Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Critiquing 101

Coffee and Chocolate, where would we writers be without them? Especially when editing!

Following on from Amanda's post about editing ...

I thought I'd fill you in on how Marianne de Pierres and I started the ROR peer Critique Group nearly 10 years ago.

We were looking for something to push us to the next level of professionalism. We'd done all the workshops and we'd been running the VISION writing group for several years. But we craved more. We wanted novel length critiquing. We wanted knives (in the nicest possible way).

So we contacted a few writing friends we had, people scattered across Australia, and asked if they would like to be part of a peer critiquing group dedicated to improving their writing craft. So that was how the first ROR started.

ROR was meant to stand for wRiters on the Road. Then we found out that someone had actually started a group using that name. So we changed it to wRiters on the Reisling, but that gave a bad impression, so we changed it to wRiters on the Rise.

We've done well over the years. See here.

We have another ROR coming up in late august, just before World Con in Melbourne. This is how we structure our critiques. We send out our books a month beforehand so the we can read all the manuscripts and write reports. This is a big commitments, but worth it because we are getting 5-6 reports back on our books. (There are 8 RORees but because life happens, not all of us can make it every time).

Then we divide up the 3 days or so that we have into sessions, eg, Morning, afternoon, after dinner. And we do someone's book intensively for about 3 hours. Honestly, after that you feel like youv'e been put through the wringer, but in a good way.

This is how we structure the Crit.

Novel Length Critique

Overview (How we felt the book worked, marketability etc)

Tone and/or age appropriate (eg. age –if the book is for children 11-14, tone — if the tone is right for the subgenre)

Structure (look at establishing the problem and characters in the first chapters, narrative pacing, satisfying resolution).

View Point (Look at any problems with VP. This is usually a beginning writer’s problem, but sometimes an established writer will need to add or remove a VP to create narrative tension).

Characterisation (Which characters are working, which ones aren’t. What are their character arcs? What do they learn in the course of the book. Internal conflict, External conflict).

Logic Flaws in World Building and Plot (These two are tied in because we’re writing spec fic. Even an Urban Fantasy is going to have world building because it is our world, one step removed. A flaw in world building will throw the reader out of the story).

Dialogue (Is it appropriate for the age/education of the characters)

Setting/visuals (Does the reader feel as if they are really there? Can they see the place? Is it rich and inventive, or derivative?).

General, page by page comments.

Looking back at all this, I realise that I could write a post on each of these topics and still not do them justice.

At ROR each of us would have our say and then we’d break into general discussion, getting all enthusiastic and excited about the book. The person whose book had been critiqued would come away, their head spinning with ideas and a new perspective.

Having 5- 6 people critique your book is good because if one person doesn't get something, but everyone else does, then you know it's just that person. It's not the book.

Publishing is a tough business, having a peer group who give feedback and offer support has been wonderful. I thoroughly recommend creating your own peer critique group.


Jonathan D. Beer said...

I have been giving this some thought in recent days, as I have started to bump into other genre writers where I live, and having seen how useful they are (and, frankly, giving a sense of "you are not alone" that can boost so many of us).

I do have a question though: is ROR a collection of "genre" writers? Do you think that a genre novel needs to be critiqued by genre authors? (I think so, but I'm not sure why. Probably my in-built snobbery I suspect.)

John Lambshead said...

And tea and biscuits.

Jonathan D. Beer said...
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Jonathan D. Beer said...
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C Kelsey said...

Sounds like an extremely useful group.

Synova said...

I took a peer critique *class* about a year ago and I (besides the instructor who writes speculative YA) was the only person writing speculative fiction, or who even read it. I got a lot of "Oooohhh, cool!" responses which were sort of fun but not all that helpful. I think I got quite a bit out of the class and it was great to meet those ladies (there was one guy out of something like 12 people) but when they arranged to keep on meeting without the instructor after the classes ended I decided that my life was just too busy.

Just my opinion but various genres are identified by their particular set of conventions. I think that it's a good idea to keep confusion to a minimum in case someone picks up your story as their intro to fantasy or science fiction, but I also think that you get better critique from someone who understands what is going on.

If that was right out in the open I think it might work, or at least I hope so, because the other main reason that I didn't make a point to keep up with these ladies was that even more than people who understood my genre, I wanted a group focused on publication. I wanted knives but in the nicest possible way. ;-)

And also, it was true that my life was sort of overwhelming and I wasn't likely to get a lot of writing done. But I've been thinking for a while about trying to start a group, to put up a notice or two and see who responds. I don't know that I'd be able to find a good core group locally that is all SF so I'd seriously considered specifying openness to other genre fiction.

Haven't done it yet though.

C Kelsey said...


I posted a comment earlier. The comment count on the main page says there are 3 comments. I'm only seeing two currenlty and mine isn't one of them. Weird.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Oops, sorry guys. Seems there's been something of a technical hitch with the comments :-/

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jonathan, definitely the 'you are not alone' feeling is very important.

And yes, a genre novel needs to be critiqued by another genre writer. They need to love the genre as much as you do, and have years of reading in it and across associated genres to really give useful feedback.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

John, tea and biscuits yes.

Even better wine and a good meal in front of a fire, while talking excitedly about some obscure point in the craft of writing!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, it can be done. I know of two other groups in Australia, based on ours.

One of them applies for grants and brings in multi published writers to run weekend workshops as well.

You just need to find some sympatico writers.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova, you hit the nail ont he head. Knives inthe nicest possible way -- will lead to publication.

Marianne and I based the VISION writing group on the fact that we were serious (in a good way) about writing. We were and still are passionate about the craft. We wanted to learn.

And yes, you need people who love the genre you write in, people who have read it for years and are also passionate about writing.

The ROR team come from across Australia. We are 3000 miles apart at the greatest distance, but we still manage to meet and crit each other's books.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jonathan and Chris, hope I haven't missed a comment of yours.

C Kelsey said...

Looks like you've seen them all, Rowena. I guess it was a bug earlier in the day. Maybe blogger had a cold?

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's some group, and some critiquing. I'd be afraid to start such a thing from scratch, with strangers. Better to seek out people you know have good judgment and travel once a year or so.

Amanda Green said...

Great post, Rowena. There's nothing better than a critique group that works and it sounds like ROR does that and more. Congrats!

Chris McMahon said...

I've done plenty of shorter critiquing, but it would be great to do something like that at novel length.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, we did know each other. We'd met at conventions. We didn't know each other well. But you know how you meet someone and you just a feeling that they are on your wavelength?

We had that feeling.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Thanks, Amanda.

It's wonderful to have the support of a group of friends who understand the crazy world of publishing.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Why don't you do what Jason and the other guys did? They formed their own group.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. If you are talking about the EDGE retreat - I am already a member of that group. But we don't look at the whole manuscript.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sorry Chris. Lost track there.

I thought you guys did complete novels as well?

Why not suggest it to the group?

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Hi Rowena; no you didn't miss a comment of mine - things went a bit haywire yesterday I think!

Thanks, that is what I thought. I am giving serious thought to starting up a Kent/South East England group, having had a scout around on the internet and finding nothing which really fits me (one group seemed good, but you must have published work to be considered for membership). As part of a drive to take writing more seriously - more professionally - I think being a member of a writing group would help enormously.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

It would Jonathan. But you need to find a group that specialises in your genre.

Does your local library have a newsletter? Do you have a local writers centre? Could you put out a call for writers of SF and fantasy who would like to form a writing group?

Jonathan D. Beer said...

We'll see! I am certain that the local library has a newsletter - it seems to be quite keen to be as proactive as possible - and we will see who responds. The University I work for also has a Creative Writing society, and I will see if I can get some advice about organising a group from them (they don't seem to cater for genre authors).

Ta for the advice! :)