Thursday, October 16, 2014

Critique Groups

If I could give only one piece of advice to those who want to write for children and teens, it would be to find a good critique group and make a commitment to it. I value my critique group more than you can imagine. Some of us have been in it for more than 10 years, while others are fairly new. They are all amazing writers, and as we have evolved, we have learned what works for us. Most importantly, we have learned how to offer really useful and necessary critiques, which is definitely a skill that can be learned and perfected and which doesn't necessarily just happen.

How to find or form a critique group:

One easy way is to check out the SCBWI walk-in critique groups via the web site. These are walk-in groups, so you can simply arrive and check it out. You might find others with whom you'd like to start a regular group.

While on the web site, you can also contact one of our region's critique group coordinators to get their help in finding others near you.

Attend local writing events, including SCBWI meetings and conferences, where you might meet others to form a group or others who are looking for a new group member.

Post on the SCBWI Utah/southern Idaho Facebook page and see if others want to form a group with you.

How do critique groups work?

There are several logistical choices available to a group.

PLACE and FREQUENCY: Some groups meet weekly, others monthly. Some are online groups. The group might have to try different meeting options to find what works best for that unique group of people. My critique group meets in one another's homes. I've been in other groups that meet in a public place or the home of just one group member or a mentor.

MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION: I've seen this issue handled dozens of ways. In one group we brought several copies of our submissions to the meeting, where each person would receive a copy to read along as the author read out loud. This was fun for me, as I love being read to, but it had some limitations as far as critiques. Reading aloud took up much of our meeting time, and the critiques usually weren't very in-depth, as the readers never had time to ponder or reread the piece. My current critique group sends in 1-2 chapters (we are all working on novels, so this works for us) about a week before the group meets. It is up to each group member to read all the submissions before coming to the meeting. Then we use our meeting time more efficiently, as we jump right into critiques. Some groups do only a few pages of each manuscript each time, while others will do large chunks. How you handle this depends on a lot of factors, such as how many people are in the group, how much each person is writing between meetings, and how much time you have during a meeting. My group meets on Saturday evenings, so we can take more or less time if we feel like it. A group I used to be in met on Wednesday evenings and had only two hours to get through about eight manuscripts, so we were very focused and limited.

NUMBER OF PEOPLE: I think the ideal size of a critique group is somewhere between 3-8 people. More than that is just unwieldy in terms of having enough time to give each person a useful critique. You want at least three people so you have a diversity of opinions. I value the varied opinions of my critique group members, because if they ALL agree, I am pretty certain what needs to be revised. And if they don't all agree, I can pick and choose which approach I might take.

HOW TO CRITIQUE: This is the crucial piece. Some people like to focus on commas and spelling. That's not critique. I suggest focusing on questions. If something brings up a question for a reader, that is useful information for the author. If you're writing a mystery, those questions may be exactly what you're going for. On the other hand, maybe you thought you were being really clear, but the critiquers' questions indicate you need to do some revising to get at the clarity you want. Another way to look at the big picture is to think about the main elements like character, setting, plot, world building, etc. Sometimes it's fun to bring some useful exercises or information from any conference or workshop you've attended and focus on that element in all the manuscripts. The "sandwich" critique is always a nice way to approach a work: say the things you like in the manuscript, then concentrate on problem areas, then end with more nice things.

CHOOSING/ADDING MEMBERS: Our critique group is straightforward and sometimes ruthless. We are all veteran critiquers who are used to the give and take of brutal critique (not mean or harsh, but just absolutely honest), and not everyone is up for that. Some people have less thick skins and require a softer approach. We screen any potential new members to make sure they are up for our kind of blunt critique. If everyone can be honest about what they are ready for, it helps. I find it's also helpful if all the members of the group are writing in the same genre--such as picture books or YA. One magazine writer in a group I used to be in felt like her two pages each month versus everyone else's full chapter was just not a fair give and take. She was not the best fit for the group.

My best advice is to find a group of fellow children's writers and jump in. Be patient with each other and with the process as you find your way as a unit. If you feel like you don't know what you're doing, maybe occasionally bring in a more experienced author for some mentoring, or do some research. There are plenty of books on starting critique groups. Attending conferences and workshops will also teach you skills that will help you improve your critiquing skills.

by Neysa CM Jensen
in Boise, Idaho

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