Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Goldilocks, Golden Locks, Happy Monkeys and Critique Groups

For over a week I've been working on an article for a newsletter about what makes a good critique group.

Over the years I've belonged to a few crit groups, but I wanted to get perspectives from other writers about their groups. To gain some insight I queried a cross-section of writers and asked for feedback.

I expected to hear back from maybe a handful of writers, but was pleasantly surprised to receive e-mails from more than a dozen!

Alice, who belongs to Coffee and Critique (C&C), a critique group I co-founded with Lou Turner, compared finding our group with the Goldilocks fairy tale. Some previous groups Alice had belonged too gave her nothing but compliments, another was brutal, but our group points out sterengths as well as weaknesses in her works. In Alice's words, our group is "not too soft ... not too hard ... but just right." I love her analogy.

Another writer who responded is Lisa, who lives in New York and belongs to a group called The Happy Monkeys. Even though I don't know why the group is called The Happy Monkeys, and Lisa didn't explain how they got their name (it's a long story, she wrote), Lisa's group sounds great. Lisa wrote that her group works because the members will tell her when something is wonderful and will also tell her when something needs work.

A common element among several responses I received is that writers want honest feedback given in a tactful manner. As far as receiving critiques--have a thick skin and be able to take it gracefully.

Which brings me to my second project--a short story I'm working on for a Western anthology.

The main character is Bridie (short for Bridget) O'Shea, a teenage girl who gets tricked into leaving Missouri and finds herself working at a "Joy House" in Indian Territory.

The short story has four characters. One of them is a fictional U. S. Army Colonel who visits Bridie. The story is pure fiction, but the colonel's character is based on an actual historical figure.

The setting is in the 1870s in Indian Territory. The colonel is particular about is appearance ---especially his long golden locks.

I did a lot of research, including the time, setting--especially the details about the colonel. I decided not to name his character, but given the context and with all the clues and historical references I included, I felt certain members of my critique group would "get" his identity. For the most part they did.

Last week I read the first five pages. Most folks figured out the colonel was based on George Armstrong Custer.

Yesterday I read the last five pages. Someone who wasn't present last week thought I needed to name the character or folks wouldn't know who he was. My response was something akin to "Well, then they'd be stupid."

Did I actually say that? Yep. It just slipped out. So much for having a thick skin or receiving critiques gracefully. I apologized afterwards, but still . . .

Someone else commented there are too many characters in the story. But, hey, I only have four characters!

Someone else commented one of the character names sounded Mexican and not Indian. Did they miss the part in the story where Custer spent time in the Mexican War?

My lesson in all of this is no matter how much research I've done and how well I know my characters and story--if the reader doesn't get it, he isn't stupid, I haven't done my job.

No matter how much I've learned about belonging to a critique group, receiving feedback gracefully and having a thick skin--I've still got a lot to learn.


  1. Don't we all. I've had stuff pop out at the most inopportune times. Working on that. :)

  2. Oh, Donna! You're such a sweetie, and since I was one of the members present yesterday, your "outburst" was so out of character, that it came across more as "funny" to me, and I'm pretty sure everyone else felt that way, too! :)

  3. Hi Karen,
    I'm working on that, too.

    Hey Becky,
    Thanks, girl. I wasn't sure if what I said came across as a half-joke. I'm hoping everyone else feels the same way as you.


  4. Good point, Donna. If we as writers haven't done our job, it's our fault, not the readers'. I'm learning that distance from a story, novel etc is a huge help in gaining back some of that objectivity. :)

  5. As we are allowed to say in my crit grp,
    "Ditto" to the above comments. But I dare say that no matter how much we include in our writing, there will be somebody who doesn't get it. We need not over-explain or "dumb down." Sometimes just a hint or inference is all that should be there. Give our savvy readers some credit. That is another great reason to be in a crit grp that includes different levels of interest and experience. Great topic, Donna!

  6. Thank you for an interesting blog today. I wanted to respond to you, but I had nothing to add. Our critique sessions lack a little I think; we are still under development! My one thought was that my last story had a still in it, and the group is rather religous. Not one seemed offended though. My one comment (which no comment is not helpful) was that my brew was amber colored and he (being a preacher!) thought it should be clear if it were from a still. I need to check that out.

    I need to work on a western. Thought that 12 hour drive to KY would give me thinking time, but as things turned out, I never had a thought one on anything about writing!!

    Today I got the Tanka Moments. Thank you, Donna! I am heading out to the refurbished for spring deck with it and an icy drink right now! Yea for sun and dry weather, books and deck time!!!!!

  7. I love my critique group. You have to learn to take what you need from advice given and leave the rest. And don't be offended by helpful comments and guidance.

  8. It is tough to have our "children" put under a microscope. Important to remember, too, that no matter how wonderful our critique partners, their opinions are just that...their opinions. Ultimately, it is up to us as writers to sift through the feedback and decide what to do with it.

    P.S. I think it's funny that you "told" on yourself here! LOL I'm sure no one took offense. Sometimes things just pop out!

  9. Very tricky thing with critiques...definitely have to have thick skin and grace.

  10. Donna, thanks for the enlightening post. I haven't been involved with critique groups in awhile--mainly because I spend so much time critiquing my students' work during our writing workshops that I kind of get burned out on it. But I know critique groups can be valuable. Interestingly, since I teach in an MFA program, we're (the students and I) supposed to be very honest during workshops--no sugar-coating allowed. But I've been very lucky that most of my students still know how to use tact and accept criticism gracefully. It's been a great teaching experience. I just wish I could bring my own work to the workshops for critique, too -- I'm sure I could learn a lot from my talented students!

  11. Hey Dianna,
    You are welcome.
    Having visited your class and met some of your students, I can say from first-hand experience that your students are talented indeed, and you're doing a wonderful job!


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