The care and feeding of high-functioning critique groups
Published: November 28, 2008
As part of a special package of articles about writing groups in the January 2009 issue of The Writer, Eric Witchey offered suggestions on "How to obtain sharp, useful critiques" at group meetings and avoid wish-washy responses. In the article below, this veteran of writing groups provides specific rules for "The care and feeding of high-functioning critique groups." Eric Witchey
Witchey, of Salem, Ore., has sold over 50 short stories and a novel into national and international markets, is the author of many writing articles, and frequently presents at writers conferences. Visit him on the Web at: www.ericwitchey.com.
One of his short stories, "Mirages," which he discusses in the January 2009 article in the magazine, can be found in the print edition of the annual anthology Polyphony 7, which should be available in bookstores by February 2009. You can read the story (courtesy of the publisher) at this Web page: www.wheatlandpress.com/mirages. And for a science fiction journey, you can read his story "Can You See Me Now?," published in issue 24 of Clarkesworld Magazine, at this Web page: www.clarkesworldmagazine.com/witchey_09_08.
• • •
The care and feeding of high-functioning critique groups
The successful ones tend to have some important characteristics in common—
and here they are
By Eric Witchey
Developing craft alone is like practicing home dentistry—painful, with unsatisfactory results. So, writers join critique groups. I've belonged to, created, consulted for, and led many such groups. I went through the six-week Clarion West program, experienced the Writers of the Future seminar, studied for 10 years under James N. Frey, critiqued with and studied with Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and critiqued under the tutelage of Kate Wilhelm and her partner, the late Damon Knight. (A critique with the latter couple was like visiting your loving grandparents' home, having milk and cookies, then jumping into a wood chipper.)
For seven years, I drove hundreds of miles a week to attend, and eventually lead, the Wordos, a group in Eugene, Ore., that has launched many authors' careers. There, 20 or more people critiqued four to six manuscripts in under two hours every Tuesday night.
Eventually, groups started hiring me as a consultant, so I started cataloging techniques that create success. When my friends at The Writer asked me to share what I'd learned, I selected the following from my list of important characteristics that often appear in high-functioning groups. But first, a definition: HIGH-FUNCTIONING groups repeatedly launch professional careers while sustaining themselves in spite of membership changes.
All types of critique groups have a place. Emotional support groups for writers, motivational groups, groups that use a paid professional leader, and grad school groups all have their uses. Memoir-writing clubs are as much fun as scrapbooking clubs. This article, however, only addresses successful techniques used in high-functioning, professionally oriented critique groups.
|Define your purpose. Most successful groups have a clarity of purpose. They focus on professional publication in one or more genres. They may choose memoir. They may choose fiction in one or more genres. They may choose travel writing. But they all focus and commit to professional behavior. Groups that are not focused tend toward high turnover and slow craft development.|
Codify your rules. Nothing saves time and trouble like a written statement of purpose and process.
Choose a professional location. Public conference rooms or a side room in a bookstore work best. Make your environment a quiet, professional setting with no special dependence on any one individual. Locations dependent on individuals skew the professional dynamic of the group. Professional settings engender professional behavior.
Schedule frequent meetings. Once a week is best. Members can organize their lives to support the effort, and weekly meetings keep the group a priority in their minds. Once a month tends to be too relaxed--people create schedule conflicts, they relax their production, and they forget to do the reading and analysis.
Use paper. In the strongest groups, the text is always on the page. It is never read out loud. You don't get to go to editors' offices and read to them. Make manuscripts for the next meeting available at each meeting. Members take them home. They read, reread, and produce written comments. Then, at the next meeting, they share comments on the manuscripts and pick up new manuscripts for the following meeting.
Enforce quotas. Often, one of the criteria for membership is minimum production. The quota isn't usually very high, but it is there. In one group, the production requirement is one short story or chapter per quarter. In another, it is a novel or the equivalent per year. Quotas keep people from engaging in critique without putting their own material on the table. It also provides a means of expulsion for other types of deadbeat behavior. Personal illness and tragedy are always excepted.
Always fill the time. If production isn't high enough to fill a meeting, add a professionally published story to the list so people can analyze it for what works and why. Add member-created mini-lectures on technique or run focused practice sessions. Letting meetings deteriorate into social events encourages fewer manuscripts. If the group works every session, craft improves regardless of the number of stories on the table.
Have only one leader. No matter what governing model the group embraces, each session has one and only one leader. The leader directs meeting activities. Change the leader periodically so everyone experiences the responsibilities of managing the meeting dynamics. When everybody understands how hard it is to keep time, to stop table cross-talk, to interrupt writers defending their work, and to keep critiques focused on the writing, then everyone behaves more professionally. Also, if everyone can do the job, the loss of one person can't disrupt the group.
Require critique and ban criticism. This is a critical point for success in any critique group. Refer to my article about critiques in the January 2009 issue of The Writer for more discussion on this. Critique is useful. Criticism is useless.
Work the numbers. You'll improve 50 times faster if you attend your group in order to GIVE rather than receive. Your first priority should be to analyze as many stories as possible. Your second priority is to provide others with manuscripts on which to practice their analysis skills. Receiving advice about how to revise your stories is a fringe benefit.
Suppose you attend your group in order to receive analysis. Let's say your group meets weekly for two hours. We'll assume your group analyzes an average of four manuscripts per meeting. Over the course of three months, you'll analyze around 50 manuscripts.
Now, suppose you compose, revise, deliver and receive group analysis on one new manuscript in that same three-month period. If your intent is to receive advice on your stories, you're losing time to other people's stories at a rate of 50 to one. Naturally enough, you'll start skipping manuscripts, reading at the last minute, and scribbling hasty advice just before the meeting.
Even if you tell yourself you're there to "hear what people have to say," the receiving-to-giving ratio is skewed. Eventually, resentment is likely to take root in your attitude. If, however, your intent is to analyze as many manuscripts as possible in order to learn to recognize patterns of success and patterns of failure, you get around 50 learning opportunities for every manuscript you provide. That's a much better return on your investment in time and energy. Additionally, you'll see much faster improvement in your own writing.
Go in a circle—and keep the author QUIET. Work the critique session by beginning at the author's left and giving each person two minutes to speak the high points of their analysis. The author writes notes or listens attentively. Each member gets a chance to speak. The members address the text and NEVER question or address the writer. The group leader polices this. Any question or direct address should be interrupted immediately. During a member's speaking turn, no other member may speak. The author NEVER speaks. When every member has had a turn, the author thanks the group, then the next critique begins.
Discussions take place in private. The writer has the right to use or discard any advice. That does not require conversation at the meeting.
Use the "Pass" rule to save time. Any member can pass on any manuscript for any reason. In a strong group, passing happens all the time because nobody repeats points that have already been made. That's how 20 to 30 people can critique six manuscripts in two hours. Additionally, difficult or controversial content can make it impossible for a member to give an objective analysis. Members who pass never explain their reasons. When their turn in the rotation comes, they simply say, "Pass." Just one word.
Use time limits. Time limits help eliminate redundancy and rambling. They also encourage preparedness. I find that two minutes is more than enough to address salient points once a writer has a little experience. Assign a time keeper. Use a stopwatch. When the speaker's time is up, the time keeper reminds them. A small bell works very well. Some groups let you purchase another minute for yourself or for someone you wish to continue. The money goes to support the group. A dollar a minute with a two-minute limit reduces abuse.
Celebrate small successes. Give out chocolate for rejections. One group I know sets executable, measurable monthly goals. Everyone puts a quarter in the kitty. The next month, everyone who met their goals splits the kitty. Everyone else loses their quarter. Another group provides a nice plaque for each member's first short-story publication and another for each member's first novel publication. The group also gives out a tiny trophy to each person who submits more than three manuscripts in a quarter, a larger trophy for anyone who submits more than six, and a larger one for more than nine. (The record in that group is currently 28 manuscripts in one quarter--from ONE writer. There were only six slots a night and 13 meetings, so that was some feat. Some other members in that group had to be slacking off on their own writing in order to let it happen.)
Create challenges. One group occasionally runs a write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge. People sign up and drop $20 in the kitty. They write (and send out) a novel in a month. If they succeed, they get a very nice trophy. If they fail, they lose their $20 to support the purchase of trophies. Another group occasionally has a "dare to be bad" night when members bring in all manner of writing prompts: National Enquirers, the Sun (out of the United Kingdom), bags of toys, lists of strange ideas, photos from all over the world. Each writer picks one or more prompts, then everybody writes as fast as they can for an hour. The challenge is to deliver one short story that includes the chosen prompt(s). The point is to keep it fun and focused on production.
Keep your pros. If you have publishing pros, keep them. Work to create value that will keep them at the meetings. You can't learn from their experience if they aren't there. Groups that keep multiple pros have a much higher rate of success for their membership. Consider things like market tracking, agent and editor guest speakers, occasional paid training sessions from the pros, and group marketing activities for the pros' books.
Embrace and train newbies. Allow and train newcomers. New blood means new perspectives. New members are future professionals. Newcomers are often terrified. They want to fit in. Failure to accept them creates stagnation. Failure to teach them promotes cliquishness and a deterioration in the overall group process. Meet them with a smile. Shake their hands. Learn their names. Hand them policy-and-process handouts. Assign a mentor for their first 10 meetings. Have them observe before they can critique. Have them critique before they can submit. Model professional behavior, and they will behave professionally.
--Posted Nov. 28, 2008