Critique Group Weals and Woes

I’ve been in my critique group for eight months now. With a few exceptions, it’s been awesome, but those exceptions are not trivial. This is a post where I complain a bit, but my hope is that it is constructive complaint criticism.

Readers of this blog know that I professionally write technical documentation by day and amateur fiction by night (early morning, technically, but that’s less poetic). Since I spend all day writing process documentation, engineering schematics, etc, it can be difficult for me to focus on my fiction word count each day. The five-month-old baby doesn’t help either.

When I’m in my own island of creative content, it is easy to let Resistance win and instead waste a lot of time reading blog posts on writing instead of writing. Because of that, having a regular critique group is a superpower that provides both a deadline and an audience. I highly highly highly recommend having one if you write stories.

We’re like this but with less iced coffee and hipsters
Source: Houston Writer’s Guild

This particular group is organized by my friend Evelina Everest (follow her on Twitter). There are critique sessions on a two-week schedule–your submission (up to 2,500 words) is made on a Monday and the critique session is the following Monday–lather, rinse, repeat. The organizer breaks out the submissions into small groups (generally 3-4 writers per group), and you have a week to read and critique the other writer’s submissions for the upcoming session.

When I joined the group shortly after its inception in June 2018, I was paired with Evelina and two other female writers. We all wrote slightly different stuff–Cat writes YA fantasy stories of forgetting gods and sea travel, Aila writes Southern women’s fiction, Evelina writes YA/MG science fantasy, and right now I’m writing historical literary fiction. Pretty all over the place, right? Nevertheless, the four of us took to each other’s work very well, and we each were always careful to offer the right kind of feedback with a healthy dose of intelligent praise.

What’s the right kind of feedback? On the title page of your submission, the rule is to include your query pitch as a brief summary (sometimes, you may start reading someone’s work in the middle of the book) and that person’s specific critique requests. Sometimes people want their work to be copy-edited with a red pen, sometimes people are only interested in a developmental critique where the others tell if the scene worked for them, to point out any continuity errors, or to note any narrative flaws.

The four of us worked very well within these limitations. Aila employed the OREO technique where you start with the positive, then give opportunities for improvement, then end on another positive note, and this quickly became the standard for our little group. Once we got comfortable with our own personalities and stories, we started good-natured heckling and taking more chances with our criticism which pushed me to constantly improve my scenes. It was amazing.

What went wrong

I know what you’re saying: “David, you promised a post complaining about the group, what the hell, man?” Buckle up–here we go. My problems with the critique group:

  • Go big or go home: Evelina wants to have a large pool of writers in the group that can both take part in small-group critique sessions and monthly “pub nights” where we hang out and informally discuss a topic. Yes, this is great for networking and I like interacting with everyone at the pub nights, but I selfishly care more about our individual small group dynamic than I do about making critique night a great experience for all of the other groups. I’d rather just have the four of us meet at a cafe/pub every time instead of a group of groups at the library.
  • Missing person alert: Aila published her (wonderful) book Alabama Rain last August and then went MIA after the launch when several mini-crises ensued in her life. Ever since she has left, the dynamic has changed drastically. We keep adding in other writers to round out the group with four. So far, both of the additions we’ve had moved onto other small critique groups that were a better fit for their genre/developmental level, and the newest addition isn’t clicking at all with me–she doesn’t read the critique instructions and spends too much time with red pen in hand and parroting out writing craft tropes (“show don’t tell”, “put your words on a diet”) that everyone who isn’t a complete newbie already knows instead of focusing on the critique request. The worst part is that she doesn’t follow her own advice at all. She’s perfectly fine to socialize with, but I just want Aila back. Lately, it feels like the fourth chair slot in our group is a position just like the Defense-Against-the-Dark-Arts professor position at Hogwarts.
  • The Library closes in thirty minutes: We have our critique sessions at a local library branch. The session starts at 7:00 PM but usually the first fifteen minutes are spent socializing. At 8:30 PM, the library assistant assigned to the group starts periodically interrupting to let us know the library will be closing at 9:00 PM. They do this often enough to try and get us outside by 8:45 PM so they can go home right away. I can definitely sympathize with feelings of the librarian as I did the same thing during my retail years, but I would much rather meet at a cafe, bookstore, or pub where the pocket watch of Damocles isn’t hanging over our heads and we have to speed through the critique sessions. We typically end up hanging outside of the library for 15-20 minutes because we’re not quite finished talking, and January is a cold month to chat outside at night. Also, any food or drinks must be smuggled inside.
  • A galaxy far, far away: Driving from my home to the library branch takes 48 minutes without traffic. The critique session begins at 7:00 PM, so that means I need to leave my house at 5:30 PM to arrive in time and once we’re finished talking outside of the library I don’t get home until nearly 11:00 PM. Out of the 4.5-hour commitment to each session, I spend half that time commuting. This is really my own problem, I’m the one that chose to live a county away from the biggest local city, but the fact that the meetings are on the opposite side of that city means that I have to double the time away from family and work to come to the sessions. Since I’m the only one from our small group who lives on my side of the city, I don’t ever expect this to change, but since I’m already complaining, I thought I’d mention it.
  • The People’s Front of Judea – Evelina organized this group after another popular writing group died out six months or so beforehand. Since organizing this group, I’ve been invited to join two other writing groups ran by former members who have split off to form their own little world, free from the tyranny of Evelina’s rule. I have no gripes with either of these individuals, but I only have time in my life right now for one writing group and I’m staying here for our little critique quartet.

Venting complete

Now that I’ve said my piece, I think the way the group is run is probably the best for the overall goals of the entire local writing community as compared to my own preferences.

I’m old enough to know that very seldom in life do we get to have things the exact way we want (unless we start our own Judean People’s Front) and that’s okay. I get way more out of the critique group than the mostly-minor annoyances I put up with to take part in that group. Mostly, I just miss Aila and wished she’d either come back or we could find a fourth member who clicks with the rest of us as well as she did.

I’m quite thankful to Evelina for organizing our group and I’m looking forward to meeting again in the very near future. We were on hiatus from Thanksgiving until MLK, and it’s nice to be back in the regular rotation.

Are you a member of a critique group? What works well in that group? What doesn’t? My inquiring mind wants to know. Post in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Critique Group Weals and Woes

  1. Thanks for the post David. I can’t really comment on anything in your main asks. I like the people, though. I’ve gotten invites from at least one of the splinter groups. In fact, I guess I’m technically a member…I’ve just never attended a meeting. I always kind of wondered what precipitated it…and I got a chuckle out of Evelina’s “tyrannical rule.” Mainly because I have a hard time picturing her as “tyrannical”. I probably will eventually make it to one of those other meetings though…simple because they do host write-ins.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kind of wish UCW did Write-ins too. I like that activity. I’d probably never be able to make them right now, though, so I can’t really push for them, but hopefully Evelina might decide to incorporate them outside of NaNo at some point. Doing 1/month would fill in that last Monday where there is no UCW activity.

      Like

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