pet peeves’.  Like I said, I’m learning.  These days this is more likely to be my approach:

  • Rather than trying to make a comment on EVERYTHING I’ll focus on one or two plot points or the actions of a particular character.  There are seven people commenting – all the important issues will be addressed.
  • I always begin with on a positive note.
  • While someone is offering their critique, I remain – as much as I am capable – silent.

Do Critique Groups Work for Everyone?

Probably not.  And it takes time to find the perfect mix of people.  Like I said at the start, it’s like cooking.  The right ingredient – and the quality of ingredient – is important.

Being in a critique group is a responsibility.  To myself and the other people in the group.  Every Wednesday afternoon I have to have fifteen hundred words ready to read.  So I show up at my desk every morning and spit them out.  I show up.  (And someday my showing up is going to pay off.)