Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beginning a Critique Group

Week of April 17: The Power of Critiques
Tuesday—Beginning a Critique Group

After working in a critique group with no picture book authors, I knew I needed to find people who had the same interest, industry struggles, and hopes that I did. I wanted to find a picture book critique group. I searched, and emailed, then I hunted, and emailed some more—nothing. One day, an idea struck. Why not start a picture book critique group myself?!

Well, I’ll tell you why not:
1.  I never had led a critique group before and had only been a member of a group for a short time.
2.  I didn’t consider myself an expert.
3.  I didn’t know how to lead a critique group.
4.  I didn’t know how to begin a critique group.
5.  Besides, what I really wanted was for people to help ME!

Then these answers came to me:
1.  There are many things you’ve not done before, you learned as you went along.
2.  Everyone in a critique group is an equal. There’s not a leader. (Maybe a facilitator to get things going and keep them moving, but not a leader.)
3.  I could learn.
4.  I could learn.
5.  People will help me, as I help them.

What it all came down to was one word: WILLINGNESS.

So I placed an ad in the Critique Group section of the SCBWI Discussion Boards:

Want to start a Picture Book Critique Group in the Tampa Bay area. Looking for serious writers of different experience levels who have the goal of being published.

Within 24 hours the critique group coordinator from our SCBWI region contacted me. She sent information from other critique groups to help me get started. Then she sent an email to members in our area who might be looking for a similar group. Soon I began receiving emails from potential members. I sent a survey to the prospective members asking their preferences about days and times to meet, frequency of meetings, etc. We soon had an organizational meeting and our group began. We developed these guidelines to guide our work:

picture books & java
Tampa Bay Critique Group

The members of PB&J meet monthly to critique manuscripts, learn together, and encourage one another in our writing journeys. Our ultimate goal is for all members to become published picture book authors with ongoing writing careers.

Meeting Time and Place:
We meet the third Wednesday of each month from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Borders at 909 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL 33609 (between I-275 and Kennedy Blvd.).

All PB&J members have the goal of meeting together monthly. New members will be added with the agreement of the group. The facilitator will gather names of prospective members and will ask each interested person to complete a questionnaire. The group members will overview the questionnaire before extending an invitation to join.

While we currently do not have a limit on the number of members in our group, we do want every member to receive a critique at each meeting. For that reason, we know that our group size will eventually need a limit. (NOTE: We have developed a form for prospective members to complete and we request sample writing when considering a new member.)

Meeting Guidelines:
To make the most of our short meeting time, we will stick closely to our agenda. We will begin meetings with up to fifteen minutes for sharing personal updates, writing resources, industry updates, and so on. The remaining time will be spent critiquing. The meeting time will be divided evenly among the number of critiques needed for that evening. The facilitator will determine the critique order and select a time keeper for each meeting.

Critique Submission Guidelines:
PB&J members critique manuscripts, query letters, and book pitches. An item to be critiqued must be emailed to all members of PB&J at least a week prior to the monthly meeting (or on or by the second Wednesday of the month). Members will print out each document, then read and critique each manuscript prior to the meeting. At the meeting, we will read the manuscript aloud (the author will not read his/her own writing) and then we will share critiques.

If a member submits more than one item to critique for a meeting (such as a picture book manuscript and a query letter), the member will prioritize which item needs to be critiqued first. If time allows, a member’s second submission will be critiqued after all other critiques are completed.

Critique Guidelines:
When being critiqued, listen to the complete critique of your work without interrupting. If there is time after all members have provided critiques, the author may ask clarifying questions or ask for more specific guidance. Since the time we have is divided among the number of critiques needed, a time keeper will ensure that a critique stays within its time limit.

Because PB&J members seek to provide honest feedback in a positive, constructive manner,
we use the sandwich method of critiquing. We begin with a positive comment/insight, provide constructive criticism, and end with a positive comment/insight.   

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers the following suggestions:
Criticism should be constructive and not destructive. “I didn’t like the way you wrote that” is never a valid criticism. It always helps a fellow writer to know the strengths of a manuscript as well as the weaknesses. A compliment offered first softens a “constructive” negative to follow. Try to tell your fellow writer why something doesn’t work for you and offer possibilities for change. Always be encouraging. Not everyone will respond to a manuscript in the same way. Those receiving criticism should remember that any suggestion offered can be accepted or rejected. The author has the final word on what stays.
Remember that you are in a critique group to get feedback. Try not to be defensive when you are critiqued; be good-natured about it.

A critique group can remain strong only when the sanctity of that group is respected. Thus, it is never okay to use the ideas or the research done by another member, to impose upon their contacts in the publishing world, or to reveal to others outside of the critique group any work-in-progress without the author’s express permission.

PB&J currently has seven members—five were part of the original group. One member now has a publishing deal and others have had great feedback and positive nibbles. We are confident that it is only a matter of time before we are all published. We frequently email each other with info we gathered online or at a conference and also share what’s going on in our lives. We’re a great little group that's especting great big things to happen!

It’s Your Turn!
1.If you are looking for a critique group, I encourage you to consider starting one yourself.
2. If any of our PB&J for you and your group, you are welcome to use it!

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