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