Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Love-Hate Relationship of the Critique Group

"I'm done."

Those are the two words that my elementary students love to say when they're writing. But as the year goes on, and the more they get to know me, they learn to very quickly avert their eyes when those words come out of their mouths. Because I will invariably give them my Tony Soprano eyelock (that I learned from my critique group--and at teacher school, of course) and send them back to their seat to keep writing.

As writers, we love to think we're done. But it's all just pretending, isn't it? Because we are rarely ever done! And that's where my amazing critique group comes in. I call them "the indefatigables". The are relentless and they don't allow much to slip by. In fact, after our group meets, it's not unusual to get a call from one of them saying, "You know, I was thinking about your chapter, and I really think you should go back and take a look at..."

Here's the tricky thing about critique groups, though: they have to be an almost perfect blend of personalities and writing backgrounds. Critique group chemistry can be completely thrown off by so many things, negativity being at the top of the list.

I am incredibly lucky to have been with the same group of four for over seven years. We live all the way from a New York City suburb to the Connecticut/Rhode Island border--we are scattered, but we meet diligently, once a month, in the middle.

We decided early on that we weren't getting anywhere if we were just gushing over each other's work. We are critical with a positive tone, with an emphasis on the critical part. It's the only way we can make anything better. I find that I also have to really listen to what they are saying. It is human nature to get defensive when someone is criticizing you, and a writer's words are about as personal as it gets. But you will not be there to explain things when your readers are opening your book. The words on the page must be clear and able to stand alone without you there to explain what you meant to say.

It's definitely a delicate balance. Sometimes, unexplainably, the chemistry of the group is just not there. I've tried to figure out why our group works and I can't pinpoint any one thing. It's got to be a blend of respect, friendship, and honesty. A friend of mine described a group she was in several years ago that had to disband, because one person made it too caustic; her remarks were mostly negative, and she was unable (or unwilling!) to hear anything but positive comments about her own work.

Another reason that I think our group works is because we have such a nice blend of backgrounds: one person writes middle-grade and young adult and has a heavy literature background; she has an incredibly fine eye for detail. One writes M.G. and Y.A. and is a high school English teacher; she has a fantastic talent for solving plot problems. Another is an artist and a poet and always knows how to find the perfect word or phrase.

Now, stop reading this and go write. Because you know you're not done...


Michelle said...

What a wonderful description of your group! It's true, you have to trust one another and the process, and hold back on the impulse to defend your work when someone critiques it. Finding a group with that magical balance of positive attitude and brutal honesty is hard, but so worth taking the time to do.

Annie said...

Thanks, MIchelle!