I’ve been in the same writing group in Boulder, Colorado, for twenty years. We began as a group of eight mostly not-yet-published children’s book writers; without any change in membership, we became a group of 100 percent published writers in multiple genres including adult mysteries, adult science fiction, adult women’s fiction, adult nonfiction – and lots and lots of children’s books, too. We’ve had our ups and downs. Sometimes I’ve come home from our every-other-Monday-night meeting and told my husband, “Remind me never to go to that critique group again.” But we must be doing something right, or we wouldn’t still be together two decades later, with well over a hundred published books to our credit.
So what are we doing right?
I think the answer lies partly in rules and practices we’ve developed that seem to work for us. So here they are.
1. We are flexible in terms of what we bring for critique. We generally bring our books chapter by chapter, with printed copies for each person to read during the meeting. But when this becomes too slow (most of us can write a lot more than one chapter in two weeks), we ask the others if they are able to read an entire book-length manuscript at home (understanding that some members may need to say no). I find both approaches helpful. I have been saved from staggering amounts of subsequent rewriting by getting certain comments early in the process, even from the synopsis alone (“Izzy doesn’t solve her own problem; her friends solve it for her!”). But other times it’s crucial that readers see the completed work as a whole.
2. We present our work in the order in which we arrive. This has worked wonders to get us to arrive on time, as latecomers know that they will get critiqued last, when we’re all getting tired (i.e., punchy and silly). So we don’t waste time. We get right to work and do our chitchat at the end of the evening, not at the start.
3. We critique each work in an orderly way, starting with the person sitting to the right of the person being critiqued. We go around in a circle, clockwise, each person speaking in turn, nobody speaking twice until everybody has spoken once. In my view, this is our most important rule. It ensures that nobody dominates the discussion and nobody is allowed to disappear into silence. It is a concrete way of making manifest our equality and respect for one another as writers.
4. We do repeat the same criticisms, briefly, even if they’ve been made by previous speakers. It’s important to note points of consensus, or else the writer will go home and think, “Well, Leslie didn’t like the ending, but hey, it seemed to work for everyone else.” No, it didn’t work for everyone else. So we all need to say, “I agree with Leslie about the problems with the ending.” I hate hearing that half a dozen times! But sometimes that’s what it takes to get me to change that problematic part of my story.
5. We feel free to ask for what we need: “This is very rough, so all I want is big picture comments. No nits!” “I’m feeling fragile tonight, so I just want to share this without any critique at all.” “My editor wants me to change this, but frankly, I don’t know how. Help!”
6. We try to start with comments that are positive and encouraging, but sometimes we just skip right to bluntness: “I’m sorry, but this didn’t work for me at all.” We’re all trying to meet high professional standards. We aren’t doing anybody any favors if we allow them to get too deep into a project that is doomed from the start.
7. My favorite practice: we go away each summer for a weekend retreat at Lake Dillon in the Colorado Rockies. We rent a beautiful house with stunning views and preferably with a hot tub, too. We make meal assignments ahead of time and feast like queens. Each year we begin the retreat with a discussion of the most recent Newbery winner, followed by a shared read-aloud of the Newbery Medal acceptance speech in Horn Book. We get to critique our manuscripts in the daytime. We take long walks by the lake. We talk about our writing goals and dreams in the hot tub. Whatever tensions have accumulated throughout the year dissolve during that weekend of heart-to-heart conversations. Most of us use the retreat as a chance to share the start of a new book, or the conclusion of a book long in the making. We always return energized and inspired for another year of writing.
Another year of writing together.