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.)