Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Guest Post: CRITIQUE GROUPS by Jan Christensen

As promised, Jan Christensen is back today with another guest post. Jan considers critique groups and what makes up an ideal group. After you read her post today, make sure you go back and read her first guest piece, (SOME) OF MY WRITING SECRETS.

CRITIQUE GROUPS by Jan Christensen

Great critique groups can be wonderful. Bad ones can be painful. I've been in both kinds.
Good ones are perfect for short story writers because the critiquers see the whole story (usually) from beginning to end unlike a novel where they might think something isn’t needed, for example, but the author knows it will be important later. I’ve been in so many groups, I’ve lost count, and they all had their pluses and minuses. Here is my idea of an ideal group: 

  • For me, the best ones are genre-specific.
  • There are about eight members.
  • Each submission is passed out at the meeting, or is sent via email in time for some good critiquing. If you send it the day before the meeting, some will not have time to critique it, so you've lost an opportunity for more input. Many groups have members bring in something and read it out loud. This is inefficient and less effective because:
v  The author doesn’t get any help with typos and grammar this way.
v  Usually, they only read five pages, where with printed material handed out at the last meeting, twenty or more pages can be critiqued.
v  It’s hard for the listeners to remember all the points they want to make when it’s their turn to critique, and they can’t go back and re-read anything to see if they have more comments.
v  And anyone who has trouble hearing will not do well with this type of group.
  • At least four people submit, on average, every single time.
  • It meets every other week.
  • Submissions are only one chapter or a short story, unless either is extremely short.
  • People mark on the page any typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes, but only talk about the story itself when critiquing.
  • The person being critiqued doesn't talk during the critique but has time at the end for questions she needs to ask the group or a particular critiquer.
  • The writer being critiqued does not spend twenty minutes explaining what they meant to say. Fix it, bring it again, if you want, but if it isn't on the page, we can't critique it.

There are distinctive styles of critiquing, and some are better than others. Listed are a few that can cause problems for the group:

  • The timid. Usually a female, but I've seen men, particularly if it's their first group, act tentative. They think, suppose, guess and are afraid of hurting anyone's feelings. Lots of times they have at least one insightful comment about each manuscript. Encourage them to stick around, and eventually most of them will be great at it.
  • The picky. They want to discuss every comma, point out every typo. Sometimes this is because they don't have much else to say. Again, they need encouraging. The person being critiqued should pounce on the one or two remarks about the story and tell them how happy they are it was brought up. This will give them confidence. Also, if they stick around long enough, they will probably begin to figure out how to do better.
  • The long-winded. They have a lot to say. They often say one thing three different ways. Everyone else's eyes glaze over. Do a few timed sessions where everyone only gets to critique each story for ten minutes at the most. This will teach the long-winded to keep moving. They may fall back into their old ways, though, so you have to decide whether they're worth keeping around, or do some more timed sessions.
  • The pontificator. This person only knows one subgenre and beats everyone else over the head about how things should be written. If a cozy writer, she cringes at "bad" language and violence. If a hardboiled writer, he insists that there's not enough tension or action. They cannot take into account the differences in genres and don't even try to read outside of their own. If too obnoxious, might have to ask him or her to leave the group.
  • The blunt. Now, here's a problem. I like blunt. I want to know what someone really thinks when she critiques my stuff. And I don't mind if the style of delivery is not sweetened up with soft words. However, many writers are sensitive souls, and this type of critique will really hurt some feelings. Some members may even leave (I've seen it happen) because of Mr. or Ms. Blunt. Your group will have to decide if Blunt is so valuable that you want to keep him or her, or whether s/he's scaring too many people away, and you need more members. It might help to talk to this misguided soul, but probably not. It's a tough call.

Have the core group be sure to praise what they like about every submission, both at the beginning of their critique and at the end. Have time to socialize before and after a bit, and some refreshments available.

Did I miss anything?

Jan Chrstensen©2017

Jan Christensen lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, and has had nine novels and over seventy short stories published. www.janchristensen.com


Earl Staggs said...

To answer your question, Jan, you didn't miss anything. You covered the subject as well as it could be done. There are people who like different types of critique groups and if it works for them, that's fine. In my experience, the type you described works best for me. I genuinely miss the group you and I (and Kevin) used to belong to.

Jan Christensen said...

Thanks for commenting, Earl. I think, but of course cannot know for sure, that most people would like the type of group I described, but may not know that such groups exist and so are happy the way the one they're in operates. I miss that group, too. It was the best.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Jan,

Critique groups are a good idea for many writers but not all.