Friday Five: Flexible Critique Groups

True story: I’m in a yoga class years ago. I’m trying the poses, feeling the stretch, even though–at no point when they’re supposed to–do my fingers get anywhere near the floor; at many points when I’m supposed to be standing with balance, I’m tipping over & bumping into the wall. There is a woman a few mats away from me who can, pretty much without trying, touch her nose to her knees and twist so that–I swear–she’s all the way around facing the mirror at the front of the room again. Most of the rest of us are fighting back jealous; a few perhaps even plotting revenge.

The teacher gets the sense of what’s going on. And she takes time to explain that, even though we think this woman has it easy, in reality it’s harder for her to learn the poses, because–basically–her body flops over so loosely that she has to work harder to actually be in the pose, hold the pose, etc. And then the teacher–who I really do love–says, “On the other hand, Becky has an easier time/better chance of getting the stretch that the pose should give you.” Or something to that effect. I know my name was said, I know everybody turned to check me out, I know the teacher meant well, and I know that it all added up to the fact that I was the least flexible person in the class.

Well, you know, that wasn’t exactly news. 🙂

Not me.

Of course, there are also some people whom, if you asked, would theorize that I’m not always the most emotionally flexible person either. And I’m okay with that, too.

But…TRANSITION: I believe that being flexible in your critique group is a must. The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide is full of tips for building a group, for holding meetings, for developing critiques, but the thing is–the bottom line is that we need to run a critique group in a way that works for us. We need to run a critique group in a way that helps us put more writing on the page, helps us support each other with strong, deep feedback and as-needed hugs. We need to run a critique group so that every member wants to be there, wants to submit, and feels like–yes–they can revise this mess they’re making.

So, after that very long wind-up, here are five ways you can keep your group flexible.

1. Be flexible about reading submissions of varying length–from a two-page scene to a full manuscript. And if you’re the author with the full manuscript, be flexible about how fast you expect your critique partners to read that big pile!

2. Be flexible about who gets to submit. I know there are groups that assign specific dates to specific group members. If you miss your window, because you didn’t have a chapter ready, you have to wait till your next turn. If you have chapters ready for three meetings in a row, you might not be allowed to submit for all those meetings, because it’s not your time slot. I really believe that when a writer in our group is being productive, we should support them by basically standing with our arms open ready to catch all the pages they can throw at us. Yes, of course, if it’s more than people can really read–if members’ critiquing time starts cutting too much into their writing time, there might need to be a “discussion” about maximum pages, but I’d rather see the auto-pilot response be “Yes, sure,” instead of “No way.”

3. On the flip side of that coin, be flexible about the times when a group member isn’t submitting. I know writers who need to write a first draft without being critiqued, because feedback at that stage can just open the door to their nasty inner editor and, basically, stall out their writing. Sometimes, life just rears its ugly head and gets in the way of a writer’s progress. That’s not a happy time, but it’s also not a time when a critique group should make things harder for that writer. They’re still coming to the meetings; they’re still critiquing other people’s work; they’re still a big part of the group. Support everybody’s different processes.

4. Be flexible about when you critique. I’m a big advocate of submitting pages for critique before a meeting (for in-person groups), rather than reading and critiquing at the meeting. I actually think it’s a very important part of having time to really read deeply & think about a manuscript, to develop a strong, helpful set of feedback. BUT…if the members of your critique group really don’t have time to set up this kind of schedule, to take those extra hours out of the week, do not let this stop you from setting up your group or from going on with one you’re already in. Do your best to spend that concentrated time at the meeting reading carefully and thoughtfully and share your feedback clearly. Sometimes we can’t manage the ideal, so we manage the next best…as well as we can.

5. Be flexible about life’s changes. When I started with my first group, I wasn’t married & I wasn’t even thinking about motherhood. While I was in the group, all that changed. Those first months of mommyhood were not easy ones for me, and my group made it that much easier by totally supporting me in bringing my son with me to the group for a few sessions, until I worked out a babysitting situation I was happy with. It meant so much to me that I didn’t have to step out of the group or miss those sessions that were one of the huge highlights of my month. I talk a lot about commitment to your critique group, but membership is not a black-and-white, ground-in-stone rulebook. If your group members are worth critiquing with, they’re worth accommodating when that new baby comes, when a job schedule changes, when an elderly parent needs attention and assistance.

Yes, there good ways to run a critique group, and there are not-so-good ways. To grow a group that you trust, that makes you feel safe and motivated, that helps you move forward with your writing, we need to be flexible about those various ways.

It’s an important thing, and it’s one that gets results. Results that are more than worth any aches & pains that the extra stretching brings you.

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8 thoughts on “Friday Five: Flexible Critique Groups

  1. I never got on with yoga, it makes me angry! But great post. Opening up to a critique group makes a writer very vulnerable – I imagine actors must seek a similar degree of trust before they can perform their best. And as you say, we all need input at different times. Personally, I can’t let anyone in until quite late on – which means I would go for possibly a year before reading what I’m working on.

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    • beckylevine says:

      And I thought I was the only person on the planet who get cranky when they did yoga!

      I tried that not-sharing my first draft with my group, but I just felt too isolated with my story. This is why we need to do what works for everybody, as much as we can.

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  2. Great post, Becky. I’m going to be part of a critique group getting started here in Oxford, the first time in years that I’ve been involved in an face-to-face group. Your book and your reminder to be flexible are very helpful!

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