09 December 2011

Critique Groups-Part II: My Tribe and Our History & Process

Ahoy, revelers!
            I’m sure the holiday feasting and partying has begun.
            Mighty thanks to everyone who commented on the last post about my critique- group misadventures. Seems I struck a nerve. Your stories made me slightly seasick with their storminess!
            But take heart. This post, my friends, is the antidote to queasy critique stomachs.
            Before I launch into the when, what, why and how, let me thank my critique group, Lit Chix, for giving me permission to post actual pages of critiqued work, mine and theirs. Some of you will enlarge and read the pages. I expect the curious to do that. It will also show you our process.
            And for this post, I dispense with my usual pirate chatter. The subject warrants it. Aie.
A Short Lit Chix History
            We first formed in 2003. (Thank you, Chris for being our historian and hostess!) How did we find each other? Two members were already meeting to share their writing. Patsy Hand, my co-coordinator for Mid-Valley Willamette Writers Speakers Series, and I were invited to join because we knew one of the women. Our fifth member came on board via another writers group. (Writing organizations, networking, attending writing gigs: that’s how you meet other writers.) The five of us wrote fiction and one wrote screenplays. After two of our members left, we focused on our novels, although we also write and critique short stories, memoir, and recently a web site bio. Even though I write poetry, I wouldn’t bring it to the group. And personally, I don’t think I did justice to the screenplay form because I didn’t know it. I did, however, study screenwriting on my own to be better informed for the feedback I gave.
            PatsyHand (who is also a fabulous artist), Chris Scofield, and I formed a triangle of bonhomie and solid work. We’ve all published short work. I’ve had two agents in that time and am currently with the Zimmermann Agency, a boutique agency out of New York. Helen tried valiantly to sell my last novel, which I’ll rework after I finish my current work in progress (WIP). Patsy already has agents interested in her new novel and is putting a final polish on it. And this year, the prestigious literary agency of Donadio & Olson chose to rep Chris and her novel Shark Curtain. Her agent, Carrie Howland, has the manuscript out with NY editors. 
How I track my chapters with the group

The Name
            “Lit Chix” was our way of poking fun at ourselves and an industry that created the Chick Lit category.
            I turned Chick Lit around to Lit Chix because I thought our group was “lit” in so many ways—shining with literary madness, lit as in too many cosmos, lit with excitement, lit as in “our day in the sun will come.” Okay, well, maybe I riffed a little too much on our chosen name, but I remember when Chick Lit was first used as a title to a book on post-feminist writings. Check out the fascinating history of Chick Lit on Wiki.
            (I, of course, wonder why not “dude lit” for the male category of “searching for meaning in a wastrel world” or “dick lit” for all the testosterone-driven suspense novels featuring crime-solving uber-males? Don’t get me wrong. I love men. I’m not bashing them. I’m just asking the publishing industry, you know?)
Chick Lit
The Stuff You’ve Been Waiting For
            Let’s jump to what I think makes our group work.
            1) Respect:  we don’t attack the work, the person, or the person’s ideology in the work; as different as we all are, we do, however, have common ethical, spiritual and political beliefs and this makes a huge difference.
            2) Humor: if writers can’t laugh at themselves or the world, we’re screwed; I’m sure writers endure a similar level of physical and emotional risk and stress equal to firefighters and police; we do, however, get to endure it in our pajamas.
            3) Chemistry: yes, this is a major component of our success. Like finding a marriage/life partner, a group needs “chemistry,” whatever that is. We like each other. We love each other. We have come to a point where we can’t imagine not being in one another’s life.
            4) Commitment: we, as my dear friend Jessica Maxwell says about successful people, “suit up and show up.” No excuses. Only birth and death seem to keep up from meeting. We come prepared.
            5) Equal Level of Craft: we are at similar levels of development as far as craft, knowledge and the definition-elusive “talent.” We are obsessive students of the writing craft. We spent one day at Patsy’s house watching, then discussing, Michael Hogue’s five-hour DVD on writing screenplays in order to understand the screenplay three-act structure, helpful in writing novels. We watch movies at our writing retreat, such as Glengarry Glen Ross, to dissect what makes the dialogue work so brilliantly.

Our Process
            Writing groups have many ways to critique the work. Ours works for us and isn’t the only model. But we do have our reasons for doing it this way.
            We meet twice a month on Tuesdays at Chris Scofield’s house. We decided early on that meeting at someone’s house works better as we won’t disturb anyone else, don’t need to find parking, can bring our own food (as sometimes our meetings go for 4-5 hours.)
            We either send by email or give our chapters to each other before the meeting. We don’t read out loud. We read like readers would. We put all our comments on the page and a summation at the top of the first page. Chris is a master at using different colored pens for different reasons (she says this comes from working with school kids), and I liked this so much, I adopted her method. We first write what we love about the work, what worked specifically, and then follow up with what didn’t work. We don’t cover line editing or small suggestions in group, just on the page.

Chris's notes on my problematic pages

            When we first sit down at ten o’clock, we catch up with what we’ve been doing and where we’re at with the work. We then schedule our meetings to get them on the calendar, especially tricky around the holidays. If there’s a writing event we want to attend together, such as Wordstock, we talk about it and assign tasks. We plan ahead to arrange writing retreats together at Oregon Writers Colony’s Colonyhouse. We also discuss any marketing we’re doing or what we need to do to get our names out there, such as social networking. As an added bonus, Chris always gives Patsy and me newspaper and magazine clippings on subjects she thinks we’re interested in.
            And, yes, we do talk about personal situations. When it affects us, it affects our writing, and we give each other support and sometimes advice, but we don’t let this take over our meetings because we love talking about the work.
Patsy's notes on my pages
            Our critique process starts with someone saying, “Let’s look at ___’s chapter.” No hierarchy. More like what chapter is pulled from someone’s folder first.
            We have no set rules for what happens next. It generally goes like this:
            1) The writer listens to the other two give feedback in whatever organic way that happens. Kudos first. Show a page with lots of positives—stars (Chris), cross marks (Patsy), check marks (Val). Someone then starts the discussion of what needs work or what isn’t working. When this is a common problem, a discussion ensues. The critiqued writer can join in, but defensiveness isn’t allowed. Questions are encouraged.
            Usually this process resembles more of a brainstorming session of how to work out the problem. Sometimes it feels brutal at the time because it can be a large problem that seems insurmountable. But we all know that this goes away after we go home, re-read the comments and notes from the meeting, and then sit with it for a while. It’s just all part of the process. We know this. Writing can be frustrating to the point of tears. We’ve all felt one of the following many times over:
            What if we screw it up so badly, we can’t turn it around?
            What if we’ve written pure crap?
            What if I can’t pull this off?
            What do I do with the comments and how do I fix it?

            If we’re doing our job in group, these questions rarely come up because we’ve not only talked about what doesn’t work, we’ve discussed why it doesn’t work, what the issue is (needing a deeper emotional understanding of the characters, ordering of information, too much narrative [telling] and not enough scene [showing], too many side trips, lack of conflict/story arc, etc.), and what could solve the problem.
What I live for! A note from Chris.
            For example, last week, we discussed a problem in the last chapter of my novel. Something was missing, a deeper note that would heighten the ending without making it sentimental or too finalized. We brainstormed. When I lit up with an idea and threw it out, Chris and Patsy pulled back, tilted their heads together, and rolled their eyes. Their mannerisms are so different that when they did this Tweedle-dum/Tweedle-dee move, I said, “I guess that’s a big no, right?” We laughed so hard that we almost cried. We continued batting ideas around until Chris came up with a brilliant idea that, at first, she thought wouldn’t fly. The more we talked about it, the more it seemed perfect. And it still does.
Notes I made on Chris's short story
Notes I made on Chris's novel

More of my notes on her novel
            This to me is the crucial element missing with many groups. I’ve found people have a good compass as to elements that don’t work, but few have the knowledge, understanding, patience and intuition of a good editor. I make this example: it’s easy to tear down a decrepit building; it’s another thing to build a new one. In our group, the crucial element is brainstorming and problem solving.

            I’m sure I’m missing a few points I intended to make, but this is our general process.
            An alternative for those who can’t find writers in their area:
            I also work with a dear Seattle friend, Randy Sue Coburn, over the phone, reading chapters with each other. For example, when we’re working on a chapter, she reads a paragraph, then I read the next. This has the effect of reading work aloud, while dialogue passages come alive with two different voices for the characters. Clunkers are instantly recognized. This process does something that doesn’t happen in LitChix—gives immediacy and doesn’t require all that prep time.
            One last comment:  LitChix is not accepting any new members. We also agreed that, if we were to open to new members, that would not include men as we all write primarily for women readers.
            I’d love to hear from you. What works for your group? What methods do you use successfully? Let’s hear your positive stories of critique groups. Any ideas for those looking for a group? If you email me, I'll post your comment to the blog if you're having trouble using the comment section.

I leave you with this:
            I’m reading We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For those who always dreamed of attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, this is the next best thing to being there. I learned of this book from Diane Prokop on her blog where she reviews books. I will be featuring an interview with her in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

            Aie, we’re a good lot, we writers! Stay true!
            Captain Val

Coming Up!
End of Year Celebration with Jan Eliot: Always Reward Yourself
2012 New Year’s Goals
Interview with book reviewer Diane Prokop
My Research Trip to Paris: How to Let Go and Follow your Instincts
Confirmed Gossip and News from the Writing World


Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Putting this in big letters, right below my reasons for resisting the temptation to get into e-mail fights with right-wingers, on the Keep Going Manifesto on my desktop:
"Writing can be frustrating to the point of tears. We’ve all felt one of the following many times over:
What if we screw it up so badly, we can’t turn it around?
What if we’ve written pure crap?
What if I can’t pull this off?
What do I do with the comments and how do I fix it?"

Hardest thing: isolation. Good to be reminded (over and over) that there's no need to be isolated. J

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@jbw0123 Bingo, Julie. No need to be isolated. Not good for the health of a writer. A Manifesto is good.
Keep going!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Captain Val runs a tight ship on the seas of good advice--your post is as thorough as your comments on the manuscripts you showed us.

The key to a good workshop experience is that members are there to give feedback, not judgment--judgment is a killer! Feedback, on the other hand, brings us out of the isolation in which we write, and helps us explore writing as a relationship: as soon as someone reads your pages, you're in a relationship. When you get, or give, such feedback, it's not not about the writer's ego; it's about what's going on in the reader's head. That's invaluable information--and it should be thought of AS information--that we can't get any other way.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

As always, you know all about writing as relationship and that's why the world wishes you could make bundles of money at being an independent editor. You taught me so much about engaging. When we do, and when we open up, the world turns and the sun comes up. Information. That's what it's all about. I think the problem with some is that delivering information feels like judgment because they're closed down out of fear. Thanks, always, for you and what you taught me.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

I really enjoyed your post today about your critique group. I belong to one that is similar and includes several stalwart OWC members, so it really struck home. Thanks so much. I always enjoy your writings.
I was so taken by the Iowa Writers Workshop book you referred to that I went online to Powells and got their last copy. Thanks too for mentioning that. We writers have to share our resources. I'm reading one right now that I think is one of the best craft books on my shelf: Writing with Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. It's aimed at screenwriters, but is equally as valuable for novelists.
I've hooked a NY agent for my novel and she is just now pitching it to editors. I hope the New Year brings good news to us all.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Excellent stuff. I forwarded it to my writing group.

Am very impressed with how you all have agents or are very close.

henya said... [Reply to comment]

Phew! Lots of good stuff to read here. Over the years I tried several critique groups, left because other things got in the way of my creativity. If something doesn't feel good...you know it's bad. Things such as jealousy, pettiness, lack of aplomb...just to name a few. For the last three years, I've been a part of a great group. We're all respectful of each other's work, have fun, talk, critique, eat, and drink. All nice! I'm also an active participant of an on-line workshop group and was able to pick up good critiquers along the way. It's a lot of work. But worth it.

Komal Mansoor said... [Reply to comment]

Extremely helpful article and great for discussion explosion!

Keep up the good work!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Komz@The Review Girl So glad it inspired and opened potential discussion explosion! That always seeds ideas and creativity--as long as the explosion isn't negative.
Hope it helped!

Beverly Diehl said... [Reply to comment]

Loved this post so much, Valerie, I have shared EVERYWHERE. While my fabulous crit group works a little differently, the intrinsic principles are the same, and we all understand - it's about the work, not the ego. You could be Hemingway or Morrison and still write a bad paragraph or confusing sentence, so get over yourself. If three people tell you something felt unclear or muddy, fix it.

samantha stacia said... [Reply to comment]

Wow! This is intensely detailed! Maybe you should paste this in one of the article places too for people looking on how to do a group like this, its a very informative piece!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@samantha stacia Thanks, Samantha! Are you referring to posting on SheWrites as an article? Have never done that, but will. Thanks for the idea. I'm still trying to keep up with all the SheWrites posts, but writing comes first so therefore I haven't kept up. Oh, well. Priorities! Again, thanks!

Unknown said... [Reply to comment]

Wonderful post! I just joined a writer's group, and have only attended one 2 hour session. No one did this kind of editing. I would love to be in a group that edited like this!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@marilynt Thanks, Marilyn! If you read Part I on this topic, you'll understand how hard it was to find this group. Sure hope yours turns out to give better responses. It took awhile for all of us to feel comfortable enough to give this kind of feedback. But now, we don't hesitate. Let me know how your group turns out.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Olga Godim via email Great post, Valery: funny and serious simultaneously. I’m glad that
you’ve finally found the group that works for you. I haven’t found one
yet. For several years, when I just started writing, I was a member of
a critique group. We had much in common: all the members wrote fantasy
and everyone was on an amateur level. All the other members of the
group except me were men. Only one of them published his stories: he
wrote about a biker magician and published in bikers’ magazines. Each
story of his involved a detailed description of one of the bike
We met twice a month. Everyone who had written something to critique
brought several printed copies of their stories to the meeting to
distribute to the group members. Then we critiqued stories from the
previous meeting, which we had read at home. We didn’t have a
facilitator; everyone was given time to express his (or her, in my
case) opinion, as we sat around a table. The critiques were usually
harsh (except mine—I don’t do harsh), but it was harsh equally to
everyone. Then the guys went out for beer, and sometimes I
participated in those outings too but not always.
I liked the group, liked being accepted. I also liked that we didn’t
have to read our stories aloud, that we could do the reading at home.
The group, their critiques, however harsh, helped me a lot, but after
several years, I ‘outgrew’ it. I was learning constantly to improve my
craft, started writing professionally, published several short
stories, started working as a freelance newspaper reporter, enrolled
in a couple of novel writing workshops, while the others stayed
amateurs. The group was their prelude to beer, a nice hobby, but it
stopped being useful for me, so I left. We are still friends.
I’d like to join another group but can’t find any at the moment. But I
know it should be a group of writers who are all on the same level,
skills-wise. I wouldn’t mind a virtual group, but I don’t know how to
find one. Can’t wait to read the next installment in your critique
group saga. Perhaps I’ll learn something useful.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for the shout-out, Val (& Martha)! At our reading in San Francisco
last night, Jane Smiley read a section of the book where she talks about the
critical importance of being part of a writing community, not trying to
tough it out alone. The perspective of good readers is invaluable; and the
support is more nourishing than we ever imagine. Thanks for being a great
friend to and resource for writers. I hope all your literary dreams come

Really looking forward to your interview with Diane Prokop. She's an
extraordinary reviewer‹and reader!

(Cheryl Olsen)

Katie Checkley said... [Reply to comment]

Hi Valerie,

My name is Katie, and I found this link from your shewrites.com posting. I just started a blog and I've been researching blogs of other writers. Yours is fantastic! I've been out of touch with my former writing group, but this encouraged me to try to connect again!

Hope to stay in touch on shewrites.


Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Katie Checkley Thanks so much, Katie! So glad this gave you the encouragement you needed. And in a new year, too! On my blog, I'm trying to reach out to writers as well as readers, kind of a high wire act, but doable, I think. Hope you stay in touch! Will check out your blog and comment, too. I love SheWrites, btw, and have found immensely informative info, plus great support. More later!