Sunday, June 10, 2012

Critique Rules

First, a bit of unrelated author babble...
I enjoy unusual comparisons; sentences that juxtaposes dissimilar elements or similar elements in dissimilar ways.  For example: ‘The snow smelled like aluminum foil tastes—crisp, metallic, and cold as her last kiss.’  This kind of thing works, because the author can trust snow, aluminum, and bitter lovers to maintain a consistent flavor through all of space and time.  But what if the reference point changes?  “Wow,” you say, “good question.  We should have a deep and meaningful discussion about generational changes and language mutation.”  To which I say, “Check please.” I just wanted to highlight the fact that you can now buy toothpaste in a staggering variety of flavors and features, one of which—I swear to you—tastes like the Thin Mint cookies of my youth.  And while I have no interest in brushing my teeth with it, I do like the comparison.  So years from now when you see me gratuitously working toothpaste and cookies into a scene, you can tell everyone you saw it here first.

And let’s pretend the previous mention of teeth is a transition to...

There’s a short news item in today’s paper: someone stole 400,000 toothpicks worth a grand total of $3000.  The mind boggles.  Or at least mine does, and I am going to use this tidbit someday.  So right after you finish bragging to your friends about how you were in on the genesis of the toothpaste/cookie comparison, you can totally wow them by predicting a scene involving a poor but ambitious felon with a house made out of tiny, identical twigs.

Now to the thing I was going to talk about:

As Critique Group Coordinator for the SCBWI Midsouth Region, I’ve gathered a lot of information on how to run a group.  Some guidelines are very touchy-feely, others are rigidly Thou Shalt—most have a tone that suggests that the rules are more important than the content you’re critiquing.  To get away from that, I suggest a simple starting point.  Use the Golden Rule.  Be honest, be civil, and get on with it.  I do, however, have a few more specific suggestions.

Size Quasi-Matters

Any amount of critique is good.  If you have only one partner, that’s vastly better than none.  Two partners is more than twice as good, and three partners is better still.  However, at some point the group gets too big and attention gets divided.  I think four to six is a good number.

Offer Suggestions

When you see something you don’t like in a story, offer a suggestion for how to fix it.  Everyone will learn from that.  And if you can’t come up with a fix, that’s telling too.

Honesty Is The Best Policy

This is really just an extension of my earlier Golden Rule comment, but it’s worth repeating.  You’ve got to give and demand honest feedback.  Go for tough-love.  If someone’s writing is touching your buttons, or doesn’t interest you, or strikes you as weak, or you’re having a bad day, you have to say so.  And you have to demand the same from your group.

Talking Is Not Entirely Forbidden
The actual critique is not a conversation, so keep your defensive reactions to yourself.  But it’s okay to answer the critiquer’s questions in real time if you stay on topic.  Don’t waste time, but by all means, take advantage of the moment.  A quick Q&A can lead to wonderful insights.
Have The Talk

Once you’ve received all your critiques, talk to the group about what does and doesn’t work in your story.  A group discussion leads to a lot of suggestions that you’ll never get in one-on-one conversations.

Get Zen

Learn to separate your needs and habits from the rest of the group.  Yes, everyone has to be involved, but not everyone will have or want to dedicate the same amount of time and energy, nor will they apply their skills in the same way.  Do what you need to do to feel like you did a good job.  If somebody else functions differently, then... they do.  It’s a personality thing, deal with it.

Agree On File Formats And Names
I tell people this and they laugh—until they try to swap files with anyone who uses a different version of Word, or a different word processor, or a different operating system.  Few applications are as compatible as they claim.  Not even pdf works across platforms as well as it should.  But the Rich Text Format (rft) works great.  And while you’re agreeing on a file format, you should also agree on a file naming convention.  For example, you could name your file after your story (Fluffy_Bunny.rtf), and append your name to your critiques of other people’s stories (Rabid_Rodent_Kurt.rtf).

Get Into The Mix

Having a mix of ages, genders, backgrounds, outlooks, writing styles, and genre interests leads to unexpected comments and better story development.  Granted, the group will not have a deep and shared knowledge of a specific genre, but your feedback will not suffer from group-think.

Bonus Thoughts After The Original Post:

Read Multiple Times

Read the material you are critiquing more than once.  The first pass will identify the things that just don't make sense at first blush.  The second reading will make more sense because you know what's coming and have had time to think, so you'll be able to focus on broader story issues and solutions to the problems from the first pass.

Stick With It

I've seen groups form, meet a few times, and then fizzle.  This happens more with picture book groups, where a couple crits can cover the story and its rewrite.  A group gets better with time and experience, so keep meeting and keep sharing.
That’s my take on critique rules, if you have some, please share.


Kristin Lenz said...

I always enjoy your posts, Kurt. It's a nice glimpse into your spinning brain with tidbits to get me thinking. We don't have a critique group coordinator in SCBWI-MI. Critique group requests/questions are often asked of our AdCom and newsletter staff and on the listserv, so I can see how it would be helpful to have an ongoing coordinator. This year we had a "Critique Meet" event for the first time, and it seemed to go over well - leading to some new groups being formed around the state. Thanks for sharing your suggestions.

Saumya said...

This is very helpful. I definitely could use pointers on how to be better at critiquing partner. Thanks!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips. Thanks for sharing them.

Alice said...

Good tips. My writers group follows a lot of these with variations.

Also, I've nominated you for the versatile logger award. Go to my link for more info.

Colette Ballard said...

Fabulous post, Kurt! Full of great tips: )

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Really great tips for a critique group. I don't really have one anymore (as my critique partners don't read for one another), but if I ever do, this is something to keep in mind. Although, good tips for critique partners too.

Juli Alexander said...

Kurt, I think you are dead on. The Golden Rule, the size of the group, and offering suggestions strike me as the most important elements of a functional critique group. I've been with the same group for many years, and those tips are the reason the group has been effective.

Kurt Hampe said...

Kristen-I think the on-going coordinator helps, if only because there's one point of contact for making lists of groups and seekers. But that said, your region's approach works fine for the people who are willing to put themselves forward--and that's who you want in a group anyway.

Saumya-I added a bonus tip to the posting for you.

Natalie-glad you liked the post

Alice-I think you might have meant blogger, not logger, but I do want my own forest, from which I can occasionally harvest timber. And thanks for the nod.

Colette-should I have mentioned meat axes and blood-red ink?

Carolina-don't wait, find yourself a group, or form one!

Juli-Congrats on sustaining a good group. I've been in a rocking group for two-and-a-half years. In that time our writing has improved, so our critiquing has evolved to address broader and deeper issues.