Associate Editor Sherri Cook Woosley has an M.A. in English and blogs at Taste of Sherri and her story “Child of the Moon and Sea” was published earlier this month at Abyss and Apex . She won the Mariner Award (2013) from Bewildering Stories for her story “Two Sides of a Triangle.”
Critique groups are like rock bands – when they work everyone is a rising star, but when they don’t, backbiting and snark ensue. So, just in time to capitalize on the energy from the Conversations and Connections conference, here’s a list of questions for your writers’ group. Talk it through so expectations are clear and then get ready to red pen your story. Those editors from speed dating are waiting!
1. How many pages? Being vague in terms of ‘just bring what you’re working on’ means that one person will bring flash fiction and one person will bring the first hundred pages of their novel (or the second hundred and spend ten minutes telling you what happened in the first half). For my group, our ‘focus’ piece can be up to 39 ½ pages and other members of the group bring a piece up to ten pages. I’ve noticed that writing circles – genre and general – seem to last about two hours before the participants are ready to take a break and socialize.
2.What is the group goal? Is the goal to get short stories published, to work on novels, or to have a learning experience? Yes, all can happen within the same group, but it can be trickier. In our group we are published authors committed to getting more work published. We consider the publishing industry in terms of word count, what markets are open, genre, and best resources to keep track of submissions.
Other writing circles are more social – writing as a hobby and an opportunity to meet like-minded people. The focus is often writing exercises, inviting motivational speakers, or reading about a technique and then having the group respond to a prompt. Maybe there will be some guided mediation (a really neat way to interact with your subconscious).
3. When do you read the work? Ohhhhh. This is a biggie. Band shows up to practice and Henry didn’t play the cow bell at home for fifteen minutes first. Henry claims that it’s more authentic to practice together instead of isolation….I’ll play devil’s advocate because there is something to be said for each side.
Reading your work out loud to critique partners not only lets you hear the rhythm of your writing, it lets you grab a pencil and mark the typo you just found, and it lets you get honest feedback immediately. You can hear when they laugh (or don’t) at the in-text joke. You can see when their faces go slack because you’ve been describing the mural on the back wall of the dining room for three paragraphs. The experience is pretty darn close to seeing what associate editors go through with the slush pile and you have the chance to catch the “I would stop reading here” moment in your own work. Suggestion: no more than 2,500 words for this technique (about ten double-spaced pages).
Our group sends out the long piece (39 ½ pages, remember?) at least two weeks in advance of the meeting. The short pieces are sent out at least one week in advance. With more time comes more responsibility – each reader is expected to print out the work and mark it for structure, character development, plot arc, and grammar. We discuss the ‘big’ issues in group, but then hand over the marked copy for the writer to take home and comb through. One strength of having a buffer between reading and commenting is that the reader will often engage with the text and offer solutions to the writer. Note: Agreeing to read ahead of time and then ‘faking’ it by flipping through the pages when you need to comment is grounds for being kicked out of Writers’ Club.
4) Who is in charge? That’s right. Who is singing the solos here? The dictator model works really well – one person arranges the meeting time, date, and location. He or she will monitor time and keep the conversation on task. There might be a checklist (i.e. character development, tension, and, hey, didn’t you steal that plot from a Lifetime movie? ).
Our group is mature enough (read: controlling) that we all want a turn. So, whoever had their long piece critiqued gets to be group leader for the next meeting. And so it goes.
Look, there are going to be any number of opportunities for creative differences and personality differences. We are ARTISTS. That said, get thee to a garage and start your editing.
P.S. Let me know in the comments if your group has any unusual guidelines, or better yet, tell me horror stories, except, you know, change the name so Bill becomes Pill and every time he’d change one comma in a ten page story, he’d bring it back to be critiqued all over again…