Tuesday 11 December 2018

On Finding 'The One' - Kelly McCaughrain

By which I mean, Critique Group, natch.
I’ve been dipping in and out of writing groups since I was 23 and it’s taken almost 20 years to find one that works for me, so, much like Carrie Bradshaw, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the course of 20 years of bad relationships* so you can avoid similar mistakes.

(*Disclaimer – these writing groups were entirely populated by lovely people who I genuinely liked and I know people got a lot out of them. They just didn’t work for me personally, for various reasons.)

So many groups are formed because someone puts a vague ad on Facebook, or because a bunch of writers vaguely know each other or are in a class together etc. It usually starts with ‘Let’s form a writing group! We’ll give feedback! Everyone’s welcome!’ To which I want to narrow my eyes and say, ‘What kind of writing group? What kind of feedback? Everyone?’  

This spirit of openness and inclusivity is all very commendable, but the more groups I’ve been to the more I think this is a terrible way to form a group. In fact, my inner secretary kinda wants there to be interviews and questionnaires and contracts and downright discrimination. This is like Match.com but much more important.



1. People have to be in the same place. This doesn’t mean that they all have to be published, or all writing YA or all ready to submit. It just means they have to have a similar level of commitment or interest in writing. I’ve been to several writing groups where the 2 hours was broken up thusly:

  • 0-90 mins – chatting about kids, childcare, the school run, jobs, holidays, kids, the price of cheese, the new restaurant in town, kids again. (I’m not even exaggerating, I timed it.
  • 90-120 mins – people reading their work out, sometimes running out of time for everyone.

I’ve even been in groups where people brought their toddlers along. I totally get that childcare can be a problem, but seriously, no one in the history of the world has ever had a focused conversation with a two-year-old in the room.

Just ask this guy
Worse than that, when a dad brings his toddler along, the women spend the entire meeting cooing, then when the dad gets up to go, leaving a mess of plates, toys and spilled apple juice, the women happily volunteer to clear it up for him. I’d like to see a mum get away with that.

The problem with these groups is not merely time management. It’s that you meet up and say, ‘How’s life?’ and they tell you. And for them, ‘life’ means kids, childcare, the school run… etc. In my new group, when I say, ‘How’s life?’ the answer is usually, ‘Oh God, it’s awful, I’ve only got two chapters done this month and I got four rejections and…’ because for them ‘life’ means ‘writing.’ We have two hours and even if we let ourselves chat for most of that time, we’d be chatting about writing.

In fact, we do this. Every other month we have a ‘social’ where we don’t critique, but somehow we end up spending the whole time talking about writing anyway. No one makes us, no one steers the conversation, we’re just all in the same place.

2. It actually does help if you all write in a similar genre. I’ve been in too many groups dominated by poets who look disgusted when you take up their time with your rambly prose (and their feedback consists entirely of telling you to cut words like ‘of’ and ‘the’).

I’ve also been in groups with crime and sci fi writers. It’s not that you can’t, on some level, usefully critique a genre you don’t read, but you can only go so far with it. In our group we’re all children’s writers. A bit of diversity can be nice, but I’ve found the most useful feedback for me comes from people who write for older kids and teens.

3. Never assume people want the same things out of the group that you do. This is hugely important if you’re going to give feedback.

I’ve been in lots of groups with people for whom writing was a hobby, therapy, a social activity etc. And there is nothing wrong with that. But I need to know what kind of writer you are before I critique your work, because otherwise me telling you that your heartfelt story about the death of your granny is unpublishable mush may be not just hurtful but pointless (I would never actually do this btw).

The different species of writer inhabiting the Critique Group Savannah seem to include the following:
  • There are people who take writing very seriously and it means a lot to them, but they have no ambitions to be ‘good’ at it in the publishable sense, and they really don’t need to be told that their cat poetry is never going to be accepted by Granta. Actually I greatly envy these writers. They seem to be people who have life sussed and they don't crave your approval anyway.
  • There are writers who dash off a paragraph on the way to the meeting, are convinced it’s brilliant and have no interest in editing it.
  • There are writers for whom writing is the only way they can deal with terrible issues in their lives and it’s messy because it has to be.
  • There are writers who are starting out and have zero confidence and very thin skins and the smallest critique will put them off forever.
  • There are writers who will simply not see the twenty compliments you paid their work but get obsessed with the three negatives you mentioned (I think this is most people actually) and run home crying.
  • There are writers who ask you for feedback but what they really mean is ‘I want my work to be read. And I want you to tell me it’s brilliant’.

Nothing wrong with any of this.

But if you find yourself in a group with these people, you still have to sit there and give ‘feedback’, which involves struggling to come up with compliments, eventually giving up and asking how the cat is and then wasting another hour talking about cats. 

So. Find a group where everyone wants the same kind of critique you do. And be upfront about this in your first meeting. ‘Hi, I’m Kelly, I’m in the early stages of a YA novel and I’d like you to point out the crap bits because if you don’t, my editor will, and frankly I’d rather hear it from you.’ 

In my new group, we send pieces round for critique and attach a note to say, ‘I know the timescale is wrong but I’d like to know what you think of the main character/the dialogue/the pace’ etc so people know what to focus their critique on. We are of course always nice but we wouldn’t be doing anyone any favours if we weren’t also honest about the improvements.

4. In most groups that I’ve been to, people read their work aloud at the meeting. There is lots that I hate about this.

  • It’s usually done in a noisy cafĂ©. 


  • The pieces have to be short. I can’t seem to write a short story that’s less than 4000 words so this doesn’t work for me.
  • I find it easier to process something I’ve read than something I’ve listened to. Asking me for feedback on something I’ve heard once is pointless. You’ll get a superficial first impression and that’s it. ‘I really liked the last sentence’ (because that’s all I can remember). 

In my new group we choose three or four people for each meeting and they send their pieces out by email in advance. Everyone reads them at home and writes feedback which they bring to the meeting to discuss. (I actually think the entire process could be done by email, but I’ve promised my mother I will leave the house sometimes.)

5. Most groups only allow you to read/critique very short pieces. This works on one level – the sentence level. A page is perfectly adequate for you to tell if someone needs to tighten up their sentences, use fewer adverbs, lose the dialogue tags, vary the sentence length, stop repeating words etc. You can tell if someone is capable of producing quality prose. 

But what it will never tell you is if they’re capable of structuring a whole story or novel. Can they make the character’s personality consistent over 60,000 words while still making their internal development believable? Can they maintain a reader’s interest for a whole book? Does the ending answer the questions posed in the beginning? Does the pace of their thriller gradually ramp up? Are the characters’ goals relatable? Are the themes hackneyed? There is so much more to writing a novel than putting good sentences together.

And I suspect that lots of writers go through years of perfectly good critique group membership and yet the first time they ever get feedback like this is when they start sending whole manuscripts out to agents and editors. And probably those agents and editors won’t bother with feedback but if they do, it’s likely to say that the writing is great (that’s why they bothered reading it, that’s why they’re writing to you) but there are problems with the structure/themes/pace/characters etc. *cue writer collapsing in despair because they’ve never before had feedback that involved such big and integral changes*

I think most writers very quickly get beyond the point where they need someone to point out their typos and overuse of adjectives, and yet this is all most groups and classes seem to focus on.

Time is of course the limiting factor, but there are ways round it. In our group, the three people up for critique only send 2000 words out, but we also have a shared Google Drive where you can post longer pieces (whole novels if you want) and people have the option of critiquing those if they have the time. This has been hugely helpful for me.

Feedback is a big deal. I’ve considered signing up as a mentor or editor, offering critiques for fellow YA writers and one of the things that puts me off is the idea that these would be complete strangers who, even if you ask them in advance, ‘How honest do you want me to be?’, might not tell you honestly how honest they want you to be and you could end up really destroying someone. I’ve had major projects just die on me because of one line of criticism that I felt was insurmountable. I don’t want to do that to anyone.

So I don’t take critiquing lightly, I think a lot about any feedback I give. I think a lot of heartache could be avoided if we just chose our critique groups wisely and had actual discussions about how we want them to go and not just how much cake* we should consume.

*There should, of course, be cake.

If you have any other tips for running successful critique groups, or avoiding bad ones, please do share them!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk 



Hilary Hawkes said...

I find myself agreeing with you 100%. I've never really liked going to critique groups and sadly never found a helpful one. They are though, as you say, full of lovely and enthusiastic people. What worked better for me was having one or two experienced and published author friends who wrote in the same genre and who gave honest feedback. I also signed up to mentorship schemes where the mentors were ex editors or agents with lots of experience of commissioning books and working with authors. Of course that route is expensive but I feel it's worth it if you're serious and wanting to improve structure, characterisation etc.

Rev Tony B said...

I wanted to interrupt this with bouts of applause. The last critique group I went to was very well run - the guy leading it allowed no room for small talk and asked for feedback to be 'two gold stars and a question mark', ie, two positive things and one that might be done better. All the same, I didn't go back. I found out when I got there that I was the only published writer there, so I suspect they all hated me.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

True, Hilary, I think you get to a point where you need some professional feedback and it can definitely be worth it. And author friends are worth their weight in books. It's very hard to find the right group. You'd think in the age of internets and social media it would be simpler. But then, people thought that about dating too.

Penny Dolan said...

This is such an excellent and positive analysis of the many problems with critique groups, Kelly, particularly the matter of the length of the various poems versus (for the fiction writer) their relative snippets of prose.

A feature I've noticed in one group (at least) was that, after someone had read, a dominant person in the group would say "that reminds me of the time when . . " and the whole critique faded away and became a performance by & for the local raconteur.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Sounds like a perfectly good group, but just the wrong one for you, Tony. I don't think it's so much about being published or not, but there has to be a similar level of commitment or ability, or the same goals maybe. Hope you find a group soon!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

LOL, Penny, was it a man? I was going to add the fact that when there's a man in the group they tend to dominate conversation and expect to be listened to with absorbed fascination, and they especially love it when they're the only man in a group of women, but I didn't want to get roasted for being sexist! Just my (very limited, TBF) observations.

Susan Price said...

Great post -- very funny and honest. And completely sums up why I've never been a member of a writing group. Besides, it would mean leaving the house (and I haven't made any promises to my mother.)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Leaving the house is definitely overrated, Susan. I await the age of virtual reality with eager anticipation.

Sue Ncholson said...

Great article. I realise I'm so lucky with mine. Just four of us, meet once a month for a face-to-face crit, send each other our chapters a few days before so there's time to absorb/comment, then we go for it, taking it in turns to comment/discuss/review (no one reading aloud) with a glass of wine at the if anyone has time/inclination to talk family/other stuff. Helps that we're all at a similar stage of writing. Would be bereft without them!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Sue, that sounds a lot like our group. Except the wine because we meet in a cafe on Saturday mornings. Excellent suggestion though!

Sheila C said...

In my writing for children group (which I dearly love) the chat drives me mad but when I suggest we move on to the actual critting I'm made (quite unwittingly I believe) to feel like a spoilsport, like the unpopular child, who if the teacher leaves the classroom, says 'we're supposed to be getting on with our work.' We email the work a week in advance and the critiquing itself is always helpful, although in any group I've been to, including mine, there's always one person who says there was lots of info missing so they couldn't quite get it - when you've sent it round with a title saying Chapter 15 and a header in italics giving the story-so-far. I totally agree about the unsatisfactory nature of 'bite-size'critiques and I too, had to be told by agents that my story arc was not up to scratch. One agent wants to see it again when that's been sorted though, so it's not all bad and my group have offered to read the revised novel when I think it's ready. I'll definitely take them up on that.

Morna said...

Aah! Kelly - brilliant post. I love our group - so glad it's working for you!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Sheila, I was that child. I'm still that child. I totally sympathize. Good luck with the agent!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

It's great, Morna. True love at last :D

Julie Sullivan said...

I haven't decided whether to look actively for a crit group (I currently live in a rather remote area), or try to find one online, or just plough ahead and do without one. I found this post really useful in explaining why I haven't found the right crit group yet, and what to look for. Thanks!

Penny Dolan said...

You guessed! And more than one of them. :-)

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Julie. I think online crit groups could be great but ideally I'd like to have met the people IRL too. It could feel a bit impersonal otherwise. I'm quite grateful to live in a city (albeit a small one) where there is a bit of choice at least. Otherwise I'd probably be ploughing on alone. Having said that, I wrote my first book without a crit group so it's definitely possible.

Sophia Bennett said...

I loved this, Kelly! So much good advice.