You’ve heard of Burning Man, right? The arty, fire-infused festival takes place each Labor Day week in the middle of the 400 square mile Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Disclaimer: It’s not kid rated, but does serve as a tantalizing analogy.
Imagine that you are there in 1996 when 8,000 people come to witness it all. There is no fence around the parched, absolutely flat alkali lakebed, no signs to direct you, but you follow instructions given in miles and by compass points.
You must bring everything you need: shelter, food, water, shade, and perhaps creative installations or artworks, the bigger the better. You see dozens of crazy art cars festooned with found objects and one car in the shape of a shark with a movable tail, stilt walkers and fire breathers, art pavilions and sculptures. There is the tinkling of many little bells and when you turn, a stilt-walker approaches wearing copper tubing wings, sixteen feet across, adorned like a carillon. A remote-controlled sofa with people chilling on it rolls by, then a few minutes later, a lone floor lamp follows. Oh, and the fire makers: sundry big devices, fabricated from farm equipment, pipes, or sheet metal, roam spewing fireballs or shooting flame. You’ve never seen such creative fire.
So what’s the connection with a critique group for writers or artists? Are you looking for a group of like-minded people to share creative ideas with who will give honest feedback on your work? A supportive community that will inspire amazing things? Do you want to have a range of groups to choose among, to find the right one for you?
If there is a fire burning within you to make your writing or art the best it can be, then you need input from good, creative, skilled people familiar with the genre you are invested in and who operate in the style that best suits you. They can help you be part of a community that goes all out to entertain and inspire.
Things to consider:
- As a writer or artist you are a part of a larger community than that Burning Man I went to. There are, for example, more than 22,000 SCBWI members worldwide, most of whom are working on getting their children’s books published. Among them are many who belong to, or organize, critique groups. You need to zero in on which are most compatible with the way you work.
- Just as Burning Man explores a panoply of artistic formats, you need to decide whether you want an on-line or face-to-face crit group and how intense you want it to be. On-line groups free you geographically and guarantee that all comments and discussions are in writing. In-person groups must be within commuting distance, but you might want to be able to interact with your crit buddies in this more physically direct way. And in both of these types of groups some are organized around a relaxed schedule while others are more time-intensive.
- The Burning Man festival often has a theme. You may want a crit group focused on the theme/genre you target. A group that specializes in picture books and other short works may have several crits of entire works discussed per session. Another that focuses on young adult novels may only cover a chapter or certain maximum number of words, that is, a fragment of the whole, each time. You will usually get the most productive feedback from people who work in a similar genre.
- The sense of community a critique group offers is strongest when it fits your needs. A small intense group will be right for some, or might seem too limited. A large crit group might either stimulate you or feel overwhelming. The size of the group will also determine how often it will be your turn to submit and how many crits you will be expected to do in each cycle.
- In the Black Rock Desert event there is a cashless economy. Bartering is the currency. One of the strengths of a good critique group is that everyone shares their valuable knowledge unselfishly. You gain and you give. This works best when group members have a roughly equivalent ability and experience level. The scope of value you can get from a well-chosen critique group can be truly immeasurable.
- And the fire aspect. Critique groups work best if everyone is passionate enough about their work to submit the best they are capable of. And to commit to a regular schedule of submissions and critiques of others’ works. Assuming everyone has the burning fire of passion about their writing or art, everyone can give valuable, empathetic crits and receive constructive criticism graciously. Everyone’s goal is to help each other grow, improve, and succeed in the publishing world.
When deciding which to join, consider the layout of the group, what its parameters are. This year 70,000 people attended the Burning Man festival in a wide open desert. Organizers mark out a circular arena where vehicles and tents radiate in rows. The space is well defined. To get an idea of the many formats a critique group may follow, here are the guidelines for two, through a Dropbox link. You don’t need to sign in to read this. One is for an on-line group. The other is a face-to-face group.
There are various ways to find a critique group that’s right for you. Start with SCBWI’s listserve and blueboards. Note: you must be an SCBWI member to access this feature. If you want a local, face-to-face one, ask at your local library – your children’s librarian should be your friend anyway. The SCBWI regional conferences often have a crit group sign-up area or a meet and greet event to help conference goers find a crit group. Professional writers’ organizations may have resources lists on their website where you can post what you are looking for.
In 2014 there was an article here on WR about Inked Voices, which is a cloud-based on-line critique and meet-up organization. The interview with Inked Voices originator Brooke McIntyre was conducted by Marianne Knowles, our critique group organizer extraordinaire and creator of Writers Rumpus.
Another way to gain valuable critiques of your work is during one-on-one sessions with an editor or agent at a conference or workshop. The SCBWI offers many regional and national conferences annually and many provide opportunities to link up with an agent or editor for feedback. Big Sur at Cape Cod, a small conference to be held May 13th to 15th, 2016, is comprised of small group mentoring workshops with industry professionals. Not only will participants get valuable critiques from professionals on their work, there will be time to revise and resubmit. This is like an uber critique group.
Harold Underdown, an independent children’s book editor, has posted a page of suggestions on finding critique groups. Writers Digest has input for you about this topic too, including ideas for where to look. And whenever you associate with other children’s book people, word of mouth can also lead you to a good group.
One way or another, keep that fire burning.
If you have found a great critique group in some other way, share it in the comments!