Critique Group Mechanics

This excerpt first appeared as part of a feature article in the 2005 CWIM. Please do not reproduce any portion of it without permission.

If you’re looking for a critique group, try contacting your regional SCBWI chapter first. You can also post notices at local bookstores and libraries. Online, you can post requests on the various children’s writing message boards and lists.

If you don’t find an existing group, don’t despair, start your own! Post notices in the places mentioned above. Be sure to specify the genre (any children’s writing? only picture books? etc.), time commitment (e.g., once a month meetings) and the meeting location. Some critique groups have many rules and procedures, while others are very casual.

Here are some typical start-up concerns as groups get established:

  • Membership: Decide a good size for the group and whether you’ll be invitation only.
  • Confidentiality: Most groups agree—what’s shared in the group stays in the group.
  • Group goals: Will the group focus on craft? Publication? Camaraderie? All of the above?
  • Housekeeping: How often will you meet? How long will you spend on each manuscript? Will you read in advance or on the spot?

It may take several sessions for a group to really begin to gel. If, after examining your own participation and discussing concerns with other members, you don’t feel that the group is a good fit, it may be time to move on.

GIVING AND GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK

There are two basic kinds of criticism: Big Picture and Little Picture.

Big Picture issues have to do with the elemental premise of a story or its execution. This kind of evaluation involves:

  • Characters: Are they convincing? Compelling? Three-dimensional? Distinct from one another?
  • Plot: Does the story have a clean narrative arc? Is the plot organic, or contrived?
  • Structure: Does the format you chose for your story (age group, length, verse vs. prose, etc.) serve the story, or is the story constricted by the structure?
  • Freshness: Is the author’s treatment of the subject original and engaging?
  • Theme: Do the characters, plot and structure contribute to a theme? Is it heavy-handed or subtle?
  • Marketability: If the group focuses on publication, you have to consider the audience for each piece. Are there ways to make the story’s appeal more universal? Or more specialized, if necessary?

Little Picture (or close-up) concerns are appropriate for a story with good bones, one that has already passed a big picture examination. It’s pointless to zero in on the small picture while major story elements aren’t fully developed. “Little” should not imply unimportant, however. These details and elements of a story can make it soar to the top of the slushpile—or crash before it even gets out of the hangar. Important points to ponder:

  • Mechanics: Punctuation; manuscript format; spelling; grammar; word count. Presentation matters!
  • Literary devices: Are your metaphors as fresh as they can be? If your story is in verse, does it have good meter? If your story involves repetition, is it used appropriately? If you anthropomorphize, does it serve the story?
  • Character development: Whose story is this? Does the main character propel the plot forward, or is s/he a passive victim of circumstance?
  • Point of view: Is the physical point of view (first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, etc.) the most effective narrative voice for this particular story?
  • Voice: Is the narrative voice fresh? Distinct? Consistent? Appropriate?
  • Authenticity: It’s all in the details. Are historical elements accurate? Are the characters culturally authentic (in word and deed)?
  • Marketability: what other works have been done in the same vein? What markets would be a good fit for this particular story?

If you’re in an established critique group, that’s gotten stuck in a rut, you might enjoy my article on  Critique Group Dysfunction.

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