Monday 17 August 2015

Notes from the Critique Group

By Maureen Lynas

When Candy said - Would you like to start blogging on the slushpile again? - I said yes immediately. Then spent two months thinking – what about?

The size of my slushpile? Done. It’s even bigger than when I first blogged about it. It wobbles now. Sometimes it sways. It may topple.

The seven steps to pacing and plotting? Done. But I could talk about the steps for ever. So that theme was a possible.

The five bricks of story? Done.  I think I'm up to seven now.

Show not tell? Done, said Maureen as she exhibited frustration, annoyance and desperation through her body language.

To procrastinate I read Jennie Nash's excellent post on writing groups (on Jane Friedman’s blog) because our SCBWI BI York group was about to meet.

Jenny raised various issues but this one resonated with me the most 
Struggling writers are not often the best judges of struggling writing.
She made me wonder whether there was a critiquer's journey in the same way there is a writer’s journey. Could a critique group become stuck in one of the four stages of learning?

Quick reminder for those that have forgotten or have never heard of Noel Burch's four stages of learning
Unconscious Incompetence
We don't know what we don't know
Conscious Incompetence
We know what we don't know and are shocked!
Conscious Competence
We are applying what we know but it's like walking through treacle with delicious little pools of bubbly, uplifting, lemonade every now and then.
Unconscious Competence
We know everything (ha!) and can write via a mind meld with our characters.
So I wondered - what can a critique group do if it thinks it's stuck in one of the stages, as Jenny was suggesting. How does a critique group kick itself out of conscious incompetence when it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know?

I love our critique group in York. We’re fun, chatty and extremely supportive. As you can see. 

But, what if we were one of those groups stuck in the treacle and didn't know it? Was Jenny talking about us? Were we moving on with our knowledge and application or were we repeating the same suggestions each meeting? Were we listening? Were we really discovering what we needed to learn? 

So, as an experiment I suggested we changed the way we critique.

Normally we skill share in the morning and critique in the afternoon. This was so that we could go home to digest the comments, cry into our wine, forget the trauma. There was no discussion of the work. It's possible we were concerned that people would begin defending their work if we had a discussion time. Or not. 

So we swapped around. We critiqued in the morning using our usual format - Each critiquer has one minute to give a verbal critique, then hands over a written critique. The author being critiqued makes notes but says nothing.

We then had lunch and some breathing space to digest the food and comments.

Then we spent the afternoon discussing the issues the critiques raised - both specific to the author's work but also broadened out to discuss the issues in other literature. It worked brilliantly. Everyone pitched in with examples and analysis. We even walked through Morag Macrea’s scene of a girl having her head stuffed down the toilet, so that she could see it clearly. I was that girl.

These were just some of the issues we were able to identify and discuss:
· Which stories had an inciting incident and which didn’t.
· Which story had multiple inciting incidents and needed a prune.
· Which story had an amazing opening line that set the wrong tone for the story and why.
· Which ordinary world confused the reader and why.
· Which stories had a lack of clarity in action scenes.
· Which stories had too much backstory in the opening chapters.

This led to suggested homework:
· Analyse your favourite books and identify their inciting incidents so that you really understand what an inciting incident is.
· Persuade, demand, order, friends and family to act out the action if you can’t see it in your head. Walk through it or use toys.  
· Analyse how other authors deal with back story.
· Identify the essential information the reader needs in your opening scenes.

This was probably the best critique session we've had. So that's what I'll be blogging about on Notes From the Slushpile. The issues raised in our critique sessions. Hopefully we'll add to your knowledge, encourage insightful critiquing and get you out of the treacle and into the pools of bubbly, lemony pop and beyond.


Maureen Lynas blogs intermittently on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas
She is the author of
The Action Words Reading Scheme
Florence and the Meanies
The Funeverse poetry site.


  1. This is very thougth provoking Maureen - am going to share with my crit group...

    1. Thanks Kathy. I'm hoping that as we explore the issues raised in our crit group other people will add useful links or their own tips for upskilling.

  2. Great stuff, Maureen. I had not identified the 4 stages but recognise them!

    1. They are in everything, Addy. Learning to drive, swim, play the cello, bake a pecan pie. Maybe I need a post on how to accept where you are on the steps as a writer.

  3. Here's what Gill Hutchison said, "Maureen, this is what I was trying to write to you: Eeek! Yes, I actually made noises whilst I was reading this. It's going to be so useful. You mentioned the D word - people going into defensive mode about their work (I have almost stopped doing that, but not quite) and I can see how this would ease a building "situation". Thank you!"

  4. I've been away and finding it difficult to comment on stuff. Having been on crit groups over the years, I cringe when I think of some advice I've dished out to my peers. A willingness to question one's competence is crucial. Looking forward to your next posts!

    1. Let's cringe together, Candy. In the early days I trotted out advice I'd been given as if it was gospel. I question everything now. It's about serving the story and not obeying the 'rules'.

  5. This is really useful - I am part of a very new crit group and I think we could use this to help us forward.

    1. I love being useful! Hopefully we'll be able to support each other with a discussion of the issues that arise. .


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