What do critique groups do? I suppose this varies from group to group. I also attend a twice-a-month knitting group, but it's not a critique group. Some attendees might be there to have coffee and cake, others to make each other feel successful in their writing. My readers group has in common with my knitting group that we help each other with whatever quandaries we might be in with our work. However, my knitting group never critiques. If one of the ladies (we all are female and of a certain age) doesn't want to learn to knit continental, like me, or knit cables, she doesn't have to. In fact, one crochets instead of knits, which might be equivalent to writing in French instead of English. A writing critique is dramatically different.
We meet every other week for two and a half hours, and if all of us want to read, we would be strapped for time. So we developed a protocol cooperatively.
1. Whoever has a deadline has priority. Cecelia, a writer currently publishing, has turned in several manuscripts since we have been meeting. June self-published her memoir and she had a few pieces she needed to polish before she sent in her manuscript. Who knows? An enterprising agent might notice my blog on posterous.com and/or the stories I’m posting on Redroom.com and want to see more stories and my novel, so this person with a deadline might be me.
2. If we have a full evening, each reader will be limited to 20 minutes. All 20 can be spent in reading, or she or he can allow time for critique.
3. If only a few of us have something ready to read, then the time for each can expand.
4. We read aloud. If you haven’t done this, you should give it a try. Sometimes I read something and before I’m finished reading I know: this stuff is boring. The air in the room goes dead, and I, the writer, have killed it. Or, contrariwise, I hear gasps, chuckles, whimpers. To evoke a positive response by reading aloud is a high every writer should experience. Language is primarily aural. If the words don’t sound right, they don’t work. If the story can’t be heard, then seen in the mind’s eye, it doesn’t work. When you slow down enough to hear work, you can get its nuances better than if your eye skims over it. The well-built phrase hangs in the room like a beautifully made mobile. Most of us read too fast, with our eyes and brains scurrying faster than the ear can go. It’s a picture without music.
5. Then the critique goes around. Everyone does not have to comment, but most do. Most remember to say something “nice” before they say something pointed. It is understood that if someone makes a comment the writer does not respond with an argument or excuse. Listen and absorb. We’ve had someone who argued with every comment. He wasn’t getting what he wanted out of the experience. What he wanted, evidently, was for people to say he’d had a wonderful, exciting life and had described it brilliantly. He did not return. Empty affirmations are not what we’re there for.
6. Once you’ve read to the group for a while you start to internalize your readers’ concerns. Now, when I’ve pecked a phrase into the computer I can hear Cecelia say, “you repeat too much,” and delete whatever is a mere repetition of what I’ve just said. If I repeat a word I can hear Rick say, “you used that word in the previous sentence,” and change it to a better word. I’m trying to remember to describe the physical attributes of my main character in the first few paragraphs. I forget that, because they’re usually a stand-in for me, and I already know how I look, more or less.
We’ve all improved our writing dramatically since we’ve been writing together, and we’ve become each others’ boosters. We get together, now and then, outside of the little bookstore where we meet, because we’ve become friends. We’re as different as can be, but we have this absorbing interest in common. Critique-mates are intimate buddies.