Tag Archives: critique group

When No Monkeys Show Up: Why Creating Critique Group Bylaws Is Vital for Success

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Happy Monday, Everyone! I hope you all enjoyed your weekend, and if you worked, I hope that at least you weren’t bored out of your brain. Part of what I did this weekend was chat with some new friends about creative endeavors. Turns out we’re all writers!

This led to offers and agreements to read each others’ works, which got me thinking about my previous experiences with beta reading, specifically participating in critique groups.

While critique groups can foster a highly beneficial, symbiotic relationship, they can also be detrimental. It all depends on who’s in the group and how the group operates. But how can anyone know what a group’s expectations are, if there’s no document outlining the rules—well, more like strongly encouraged guidelines?

When I joined my first critique group, I knew that we were to turn in at the most ten double-spaced pages a month and that we had to attend most monthly group meetings. However, that’s where the rules ended, and it was all too soon that I wished there were more obligations. The meetings turned into social hours, and it wasn’t long before people were showing up late or not at all. One day, via a Facebook message, the group leader abruptly announced that the group was going to be online only and people could turn in work if they felt like it.

That was over a year ago. No one has turned in a single word.

My current writing group is very different. I founded it, and the group encompasses some individuals from my graduate writing program. The group’s name is “The Writers’ Syndicate” and we have bylaws. These rules state the group’s purpose, membership requirements and expectations, meeting scheduling, preparation, and structure, the addition of new members, and events/retreats.

While the final document can come across as strict, we’re a fun-loving group of serious writers, and because we all understand how easy it is to let writing fall to the side—everyone has other obligations, like full-time jobs, family and friends, etc.—we wanted to have rules firmly in place.

I’ve included my group’s bylaws below, if you’d like to use them as a reference for creating your group’s bylaws. Take a look!

The Writers’ Syndicate Bylaws

Purpose

The Writers’ Syndicate was created to aid in developing writers’ work through honest and rigorous feedback; to encourage and help writers to submit their work for publication; and to provide a supportive and encouraging environment and network. The critique group is based on the workshop style.

Membership Requirements

  • Members are fiction writers, either working on novels and/or short stories.
  • Members are serious about their craft.
  • Members are ultimately pursuing publication.
  • Members are able to receive criticism of their work, and are able to provide detailed and helpful criticism of other members’ writing.
  • Members are able to consistently attend meetings.

Note: Non-active members may remain a part of the group. However, their non-active status may last no longer than three months. After three months, their membership will come under review, to be decided if the member must become active to remain in the group, or due to circumstances can remain non-active.

Non-active members will not submit any work to be critiqued; they will not critique any other members’ work.

Meeting Scheduling

  • The Writers’ Syndicate meets one evening biweekly, from 6:00 pm to approximately 8:00 pm.
  • Meeting locations will be set to accommodate all members, and will be agreed upon by all members.

Meeting Preparation 

  • Two to three members’ submissions will be critiqued at each meeting.
  • Submissions will be no more than 25 pages apiece. (There will be a one or two page leniency to reach a chapter or story ending.)
  • Submissions for meetings will be sent out at least one week prior to the scheduled meeting.

Meeting Structure

  • The first 15-20 minutes having snacks/dinner, talking freely, and sharing any interesting and helpful writing tips or resources, books, or links discovered.
  • All members will participate in a verbal critique. Verbal critique times will be divided evenly between all works submitted at the current meeting.
  • The member whose work is being critiqued cannot speak during the critique. The member will have time after the critique to address any questions or concerns.
  • Each member will supply a written critique for each piece submitted at the meeting.

Member Expectations 

  • Members should strive to submit work and provide written critiques when appropriate, and to attend all meetings. Advance notification must be given when a member cannot meet the following expectations.
  • Members must be supportive and respectful of other members.

Addition of New Members

  • Active members may introduce potential new members to the group. But the group must unanimously agree on the new member, and the new member must meet all membership requirements.
  • Prospective new members must submit a writing sample to the group, and attend a critique meeting once each member has reviewed the writing sample prior to the prospective new members acceptance into the group.

Events/Retreats: 

  • Holidays: Members can bring holiday related treats to the meeting that takes place closest to a holiday.
  • Writing Conferences/Readings: Members are encouraged to attend at least one writing conference and/or reading during the year.
  • Annual group getaway: Attendance is encouraged, but not required. Members will plan a trip together, and the trip will focus on group bonding.

Note: Non-members may attend the annual getaway, as long as members are given advance notice.

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What do you think? Have you had a positive or negative experience with critique groups? Share in the comments section! I’d love to hear from you.

(Photo courtesy of Sally T. Buck.)

Writing Critique Groups: Are They Worth It?

When it comes to writing a novel, short story, poem, etc. it’s essential to get outside opinions. Or, more specifically, to get critical feedback of your work. Your work will not be the best it can be without at least a few other people reading and critiquing it.

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Why?

You are too close to your work. There comes a point during the writing process where you can’t see the holes within your story. You can’t tell what is unclear or missing or out of order. Just because everything makes sense in your head doesn’t mean it does so on paper.

For this reason alone, it’s a good idea to consider joining a critique group. (Not to mention that sometimes family members, significant others, and the like aren’t the best people to be handing your work in progress to. Many times they won’t give you valuable feedback, or you won’t be honestly open to listening to their critiques.)

Critique groups can also provide a sense of community, support, accountability, and seriousness, as well as take your work to the next level (and hopefully result in getting your work published).

However, finding the right critique group is essential. Without the correct people, a critique group could do more damage than good. Like aiding in the formation of bad writing habits. Or lacking/skewing perspective. Or over-explaining every little detail within your story.

How can this happen?

Often times, a critique group meets once or twice a month, and will set a limit to the number of pages read between meetings. In my previous critique group, we met once a month. There were five of us within the group, and though we were all fiction writers with a tendency to write fantasy/science fiction (and thus were familiar with what type of content went into such works), we only read ten pages from each person a month.

See some problems?

  • With having so much time between meetings, it was easy to overlook what we’d wanted to say about each other’s work.
  • With reading so few pages a month, it was even easier to forget the overall story line. So, while we were able to adequately comment on a page by page basis, the general story could have some major problems that went unnoticed. (And they did… I remember having to go back and re-read sections of my cohorts’ stories from months ago because I couldn’t recall what had happened and thus was confused with the current submission.)
  • Have you done the math yet? If a novel is 250 words per page (double spaced) and a book is 80,000 words, and we only read 10 pages a month…that’s over a year to read a work in progress one time through! Not very effective.

But, if you find the right critique group, you will be a lot better off than you were before.

My current critique group is made up of individuals from my MA in Writing program. We’ve all been through the program’s classes and writing workshops. We’re all familiar with each other’s works, personalities, feedback styles, etc. More importantly, we know how to workshop and have all built up a thicker skin, so that when we receive negative feedback, we’re better equipped to handle it. (This doesn’t mean that we don’t get mad at the individual(s) ripping apart our work, but we know to take a breath (or several), calm down, and then, more objectively, take another look at what was said. Often times, but not always, that individual(s) had a valid point.)

The group I’m presently in also moves at a faster pace and meets more often than my previous group, which is great because we get more accomplished, can remember what happened, are more structured, and look at both the big and small pictures. It doesn’t hurt that we’re all nit-picky with editing, so after looking at the bigger issues, we’ll go back and tear apart all the smaller ones.

As a side note, it’s good to also have a few beta readers. A beta reader is different from a critique group in that a beta reader usually reads the entire novel before providing feedback. Beta readers won’t comment on the smaller problems, but they’ll see the big holes within your work that your critique group might miss.

What do you think of critique groups? Is it worthwhile to be a part of one?

(Photo courtesy of Paolo Fefe’.)

Don’t Careen Off that Ledge: Keep on Track with Your Writing

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It can be a challenge to stay focused on your writing, especially if you don’t have anyone helping to keep you accountable for your novel. So what do you do when you’re sitting in front of your computer, staring at the word document in front of you and feeling like you would rather be anywhere else but working on your novel?

One thing to do is to give yourself some space from your writing. If you’re sick of your novel and are being unproductive, then it would be better to take some time off from writing. The trick here is to give yourself a time limit. Whether its three days, one week, or two weeks, you have a set date at which you’ll go back to your writing.

Another option is to make a writing schedule. This has two parts:

  1. Set dates for your writing, such as when you plan on having the first three chapters written by or when you want to have the first draft of the novel written.
  2. Know your most productive writing time. Are you most creative and focused in the morning, afternoon, evening? Try to work your schedule around to be able to write when you’re most productive.

Join a critique group. This is a great way to be held accountable for getting pages written by a certain date. Plus, you’ll be getting feedback on your writing and you’ll have a support group made up of other writers, who understand the frustrations, high points, and pitfalls of writing.

Break the novel down into scenes. Sometimes thinking about how you have to write an 80,000 word novel can be daunting, and discouraging. So rather than focusing on the big picture, think of the novel in terms of scene. A scene isn’t that big. It’s typically a chapter or part of a chapter. Before you know it, your scenes will add up to that 80,000 word goal (or whatever word count you’ve set for yourself).

Probably the most important thing to remember is that writing should be fun. It’s so much easier to write about something you enjoy, and since writing a novel is a huge endeavor, why would you spend so much time writing something you didn’t enjoy?

How do you keep yourself on track?

(Photo courtesy of Pixshark.)

Getting a Leg Up: Improving Your Chances of Getting Published

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I’m always searching for ways to improve my chances of getting published. No matter what avenue you pursue getting published is a challenge. Many times it seems more about luck than talent or perseverance, though without staying power the chances of getting published are reduced to zero.

I’ve joined a critique group, taken creative writing classes, read several creative writing books, analyzed commercially successful novels, and am now working toward a Masters in Fiction Writing. All of this done in an effort to polish my work into a piece of writing an agent and then an editor will take on.

wanted lit agentBut even as I do all of this I know my chances are still slim. And before I go off on a bunny trail and start talking about how many poorly written novels end up being bestsellers (readability is one of the most important aspects of successful commercial fiction, not literary finesse), I would love to know what others are doing to improve their chances of getting published.

Currently, there’s the debate of whether or not to pursue an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in creative writing. Thousands of people apply each year to get into this program, while each year thousands snub the program. Real fast: an MFA is a terminal graduate degree, usually taking two to three years to complete, that offers students the opportunity to focus on their writing and grow as writers. Students participate in traditional style classes and workshops, where they read and critique other students’ work and where their work is read and critiqued.

One of the best attributes of the MFA is the opportunity to have your work read and critiqued. The program provides you with a community of writers that will give honest and thorough feedback on your writing. Sometimes when you have family or friends read your work, they’ll want to be encouraging, and so will be afraid of truly critiquing your novel. When you’re in a workshop setting, that is not the case. You will get straightforward and truthful feedback, whether you want to hear it or not.

An MFA program also teaches you to read with a critical eye. As I’ve delved deeper into the literary world, I’ve noticed my reading style changing. Whereas I used to read solely for pleasure, now I automatically dissect technique and literary elements within any work of fiction I read. On one hand this is great because I come away with a better understanding of the work I just read. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy books as much as I used to because I can better pick out the inconsistencies, plot holes, flat characters, etc. Though in order to improve as a writer, you have to learn what to avoid when writing, and one of the best ways to learn that is to become a critical reader.

As with all programs, there are downsides to the MFA. One, there’s the cost. Very few programs cover expenses. Most will cost students anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000. That’s a lot of money for a degree that provides little opportunity in the professional world!

There are no guarantees that you’ll get published. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and years of your life focusing on improving your work, and nothing may come of it. One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear is to not quit their day job.

Also, an MFA tends to be literary. If your focus is commercial, it’ll be challenging to get accepted into such a program. The literary world tends to snub the commercial world, while the commercial world doesn’t care all that much for the literary one. As stated earlier, one of the biggest proponents of having a commercially successful novel is readability. I’ve read many novels where the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, where the plot is nothing new, and where the writing is average at best, but I’ve come away liking the books because of their readability. (Literary fiction usually doesn’t promote readability to the extent of well-crafted writing.)writer

In the end, what you choose to do to improve your writing will be based on personal preferences, what you can afford, and what other successful writers in your genre have done.

I’m happy with my decision to work toward a Masters in Fiction Writing part time (this is different from an MFA) because it gave me a group of writers and professors – all published – who provide me with feedback for my work and gave me a group of people who understand what it’s like to pursue writing seriously and who know how difficult it is to be successful in the literary world.

No matter what it’s important to read and read widely. Reading books in your genre is vital, but so is reading books outside your genre. Join a critique group, and in doing so be open to (1) putting in the work and (2) being open to criticism. (I recently learned of a critique group where everyone wants their work read and critiqued, but very few want to read and critique anyone else’s work. Reciprocate people!) And when your novel is finished, revise, revise, revise. If you’re not great at editing, consider hiring a professional editor (if you have the funds to do so). Attend writer’s conferences. Immerse yourself in the literary world.

A great article I’ve read recently about the MFA and whether it will give you a leg up in the publishing world is “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” It’s worth a look.

How do you improve your chances of getting published? What’s your stance on the MFA?

(Photos courtesy of The BookBaby Blog, The Graduate21, i am CAM Jr!)