Sunday, February 20, 2011

On Critique Groups, a guest post by Stephen Brayton

Please join me in a warm welcome for Stephen Brayton, whose first novel has just been released through Echelon Press. During our preliminary discussions, Stephen has been nothing less than uber-polite. I kind of like being referred to as "Ms. Brantley."

When I asked Stephen to include a photo of his work area, he loved the idea. Here's what he had to say about it:

Let me give you a guided tour. Of course you can see a little bit of the computer with the drink nearby. The popcorn container at the far end holds years and years worth of monitor background pictures. I have a small alligator head. In the foreground there is a candle creation I keep reforming. To the right is a jackalope head I picked up in South Dakota. I keep a Christmas stocking hung on one of the antlers. Too bad my cat wouldn’t stick around for the picture, but that’s just his way sometimes.

I've written stories for many years, but started seriously while working at a radio station in Kewanee, Illinois. After I moved to Oskaloosa, Iowa, I started attending a writers' group in Des Moines. So much knowledge about writing and critique came out of that group and the others I've enjoyed.

I attended my first conference in 2007, Love Is Murder, In Chicago. Mike Manno introduced me to 'pitches' and we discussed writing and history and law while sharing the drive.

In 2009, while attending the Killer Nashville conference I was fortunate enough to meet Mary Welk of Echelon Press. Subsequent to the conference I submitted two novels to Echelon and in October, they BOTH were accepted for E-publication in 2011.

I'm a reader; a writer; an instructor; a graphic designer; a lover of books, movies, wine, women, music, fine food, good humor, sunny summer days spent hiking or fishing; and I'm a catnip drug dealer to my fifteen pound cat, Thomas.

On Critique Groups

A little over ten years ago I learned about a writers’ group that met every Tuesday from 7-9 at a large book store. Since I had been writing mysteries and short stories, I thought this would be an interesting place to learn more about writing and to share material. The group, as I understand it, had once been so large not everybody had a chance to read every week. During the time I attended the attendance numbers ebbed and flowed but ultimately dropped to a core of about ten. Because of my martial arts schedule, I was unable to attend for a few years, but finally I was able to rearrange things where I could once again share my work. Unfortunately, the dynamics of the group had changed and I soon stopped going. I’ve been a member of two other groups that have since dissolved and am currently looking for another group.

Let me discuss some of the experiences I’ve had with critique groups because there are benefits to be gained and pitfalls to be avoided. First, I love critique groups. The friendships built, the connections made, the insights given and received. You may think your story is the next War and Peace, but when you read it to others, their perspectives may relegate it to the bottom of the bird cage. You need that critique, though. You need the fresh ears to hear your mistakes, to catch errors. You’ll enjoy the praise of a chapter well done, but you also want the ‘clunks’ mentioned. Critique groups also push you to keep writing. I attended only a few times when I didn’t have something to present, and I felt guilty. I WANTED to write. I WANTED to share and learn. Critique groups led me to writers’ conferences and ultimately to getting published.

However, the road hasn’t been easy. Critique groups have to be about critiquing the writing, not the writer. Yes, I’ve run into a jerk or two who would rather insult either the person or the material being presented instead of offering a helpful suggestion. Another thing: ideas are fine, but the written word is key. Anybody can have ideas, but you need to get busy and write. One of the reasons I stopped attending my first group was because, as I said, attendance had dropped to a core, but out of that core of ten, maybe three or four read every week. Three things about this. One: I can accept a few excuses for not writing. Busy, sick, travel. Fine, but when the excuses keep coming, I have to conclude you aren’t serious about writing and you’re not keeping up with the practice of writing. Two: If you’re not serious, why are you in the group? To socialize? Socializing is okay, but after business is completed. Three: If you haven’t written anything in months, but keep attending the group, I stop listening to your critiques because I don’t feel you’re justified in commenting about my stuff if you aren’t presenting yours. I’m not talking about a quid pro quo type of deal, but you have to stay with it.

Another trap writers fall into when attending a group is they continue writing the rest of the story. If you present chapter one and get a critique, don’t tinker with chapter one and present it again, then tinker with it again, and so on. Where’s chapter 2? You aren’t going to perfect your story by attending weekly meetings. You have to finish the story. I’ve seen so many fall into this rut, get frustrated, and either stop writing or start another story and continue to have the same problems.

The critique group needs to stay focused. Draw up some guidelines for members to follow. Set goals. Don’t worry about perfection, worry about completion. Then go back and polish. Keep your eyes on the prize. Seek out other authors for advice. Schedule time to attend writers’ conferences. Killer Nashville is a great one for whatever stage you’re at in your story. Stay impersonal in the critiques. Keep in mind the old saying, “If you have nothing good to say, keep your mouth shut.” Critique is about perpetuating strengths and overcoming weaknesses through support.

Ultimately, a critique group has to be beneficial to the members, otherwise, it’s just a bunch of people meeting on a regular basis with no purpose.

Des Moines Homicide detective Harry Reznik and F.B.I. agent, Lori Campisi, have their hands more than a little full when they team up to investigate a series of gruesome murders.

With life throwing them one obstacle after another, the unlikely pair has no choice but to put their personal issues aside as they battle malevolent creatures from another dimension. With everything to lose, they have no one but each other to count on in a wicked game of survival.

Night Shadows is available through OmniLit, the bookstore on the corner of your digital neighborhood.


  1. Stephen, your office sounds better than mine. Wanna swap? Mine has tons of manuscript pages, teetering stacks of books, and two dogs who want to be in on the action. Seriously, I like what you wrote. It's fun. Congratulations on your book. I'll check it out.

  2. Oh, I didn't take a picture of the closet with all the writing stacks. I have a couple shelves' worth of stuff. lol. Thanks.

  3. My office has way too much paper just waiting to be recycled as soon as I can make sure it's not valuable (valuable to whom, I'm not sure). I've shared your experiences with critique groups and their ebb and flow. It only takes one bad apple to spoil it for everyone. Nice post. Good luck with your book.

  4. I'm going to Killer Nashville this year. Can't wait! Congrats on the new book. Hope you write and sell many more.

  5. Stephen, thanks for letting us take a peek at your writing space. It's always fun to see where others write.

    Oskaloosa. My aunt lives in Albia. She frequently drives to Oskaloosa since it's the closest "big" city.


  6. Peg, I chose you for the "I Love this Blog Award!" Check out Redwood's Medical Edge tomorrow.

  7. Nice to meet you, and thank you for the warnings to keep writing while working with our writers' group / critique group.