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Starting Your Own Critique Group
"Musings" for February 2005
by Margot Finke
Part three of three
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This is the third and last in my series on Mentoring and Critique Groups. Below, I offer a number of thoughts and suggestions on the subject of beginning your own children's critique group. Pick-and-choose from them, or add your own ideas. Go for it!
4 Excellent Reasons For Starting Your Own Critique Group:
- You need feedback and encouragement fast!
- You want to try an online group, because there are no children's writers anywhere near where you live.
- Members of the groups you tried were all beginning writers like yourself. You feel the need for input and advice from more experienced writers.
- The members of your current group are not serious about writing.
The First Steps:
- Decide where you are on the writing ladder: the first rung being #1 (beginner), and the top rung being #10 (well published). Ideally, the group you plan should include some writers a few rungs ahead of you.
- Next, think about what you can offer a critique group - amount of time, critiquing expertise, how-to write queries and editor contacts, or just encouragement and support.
- Do you want to set up face-to-face meetings, or go for an online critique group? Your choice might depend on where you live.
Realistically, if you are a beginner, the chances of luring established writers into your critique group are slim. Beginning writers, like those in the other arts, have to work their way up to inclusion in advanced critique groups. Do this by honing your basic writing skills, earning credit for small pieces in magazines, and read, read, read! It is called "Paying your Dues." Meanwhile, getting feedback from other dedicated beginners is a step in the right direction. Some of the most inspiring children's books went through critique groups that were originally formed by beginners. These writers learned the writing ropes as a team, supported and encouraged each other, and finally became published authors.
Where to Look For Critique Group Members:
Where do you find writers like yourself, in need of encouragement and good writing feedback? Join online children's writing talk-boards and chat rooms. Scout SCBWI (Society of Children's Writers & Illustrators) conferences and magazines, libraries, bookstores, and college writing programs, to name a few. See my January "Musings" for helpful contacts and urls.
How to Begin:
Send e-mails to the writing lists you are on, telling them you are forming a new critique group - add the age you write for, and ask interested writers to e-mail you privately. Go to local bookstores, colleges and libraries, and ask if you can add a (similar) note to their notice boards. Check your b-monthly SCBWI magazine for possible critique members. Put an add in your local paper.
The Critique Group Moderator:
The way you set it up depends on how hands-on and detail oriented you are. Do you like to be in charge? If so, you will have fewer problems recruiting members and licking them into your kind of shape. If you are more of a follower, you need to develop backbone, and a firm set of rules. This will make it easier to keep the rambunctious members in line. I have a well-used whip-and -chair that I bring out when rounding up tardy critiques. I offer the use of these two items for a small fee.
Online Groups: Rules to Consider
- Will you limit the number of submissions per writer per week?
- How about setting a time for the return of each critique?
- Will the group critique children's books for any age, or keep to just one?
- How do you plan to handle new members? Will you make this decision? Or, you could decide with a majority vote, after members have read one chapter of the newcomer's writing. Perhaps you could accept all comers, regardless?
- What about a name for your group?
(Note: The first 5 ideas here also apply to face-to-face groups)
- Will you use private e-mail for sending manuscripts and critiques back and forth?
- Will copying and pasting into the body of an e-mail be the method of sending submissions and receiving critiques? Or, what about going to Yahoo and setting up a private list?
- Attachments Will they make members nervous?
Decisions! Decisions! Add whatever rules you feel will work, but remember, members must agree to accept them.
Setting Up Your Group's E-mail:
Take the members' names and e-mail addies, and put them into your address book. Then click NEW and NEW GROUP. Follow the instructions, adding all the member's names to your new GROUP folder. Type the group's name in the Group Name space, and you are done. The group's name shows up in your address book. Click on this any time you want to send e-mails to your members. All members must do this. (Procedures will be slightly different for different email programs, but most have a similar feature.)
Ideas for Face-to-face Critique Sessions Can Be Anything You and Your Members Agree Upon:
(Include the first 5 ideas from the Online Ideas above, plus the following)
- How often do you want to meet ?
- Will you read your work aloud, and offer on-the-spot, critiques? Or, leave a copy of your writing with each member, and receive a written critique plus verbal comments at the next session?
- When the group meets, how long do you plan to spend on each critique?
- Must members have something to be critiqued at every meeting?
- Where do you meet rotate, using members homes, or meet at some outside venue, like a library or bookstore?
Note--For Those Writing Longer Books:
One of the first things to ask potential members is, "Do you have the time to stick with critiquing longer midgrades and chapter books?" It is important that you tell prospective members exactly what you need from them, and what they can expect in return. Doing this improves your chances of forming a group that works for everyone.
How I Set Up "Opus," My Middle-grade Critique Group:
I decided to form an online group that used individual address book e-mail. First, I sent a post to the CW list (Children's Writers), inquiring whether anyone wanted to join the new midgrade critique group I planned to form. After sifting through over a dozen applications, I chose six that seemed to fit what I needed a willingness to stick with the longer chapters, keen to become published, supportive, and eager to learn more about all aspects of writing for children.
Membership over the years has fluctuated: sometimes only 4 members, and at other times it went as high as 10. In Opus, thin skin and ego must go into cold storage. New members send in a first chapter for all of us to evaluate. A majority vote decides whether they are accepted. No rough drafts. After our first membership settled in, a group approach took over. It has worked well. I still take the initiative when hiring and firing, or the rare occasion when an ego thaws out and causes problems. But for the most part, OPUS runs on mutual respect and trust.
Chapters need polish before we begin critiquing. Occasionally, when more than one book is being critiqued, we split the membership into two groups, one for each book. Several members cannot resist the lure of two books, and always critique both. When critiquers find a problem, they offer feedback in the form of solutions, suggestions, or ideas for consideration. We all have different critiquing styles and strengths. Some are great at gauging an overall feel for the strength of the plot and characters. Others are spot-on regarding punctuation and grammar. The rest make sure that waffling on, sneaky sidetracks, and those tired words, never reach an editor's desk.
Critiquing is subjective. We work on the premise that it is safe to ignore one or two suggestions. Three or more similar suggestions, and you'd better take a darn good second look at that area. Although in the final analysis, the book is your baby, and the ultimate decision rests with you.
Opus rules are taken from those listed above, with a liberal dash of common sense and flexibility. Members with scheduling problems contact me privately. The rush of life's tide can make it impossible to honor a critique promise. I rarely need to bring out my whip and chair, and only once have I permanently retired a member for dereliction of critique duty.
Over the years, Opus has given me the privilege of reading and critiquing various memorable books. I have also learned from reading the critiques of other members. The support, encouragement, and friendship of my talented peers is a true life bonus.
HAPPY WRITING (and critiquing) MATES
Last month: Second article in the series: Writer's Critique Groups: Where to Find Them
Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.
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