Our time. Our energy. Our resources. Our lives are continuously challenged by balance. Balance is the key to maintaining a clear focus in concerns both large and small. When people gather around a common interest, such as writing and illustrating for children, the variations within the group create a movement that can be inspiring or absolutely dizzying. Finding balance in your critique group can mean the difference between a group that is prolific and a group that fizzles.
This past August, I was fortunate to attend the SCBWI National Conference where Holly Black, co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, shared her expertise on critique groups. The following are points of balance, inspired by Holly Black’s session, that promote a healthy and long-lasting critique group.
1. Work & Social: Finding a balance between having fun and working is vital for a successful critique group. Many critique groups have an allotted time for socializing, allowing members to form connections with each other prior to critiquing manuscripts. Socializing also gives us a deeper insight into the writer or artist’s personality. When we know an artist well, we ask better questions, and good questions lead to great stories.
There has to be ample time for work. If meetings are all social, then we may not recover those lost and fallen manuscripts that are buried in the binary graveyard of our laptops. So, when it’s time to work, dig in!
2. Organization: Some people thrive on absolute structure, while others benefit from an open format. Again, striking a balance between these two methods of organization can be pivotal in uncovering a story. Organizing a meeting with elements of both open and structured time allows participants to expand on ideas while accomplishing a great deal of work.
I personally have always been a fan of the combination-platter approach. There is always something that you know you’re going to like, and there are also things that are kind of weird. The expected tastiness is filling, and “weird” is usually worth writing about.
Be open to both.
3. Leadership: The Network groups within SCBWI-Illinois have representatives that serve as facilitators for critique groups. Some writers and artists need this sort of structure to stay on task and remain focused. Other groups opt out of the single leadership role and allow leadership to evolve depending on the needs of the group.
In Holly Black’s critique group, there is no single person in charge. She noted that, when there isn’t a facilitator and everyone shares an equal role, it could be difficult when problems arise.
The key is communication. When there’s a facilitator, it’s important to let them know your concerns so that he or she may address them. If you’re in a group-led critique group, begin by laying the groundwork of honest communication. Problems will arise, but as long as we commit to speaking from our hearts, good will come of it.
4. Manuscript Review & Free Writing: The purpose of a critique group is to bring your craft to the next level. Naturally, the majority of time is spent exchanging manuscripts and illustrations, but many groups allocate time to create new work as well.
I have been writing with a group for five years, and we always include a prompt or “wild brainstorm” in our session. This gets ideas whirling and juices flowing. They’re not always great ideas (like the time I wound up with Jon Bon Jovi arriving by boat, in desperate need of a cup of sugar…tricky situation), but some of my most intriguing stories have come out of these exercises.
5. Professionalism & Friendship: Many people have a cold or rigid association with the term professionalism. This is a false association. It is absolutely possible to cultivate a friendly and professional atmosphere within a critique group. Holly noted that a critique group shouldn’t be “scary or intimidating.” A critique group welcomes the exchange and improvement of your craft. Friendliness makes the exchange safe and professionalism improves the result.
6. Writing Style: Some groups are formed out of similar interests, others out of similar personalities, and some groups have absolutely nothing in common…they just work. Whether you have a wide variety of styles in your group or every one writes rhymed board books about Bon Jovi, you need to connect with the writing in order to have a successful group.
“Your critique group doesn’t have to necessarily write exactly what you like,” Holly says, “but they should have the same taste in books—otherwise they won’t get you. You really have to love each other’s writing or you won’t work as critique partners.”
7. Career Pacing: Inevitably, members of the group will have varying degrees of success. “This can be difficult,” Holly says, “as relationships have to adjust to this.”
The idea of a critique group is to further the story, further the artist, further the career. There will be other people in the group who are further along, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s fantastic! Knowing actual people who are ahead in the process is a great relief to me. Embrace the different points in everyone’s career; each individual’s perspective is beneficial for its own reason.
8. Meeting Frequency: Most of the “official” SCBWI critique groups meet once a month, but smaller groups meet on a weekly basis. Meeting frequency varies as much as the individuals in the group.
If you are an SCBWI-Illinois member interested in joining or forming a critique group, visit http://www.scbwi-illinois.org/CGQ.html to print the Critique Group Questionnaire, then complete it and mail it to Critique Group Coordinator Teresa Owens Smith (PhDTree@aol.com). She’ll do her best to match your needs, interests, and schedule with those of other SCBWI-Illinois members.
A critique group is a place for support, not comparison. We can’t get down on ourselves because of someone else’s success. Holly reminds us, “Your job as a critique partner is helping them write the story they want to tell.” Keep the focus on the story, the art, and the heart of its purpose. As Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.” Be a person who helps set the story free.
The Prairie Wind. www.scbwi-illinois.org (September 2009)