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Inkcouragement: Everyone’s A Critic

August is Inkcouragement critique month, and to start, we're looking at writing groups.

Inkcouragement: Everyone’s A Critic

Hi all! It's your Inkcouragement editor here, stepping in for Leah.

This month, we're looking at critique -- how to find it, how to receive it, and what to do with it when you have it. Are you afraid to show anyone your work? (*raises hand*) Are you a seasoned pro? Do you have a writing group, or do you not even know where to begin?

Today we have some writers (Amanda K. of our Supernatural recaps, Brittany and Danielle from NYC FYA, and Carmen's writer/illustrator friend & colleague Joyce) chiming in to talk about the different kinds of writing groups there might be, what challenges we face, and how different groups handle the process. We're curious how you'd answer the same questions -- and if you don't have a writing group, do you have a different way of seeking critique? Do you prefer not to seek critique? Tell us in the comments!

Finding Your Tribe

How did you find your writing group?

Joyce: I have had two writing groups. The first group I had in Michigan and blindly met through email via the SCBWI forum. We got together because we all did picture books and lived somewhat in the same vicinity. 

My second and current group met at a regional SCBWI (San Francisco South) conference during lunch - you know, the conference lunches where you awkwardly sit with strangers and make small talk and hope you have more to talk about than the conference food. We all happened to hit it off and have been a group for a year and a half.

Amanda K.: I found the group through Meetup, but you can also join an organization (RWA, SCBWI) and be matched up.

Brittany: I took a class through the Gotham Writer's Workshop and when the course ended, a few classmates and I decided to continue on meeting and workshop-ing each other's stuff.

Danielle: I'm part of a local industry group called "Young to Publishing," and one of the girls there decided to start up writing groups.  We all met for an introductory session and talked with everyone there, and wrote down who we wanted to work with, speed dating style.  Then, the girl who had organized it put everyone into groups of 5-6 participants.


How is your group structured?

Joyce: There are four in our group. We meet once a month at one of the members’ house - she is centrally located. We start the meetings with a little chit-chat and some news - something someone has learned from a blog or a conference, or news about someone’s latest query. Then, we start the critiques. We meet on a Tuesday evening, so the weekend before, we would have sent our submission via Google Docs to the group. We add comments which everyone can view. Then at the meeting, we elaborate on the comments, answer questions and bounce ideas off each other. Each person gets 20 minutes. We started using a timer to make sure we don’t get off track.

Amanda K.: We started with 9 participants that fell to 7 then to 6 then back up to 8. We met once a month, and during meetings we spoke briefly about what was happening in our writing lives (positives, setbacks, submitting, etc.) gave a 10-20 critique of about 15-20 pages of each person's writing. Once every three months, we'd arrange a social event where we didn't critique, but tended to get more in depth about the submitting process, how to find an editor, recommendations on revision books, etc.

Brittany: We started with around 6-7, meeting every week, and actually writing. Then it slowly dribbled down to 5 regulars, still meeting weekly but more hanging, less writing. And then the weekly thing kind of phased out and our schedule became far less standard. We're trying to get back into it. We're not always the best at sitting and focusing on typing, but when we're talking it's mostly about what we're working on, and giving each other advice and ideas based on what we're struggling with. Our biggest struggle is always where to meet, we live all over the city and outside it.

Danielle: Our group officially has 6 members, but meetings have become pretty sporadic.  Usually, there are about 3 of us, and we meet anywhere from once a week to once every 2 months.  We use our meetings as dedicated writing time.  We've workshopped twice in about 2 years.

How do you handle conflict or a "poor fit" in your group?

Joyce: I really wanted to like [my first writing] group, but it turned out to be a “poor fit”. One glaring problem was that the others in the group had a hard time relating to my multicultural characters (for example, one person in the group, in a naively color-blind way, wondered why write a picture book with a biracial character, what’s the big deal?) I took an easy way out of this group - I am an illustrator as well, so I politely excused myself from the group saying that I was going to focus solely on illustration. This was true, I needed a break from writing and I became part of a wonderful illustration group. Then, I moved out of the state. Upon leaving a group, it’s better to leave with well-wishes than good riddances.

Danielle: We used to meet at about 5:30pm, and I don't get out of work until 6:30, so I would arrive pretty late.  Once, one of the members sent me an email that basically said I should not bother coming to meetings because I was so late and should find a group with a better schedule match.  Now, he never shows up to our meetings because he has work things, and I am one of the more regular members.  We've worked to push the meeting time back to around 6, and I get out of work earlier in my current position, so it all works out.

What We've Learned

What's the most surprising thing you've learned from having a writing group?

Joyce: A surprising thing about my current group was how much I have learned from others with completely different styles of writing. It is rewarding to see how everyone’s work evolves. Writing really is a process and it’s comforting to know that there are others who are in the same boat as you. It’s motivational for my own work because I have this group of people who are pushing my writing and rooting for me, so how can I let them down? I feel like I really need to make something of my work. That’s the most important thing about finding a writing group that is a good fit;  you really do want to belong to a group who you can be comfortable learning from. When the first one of us finally gets that big break, we will all jump up and down and celebrate, because along this journey, we’ve become better writers and most importantly, we’ve become friends.

Amanda K.: Nothing lets you see the flaws in your own work so easily as becoming adept in spotting them in others. Also, I really miss the experience of hanging with people in the same boat, that WANTED SO MUCH to be writers and were actively devoting their lives to the quest, struggling with how devastating the constant isolation and rejection can be. I've never had that before or since, and it helped put things in perspective.

Brittany: Most surprising I guess is how different all of our writing styles and projects are. I'm not sure it's changed my writing process in any way, but it certainly functions to inspire me, encourage me, and kick me into gear when I get out of the game.


In your experience, what's the best attitude to approach a writing group? Do you see this as a friendship or a work collaboration?

Amanda K.: I see it as a work collaboration. Friendship makes it thornier, more personal. That doesn't mean it can't be supportive, like I mentioned above. But "work" implies commitment, and if not every single person in the group is at the same level of dedication, I think it will be bound to fail.

Brittany: I would say we've become friends, but I think it's really important that we started as a writing group first. I find the idea of sharing my writing/getting feedback from my friends really intimidating. I don't know that I could trust they weren't just being nice if they liked it, and I don't know that I could view it impersonally if they criticized it. And I'm not sure they could separate their understanding of me as a personal from what I'm writing. For the ladies in my writing group, my story was their first impression of me. They knew nothing else about me but my writing style. I think that was really important for me in order to a) feel comfortable sharing with them, b) trust their opinion, and c) know their interpretation of the story was purely their own and not based on what they know about me and how they could insert that into their understanding of what I was writing about. If that makes any sense.

Danielle: I see my group as a group of friends who gets together to write, and values each other as writers.  We can chat and hang out, and also provide writing help and advice, and the silent support of writing together.

A huge thanks to everyone who shared their input! How would you all answer the same questions?

Next time, Carmen is going to look at how to best give and receive critique (hint: flipping tables is usually frowned upon).

Still looking for a critique partner? Need a more anonymous writing group? Join the FYA Writes Google Group and introduce yourself!

Jennie's photo About the Author: Jennie Kendrick lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. She is also a literary agent. When she's not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, and thrifts for vintage everything.