Sunday I attended my first session of this season's Northwest Author Series hosted by the Wilsonville Library.
Amber Keyser's topic was Don't Suffer Alone: Using a Critique Group to Enhance Your Writing Life. She is a member of the Viva Scriva critique group, three of whom attended and participated in the presentation.
I don't belong to a critique group. I should. If I could be assured of finding folks like Viva Scriva, I'd enlist immediately.
Amber went over the benefits and characteristics of a critique group, how to give and receive critiques, as well as resources for locating groups.
I think her most significant piece of advice was: "The best way to improve your own work is to learn how to give helpful, in-depth critique. Receiving good critiques is useful too, but giving is better."
She also likened good critiquing to "thinking like a doctor." Your emotional response to the manuscript (what you liked or disliked) relates to the symptoms. You must then diagnose the underlying cause for your reaction (characterization, plot, personal, etc.), and then come up with a cure/solution to make the manuscript better. And -- do no harm.
Then the members of Viva Scriva demonstrated how their group works. For the benefit of the workshop attendees, they read aloud a short children's story written by Amber. They then discussed what they liked about the story, where the story did not fulfill its promise, and they made suggestions to consider for improving the story. All delivered kindly and intelligently. This was the highlight of the workshop for me.
The woman seated beside me was a member of a new critique group formed in Vancouver (the one across the Columbia River, not the Winter Olympics one). Her group all wrote genre fiction. The members of Viva Scriva all write for children (picture books to young adult, nonfiction, fiction, and poetry), and all or most are published.
Amber's assessment of the characteristics of a successful critique group include a similar level of dedication to craft (this is not the same as published v. unpublished), and knowledge of the conventions of the genre (although the members don't have to all write the same genres). Most of all, mutual trust and respect are vital ingredients.
Amber and the members of Viva Scriva emphasized that it takes time and thoughtful evaluation to give a good critique. It was obvious from their comments on Amber's draft that they cared nearly as much about the story as did Amber, and were there to help her make it the best that it could be.
It's always re-energizing to gather with other writers!