Monday, December 4, 2017

Critique Groups, Critique Partners: We All Got 'Em, We All Want 'Em... Part 1 by Kathy Halsey

"Now here comes the big ones. Relationships! ( critique groups) We all got 'em, 
We all want 'em.
 What do we do with 'em?
Here we go, I'll tell ya."  Fruitcakes by Jimmy Buffet

AKA "Parrothead"

I like to think of Jimmy Buffet as a philosopher of sorts. Writers of all stripes, including Parrotheads, need a well-oiled critique group. Going into my fifth year of serious writing, I know I function best  when my feedback fits what I need and I feel safe and confident about my parnters. I've been in a variety of groups over the years and thought my reflections may help our readers on designing, finding, creating the best group possible. 

With that intent, I posed these questions on Facebook to my wall and at KidLit411. Critique groups: 
  • How does yours work? 
  • How often do you meet? 
  • What is the most valuable aspect of a group to you? 
  • Why is a partner better for you than a group? 
  • How do you leave a group, start a group? 
  • Advice in general. 
Of course, the children's writing community being what it is, I had all sorts of wonderful replies which I'll share in a two part series. Today we'll focus on what I've learned and part two will cull the responses I've seen and on line resources (Stay tuned for part two January 11, 2018.) A series developed because Susan Uhlig Ford replied," I've written a number of posts on this and SCBWI guidelines. I think you're going to have too much info for one post." She was correct. 

Personal Stories and Recommendations
  1. As a newbie, it's important to join forces with folks who write for the same audience/genre that you do. I spent 1.5 years in a general group that met at an indie bookstore. Members wrote YA, fantasy, flash fiction, erotica, and memoir. I was the only picture book writer. At one meeting, the group consensus was for my Corgi story to be written in the shape of a dog. (I left that group soon after.) 
    A book in the shape of a Corgi???
  2. It may take more than a few groups to find one that meets your needs. Keep at it. I've had 3 different groups out of many I tried that worked for me. AND, if you leave a group or one disbands, try forming a partnership with former members. (That happened with my first online children's group that included Andrea J. Loney and Lindsay Bonilla. We still shared manuscripts after that.) 
    Honored ot see early versions of Andrea J Loney's book
  3. As with agent searches, know yourself and what fits your style. I learn the most when my critique groups are at similar point in their publication journey or more advanced than I am. (While in Phoenix, I met Dianne White whose debut BLUE ON BLUE was in the publishing pipeline. She carried an F&G into our meeting. Wow, how instructive was that?) 
    Dianne White shares the creation of BLUE ON BLUE at Changing Hands
  4. If you're in a critique group with more accomplished partners, try to find your own unique way of contributing. (You may have a skill, former career that intersects with writing, as I did.) I was able to introduce Dianne to the indie children's department director since I book talked there. My 15 years as a school librarian gave value to the group even though I was green in terms of craft.
  5. Assess your energy level, too. I've been in groups that met monthly, weekly, an even twice a week. (I really don't recommend that.) How long does it take you to digest feedback and rewrite? You may need a monthly group instead of one with a quicker turn around in order to do justice to your process.
  6.  Adding or losing a member may change your group dynamic more than you realize. In one longstanding critique group,  members who left and those who came on board altered our group process. Feel free to be honest and leave the group if it no longer fits you.
  7. Have at least a few loose rules to maximize time and effectiveness. How many folks get feedback a session? How long do you discuss a manuscript: 20 minutes, a half hour, as long as it takes? Written and verbal feedback or one or the other? Do you tackle big issues, line-by-line, or specific issues the writer asks to be addressed. 

What I Know Now
I've seen fruitcakes...Down in New
Orleans in the French market there are fruitcakes like you cannot
believe. New York, forget it. Fruitcake city. Down island, we've got
Fruitcakes. Spread them crumbs around. That's right, we want
'em around. Keep bakin' baby. Keep bakin'." Fruitcakes by Jimmy Buffet 

I'm the fruitcake on the left

This fruitcake has a multiplicity of riches with writing partners. I 'm in an on line group with writers from all over the United States. This brings different sensibilities and attitudes to my work. (A Texan may think differently than a New Jersey girl.) We are all querying so we critique pitches, twitter pitches, proposals and letters. We're serious students of craft and share books, webinar info (ethically, of course) and agent info. We're all experts in some area: Janie knows poetry and lyrical language, Monique has the funny bone, Pam makes us examine deeper issues, Charlotte hones in on plot points that don't work, and Melissa knows structure and creates amazing log lines. Together we feel formidable. (Suggestion  - make sure your partners have different strengths.) Finally, I have individuals I've meet at conferences or are from groups that disbanded that look at my manuscripts. I use them for new eyes on an old piece, for genres different than what our group writes, and to brainstorm new pieces. Good writers are lifelong learners and "I get by with a little help from my friends."(Wait is that another song lyric?) My critique buddies make me grow.


  1. Great tips about finding the right critique partners, Miss Kathy :) I'm thankful to be in a group with you and our other partners. Your experience as a teacher and librarian keep us on track with grammar, story structure, and searches for the right mentor texts. Looking forward to Part 2!

  2. I am in two awesome critique groups - one focused on nonfiction, and the other on writing for kids (PB, MG, YA)- but even that great span of interest/age groups works because everyone reads in all those age categories (and most of us write for more than one age). I did leave a general group because it focused on writing for adults and was more shoulder patting than useful feedback.

  3. I am so glad I finally found a group that LOVES analyzing picture books. So important to have folks that agree with how a group can engage and what tools to use to enhance each engagement. Loving it.

    1. We mix it up and that ames every Thursday fresh, Pam.

  4. Excellent tips, Kathy! Thanks for using your experiences to highlight finding the right critique for you. I'm sure those of us who participate in groups can and will identify with your words of wisdom.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Anne. It's been an interesting journey.

  5. Great tips, Kathy! My experience is all over the map, too. It's great to figure out what works for you. That said, I want to see the book shaped like a Corgi!!!!! :D

  6. Great post, Kathy! I agree with your points. I'm in 3 online groups. Each one has a different personality.

    1. Thanks - good to know that you agree so I know I'm going about this correctly.

  7. The critique group is possibly the most important tool I use. I have four. Two are in person, and two are online. One group is mostly for brainstorming. They all have different strengths, and I like to strategize who sees what. The advantage to many groups is that no one gets manuscript fatigue by seeing it over and over. The disadvantage is that it is possible to get too many differing opinions and get confused. I mostly love how a victory for one of the group is a victory for all.

  8. Great post Kathy! I'm a parrothead, too.