Saturday, August 10, 2013

Children's Book Writing Critique Groups: Online or In-person?

Sitting in a room with a friendly group of writers is an energizing experience. There's laughter and support. Friendships form.  You can see and hear their reactions to your work. You may start to become obsessed with reading body language. Did she really mean that positive thing she said--if she did, why did she touch her nose that way? Is he allergic, or bored?--he keeps coughing while I read! But for all the insecurities it's a lot of fun.

But sometimes, they fizzle. Attendance dwindles. People take time off. Life happens. Other times in an in-person group, the conversation goes off-topic. Which is fun, but not productive if you want critiques. Classes or workshops with a teacher are more structured, but they can be expensive, and you have no say in when and where they meet.

I had been in an online crit group in the past which was quite productive, but was no more. I had also taken some online writing classes, and found I GAVE much better feedback in writing, after having time to carefully read and compose my comments. Also, the comments I got were from people who had also had time to read and consider. In the in-person groups, we'd just react, talking, sometimes in a rush, with a time limit, or not remembering all that was read, or maybe even being preoccupied.

After I moved, I had trouble finding an in-person group, and the travel distances here are rather daunting to me, so I stopped looking and went without. After solo writing for a while, I was really jonesing for feedback (as in, please somebody, is anybody out there?). So I started an online group. I posted it to the SCBWI board. The post was called "Advanced Picture Book Critique Group". I wanted people with some writing experience--not necessarily published. Just people who are really into it. The crits would be in-depth, I said.

For years I took a children's writing workshop where I was often the only picture book writer, and just once I wanted it all to be picture books. I had taken some continuing education writing and illustrating courses, and had been in a writing-illustrating in-person with members from the group I'm in, Children's Book Illustrators Group (CBIG) I loved that everyone was on the same page, so to speak. That all the work was short, but meaningful. I like to hear novels too, but that's a very long-term and involved thing. Different set of brain cells.

Once I posted, no one answered. There were other posts about crit groups, some with dozens of interested writers. None of them said "advanced," though. I went into my post, thinking maybe it was scaring people off. I edited it to emphasize that publication was not necessary, and said by "advanced" I meant maybe took a class or did a lot of reading of picture books. That the crits would be in-depth, and that was why a bit of knowledge or experience was necessary. I wasn't trying to sound exclusive, I just wanted to be with people who were already focused--even if they were beginners, what I really wanted was to be sure they had READ picture books, carefully and with love. Was that OK to ask for, to a group of strangers? I decided it was.

Slowly, members trickled in. I didn't grill them on their qualifications. I was glad to have anyone who wanted to be in it. Some of them were published. After about a month, with seven members, I closed the group to new people.

I had been in one before but I wasn't running that one, I was just along for the ride.  For the new one, I set up a Yahoo group, since the one I was in was a Yahoo group. I suggested we post every week. Of course, that's way too much. I was thinking how in person, we'd meet every week and go over all the stories. We did that in my writing class with seven people. It met for two hours. But, there was no "homework" there. No need to write comments or digest. We just listened to the stories, the teacher did most of the talking and wrote comments.

Somebody in the new online group suggested every two weeks, and I realized that was much better. Someone else made nifty folders. As moderator, I didn't have to moderate much at all! After a couple rounds, we've gotten into a good rhythm, I think. I love that I can get feedback, and I really enjoy writing crits, too. It keeps me on my game. It lets me into the heads of other writers and how they see picture book structure; it gets me out of my loner subjectivity. I love to see the stories develop. Our members are spread all over the country. Even in states so remote I never thought I'd know anybody from! Ah, the Internet.

All in all, I can't say online is better than in-person. Both ways have their pros and cons. But with both, there are way more pros than cons. It's comforting to know that like minds are a click away. But it's the human spirit, whether in the same room or in cyberspace, that makes the group take on a life of its own.

Next, maybe I should start an online illustration critique group!

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