Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Anatomy of a Critique Group

By Chester Campbell

The writers group I belong to started nearly 20 years ago when Books-a-Million in Madison, the Nashville suburb where I live, had a few round tables scattered among the bookshelves. I don’t remember who started it, but I have an old list with 25 names. I don’t recall more than ten or 12 attending at one time.

In the early days, some people read from their work and there was an open discussion. We had a conglomeration of writers at various stages in their careers from beginners to long-timers. I don’t recall if anyone had a published book, but the interests ranged from mystery to romance to fantasy and SF, plus short stories, poetry, non-fiction, essays, you name it.

It was as changeable as the weather in those days. There were a few dedicated writers who attended most of the meetings. Others came and went. After several years of shifting around the store, wherever we could find a spot, our numbers decreased to a manageable level. The store changed its location and did away with the random tables. We shifted to the Joe Muggs (café) area and settled on a two meetings per month schedule.

Five of us from the original group were still on board, and we had added a few others. Attrition weeded out most of those who weren’t serious about their writing. Our sessions became more useful with detailed discussion of chapters being read. We were not without our problems, however.

One member kept changing her story over and over as comments suggested things were not working out. It became apparent this would likely be a never-ending project. After a few years, she seemed only interested in discussing her own book, then would leave. She finally dropped out.

Another writer self-published a book and joked about only selling a few copies. Over the years he showed improvement in his writing but dropped out after a conflict with the meeting night. We lost another member who felt some of the comments from the group were overly critical.

My initial Greg McKenzie mystery, Secret of the Scroll, published by a small press in 2002, became the first from the group to go into bookstores. Beth Terrell, another old-time member and one of my Murderous Musings colleages, got her first book, Too Close to Evil, published in 2004.

We changed our meeting site to Panera Bread, down at the end of the shopping center, after tiring of trying to compete with Joe Muggs’ noisy cappuccino machine. A couple of years ago, we migrated to the Barnes & Noble store at Opry Mills Mall, which is more centrally located for our current membership.

We picked up a few newcomers and now have a compatible group of dedicated writers, including one specializing in non-fiction. The majority work in the mystery field. A couple of our members produce what I would call weirdly interesting stories. It’s an eclectic group.

For years we brought chapters to read, then went around the table with the discussion. After the majority of the group began bringing pages, we found the meetings lasted too long. Now we email our chapters to be read at home prior to the meetings. When we gather at B&N, the discussion can begin promptly. However, if there’s time, we do a lot of discussing books being read and whatever.

For several years we’ve held a Christmas Party in December. On the first meeting date in July this year, we had a Mid-Summer Gathering around a member’s swimming pool. We’ve capped our membership at eight, so any new member must be a replacement.

The three of us who’ve been around forever have learned a lot about critique groups. We’ve honed it down to a fine point now where we feel everyone is getting their money’s worth (it’s free, of course). We not only read chapters. When a member has a completed manuscript they want critiqued, one or more of us will give it a go. Some have attended Donald Maas workshops and other seminars. The current fiction market may be a snake pit, but members of the Quill & Dagger Writers Guild are ready to grab it by the tail.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I'd love to be a member of your critique group, Chester. Years ago I joined a group that met at the library and was dominated by a member who monopolized the meetings with her own work. I then joined an online group on AOL ten years ago that has since disbanded, but I received some great feedback when I needed it most while making the transition from nonfiction to fiction. There are always those in a large group who are overly critical although not very creative themselves.

Anonymous said...

Chester, I envy you your critique group! I've never been that lucky. )-:

Mark, I love the photo of the mailbox.I lived in Dallas briefly before moving to California. Loved Dallas. Missed it something awful the first few months but couldn't scrounge up enough gas money to go back, and I'm eternally grateful for that. (-: Life has its own timetable.

Pat Browning

Pat Browning