Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Beginning a Critique Group

Week of February 5: The Power of Critiques
Tuesday, February 7: 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, and hunted, and emailed—still 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 one.
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 really 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 level 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 and sent out an email to members in our area. Soon I began to receive 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 group:

Picture Books & Java
Tampa Bay, Florida

The members of PB&J meet twice a month 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 second and fourth Wednesdays of each month from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble at 213 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL 33609 (between I-275 and Kennedy Blvd.).
All PB&J members have the goal of meeting together twice a month. We recognize that there may be times when a member cannot attend a meeting or does not have a manuscript to submit. We hope those times will be few and far between, however.

Adding New Members/Size of Group
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 realize that our group size may eventually need a limit.

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 picture book 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 meeting. 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. Printed manuscripts will be given back to the author.

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.

Guests at Meetings
As a rule, we do not have guests sitting in on our meetings. However, from time-to-time that may happen. While we certainly want to be friendly to a guest, the guest will be expected to observe the meeting and not interject comments during the meeting. If time allows at the end of the meeting, the guest may ask questions or make comments about the group, but not about manuscripts being critiqued.

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 six members. One member now has a publishing deal and others have had great feedback and nibbles. We are confident it is 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 life. We’re a great little group.

Since starting PB&J I’ve also started an online group. I met Linda, Aimee, and Kari-Lynn at the SCBWI, LA, in August 2011. Kari-Lynn knew Val and I knew Lynne-Marie and soon we were a group (one Californian, three Canadians, and two Floridians). Four members of the group are published or have publishing contacts for picture books and another member just got an agent. A second group offers a whole other set of critiques, opinions, and insights. I am one lucky critique group “:leader.”

It’s Your Turn!
1. If you are looking for a critique group, I encourage you to consider starting one yourself.


Pam said...

I've just joined a critique group and am excited and anxious. I am a first time writer and therein lies the anxiety. However, you've listed some helpful tips. Thank you.

Jackie Castle said...

I've been blessed to be part of a critique group for most of my writing life. They are invaluable and very much needed if a writer hopes to some day get published.

We need a fresh eye to see our work for what it really is.

I do agree, you need to find a group of people with a common interest. Those writing historical fiction don't really understand what goes behind writing a picture book. Though they can be some help, nevertheless.

Great post.

Yvonne Mes said...

Just starting up a new PB face to face critique group.

These guidelines are a great
example, thank you for posting these.

Would you mind if we used the 'Critique Guidelines' portion as part of our own guidelines?

Rob Sanders said...

Yvonne, I'm glad you found the post helpful. Feel free to use the guidelines. Best of luck with the new critique group! RS