Monday, 2 November 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Why should you join a critique group?

Why should you join a critique group?

by Guest Blogger Miriam Halahmy: Author, poet, workshop facilitato
r, writing mentor.

I started writing for children about four years ago. I was commissioned to write a story for children with cancer, Peppermint Ward, by a charity called CancerBackup.
I had never written for children before and I discovered a love and a flair for it. But I didn’t know any other children’s writers. Then I discovered SCBWI who encouraged members to set up critique groups. There wasn’t one for me to join, so I started my own. That was the beginning of the North London SCWBI group (NLSG) which I convened and have been running for over three years.

In work facilitating creative writing workshops I meet many aspiring writers in my work who are desperate to be recognised, published, become famous, etc. But so many have never shown their work to anyone, never listened to any feedback, never engaged in the analysis of their own and others work.
My first advice to them is - Share your work, with a class or a critique group. It could be your first real step towards stardom!

Miriam Halahmy & Christina Vinall

NLSG member, Christina Vinall, who was placed in a Cornerstones competition says:
'Apart from the wonderful inspiring people you get to know - honest professional feedback from fellow writers.'

Of course, creating a healthy, vibrant, supportive critique group doesn’t happen overnight. But with perseverance your critique group could be the foundations for your budding writing career.
The NLSG began with three of us meeting for coffee in Central London. We hit it off straight away but within a year I was the only original member left. At one point there were fifteen people in the group but I wasn’t worried. I knew that the group needed to attract a lot of people before it would take shape and at the beginning I wasn’t sure what that shape should be.

Then I met Candy Gourlay, a few months after we started. Candy was already a committed and experienced writer and also saw the value of a strong critique group. In the early days the monthly meetings in our homes often consisted of the two of us. But we persevered and it paid off.

Candy is now a widely published writer and a winner in the first SCBWI Undiscovered Voices Anthology, 2008

Here are her views on the importance of joining a critique group;
'Gone are the days when editors took a promising author in hand and shaped them into their full potential. I get this kind of nurturing from my critique group - as well as friendship, support, information and it’s a reminder that I do what I do for the love of it. It helps to be in a group with such strong writers as well because it keeps me striving to write better.'

Gradually we recruited more people whom we felt suited the personality of our group and were writing for similar age groups. We agreed that members of our group needed to be working on novels for children to teens. Once we made this decision it was easier to decide who to try out. We wanted very committed writers who would develop their critique skills with us. They didn’t need to be published and personality was also very important. We had to consider whether someone would be a good ‘fit’for out group, not just a good writer. We didn’t want people who would dominate or focus on themselves or put others down.

Helen Peters & Christina Vinall
Helen Peters
, who joined NLSG a year and a half ago and who has just received an Honourable Mention in Undiscovered Voices, 2009, comments;
'The value of being in a critique group is greater than I could ever have imagined. It is often easier to recognise problems and strengths in other people's work than in your own, but the process of critiquing trains you to become better at recognising the problems in your own work too. Critique partners keep your writing focused on the story and point out when you're being self-indulgent or getting sidetracked.
In the isolated discipline of writing, your critique group are your colleagues. They keep you going when your confidence is low and provide a professional network, informing each other about interesting events, workshops, articles, books.'

We had to be patient. It took more than a year to achieve the group which we felt would best support our writing. But eventually we became a group of five novelists and our work is going from strength to strength.

Candy Gourlay & Paolo Romeo

Paolo Romeo, author of The Vespertine Hour also received an Honourable Mention in Undiscovered Voices 2009, comments;
'Since I’ve joined the critique group three years ago, my writing has improved tremendously. That’s not only thanks to the feedback that I receive from my fellow writers but also the encouragement and motivation gained by attending critique meetings regularly, giving me a belief in my own writing efforts.'

So, what makes a strong, enduring, meaningful critique group?

You probably need to decide that for yourself, but this is how I did it:

1. I took on the role of Convenor. With email this is of course much easier than it sounds. But all groups need a leader. As Convenor I set the dates and venues for meeting and send email reminders round. I channel any practical problems as they arise, such as changing dates if someone can’t make it.

2. I take the lead in our monthly critique sessions. We meet between 6.30m and 7.00pm, to chat, eat, etc. But by 7.30pm I start the critique part of the session. I take charge of timing to ensure that each person gets a similar amount of attention.

3. We have evolved a way of working which is comfortable for our group. We have agreed to bring one chapter each month. We provide copies for everyone and then we sit and read in silence. We make notes on the work. Then we give spoken feedback.

4. Meeting monthly seems to suit our group. But we often see each other in between at writer events and share information about the ‘writing industry’. We also meet in different combinations informally between our regular meetings, for further critique, or we email sections to each other.

5. Paying attention to group dynamics is essential. I know of many groups who have failed because of members who simply didn’t fit. Be clear about who you want, take time to get to know them. We met people at Conferences and retreats and so were able to observe them in both critique and social situations over several days.

6. Decide how many members you can support. Be honest. Our group now has a reputation for nurturing writers to success and people often ask to join us. But we have found that five is the maximum we can currently support and so we have to state firmly that we are full.

7. Our shared view? Serious, knowledgeable, always striving to improve, with the overall goal to be published.

Not convinced yet? Well all five of us have had success with our writing, from publishing contracts to being placed in competitions.

Candy Gourlay and I have short stories in the same anthology, Under the Weather, Francis Lincoln, 2009.

I have just signed a three book contract with Meadowside Books

Success in writing is a mixture of hard work, perseverance, surviving the rollercoaster ride of interest and rejections and also a bit of luck. Getting a publishing contract felt to me as tough as going through the eye of a needle.
But I also believe that my critique group have been the foundations, breaking the mould of the lonely writer scribbling away in an attic, veering between dreams and despair.

Don’t go it alone, join other writers, develop your critical skills and enjoy yourself. The writing world can keep you busy for the rest of your life if you take the plunge.

Happy Writing!
Miriam Halahmy


Candy Gourlay said...

gosh, this makes me blush. and you forgot to mention the chocolate binging.

but seriously, apart from chocolate making a critique group can only be successful if everyone is writing. i love our critique sessions not just because of the fellowship but because i can't wait to read everyone else's work! and i feel blessed.

Helen Peters said...

Your piece should inspire any isolated writer to get out there and join a critique group, Miriam, and it gives great practical advice on how to set one up, too. Certainly joining SCBWI and the NLSG were the best things I've ever done in my writing life. It is an invaluable support system.

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