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A critique system that works

For the last year, I’ve been in my first-ever in-person critique group. Julie Coulter Bellon, Emily Gray Clawson and I started off with a fairly typical arrangement for critique groups: meeting a couple times of month, exchange one or two short chapters for each meeting, read and critique those chapters for one another in advance, then read them aloud and share notes at the meeting.

Until two of the three of us didn’t really *have* a next chapter. I’d just been reading about Kristen Lamb’s concept critique, which dovetailed really well with something I’ve long worried about with the traditional critique group format.

You see, if you meet twice a month and do one or two chapters at each meeting, it will take at the bare minimum six months to read an entire manuscript—if your book isn’t overly long and you’re going as fast as the critique group can accommodate you. If you only do one chapter at each of your bimonthly meetings, it could take you over a year to get through a single novel.

My impatience to get working on the next draft notwithstanding, it’s very difficult to critique a novel as a cohesive whole in this method. After more than a year, do you remember the opening chapters very well? How can you be sure the author has fulfilled the promise of the opening and the premise s/he began with? How can we judge the pacing when we read without any pace? How can we make sure the character arcs and story structure are working? How easy is it to to follow an author down a tangent rabbit hole reading a novel one chapter every fortnight?

While I do like having line edits from my critique partners, I’m unconvinced that’s the best use of all of our time. After all, a beautifully written story can still be fatally flawed and ultimately fall flat for readers—and traditional critique groups may be powerless to prevent that.

So sitting in our fourth or so meeting, facing the possibility that our brand new group might fizzle and die for lack of material (seriously?!), I ventured a radical idea.

Radically rethinking the critique group

One of us had a manuscript completed and ready to go. So, I said, what if we worked only on her book? She’d submit many more chapters for our next meeting—we ended up doing about a quarter of the book at a time. Within two months, we’d finished her entire novel, and then the next person was ready.

But it wasn’t just the time factor. We were so much better able to comment on how the characters grew and changed, how well the climax fit the story, how the pacing and structure worked, and more. And we still got the line edits in (virtually all the time).

Naturally, this method won’t work for every writer, reader or group. Our group is small enough that we can easily get a couple novels in each year.

And now for something slightly different

We’ve been working that way since last March, but last night we decided to Julie suggested we change things up a little. Normally we’d still tried to read all our chapters aloud. But when those chapters amounted to practically a novella in and of themselves, our meetings ran into the wee hours of the morning (with an hour commute afterwards!).

We first tried our newer method in december out of necessity. Our socializing was taking up more and more of our meeting time—no complaints!—we had a whole bunch of chapters to finish, and . . . I pretty much totally screwed up the characterization and motivation through the whole section.

So rather than reading the chapters, we focused on the notes—not the line edits, which we’d all carefully noted, but the bigger issues plaguing those pages. It was the best, most helpful critique group session I’ve ever had. (And also the worst, but that was because my pages were apparently the weakest I’ve ever shown anyone.)

So last night, we took the same tack, focusing on our big-picture notes: the exact things that would be so much harder to do if we’d only tackled a chapter at a time.

Yes, there are advantages to reading your work aloud (and disadvantages), and having someone else read it for us, but we can still read aloud at home. In fact, ideally, I do that before I even send the chapters out. Really helps to catch long sentences.

I really love our critique system. It’s different, but it really works for us. Just see what Julie and Emily have to say about it!

What do you think? How does your critique group work? Have you ever tried an “unusual” critique group format? Come join the conversation!

Photo credits: I think I do… [Do you need to edit your friends?]—eltpics; Editor’s note—juicyrai

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16 Responses to A critique system that works

  1. shelly brown says:

    I think this is great. Different strokes for different folks. I prefer your style, where you get to the meat of the story and do it in big chunks. It’s easier to see the whole picture that way.

  2. Hey, I’d like some credit for *my* big ideas, too. :)

    It’s been a great system, but I think it’s funny we still get home in the wee hours of the morning because we always have to much to talk about (with great food to keep us going.) Can’t wait for the next one!

    • Jordan says:

      Done! And yes, we still have a LOT to chat about ;) . But also, we haven’t seen each other in 6 weeks, so we had a lot to catch up on. Right?

  3. Thank you! LOL Yeah, you’re right, we did have a lot to catch up on. But with our group I think that will always be the case! Haha. I blogged on the topic as well, today, so we can get a different take on it. :)

    Now we need Emily to blog what she thinks of this whole thing. You know, for a well-rounded view.

  4. I love our critique group, too. I’ve tried three other groups, two in person and one online, and none of them ever worked for long. I think that it just takes trial and error to get the right combination of strengths, personalities and commitment. I especially appreciate our willingness to adapt as needed to find what works best. And yes, my pages are bleeding but it’s rather like life-saving surgery. We had to cut the thing to pieces in order to save its life. I am so grateful for that horrid seminar that brought us together!

  5. Pingback: The magic of critique group | Emily Gray Clawson

  6. Kierstin Marquet says:

    I recently joined two critique groups in my area. I’m kinda weird in that I love being critiqued BECAUSE it makes my writing stronger. One downside is when people treat you like you just rolled over yesterday and said, “I’m going to write a novel!” I’d love to find a critique group where on the first meeting you share your strengths and weaknesses with the people you’re going to be working with. Then they know what kind of help you’re looking for and don’t embarrass themselves by telling you you don’t know what you’re talking about–when in actuality you have a degree in the subject matter, and they got their info from watching TV…

    Also both of these groups get together and have each person read 10 pages aloud. I prefer bringing their work home with me where I can concentrate on what I’m reading not trying to catch up after I make a notation. Since I’m new to both established groups, I have no idea what’s going on in their stories and don’t feel like an effective partner–about all I’m good for is picking out cliches and repetition.

    One of these groups is currently doing only fantasy novels (I’m not casting stones, I love fantasy, but those in similar genres click better) the other group had some pretty…steamy scenes…which had me checking my watch hoping for a conclusion soon. If there is anyone interested in starting an online critique group with fast-paced, LDS standards novels, (that isn’t swamped with other responsibilities–no pressure) please let me know. I’ll drop these two like a hot rock.

    • Jordan says:

      I hear you, Kierstin. Have you looked into Critters Ink? It’s a Yahoo group of authors, and they have smaller critique groups within the group. I’m not sure how active they are at this point, but I know there are several non-fantasy authors, and they hold to LDS standards: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crittersink/

  7. Kevin says:

    Hi, I think your methods are quite interesting altho I would think a bit daunting especially for a new writer. I guess I will have to get over that embarrassed feeling about someone reading and critiquing my writing as it will help me develop my writing skills.

    • Jordan says:

      That’s a great point. We’re all experienced as authors and critiquers, but this was actually my first time in an continuing setting where I have to read my work aloud. In front of people. And listen to other people read it!

      I think something else we all agree on is that getting critiqued on a book before you’re done writing it can make it very hard to keep writing!

  8. Jami Gold says:

    Great tips, Jordan! I’ll tweet this during the week so more will see it. :)

    Your experience is exactly why I don’t have critique partners anymore. It just took too long and often focused on the wrong things.

    Now I stick with beta buddies who are at a similar writing level to me. We exchange full mss whenever we need to. That way we’re seeing the whole story at once and can find plot holes, character development issues, etc. We comment on the line-by-line stuff if it stands out to us, but otherwise don’t worry about it. Now turn-around is closer to 2 weeks. :) Glad you found something that works for you!

  9. Taffy says:

    I love my critique group too! We started out bringing ten pages and reading out loud, then in two weeks, posting online. It took so much time! This past year we decided to post a week before we met, critique, then talk about the notes instead of reading out loud. So much better! I get way more out of our meetings now.
    But it’s also frustrating because I’m ready to send this MS in and am still critiquing. I’m ready to move into the “let’s get YOUR novel finished now” mode. When your group decided to try a book at a time, how often did you meet? Still twice-a-month?

  10. James Duckett says:

    Wow, what timing. We have been looking closer at how to do our critique group and I think this addressed several of our issues. Inspired!! thanks, Jordan! I’ll share this with my group.

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