Should Critique Groups Include Children?

Most of this story actually occurred, but I’ve changed names and details so my writers’ group won’t rage and come after me with pitchforks and torches. I added some exaggeration as well, but not much.

Once I took the only remaining seat in the writers’ circle, I stared at the person next to me, noticing the wholesome face, bright eyes, and glint of braces on her teeth. Having heard about us from a poster on a bulletin board, sixth-grader Daphne radiated happy enthusiasm at joining the adult group.

I wondered how this new situation would play out. The assembly at the table included mostly those nearing retirement, my middle-aged self, and two twenty-something ladies. Some of them were hobby writers while a few were interested in a career in publication. But a kid? Daphne happily bounced in her chair, whispering to me questions about the group, which only added to the dull roar of everyone else talking at once.

The leader shouted for attention and we started going around the room, reading our selections. The doubts ate at my mind as I brought my selection out. Why is she here? My stuff isn’t kid friendly. How can I possibly read this out loud?

As the evening progressed, the memoirs and poems that folks read aloud stayed G-rated and lovely. Daphne added comments here and there but mostly asked sotto voce questions to me about “what did she mean…?”

When I answered in a low voice, the leader glared at us for talking around the others, and loudly suggested only one voice at a time should speak. Okay, now I feel like the twelve-year-old who got caught passing notes in the back of middle school English class. My sense of professionalism limped away to cry quietly in the corner.

The next contributor’s story focused on funeral arrangements in some detail. Daphne’s eyes widened a bit as she whispered more urgent questions to me on the side.

“People read about this?”

“Yes. You can write about anything. Lucy’s making a point about how this major event really changed her life.”

“So this is real?”

“Yeah, it is a memoir. Sometimes people find creative ways to write about the events in their lives.”

Her blue eyes widened even further. “I didn’t think anyone wrote about dead people.”

I smiled at her and nervously shifted my thriller/horror piece about a kidnapper tormenting and then killing his victim. “Uhm, yeah. Adult fiction often does.” Thank God I didn’t bring my ghost story then.

Her 12-year-old attention span swung back to the offered comments on Lucy’s piece while I stared at my manuscript.

Holy crap, how could I read this aloud while she was in the room? At the same time, I wanted this piece reviewed before I started submitting it to a few choice contests.

            Brenda went next, taking time to explain to Daphne who the characters in her fantasy story were, including a weasel the size of a horse. Once she finished, I raised my hand and offered a suggestion. Yes, we are back in grade school again, I thought.

“The part where you’re talking about describing her as a ‘courtesan in rags’ caught my attention. The word, courtesan, has very specific meanings as an entertainer beyond the obvious connotation. They usually look beautiful, like geishas. The rags part kind of doesn’t fit.” My eyes flickered over to young Daphne for a moment. “Perhaps it would be better to use a more, ahh earthy word… you know, “earthy?” Like a “w” word that is more … aah, well…earthy?”

The older poet on the other side of me turned and said, “like woman?”

“Ahh, yeah…” Daphne watched with the intense laser vision of a child trying to comprehend some mystic secret. “You know, earthy woman…” Now I’m squirming a bit, wondering why I spoke up at all.

Brenda nodded, “Yeah, I get it. That kind of woman,” finally relieving me of my discomfort.

Next it is my turn. “Ahh…” I hesitated, biting my lip. Since we pass out copies for folks to read along, skipping the offending parts wouldn’t work. “My material has some rather fruity terms. I’m not sure I should read it tonight.”

The reviewers, which included at least three-fourths of the women in the “grandma” category, exchanged looks just as Daphne calls out “Hi, Mom!”

We all turn to the tall figure by the door. Flooded with relief, I thought, great, I’m saved by the parent!

            Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Mom, probably encouraged by the fact an adult group was taking her young author seriously, offered the child more time for us to finish up.

When I protested, again mentioning the fruity language in my content, she laughed and said, “she’s probably heard it all before.”

            Okay….at least they were warned.

So I started reading. The “bullshit” phrase flew off with only a giggle from Daphne, but then we got to “his foot first connected to the man’s genitals” phrasing and I paused. Damn! Forgot about that phrase. After a nervous cough from one of the others, I continued.

“Attack me one more time and you’ll learn there are quick ways to die and slow ways. I’ll just blow a finger off or put one into your balls.”

Another nervous cough came from the leadership section and a giggle from the junior chair. Luckily, the rest of the material proceeded without much more than a few death threats and references to Edgar Allen Poe (and Daphne asking, “Who’s that?”).

The reviewers chimed in their comments, which were positive and helpful. I wrote them down while fielding questions from the youngster,

“Why did he kidnap the guy?”

“He wants revenge.”

“Why is he in the cave?”

“I’ll explain that next week when I read the next section.”

“He’s really mean.”

“Uhmm, well yeah. He’s the bad guy.”

On my way home, I pondered the conflict that I felt with having a kid in our group. On one hand, I believed in nourishing a love of reading and writing from a young age, picturing little inquisitive Daphne as the next great literary genius. On the other, I realized I couldn’t read the rest of the story, which included such fine quality words like “prick” (as in the body part) and a graphic description of rats eating their way through a man’s stomach. Nor could I later read sections of my book, which included a tasteful but necessary sex scene and joking references to necrophilia. My ears already burn a bit red at the thought of reading controversial stuff to friends and colleagues. Daphne might find it amusing but, channeling my own motherly concerns, I didn’t feel comfortable with her hearing my material.

Personally, I hope she finds us boring enough after a few visits to stop coming. As selfish as it sounds, I want the ability to provide R-rated material to the critique group. It is what I write and the way I think. Keeping myself to G-rated stories really limits my options for feedback, and I didn’t plan on leaving the thriller and horror genres. In addition, I’m can easily picture the scenario where she brings in her work, with all the mistakes and issues found in the very young author’s material. Sometimes it is hard enough to listen to bad amateur writing from an adult. Will she really understand the nuances of “show, don’t tell?” If we offer a range of suggestions for improvement, will she react with pouting, exasperation, or even a fit? Some newbie adults do and it is unpleasant. I dread finding out how a child would react.

So dear readers, what is your opinion on this issue? How would you feel about having children present during your critique group?


Check Your Ego at the Door: Critique Etiquette

What you get out of a critique group reflects what you put into it. Seems obvious, right? Yet promising writers are often chased away from a group simply because a few members say exactly the wrong thing or folks only focus on negative comments.

In addition, some new writers become insulted when given criticism, taking any suggestions too personally. If you react negatively to comments, it ultimately reduces your chances of getting honest feedback. After all, no one will offer any true opinion of your work if they believe you will you become hostile about changes.

When Giving Criticisms

Begin with something positive.
Be kind and thorough in your assessment of their work. Say something nice at first. It helps soften the bad news and lets the writer know they haven’t completely failed.

Couch the bad comments in a polite and even politic way.
No one wants to hear “do people really read that?” or other ego-killing statements. The work may not be the reader’s preferred genre or it may need severe editing. It doesn’t matter. What is important is that the author is seeking meaningful feedback to improve it, not a blast of negativity. He or she will react more favorably if the criticism is given in a discussion form rather than an onslaught of opinion.

If possible, make suggestions to fix the issue.
If you sense a large plot hole on why a scene doesn’t work, come up with ideas to help the writer. The error simply may come from the fact that the person was writing about something out of his or her expertise.

Don’t create conflict with someone who offers suggestions if their view differs from your opinion.
Sometimes one reader in a group understands an idea or a plot while another doesn’t. Discussions are great and they lead to wonderful idea exchanges. However, arguments only shut everyone down and no one wins.

Don’t offer ideas on where you think the story should go further unless asked.
A writer knows what he or she wants the character to do. If they ask for suggestions, then feel free to share your vision of the plot. Otherwise, all you are doing is pressing your ideas and your voice onto their work.

When Asking for Criticisms

Don’t apologize or try to explain your work before reading it or handing out excerpts.
If your work can’t stand on its own merits, then you already know something is wrong with it. The one exception to this rule is if you are in the middle of a long story and want to tell everyone where the scene is in the book.

State what factor you want people to consider if you are looking at a specific problem.

A girl made of flower pots

Garden fun

Catching a misplaced modifier or missing period helps, but not if you want to know if your heroine’s southern accent is strong enough. If you have a specific concern, such as the darkness of a scene or the clarity of the motive, ask people to look at that feature explicitly before you begin.

Be thoughtful and quiet when receiving comments on your work.
If you turn into a flames-in-the-eyeballs monster every time someone mentions a flow problem or voice change, then be prepared for a lot of bland smiles and “It’s great” unhelpful remarks. By getting confrontational, you just let everyone know that you’re not serious about improving your work.

Note the good remarks.
People will tell you where your strengths are. If you are receiving great comments, then politely say “thank you” and accept them. If the reviewers make an effort to emphasize how good a scene or character is, realize that they went to an effort to connect with the material. This indicates your writing strengths, which should help with any feelings of self-doubt you may have later.

Quietly consider the bad remarks.
Every time you ask someone to review your work, you will get negative comments or suggestions for change. It is simply in man’s nature to not leave things alone. Examine the suggestions you receive and how those ideas might improve your manuscript. However, do not publicly shrug the person off or try to explain your writing away. If it didn’t work for them while they read it, then arguing about it isn’t going to help.

After the Critique

When looking at the remarks later, make sure you put them in the context of the readers. After all, a person who writes romance can still offer good advice on your science fiction material but they may not understand why some elements are important. One good example of this is that one person may have never heard of a “Mexican bakery” in your story, while another knows that they are all over the southwest part of the US.

Secondly, remember that these are just suggestions. If they are about grammar or punctuation then you probably should make changes. If they are about character, setting, or plot, then the comments must make sense in terms of the overall story. It is a lot like getting food from a buffet. Only take what looks reasonable and leave the weird stuff behind.

Red tulips

Anxiously awaiting spring blossoms