It seems as though every writer who has been at this craft for a while is either in a critique group, looking for a critique group or trying to escape their critique group. Some people manage to find their soul mates, while others are looking for a rock: either to climb under or to throw. If only there was some sort of guidebook for people, so they knew what to expect.
Well now there is. And you can win a copy. But let me not get ahead of myself...
A year-and-a-half ago when I started blogging, one of the first people I met was Becky Levine. At the time, she was just starting to write a book for Writer's Digest, The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. The title alone is going to sell copies, but the information Becky has packed into this book is going to make it a must-read for writer's everywhere. The Survival Guide isn't just for newbies. Even people who have been in a critique group for years will find useful information here.
Becky even shares some great tips in this interview...
So how did you get to be a critique group expert?
Expert? Hmm...it may just be that I have what might be “nicely” called strong opinions about critique groups!
My love of critique groups and my ideas about how to run them started years ago, when I took college writing workshops, at UC Irvine, from Oakley Hall. Oakley taught his workshops on a critique basis, with the premise that you helped other writers bring their stories to the next level; you never tried to write their stories for them or get them to write the story you wanted. Since then, I’ve found that I work best and most productively on my writing when I am in a strong critique group that has this philosophy.
That’s an interesting point, about not making people write the story YOU wanted. It sounds like it would be a fine line when you’re critiquing someone else’s work. How do you not insert yourself too much?
I think it's crucial to really listen to the author, to what they're saying about their goals for the story and their vision. And to watch them, too! Sometimes, it's hard for a writer to tell a critiquer to stop, to say that the critiquer is pushing too hard in a direction the writer doesn't go. But the author's body language will show his reaction, especially if you pay attention over a few sessions.
If you're the "third" person in the group--not the author being critiqued and not the critiquer reading their comments, keep an eye and ear open, too. You can be the one to translate/speak the author's concerns to the critiquer. On the other hand, if you are the author and you're uncomfortable, you need to push yourself to speak up a bit--obviously with respect for the time/work the critiquer has put into her ideas, but if you don't let her know she's getting carried away, you're contributing to the stress/problems of the dynamic.
Tell me about your first critique experience.
It’s hard to remember exactly back that far, but I do remember one group that I checked out. It was a group that didn’t send their critique submissions ahead of time, but read them out loud at the meeting. I know a lot of groups that do this; In general, I don’t think this system really allows for the time and concentration needed to develop a really strong critique. For me specifically, though, reading a submission aloud doesn’t work at all. I have a brain that doesn’t “hear” very well through my ears; I have to see the words on paper to really take in what’s going on. Probably all those years I’ve spent buried in books!
I can relate to that! I’m much better with written words than I am with spoken. So tell me about your current critique group. How did you find it?
I have one critique group right now, although I write and do some critiquing with a few individuals outside that group. I formed this group myself several years ago. I was in a critique group with writers who were working in many genres, and I was working on a mystery novel. I felt that I needed a group of mystery writers (and readers) to really get genre-based critiques on my story. Of course, since then, I’ve switched to kids/YA writing, another member is working on nonfiction, and we just added someone who’s writing more literary/historical fiction. Everybody, though, is an incredibly strong critiquer, and we’re trying to stretch ourselves to do more reading in each others’ genre.
I know for a lot of writers, especially when they’re starting out, it can be hard to find good critique partners. Do you have any tips for them?
Keep trying. :)
The biggest help you can do for yourself, I think, before you start looking is to be clear about your goals. Do you want to critique in-person, or online? Do you want to critique with other writers in your genre, or are you looking for a wide-range of writers/readers? Be honest with yourself about where you are in your craft and on your path toward publication—a beginning writer can be a great critiquer, and published and nonpublished writers can definitely critique together. If you’re going to be uncomfortable, though, with someone who’s at the other end of the spectrum than you are, you should recognize that ahead of time.
After the goal setting, listen to your gut. If you’re instantly comfortable in a group, you’re probably in a very good place. If you’re not sure, give it some time—see how things feel after a few sessions. If you sit down and instantly feel tense, or if you walk away from a couple of meetings feeling drained or depressed, that probably isn’t the group for you.
Have you ever had a critique partner/group not work out? What do you do in that case?
I’ve been in groups where I didn’t feel comfortable, and I’ve been in groups where one critique partner wasn’t a good fit. In the first case, I simply left the group, politely and respectfully. In the other situations, either the person who didn’t fit left on their own, or we—again, respectfully—asked them to leave. It’s not easy, but the core dynamic of a group is very important. In the critique-group book, I talk about troubleshooting problems that arise; very often, talking things out and doing some education about how to critique can solve those problems. However, if troubleshooting doesn’t work and writers are still feeling like they don’t want to submit, or to write, then the group needs to make a change.
I love the story how you got Writer’s Digest interested in this book. Could you recap for everyone?
I was so lucky about this. I was speaking (as a freelance editor) at The Mad Anthony conference in Ohio, and I sat on a panel with Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest. People in the audience were asking about critique groups, and someone asked if there was a book about them. Jane said that Writer’s Digest didn’t have one. So, after the panel, I took a BIG breath and pitched an idea for the book to Jane. We talked about the kind of book she didn’t want and the kind she might be interested in, and I asked if I could send her a Table of Contents. I think it was after she said, “Yes,” that I let that breath out.
That's pretty impressive to put together a pitch on the fly like that! Especially one that worked! Was there ever a moment when you thought: I’m in over my head. What have I gotten myself into?
There were definitely a few of those. Honestly, though, this is another reason for having a critique group. Basically, the trickiest part of the book, for me, was finding an organization that would work, especially for the how-to chapters that I included for various genres—fiction, nonfiction, and books for young children. I needed a structure that could be common to all those chapters—making it easy for writers & critiquers of all sorts to find what they needed. I would stare at the screen and panic, then remember that I could run my samples through my critique group, and they’d help me figure out what was and wasn’t working. I did, and they did, and then I’d relax and keep writing.
Tell me about The Everything Kids I Want to Be a Police Officer Book. How did that deal come about? What was it like working with a co-author?
Years and years ago, I taught a fiction-writing course through my local recreation department. Lee Lofland, a retired police detective and a wonderful writer, took that course, and after that we started working together—passing writing back and forth and talking about police stuff. (I was working on my kids’ mystery, and Lee is always wonderful about giving information and doing reality checks!)
After Lee wrote is brilliant book, Police Procedure & Investigation, for Writer’s Digest, he was approached about writing this other book, for children. He asked me if I would like to write it for him. I’m not sure he’d finished the question before I got my “Yes” out! We wrote the book, but unfortunately it got pulled from publication because of all the economy problems.
Co-writing was actually fun. Luckily, both Lee and I have very good senses of humor! It took a lot of back and forth, mostly in the form of “Is THIS right?” “Okay, what about THIS?!” Just don’t ask Lee about me and DNA!
DNA? That sounds...dangerous!
I know you’re working on a historical novel right now. How does your writing style/schedule change when you work on a novel as opposed to nonfiction?
Well, nonfiction has a deadline. Which means that I have a commitment to someone other than myself, to my muse, to get my work done. I try to be strict with myself on getting that energy and time into my fiction, but my brain knows, for the nonfiction, that I signed a contract and that I have a due date. It’s a job—one I’m incredibly lucky to have got—but it’s still a job, and procrastinating just isn’t much of an option.
The biggest difference in writing style for me, I think, is that the outline I do for nonfiction is much stronger, more complete than any pre-plotting I do for fiction. So when I start writing the nonfiction book, the material flows much more quickly and smoothly into the form I’ve already set up. And the research I do is much more focused for nonfiction; I actually know what I want to find, and I can take a small chunk of time and go find it. With fiction, I do the best I can to plot as far forward as possible, but I know the story will evolve outside that plot. And the research for the historical novel feels much more nebulous—so much of what I want to know isn’t out there, and then I’ll find a detail I had no idea I needed and it will, in and of itself, change the plot.
At what point are you comfortable showing your writing to your critique group? When I’m feeling most needy, usually. :)
No, it just depends. When I wrote my middle-grade mystery, they didn’t see anything until I started writing the second draft. Because the book was a mystery, I think, and the only research I had to do was go to fun places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Mystery Spot, my revisions went fairly quickly, so I felt like I was getting the kind of encouragement and motivation I need on a regular basis. The YA historical is taking much more thought from me, in terms of plot and research. I’m finding that I need to send some early chapters through the group, just so I don’t feel as though I’m writing in a vacuum.
I’m not sure I could do this if I hadn’t built up this absolute trust with my critique partners—they know how early this draft is, and they know that I’m mostly looking for brainstorming and conceptual critiques. They also know that everything I’m writing about may change, and they are okay with the fact that they may be critiquing words that completely disappear from the story. This is why I love them.
How can writers make themselves better critiquers?
Well, practice. None of us expected to put pen to paper, or keyboard to computer, and write well our first time out. Critiquing is a skill just like writing, and time and effort will strengthen any critiquer’s ability. The important thing, though, is to trust your reactions to a manuscript and to push yourself a bit to understand those reactions. I think many writers will read a passage and not be thrilled, but because they don’t know why that passage doesn’t make them happy, they’ll avoid commenting on it. Or they’ll think they’re not qualified to comment.
It’s a critiquer’s job to stop reading whenever they have a negative feeling and figure out what’s going on. At the very least, you can try and pinpoint where, specifically, you’re being pulled out of the manuscript. Even if you can’t tell the author what’s not working, you will give the author—and the other critiquers—the opportunity to look at that section and think about what might make it better. Also, listen to what the other critiquers are saying, then go back and look at the manuscript again—if you can see the problem they’re talking about, then you’re at step one of learning to find those kinds of problems yourself.
Great tips, Becky! Thanks so much for the helpful advice.
If you would like to win a copy of The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide, just leave a comment and you'll be automatically entered in the drawing. You can choose a printed copy of the book OR for you Kindle devotees, she can provide you with a .pdf, whichever you prefer. A winner will be randomly selected one week from today.
To find out more about Becky, visit her website: beckylevine.com
The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide is available from the Writer's Digest book store and from Amazon.