Tuesday 16 April 2019

Setting Up a Critique Group by Claire Fayers

A lot of people have written on the subject of critiquing before, but it’s something that’s fresh on my mind. A couple of months ago, I got together with another Cardiff SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) member to set up a critique group for middle-grade and young adult fiction.

These are some of the considerations we faced. I hope they’ll be useful to others setting up or running groups.

Know your group

We have a mixed bunch in Cardiff. A couple are just starting out. A couple are Golden Egg Academy members and progressing rapidly. One person is getting ready to submit his first novel. And one person is published.

Could we set up a group that would meet at least some of the needs of such a diverse mix of writers?

Where, When and What?

We tried an online critique group once before and it never got off the ground. The first problem was time – with six or seven members, even if we limited everyone to a 1500 word extract a month, it was a big commitment for the critiquers. The second problem was the way we wrote. Our group is full of pantsters – writing by the seats of our pants and making stuff up as we go. Very often, by the time we received comments on an extract, we’d already deleted that bit from our work in progress, or changed it beyond recognition.

A traditional crit group, then, was probably not going to work. Instead, we decided to meet every other month, in people’s homes. This would be easier than trying to book a venue and would (we hoped) create a more casual, friendly atmosphere.

Each meeting would be based around a topic, and we’d try a mix of discussion and writing exercises. In our planning meeting, we quickly came up with a long list of topics: Editing, world building, characters, dialogue, humour, pacing. And then there were the different genres and the differences between middle-grade and young adult fiction. Within ten minutes we had enough subjects to keep us going for years.

This was also supposed to be a critique group, however, so we would use the time between meetings to restart the online critique.

Rules of engagement

We didn’t set many rules for the critiquing as we want it to be as easy as possible, but there were a few to help us along.

Critiquing is all carried out via a Dropbox folder, which everyone is expected to access. Communication about the group has so far been carried out on the SCBWI Wales Facebook group but I can see us setting up an email list for members in the future. The whole aim is to make everything as easy as possible for people to connect. 

  • The author may submit an extract of 1,500 words maximum, plus a short outline. Preferably in double-spaced, 12 point font so it’s easy to read.
  • The author should ask one or two specific questions about aspects of their work.
  • There will be deadlines for submission of work and submission of critiques.
  • If you submit an extract, you must critique the rest of the group’s work.

You’ll notice that most of these rules are aimed at the author. We didn’t do this deliberately, but it struck me later that we talk a lot about how to give a critique and a lot less about how to receive one. Make it easy for a reader and you improve your chances of getting feedback that will help you.

Does it work?

It’s early days yet. We have had our first meeting and done the first round of critiques. But I think this hybrid meet-up/online model might work for us. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.

Claire Fayers is the author of The Accidental Pirates duo, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound, all published by Macmillan Children's Books.

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