It's WOW Wednesday, and we are delighted to have Maurissa Guibord as our guest blogger today. Maurissa's debut novel Warped releases January 11, 2011 from Delacorte Press. It's a romantic YA fantasy about a girl named Tessa who discovers an ancient unicorn tapestry. When she pulls a silver thread from the tapestry she accidentally releases the young nobleman who has been trapped inside for 500 years. Please give her a warm welcome, and remember--we'd love to share your successes big and small. Please let us know if you have good news!
(or What Every Critique Group Needs)
by Maurissa Guibord
You’ve finished a book (or chapter, poem, picture book, short story). You have completed a stunningly profound and lyrical work of fiction. Either that or it’s complete crap. I myself have been known to confuse these two things. So how do you know what you have on your hands? Is it the next Newbery nominee? Or stinky doo-doo requiring haz mat suits and an absent gag reflex?
One way to discover the answer is: A Critique Group.
The critique group is, in my opinion one of the best things ever invented. This probably happened during Neanderthal times when some of our ancestors sat around the camp fire, listening to Og’s story of the wildebeest hunt. “Og, never mind your self-centered navel-gazing and rambling backstory!” his companions would exhort, through a combination of grunts and gesticulations. “What did the wildebeest really want?” Og listened, and cut to the chase if you will, thus becoming a better storyteller.
Not only do crit partners provide unbiased reader’s opinion about what you’ve written, but they are other writers. They understand the certain kind of looniness that is so necessary in this journey. A rejection slip from an editor or publisher is usually pretty short. They don’t always have the time to explain why something’s “Not quite right for us”. Critique partners, on the other hand, can tell you (sometimes in excruciating detail) what doesn’t work for them. And even better, what does!
I’ve been in a few different critique groups over the years and in my opinion whether your group is on line or in person doesn’t really matter too much. Size does: smaller is better, with optimum of 3 to 5 to provide the best proportion of giving/getting critiques in a timely manner. I would also recommend trying to find a group of folks who are writing something in the general ballpark as you. In other words don’t mix picture book writers with edgy YA fiction writers and someone writing a memoir. For this reason, finding writers with interests similar to your own and connecting on-line might be easier.
For me- the best and most helpful critique group has been online- with a group of writers I met through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators:
Another great place to find a critique group is Verla Kay’s “blue-boards” here:
Other possibilities might include posting a message at your local coffee shop or public library.
No matter what size or shape a critique group is, I think it’s vital that the group provide you with five things. If you are not getting these 5 things, it may be time to look for another group. Because it’s important, both in terms of the contribution you are making to someone else’s craft as well as the benefit you are receiving. I’m using the acronym F.R.E.S.H. for these things. As in “fresh eyes” for your work. Yeah, I’m so clever.
Feedback -- Feedback is where it’s at. That’s what we all want right? Just remember that the feedback you get from your group may not always be positive and not what you want hear. And you don’t have to act on it! But it should help you in some way. You’ll find that different people focus on different things. Some partner’s are eagle-eyes for clichéd phrases or grammatical errors. Some will want to pick apart your main character’s motivation. Some will look at the “big picture” and give advice about making that wonderful story arc actually, well, arc. If you’re lucky you will have a group with a nice mix- to address everything!
Respect -- This is crucial. Condescending comments and snarky criticisms hurt, no matter how experienced you become as a writer. It’s hard to put your work out there for others to see, so mutual respect should be the byword in every group.
Expectation -- A critique group will usually have a schedule of some kind that members are expected to stick to. You get to submit a chapter each month. Each week that you’re not submitting you’re expected to critique someone else’s work. These bits of accountability are valuable. They provide structure and motivation to folks like me who might otherwise, um, goof off. A deadline is a writer’s best (mean) friend.
Support -- Whether you’ve just finished a really tough chapter, sold your first book or gotten the tenth e-mail rejection on your query, everything is better when it’s shared with others. I have loved the support from my crit buddies. I also find that having critique partners who are actively writing and pursuing their goals inspires me to do the same!
Honesty --You are not married to your critique group, you didn’t give birth to them and you don’t expect to inherit anything from them when they die. Therefore honesty and not love can prevail in your critiques of each other. You’re trying to help each other become better writers. This means offering honest, considered opinions on their work. No one wants to get “Oh, I loved this, great job!” as a shallow summation on every piece they submit. Honesty (but remember, no snark!) is a sign of respect from one writer to another.
So that’s really all I have to say about critique groups. Which reminds me- I need to finish that chapter I was working on and get it out!
Maurissa Guibord is a writer who lives on the Maine coast with her husband and three children. She's a chocolate and coffee junkie. Her perfect writing day involves dark, stormy weather, a comfy leather chair and a crisp new spiral notebook. You can find her cozy website and her blog about writing and random sillliness here. She is represented by Ted Malawer of Upstart Crow Literary Agency.