Kay: Ode to Critique Groups

This week I met with my critique group, Beth and Patricia. We usually meet monthly at somebody’s house, although lately we’ve hit it big at a Mexican restaurant with a waitress we love, who listens only to audio books and prefers science fiction. This meeting was fun and productive, as it always is. Beth, as always, said about my section, “It needs more emotion! I want to know how she feels!” And Patricia said, as she usually does, “This part just doesn’t make sense.”

I love it when that happens.

I’ve met with Beth and Patricia for the longest time—years and years—but even my newest beta readers are godsends. Every one has flawlessly pointed out the weaknesses in my work—the overwriting, inconsistencies, confusing passages, and character or emotional underachieving. They’ve done so with humor and kindness, intelligence and bravery, and I’m more grateful to them than I can say.

Alas, it is not always so. Michael Hauge divides critique groups into four basic categories. They help you:

  1. Use any excuse not to write (which gets you out of the house, but has no effect on your writing or productivity)
  2. Feel good (which bolsters your spirits and avoids hurt feelings, but prevents you from facing your weaknesses and improving your craft)
  3. Suffer criticism early and often from members who are clueless about story (which strokes participants’ egos by suggesting changes that are neither well founded nor consistent with your vision for your story)
  4. Improve your writing

I don’t want to brag here, but I’m in Group 4. How does your critique group stack up? Here are some thoughts on how to build a better critique group if yours is falling down on the job.

Ask questions

Listen to your fellow authors. They have a vision for their projects. Find out what the vision is, then offer suggestions that will help them get to where they want to go. Ask them about their protagonists—their goals, how they’ll change. Ask about the setting and how it affects the characters. And so on. You should know these stories and characters almost as well as you know your own.

Listen to the answers

Figure out what lies underneath the answer. Press the writers to explain their choices.

Point out where the writer’s vision and execution don’t connect

Sometimes what you read in the selected pages might seem inconsistent with what the writers say they want to do. Clarify with the writer what the story goal is. Perhaps some story elements diminish your emotional involvement, or leave you confused, disbelieving, or bored. Members of the group should emphasize that they’re reacting emotionally to the work, and say why. An emotional response to anything is always legitimate, whether the reader can explain it or not.

After all that, offer suggestions

When the group has listened to the writer’s goals and vision, and pointed out their emotional reactions, they can help the writer brainstorm ways of addressing the issues. All options should work to improve the story and heighten its emotional impact. The idea is to search for the idea that the writer feels is best for the story she wants to tell.

Being on the receiving end of a detailed critique isn’t always easy. You have to listen and respond with openness, trusting that those who offer their opinions are trying to help. As Michael Hauge says, all the great advice in the world does you no good if your goal is simply to defend everything you’ve written.

Listen and take notes, if your fellow members have not written their thoughts on your pages. When you don’t understand a comment, ask for an explanation. If you think someone missed something, say, “I thought I addressed that issue when I wrote _______ . Do you know why that didn’t work for you? Did anyone else in the group have the same reaction?”

Challenging every comment and suggestion is unproductive, but be sure you understand where your members are coming from. Then lead the brainstorming. When you hear suggestions you don’t like, say, “That change doesn’t really work for me because _______. But what if I try_______ instead?”

If your critique group is already terrific, wonderful. If it isn’t, maybe some of these techniques will improve its dynamic. Do you meet with a critique group? How does it work for you?


4 thoughts on “Kay: Ode to Critique Groups

  1. The critiques that I’ve gotten from the Ladies have been very helpful in a variety of ways! One problem that I have is getting a manuscript to the viewable-by-even-a-critique-group stage.

    I’m about to give up my pride on the current WIP, and toss my two beginning drafts to the group and ask for any guidance or comments. I’ve got two problems: one, I feel bad making people read a bunch of stuff that I know is unfinished dreck. And two, I know how to improve some of it. I’m just not doing it.

    We’ll see. June’s a pretty busy time for everyone. But let’s hear it for the critique groups!

    • I think when you’re stuck may be the best time to call on the support of a critique group.

      A critique group is not a fan club. They aren’t there to admire a finished, polished product. They’re there to help you get to the finish line, however far off it may be. My critique group (which now only gets together when one of us has a draft) have read some of the most god-awful drivel for me and they always come back with ideas and suggestions that get me going again. And I’ve done the same for them.

      • Right, Jeanne! I try to get my stuff as good as I can, but often that’s utter crap. Other readers are especially great for telling you what’s good and what should go or needs improving. Lots of times I just can’t see the forest for the trees. Or the trees for the forest, for that matter. Michaeline, send that stuff out! Comments might be just what you need to get yourself going on something when you’re stalled.

        • Well, it seems to be working on the Friday sprints. Maybe when I have a chance to look things over one more time, I will package it together and have a “call for eyes” that have time to take a look at the mess. God, I hate writing books. Short stories have a much closer finish line, so even if I can’t see it, I know I don’t have to slog that much longer.

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