Episode 14 – Navigating Critique Groups
-The Positives, Perils and Pitfalls
In this episode, Sharon and Christy talk about how to navigate critique groups, the positives, perils, and pitfalls inherent in getting and giving feedback, and how to find a critique group that will best serve your needs.
Sharon’s Action Item
Start by building relationships: If you are looking for a critique group or a critique partner to go out there, identify where you think you might find them, but build the relationship first. Then, if you feel a connection with someone, or you think they would be a great critique partner, seek to engage.
Also, keep in mind that It’s okay to try on a critique group or partnership to see if it’s a good fit. You don’t have to approach it as permanent. You can see if it works before you commit wholly to it.
Sharon’s Post, “The Art of Critique: Giving and Getting Good Feedback”
Christy’s Action Item
Make a list of the things that you need from a critique group. What, what is it that you want? Do you want people who can help you with, like I said, your dialogue or your descriptions or whatever?
Do a self-evaluation? Where am I? What kind of writer do I think I am? What level do I think I’m at? Who should I surround myself with right now? That would be the most helpful to me because if you don’t know what you need, you’re not going to be able to ask for it.
Christy’s Critique Group Needs Self-Reflection Journal
Coaching KidLit Transcript
Sharon Skinner: Welcome to Coaching KidLit, a podcast about writing and publishing Good KidLit.
Christy Yaros: We dig into various aspects of writing craft through a KidLit lens, and provide inspiration and clear actionable items to help writers like you move forward on their KidLit writing journeys.
Sharon Skinner: I’m Sharon Skinner. Author Accelerator, certified book coach and author of Speculative Fiction and KidLit, including picture books, middle grade and young adult.
Christy Yaros: And I’m Christy Yaros, author accelerator, certified book coach and story editor focusing on KidLit, including middle grade and young adult.
[00:00:41] Christy Yaros: Hey, Sharon.
[00:00:42] Sharon Skinner: Hey Christie. How are you?
[00:00:43] Christy Yaros: Good. How are you doing?
[00:00:45] Sharon Skinner: Things are rolling along. I’m doing really well. It’s 2023.
[00:00:49] Christy Yaros: Crazy. Over a year.
[00:00:51] Sharon Skinner: I know. So I thought that maybe this episode we could talk about the perils and pitfalls of critique groups and also the good things, so we maybe the positives, perils and pitfalls of critique groups. What do you think, ?
[00:01:07] Christy Yaros: That sounds great. I love the alliteration.
[00:01:09] Sharon Skinner: Thank you. I do have a poetry background, so I like to go there.
[00:01:14] Christy Yaros: Oh, so is this going to be a rhyming podcast?
[00:01:17] Sharon Skinner: Oh, I hope not. Because that would be far too challenging for me at this point in time.
[00:01:23] Christy Yaros: To make a rhyme.
[00:01:25] Sharon Skinner: But maybe, there’ll be more alliteration. Let’s find out. So I think that the reason this came to mind is because we’re early in a new year and people have set some goals. A lot of people have set some new writing goals for the year. They’re planning out how they want to approach those goals and how they want to achieve them.
And it often comes up that because writing is such a solo venture it also comes up a lot about, should I get a critique group? How do I get a critique group? Where do I get critique partners? What do I do to get some feedback on my writing?
And critique groups can offer a lot of value, but they can also be places where there are challenges and you want to be careful about how you choose them and the way that you take in the information.
[00:02:15] Christy Yaros: Yeah there’s so many ways that you can do things. So, which we talk about getting a critique group is I think, Everybody should have at least a critique partner. I mean, you need at least one person who you can share your writing with.
And that’s hard for a lot of us because our families, or our close friends who are not writers aren’t always the best choices for reading. SCBWI is great for that. , You go to a conference or you attend something and you find somebody that you connect with, and then you just kind of latch on to them for dear life until they become your critique partner. You’re laughing? Is that not the way that’s that you do?
[00:02:52] Sharon Skinner: It’s a great, that’s a great approach because it’s such an intimate partnership in so many ways that you really need somebody who you get to know and get to trust and can build on that, right? Sending it out into the world and picking somebody out of the blue can be a real trap because you don’t know that person.
You don’t know their level of skill. You don’t know, what their agenda is. You don’t know what their purpose is in being part of a critique group or a critique partnership. There are a lot of unknowns when you get into it. And the other thing is that you can have buyer’s remorse very quickly if you get into a situation with the wrong critique partner.
Critiquing is a very special skill, and you want someone who is going to give you information that is valuable and helpful and not just. I like this or Hey, I don’t like this. ‘Cause that doesn’t help a writer at all.
[00:03:52] Christy Yaros: No.
And that tends to be maybe the kind of feedback you get from family and close friends because they’re not, if they’re not writers themselves, if they’re not critiquers, then they can’t really give you story level advice that’s going to help you, you know, or actionable advice.
But that’s why I think since SCBWI’s conferences, the last couple of years have been online. The national conferences have offered an evening where people can join, a YA call, a middle grade call or a picture book call.
And they would randomly split people into groups and they would critique each other’s work. And I ran the YA one a bunch of times and I would say to them before I sent them in, if somebody in that room with you, if the way that they give feedback to other people or the way they give feedback to you, or it resonates with you if you’re like, huh, like, I like the way that this person thinks.
I’m like, exchange information and, and hang on. Because that’s a good way, seeing them in action to say, I like the way that that person thinks, or, you know, they seem similar to me.
[00:04:55] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, they know what they’re talking about. When they give feedback, it’s solid feedback. It’s meaningful and, and really that’s it.
You need somebody who’s going to give you meaningful feedback and it, it’s like with book coaching, the way that we operate that that not only needs to be meaningful, but it needs to be very honest, but given in a way that is kind or at least in a way that is accessible and helpful. Not just, “oh, you did this wrong,” you know, or, “I hate your character,” or those kinds of things.
I don’t understand why your character is acting this way is a great way to open conversation about the kind of character that you’re seeing on the page or experiencing as a reader.
You also want people who read and know craft to some extent. I’ve been in situations with people in critique groups who are so new, they have no idea how to even give the feedback, but it’s because they don’t even know how to read for the components that need to be there.
They’re not seeing what’s on the page and what isn’t on the page because they don’t have that kind of training. They just are reading and it’s a story and, they’re telling you either I like it or I don’t like it. Or they’ll tell you that it’s confusing. Now, that can be helpful just knowing that they don’t understand something can be helpful.
‘Cause maybe you didn’t get it on the page. But if you have five people in a group and one tells you that they are confused, it’s something to think about. But if everybody else seems to be getting it, maybe that person just doesn’t have the experience behind them to understand what you were trying to do.
[00:06:30] Christy Yaros: Yeah, and I think especially with KidLit, it’s important to, to form a critique group of people who write maybe even in the same age category that, that you write in, because I’ve seen people who have been in critique groups. You know, maybe you join it from through the library or through something in your town and, you’ve got writers writing all sorts of different things.
Now, if I am not a mystery reader I’m not going to be able to tell you things that are supposed to be in a mystery book or not. And I find that KidLit writers who are in critique groups with adult writers, get feedback or criticism, that is almost invalid because the person doesn’t have a basic understanding of what is expected out of a kid’s book.
And so they’ll say things like these stakes aren’t high enough. Well, to a 10 year old , those stakes are high enough. Right? Like for you as an adult writer with a fully formed, grownup protagonist. Maybe, not having someone to sit next to at lunch is not a high enough stake for you, but for a 10 year old, like that’s pretty big.
So I think it helps if you can find people who are writing the same kind of thing. And even mixing picture book people and middle grade novel people, it’s not almost the same either because picture books are so much smaller and self-contained, and you can read a whole picture book in a critique session and get the whole story and know exactly what that person is trying to do.
Whereas if I’m a novel writer and I bring five pages, 10 pages, even 20 pages, you’re not seeing the whole picture. And so you can’t really give global feedback. And I think that’s another thing too, is the level of feedback that you get in a critique group, I think tends to sometimes fall to the line level.
[00:08:17] Sharon Skinner: Yes, people will get into the weeds and start telling you where to put commas because they don’t know how to give you feedback on the content, the actual components of the story. So they’ll fall into that, oh, I’m going to fix your grammar.
[00:08:33] Christy Yaros: And as a trained professional proofreader, copy editor who has done this for 20 years, I am absolutely that person who in the beginning was commenting on people’s grammar and commas.
Not because I couldn’t do the more high level feedback, but it felt comfortable to know that a comma was missing here rather than saying, I’m not sure I understand your character’s motivation here. Obviously now I have had to forcibly train myself in the opposite direction to ignore the line level things and focus on the story level things, but that’s, it’s hard. It, it is hard.
[00:09:11] Sharon Skinner: And some of the dangers of critiques are when you get somebody in there who wants to tell you how they would have written it. Mm. You know, rather than them trying to understand your intent because intent is so critical in what point you’re trying to make. What’s your intention for this scene?
What are you trying to accomplish? If you get someone who doesn’t really understand your intent, and therefore to them it’s not the story that they would’ve told. There are people who will try and tell you how to have written it. But they’ll tell you from their perspective how they would’ve written it, rather than asking you questions to help you pull together and suss out and get your intent on the page.
Because if your intent Isn’t clearly on the page that’s one of those areas that you’re looking for from somebody in a critique group or from a book coach. If you’re working with a book coach or a beta reader, if you have a beta reader, you’re wanting them to help you to make sure that the intent is coming across to the reader.
And there are people who will try and just tell you how they would’ve written it. I don’t think it’s intentional. We’re going to go back to intent and intentional, I don’t think it’s intentional that they do that. I just think they don’t understand how to look for the author intent and understand what needs to be there that isn’t and help in that way.
[00:10:42] Christy Yaros: Yeah. And even the different types of critiques that you’re looking at if you are in a let’s read our first five pages kind of critique. That’s different. That’s, almost what an agent would see if you were submitting. That feedback is what’s going to keep me reading, what’s going to k stop me from reading?
What am I so confused about that I don’t care? As opposed to an ongoing critique group where you’re, going through your whole novel, which can take a really long time when you’re sharing pages, if you meet monthly or whatever. Almost to do a first five pages. You don’t need to know what the author wants for their whole story.
You can just kind of say, this is what I get from these first five pages and these are the assumptions I’m making as a reader.
But if you are in an ongoing critique group, I think it’s really important that your critique partners know what story you’re trying to tell because the most helpful they can be is knowing what you’re trying to do and helping you like what we do as book coaches, it’s you tell me what story you want to tell, let’s make sure that makes sense and then let’s get you there. Let me give you feedback that’s going to move you forward towards that. Not derail you.
Like you said, getting the feedback of people who say, this is what, what I would’ve done. It can become overwhelming when you get too much um, feedback that’s not targeted at a specific thing that’s going to help you.
[00:12:04] Sharon Skinner: And going back to what you were saying about whether or not it resonates with you, you know, when you hear feedback that resonates and that’s something that’s really important.
Sometimes it’s hard to hear feedback and we have to sit with it for a while, and I always recommend that, no matter how you’re getting the feedback, whether it’s written or if you’re getting live feedback, IRL or Zoom or however you’re having those conversations with your critique partners that you sit with it.
That you spend time with it because what you may knee jerk react to and say, oh hell no, they just didn’t understand, may be exactly the one thing, the really big fix that you really need to make to make the story work. And you may realize that after you let it sit for a while, and I usually sit for a day or two with feedback, whether it’s, from my editor or a critique group, or a beta reader or whomever, because it takes time for me to let it in openly and then decide does it resonate?
And again, it needs to resonate. You can’t take every single bit of critique from every person who has something to say about your story because again, they may be missing the mark because it’s maybe the story they would’ve told, or there may be some other reason why they’re not getting what your intent is on the page, and it may not be exactly what they’re talking about.
It may be something else. So having that ability to take that in and think about it and sit with it, and have a moment where you go, oh, this is why they weren’t getting it because earlier on, maybe there wasn’t enough explanation of something or they didn’t know the character well enough or what have you.
[00:13:51] Christy Yaros: Yeah, and, that can be really dangerous if you do take everybody’s feedback because you could end up with what I call a Franken-story. That is just you know why do you have this in here? Well, someone said that there needed to be a better reason for this to happen, so I came up with this, which is then not carried through the rest of my story, , because I fixed this one thing based on what one person said, and this other thing, based on what someone else said.
I mean, imagine if you were making stew and someone was like, I think you should put more salt in, and you put more salt in, and I think you should add sugar. At the end, you’re like, what the hell did I just make ? I’m making an Italian dish. Don’t tell me to put in , Mexican spices, right?
It’s going to ruin my, my dish .
[00:14:36] Sharon Skinner: And the other piece to that too is, something you said earlier was, when you have picture book people working with middle grade people, that can be really hard too, because picture books are a very specific format and they require certain things that aren’t required in middle grade.
Page turns and leaving room for the pictures and things like that. Mm-hmm. And it’s a very specific format. Same thing with graphic novels. I think you can get away with graphic novels and middle grade novel people because there’s at least more of a story or, there’s more writing there.
There’s a bigger world perhaps, and that goes back to what we were saying before about, you know, how complex can a picture book be and then how you move into middle grade and you can have subplots and then you move into YA, and you can get bigger casts of characters and more subplots.
And then by the time you get to adult, you can have these epic worlds and all these things going on. But the format of picture book only lends itself to so much in a story.
[00:15:43] Christy Yaros: Also I’ve noticed, fantasy people and non-fantasy people, if the non-fantasy person is someone who does not enjoy fantasy, it’s hard. They can’t get into your story because it’s not a genre that they enjoy in the first place and therefore their feedback isn’t, is kind of peppered with that.
But, I have a small group program and some of the contemporary people who thought they would not be able to critique a fantasy person are actually starting to learn. So you can learn that there are things that every story needs, and it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in that character is character. And the questions that you can ask to help somebody are the same, but it’s even, I think having multiple critique groups can be helpful.
If you’re lucky enough to find two groups of people, but maybe you have the people that you like are targeted partners. This is the person that I go to when I need help with dialogue. I want to make sure my dialogue is right because they’re awesome at dialogue. This is the person I go to and ideally a group, a critique group will have different say it like experts, like this is the person that’s always going to find the plot holes in everybody’s story.
And this is the person who is great at world building and this is the person who’s great with character. And so you get a nice mix of…
[00:17:00] Sharon Skinner: In a perfect world, yes. And that’s what you aim for. And again, going back to some of the pitfalls, sometimes it’s hard to find those people or it’s hard to find the people who kind of push each other to be better.
You need people that are at a similar level in craft as you, but have different strengths and that’s a tough build really. And you need one person who’s going to be the facilitator who’s going to help build that and invite people in and make sure that everybody knows when you’re meeting and all of that.
And that can be a big responsibility. I’ve seen critique groups die because no one wanted to take the lead. Mm. And then back to what you were saying about people who don’t understand maybe fantasy or what have you, if they’re writing contemporary or in different genre. My trilogy, the Healer’s Legacy, which is still my bestselling work.
That first book and that whole trilogy. And when I was writing that, I was working in a critique group and I had created the character. And the character is she’s training, she’s apprenticing to be a healer, but she’s got this ability to communicate with animals, but she can only communicate with carnivores animals that hunt and eat other animals, and she becomes a hunter and a healer.
And I was told, you can’t do that by someone in a critique group. You can’t do that. I said, why can’t I? Well, you can’t have them be both a hunter and a healer. I mean, how can you do that?
And I said, it’s the dichotomy that she struggles with. It’s a big part of who she is as a character is struggling with that dichotomy of being both those things, which I feel resonates with people because we all struggle with the dichotomies and the facets of who we are all the time. And to have something that’s that much, in conflict, in internal conflict with yourself and having to come to some sort of acceptance, I think is huge. Is a great driver for character, but I actually had somebody in a critique group say that I, I shouldn’t do that.
In fact, there were two people in that critique group trying to tell me that I needed to change that, and I’m thankful that I was able to sit with that and think, yeah, no, you’re wrong. And I’m not changing that. So , you really have to understand what your intent is and what you are trying to do with character in story and all of those things.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I like the mini blueprint or the blueprint for a book. Mm-hmm. those exercises because it helps us to understand why we’re telling story as we are writing it, because that’s a great way to let your critique partners know, here’s what I’m trying to do with this story.
Here’s the purpose of this story, which is what you were talking about earlier, is making sure that they know what you’re trying to accomplish so that they know what kind of feedback is going to be helpful.
[00:19:51] Christy Yaros: Right, and even coming into it, into each session with, okay, this is what I was trying to accomplish in this scene and then read it and then say, did I do that? Did this work? We all will write something and then, you’re bringing it to critique group, hopefully, because you do want feedback, not because you just want everybody to say, yay, that’s so great,
So I think writers are pretty intuitive if they let themselves be of what is not working. So see if other people feel the same way as you about what’s working, what’s not working. Like, I’m not sure that I got enough emotion on the page. Let’s see what everybody else thinks, you know, and, and ask them.
Did you feel that there was enough of this there? I mean, I think we’re, we’re taught sometimes that we’re not allowed to say anything when somebody is giving us a critique or, like you’re not allowed to, I mean, you don’t want to defend yourself, right? Don’t get defensive. But, I guess this is why, I mean, as a book coach, to me, it’s about the conversation too, because you might think something, this is the feedback that I have.
Oh no, I actually was trying to do this. Oh, well, if that’s what you were trying to do, then my feedback now changes. Right? That then you didn’t do that. This is how you can fix that.
[00:21:03] Sharon Skinner: I think that’s a great point because again, it comes back to intent and I think as book coaches and when we do evaluations and that sort of thing, I think we’re looking at the intent very, very closely. But we’re trained.
We’ve been trained over time and all of the reading that we do and the writing that we do, and the understanding of what stories should accomplish. I think we often know inherently as coaches what the intent is and where it’s missing the mark. And it’s one of the strong suits that I have that I just blogged about.
One of areas of genius is that I understand author intent intuitively, which makes me a really good poetry editor as well as story editor because I get what they’re trying to accomplish and I can hear the notes that are not ringing true. Mm-hmm. in the words, in the prose, in the poetry.
And I think that’s, that’s huge. And I don’t know that most critiquers are at that level where they know it, they know that’s what they’re doing. But usually if you get a good critique group going, they’ll know intuitively whether something’s working or not. They may not know exactly why or why not, but they’ll pinging on those places where something’s off mm-hmm. , and that’s huge. That’s a huge value to have.
[00:22:26] Christy Yaros: Yeah, if somebody doesn’t know your intent and gives you feedback on something, I mean, you know, this isn’t working. You can fix this, this way, this way, or this way, and maybe all three of those ways are valid ways for a story to go or a fix. But if it’s not what you are trying to do, like there’s only one choice usually that’s going to do what you need it to do.
So, I think that’s a really good point, what you made before about the mini blueprint, almost like everybody should do a mini blueprint and then share it with their critique group before they start critiquing. Right?
[00:22:56] Sharon Skinner: Right? I think that’s a great idea.
[00:22:59] Christy Yaros: Or even the inside outline. Here’s the scene and the point tell me, right.
[00:23:03] Sharon Skinner: Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish here. This is my intent, and Yeah. When I send my work to beta readers, I’m always asking them for very specific feedback. Not just read this and tell me what you think, because beta readers like anyone else, they need to have some idea what you think you need, what you might be wondering .
So I will very specifically say, Do the characters ring true? Are there any continuity issues?
[00:23:32] Christy Yaros: Mm-hmm, where did you lose interest?
[00:23:34] Sharon Skinner: Exactly. In a critique group, you should be asking the same kinds of questions. And back to what you were saying about the whole workshop/critique process where no one’s supposed to talk and you’re just supposed to sit and listen and all that.
I don’t know where that came from except for maybe because people got defensive or tried to explain. Yes, you should not get defensive. And yes, you should not try to explain maybe what you were trying to accomplish or try and explain away, oh, you just didn’t get it because the character’s doing blah, blah, blah in another scene or whatever.
Clearly, if the critique group is pinging on something, there’s something there or something not there that should be, and those are the things that I take note of. I don’t necessarily take note of the all the specific feedback in a critique group. But I definitely take note of where they’re pinging on it, where they’re having questions or where they’re falling out of the narrative or where they seem to be confused.
Those are the really critical things. So, I think that the giving and taking of critique is, it’s an art form on both sides, and it’s important that you learn that and go into it, also, open-eyed and open-heart.
[00:24:48] Christy Yaros: Right. I mean, the goal should be if you’re truly belonging in a critique group, you are there as much to help other people as you are to receive help.
And everybody, I feel, should be invested in each other’s stories to where you want. You want to see them finish, you want to see them write a great story, you want to have them get it published because you want to be in those acknowledgements. Right? Thank you to my fantastic critique group. Without whom this would never have been possible.
But if you are a person who, and I think maybe this is the difference with book coaching versus, a critique group is the transaction between us is yes money, but then we’re done. Right now I am just vested in your story and I just give you feedback and you can focus on your story and that’s it.
And in a critique group setting, there is that give and take between the group members. And if that’s not something that you feel you are in a place to do than maybe working one-on-one with somebody is better or just one critique partner, versus having a larger group, because you don’t want to be that person that’s just sitting there tell me, tell me, tell me about my story.
And then giving people kind of surface level, level feedback. And it’s not for everybody. Not everybody is at that point where they want to be invested in other people’s stories. Maybe they just want to focus on their own story, or maybe they’re not, like you said, at that level of craft where they can articulate how to help other people.
When critique groups work though, they work and they’re great. Yeah. And they’re more than just feedback. They’re, almost your life partners and that’s the people you turn to. Not even just about your words, but Hey, I’m really struggling today. Can you give a good emoji.
[00:26:31] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, so critique groups are a huge tool. They’re very valuable when they work. You just might have to try a few on. It’s just like process. I talk about this all the time. You might have to try it on and see if it works, see if it fits. You might have to do sample pages with a potential partner before you can form an actual critique relationship.
And that brings me to our actionable items because we always like to leave our audience with actionable items. And so I think I want to go back to the idea of if you are looking for a critique group or a critique partner to go out there, identify where you think you might find them, but build the relationship first.
I would say if you are looking at forming a critique group or joining a critique group, think about it as a relationship first. Consider joining and not committing to this permanently being able to say, I want to try this on. I want to see if this works before I commit wholly to it.
[00:27:41] Christy Yaros: That’s a great point. Okay. So my actionable item, I would say is as you’re out there doing what Sharon said, make a list of the things that you need from a critique group. What, what is it that you want? Do you want people who can help you with, like I said, your dialogue or your descriptions or whatever?
Do a self-evaluation? Where am I? What kind of writer do I think I am? What level do I think I’m at? Who should I surround myself with right now? That would be the most helpful to me because if you don’t know what you need, you’re not going to be able to ask for it , first of all.
And you’re not going to know if that’s what you’re getting from that other group. How harsh? Do you want a bunch of gentle people, or , maybe a nice mix of the ones who are going to tell you like it is and the ones who will make you feel better after the fact. But also, how frequently do you think you can reasonably meet? How many pages can you get done?
If you’re meeting monthly and you’re reading five pages, what value is that to you? Because that means that you’re hopefully still writing more than those five pages, but you’re not sharing pages as your critique group to be pretty behind where you actually are writing in your manuscript.
Maybe I’ll put a little list of questions to ask yourself in our show notes.
[00:29:00] Sharon Skinner: We will also put in there a little how to be a good critiquer that I have . So I will add that to our show notes so that you can have some information on how to be a good critiquer and that will help you find a good critiquer.
[00:29:18] Christy Yaros: Great. And if you’re lucky enough to find a group like I have, I hope you do. And then you gotta name yourselves ’cause every good critique group has to have a name. So that is all for today. Thank you everybody for joining us and we will see you soon.
[00:29:37] Sharon Skinner: Bye.
[00:29:37] Christy Yaros: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Coaching KidLit, a writing and book coaching podcast for writers who want to level up their KidLit writing game.
[00:29:44] Sharon Skinner: For more about us and to discover what a book coach could do for you, check out CoachingKidLit.Com and follow us on social media.
Sharon’s Post, “The Art of Critique: Giving and Getting Good Feedback”
Christy’s Critique Group Needs Self-Reflection Journal
Are you interested in working with a Book Coach on your KidLit book? Check out my KidLit Coaching Page or fill out my inquiry form for a FREE Consult call and let’s get started!