Wednesday, June 16, 2010

22 WOW Wednesday: Maurissa Guibord on Critique Groups

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!

F.R.E.S.H. Eyes
(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.


  1. Awesome advice, Maurissa, thanks for your FRESHness! Your book sounds amazing - I grew up with a reproduction unicorn tapestry and saw an original years ago at the Musee de Cluny in Paris. I look forward to January.

  2. I started an online critique group over at SCBWI the wrong way --blind. I posted a request for people interested in being part of a critique group and simply took the first five people who said yes.

    I say this was the wrong way to go about it because the writing was all over the place. Some was good, most was in need of considerable work and some was just awful. Worst of all, most of the responses to work submitted to the group ranged from "I enjoyed this" to "Keep up the good work!" This might be good for the ego, but it did nothing to help the authors become better writers.

    I eventually grew tired of writing lengthy responses to submissions, suggesting where the conflict could be heightened (or, honest to God, that they actually include some conflict in their nice story about the four Tinkerbell-like fairies who each got dressed in their prettiest dresses and met for tea). I was putting far more work into the group than I was getting out of it and so I left.

    I am now seeking a critique group/partner, however I'm going about it with my eyes open. I'm listing what I believe I can provide (detailed, encouraging criticism and honesty) and am asking people who might be interested to exchange a bit of writing and criticism with me on a test basis to see if we both think we're compatible.

    Think about it this way: you're going to be sharing some of your most closely held secrets -- your writing -- with someone and asking them to tell you if they think its any good or not. Wouldn't you want to have some idea of what they're like and what their tastes are ahead of time?


  3. Amazing advice.
    I was scared of crit partners/groups before I got them, but I'm glad I took that step.
    Yes I get butterflies when feedback arrives but I know it's to help me.

  4. Wonderful advice and I love your voice. Yes. I could hear it.

  5. Awesome post about critique groups! You've captured my feelings about my own group really well.

  6. this was such a fantastic post-- a huge thanks to all of you!! and wow, Maurissa, your book sounds AWESOME. what a unique premise! i can't wait to read it :D :D

  7. F.R.E.S.H. Love it.

    Joining my critique group was one of the best things I've done to improve my writing. Our expectations are a bit different; we can post one chapter for each chapter we critique. We must crit one chapter a week, even if we don't post. Most of us end up critiquing way more than we post.

    I think critiquing others' works also helps improve our own writing as well.

    Maurissa, I love writing during dark stormy weather too. Congrats on your book!

    And as usual, thank you, Martina and Marissa, for another great post.

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  10. (try again, sorry for the deletes)
    I love book premises like that! Where the magical touches real life, unexpectedly. Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the article. Good critique partners are hard to find, but they're worth it!

  11. Great advice. I've been a member of a critique group for years and it's been so helpful. No matter how much I try, it's hard to get enough perspective on my own work to see the problems with it. And I agree that a smaller group allows for a more in depth critique and more time to discuss each person's work being submitted.

    Your book sounds awesome. I can't wait to read it.

  12. Excellent guidelines, Maurissa. Thanks for taking the time to write them all out! : )

  13. Hey thanks everyone for your great comments! Finding a good group of critique partners can take time and patience- but I think once you find them them- they're worth their weight in Raisinets- um, I mean gold. Which is almost as good as Raisinets.

  14. Fantastic advice and good links--going to check them out here real soon :-) Thanks so much for this post and for Maurissa's insights...

  15. First, the book sounds great. :D

    My last crit group broke up because of numerous career reasons. Now I'm a free agent, so to speak. I found my new partners through blogging, and work with them on an individual basis.

    I definitely think it's a great idea to work with several people (but not too many), because everyone points out different things.

    Great post!

  16. Warped sounds wonderful!

  17. Great advice Maurissa! I was lucky and found my partner on another blog! We both write outdoor adventure so it's been a great fit. But a few more would always be nice too.
    Thanks for taking the time to set this out.

  18. This is such great advice. Critiques are not always easy to hear, but yes, we need them!

    I'm jumping over to her blog right now.

  19. This is an awesome post!! I agree critique groups are really awesome if you want your work judged before going into publishing.

  20. I just wanted to thank everyone for the thoughtful comments above. Martina and Marissa, you have such a great community here!

  21. Maurissa, thank you!

    We enjoyed your post so much, and like everyone who posted, we are looking forward to the debut of WARPED. I just saw the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry reproductions they are hand-weaving at the castle in Stirling, Scotland last summer and the myths and artistry are simply beautiful. I can't wait to see what you have done with them!

    And yes, we have an amazing community. We feel beyond lucky to have so many people stopping by regularly. Marissa and I pinch ourselves regularly :D.

    Seriously, it's been an incredible three months, and we are astonished at how many wonderful people we have met since we started this blog. The best part is that so many of them have great blogs of their own that we get to stop by and visit, too.



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