Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Five years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. This week’s guest blogger is the award-winning children’s book author, Jim Averbeck, who shows us how to create a successful critique group.
The 5 Cs of a Successful Critique Group
By Jim Averbeck
I am a very lucky writer. With some friends, I founded a critique group, the Revisionaries, in 1998 and that group is still going strong. When we started we were all unpublished and just learning the craft. Now everyone in the group is multi-published by prestigious houses. I’ve lost track of the awards, honors, stars, and contracts we have under our collective belt. And I marvel at the longevity of the group. So, how did we manage to stick around long enough to find success? I give you the 5 Cs of an accomplished critique group.
One of the most important things my group did was to make it clear from the beginning that we had high expectations of anyone who joined. Members were expected to pursue their writing education by signing up for classes, attending conferences, and reading extensively, both craft books and current and classic bestsellers. We expected people to come to the meetings, whether they had work or not. We expected participation and cooperation as we all strove to find our voice and our place in the industry.
Once we found people who met our expectations, we very explicitly made them commit to the hard work ahead of us. There were no formal rituals- no killing of chickens or drinking of blood – but we did have a very formal meeting where we outlined our goals, both those of the group and our individual goals. We made this a yearly custom. Each year around Christmas we set aside our stories and reimagine what we want to do with our work and our creative lives. We commit to following through (and talk about how we did the previous year.) This might sound a bit grim, but we float our goals on a sea of wine and good food, so it’s really something to which we look forward.
This is the fun part. The part all writers and illustrators live for: the spark of ideas, the bringing together of words and sentences (or lines and colors for our illustrators). And, of course, the sharing of what we made.
This may sound like a no-brainer. Of course your critique in a critique group. But I have been surprised to hear many stories of crit groups that become mutual admiration societies, or moan and groan sessions, or just fun parties. Sure it is important to support each other and to listen to each other vent on issues in the industry. But ultimately you are there to help each other improve your work. It’s time to put on your big boy (or girl) pants, grow a thick skin, and listen to what people are telling you. You’ll find that each person has something at which they specialize. This one is great at finding just the right word. That one is superb at pinning down the emotional heart of your story. Another knows every punctuation rule in the book. Learn to listen. You needn’t take all the advice given, but you should consider it all.
This is the other fun part. When someone sells a book, or wins an award, or gets a starred review, take the time to celebrate. Buy a cake. Do a dance. Have a party. And most importantly – pop open the champagne.
Because that is the sixth “C” of a successful critique group.
Jim Averbeck works, plays, and evades the law in the San Francisco Bay Area. Between dodging the falling bodies of vertiginous blondes, crouching to avoid killer birds, and taking quick and fearful showers behind a triple-locked bathroom door, he writes and illustrates for children. His first book, In a Blue Room, was a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book. His popular books, Except If and Oh No, Little Dragon! feature charming protagonists with long pointy teeth. His book The Market Bowl was a JLG Premiere Selection. A Hitch at the Fairmont, his first novel, was released Summer 2014 from Simon and Schuster. Spy agencies can find Jim online at www.jimaverbeck.com.