View Full Version : Critique group derail and getting back on track

Calla Lily
02-09-2007, 06:18 PM
I run a once-a-month crit group at a local church. We're gentle, a little goofy, and very encouraging to each other. We seem to attract people who've never, ever showed their stuff to anyone but their dog. The kind of people who need to hear "That's a good start" and a few directional suggestions or they'll scurry back into their dens and never write another word again.

So last month a mother/daughter team showed up--the mother had had a piece in the op-ed section of the paper, and the daughter had a poem pubbed last year in the Sat. Eve. Post. They were severe, and the rest of us made a point of being nice to everyone--lead by example, you know?

They showed up again last night. I was surprised--they'd given plenty of nonverbal cues that we were too amateur for them. They spent 40 minutes--40!--tearing apart one woman's latest picture book poem. Nit-picking, carping, pretty much telling her "do it THIS way; your way is wrong." I ended that session and then the mother brought this article she wants to submit to Guideposts (if you've never read it, everything in it is heartwarming). It was about her son's battle with CF, and it used actual doctors' names, hospitals, etc. etc. I told her at the end that she'd have to get written release from these people or their families--and from all the hospitals--if the article got published. She said she didn't! (Trust me, she'll need the releases. She was quite uncomplimentary.) Then she said she needed to cut 100 words, and when we gave her suggestions, she argued with every single one! Said it was all necessary, that this is what people said, and on and on. The daughter brought a poem, but when another member offered to read his really short piece for the church bulletin, right after the mother's piece, she huffed and put hers away, later claiming she'd brought nothing.

When the rest of us were getting critiqued, the mother would lean across the narrow table to her daughter and whisper comments and actually roll her eyes occasionally!

One member brought a poem. Same thing, only slightly toned down, because apparently they liked her work. Then, alas, it was my turn. I certainly fared no better. Good think I have rhinocerous hide--I've been told I'm going to fry in hell for my fiction. :tongue

There was a new girl--maybe 19-- who said she'd never, ever showed her work to anyone before. Thank goodness she didn't bring anything last night!

I sent the following email to the group late last night:

"The spirit of our group is one of encouragement. We're here to help each other with our craft, pointing out details to clarify and technical ways to improve. We strive to critique each other the way we'd all like to be critiqued. This means, obviously, no harsh words, no cutting remarks, no sarcasm. The easiest way to crush a writer--at any level, from beginning to experienced--is to rip apart their work and thus by inference their talent and vision.

"Wehas never done this and WILL NEVER do this. Our purpose is to show Jesus to the world--and first to each other--through our words.

"Jesus corrected His friends with love--can we do any less?"

Then I sent a separate email to the mother/daughter reiterating our "kindness" way of doing things. And. BTW, I'd made the "sandwich method" speech at the start of both meetings they came to. Then I said that other groups feel that tearing work apart and severe criticism might be the "only way" to make writers improve, but this is NOT our way. I said they were welcome to come back if they join in the spirit of the group, but if they prefer the other method, then we're not a good fit for them.

IOW, a PC way of saying "don't come back." But how could I say "don't come back" when in the previous sentence I point out how we do things with kindness?

I'm still depressed. writer's group used to be fun. I'm going to work hard to make it that way again. I'll send another email before the next meeting repeating "our way of doing things."

Allow me a moment of opinionated opinion: ENCOURAGEMENT WORKS. Unless you're Miss Snark, harshness is counterproductive. And if you can't take it, don't dish it out.

Thus endeth the "how to work within a crit group" lesson.

02-09-2007, 06:31 PM
Don't let it get you down. It's a sad fact, but there are people like this all over the world. Hopefully it won't have a negative impact on the members of your group.

You may also use it as an opportunity to demonstrate to people in the group that harsh criticism exists and the importance of not taking it personally.

Your statement "Jesus corrected his friends with love..." not only applies to the way that your group critiques each other but also how you respond to this mother and daughter who are going against the grain.

What you said in your email to them sounds perfect. I think you should give them another chance before you send another. :) Hopefully the next time they come to a critique session, they'll have renewed attitudes! :)

02-09-2007, 06:34 PM
It might be worth speaking to these two separately from the group. Let them that their behavior is discouraging others from contributing and suggest that they use the sandwich method for feedback.

If they refuse, or if their behavior doesn't improve, that's the time to suggest they find another group.

It may be that they have a very different experience of critique groups and haven't picked up how yours works yet.

Good luck.

Calla Lily
02-09-2007, 06:43 PM
I did sort of speak to them separately--I sent them a private email. I figure I'll get a reply that wants to rip me a new orifice--no biggie. If they do show up next month and start flinging garbage again, I'll take the mom-route and interrupt them with a "Please stop that. That's not how we critique each other in this group." Especially if we have tenderfoot newbies!

I wanted to say "don't come back" but everyone deserves another chance. Maybe they've only had experience with snarky before.

02-09-2007, 06:49 PM
I think you handled it admirably. The fact is, not every group is right for every writer. Neither they nor anyone in your group will get anything out this if it's not the right fit for them. Sometimes the best thing to do is help folks recognize they'd be better off somewhere else. You handled it well, and the fact that you did so will show the other members of the group that you are indeed on top of the situation.

If the dynamic duo returns to your next meeting and get snippy again, you can always take them aside and gently remind them of the spirit of your email message.

Sean D. Schaffer
02-09-2007, 07:25 PM
I also think you did a good job handling the situation, Lily. The problem seems to be an 'I'm better than you because I published something' attitude among the mother/daughter team. I've experienced a lot of that stuff over the years, especially from people who suddenly had one little tiny professional thing happen to them and they thought they were better than everyone else.

Further, I think you should stick to your guns with this, as some might say. Don't give in to them, and if they continue to go against the spirit of the group, by all means show them the door. You don't need that kind of junk going on in such a group, especially considering the location thereof.

Part of me thinks this team might have come with the specific purpose of destroying your group, especially if they hold to the attitude that you're all too amateur for them but keep coming anyway. I have experienced such people in the past, and they do everything in their power to destroy people's confidence in their work. The reason could be anything, from fear of future competition to simple distaste for helping people they think are below them.

Whatever the case, do not give up on this. And like I said, if they continue to cause trouble, there is no law saying you have to allow them into your group again.

02-09-2007, 08:19 PM
Part of me thinks this team might have come with the specific purpose of destroying your group...

It's been known to happen. My friend often used to tell us horror stories of her first critique group. A guy joined and set about being so hateful and harsh that people stopped coming. I don't really know what he thought he was achieving by chasing the membership away, since it ended with him all alone.

02-09-2007, 08:38 PM
well, first of all, an op-ed and a poem doesn't pay in high horses, so if they're riding high horses, its because they brought their own.

Second of all, unless someone is an editor/publisher and they're giving feedback based on their publishing requirements, there really is no such thing as "wrong". If an editor is saying "change this", it's because they know their market and they want your work to fit their market. Everyone else basically gets to say "this didn't work for me for the following reasons:" And then its up to the author to decide who he wants to sell his book to. So, if they really used phrases like "this is wrong" in an absolute sense, then they really do need to get over themselves.

02-09-2007, 08:40 PM
I lead a once a month critique group in my house. There are 9 of us and we have never had a problem. During our first meeting I handed out the rules and guidelines and opened the floor to discussion on them. We made some improvements/adjustments and have been living by them since.

If somebody is breaking into a 'rant' style critique which goes against our code, we politely cut them off and remind them of our 'gentle' ways. This actually has not yet happened in the 1 1/2 years we have been together. We flow well together and understand the value of each others' opinions. The group is an absolute gift for all of us.

If you are having mean spirited, or let's just say pushy, people interfering with the style of your group...simply tell them politely that they are not meshing with the dynamic of your group. You have to place for them there. Do it politely, but with a sharp cut.

02-09-2007, 09:23 PM
I think you handled it well and most likely they won't be coming back. It seemed to me (from your description) that they won't be content with being nice.


02-10-2007, 12:07 AM
Ah, the joys of leadership! It does look like you're handling it well. I'll throw in a little suggestion if you don't mind, one my husband used to use very effectively in similar situations. Get to the next meeting early and head them off at the pass. As the two come in, pull them aside , let them know that they are very welcome to participate in the accepted manner and if they are not willing to accept those conditions, it would be better if they left because you will not tolerate them crossing the line. Be gentle but firm. Have someone with you if you need moral support. And get a commitment from them to play nice or don't let them in. I know, it's hard. But not doing it is harder. If they start acting up, you can remind them of their commitment, which gives you considerable leverage. If you're more comfortable with it, do it over the phone before the next meeting.

Ennyhoo, take the suggestion for what it's worth. I've seen it work very nicely more than once. People who want to be in control will usually leave pretty quickly when they see leadership willing to stand up to them.

02-13-2007, 01:28 AM
It's for this very reason that my group has a three-meeting trial period for any potential new members.

After the three times, the group chats via email and we come to a consensus as to whether the new person is a good fit. No formal invite to join is giving before this point.

Not to be harsh, and I don't know these people found your group, but if they do show up again and continue their wicked ways, I'd personally send them an email telling them (using the sandwich method, of course) that they just aren't what your group is looking for in the way of new members.

Calla Lily
02-13-2007, 02:47 AM
We have a one-month "lurk" clause--newbies can sit back the first month and watch us in action. If they return, they're expected to participate. This has worked out fine till these people showed up--we had 3 people over the course of a year and a half come once and then bow out, all very polite and adult-like.

If they show up next month, I do plan to waylay them at the door with some version of "play by our rules, or turn right back around and go home."

(This is still better than the "joy" of managing my kid's soccer team--dealing with 16 sets of parents is like herding cranky, spitting, overbred Siamese cats.:guns: )

Calla Lily
03-15-2007, 11:33 PM
Decided it was time to put up or shut up--so I sent them an email saying the group had conferred and they're not appropriate for the group. No response, of course--to any email I've sent them.

Tonight's the meeting--I'm going to wait at the door in case they decide to show and pretend they didn't get the email.

I so want to keep the lady in the wheelchair with me if they show--so I can run over their toes after I tell them they can't come in! :e2teeth:

I hope to update this tomorrow with a note saying all was peaceful and back to normal.

Wish us luck!

Soccer Mom
03-16-2007, 12:25 AM
Luck and Peace be with you.

And if that doesn't work, run 'em over.

Celia Cyanide
03-16-2007, 02:14 AM
I think you did the right thing. Perhaps they didn't understand how you do things in your group, and they really thought they were being helpful with their comments. But regardless of their skill level, nobody should be rolling their eyes and whispering about other people's work. You're never too advanced to have manners.

03-16-2007, 12:10 PM
Another potential approach is to out-railroad the railroaders. Does anyone live in your area with >real< major sales?

Then, the person with the big resume can quietly pull aside the two offenders (who think they have finally found their true sphere in life). This person with the real resume can explain how badly these two ladies are behaving.

And the ladies might actually take that advice to heart.

Then, they might start behaving better, and no one has to be excluded. Or, they might be embarassed to show up again.

Calla Lily
03-16-2007, 03:29 PM
Woo-hoo! :e2woo:

They did not show up--although the lady in the wheelchair (and her husband) thought the "running over toes" idea had merit. :tongue

And--we got three new members! I can't imagine what these shy little things would've done if we'd had another meeting like last month. :scared: One of which said maybe 5 sentences all evening, and one who kept apologizing in advance for her ss, until I threatened to slap her. :D One lady brought her "I survived a stroke" memoir, and said that if the Flame Team had showed, she wouldn't have passed it around--too scared of them.

Is that confirmation of a correct decision, or what!

It was a terrific meeting--laughter, bad jokes, and TRUE critiquing: pointing out the good, suggesting ways to fix awkward spots, and SMILES afterward.

Thanks, everyone, for all your suggestoins and support!

03-17-2007, 05:32 AM
Glad to hear it all worked out. :Sun:

03-17-2007, 04:57 PM
That's great -- sounds to me like you made the right decision, and the other folks in the group know it too.

10-03-2007, 07:55 PM
By Grapthar's Hammer, I'm glad there was some resolution to this sticky situation (me, i would have just changed the venue and time without telling the Snarky Duo).

Calla Lily
10-03-2007, 09:33 PM
By Grapthar's Hammer, I'm glad there was some resolution to this sticky situation (me, i would have just changed the venue and time without telling the Snarky Duo).

Why let them move us? Much easier to show them the door. I could've channeled mu former nun-dom and threatened to call down lightning from heaven upon them. (Ooh...I could use that in my current WIP. Thanks, niteowl.)

10-03-2007, 09:52 PM
Well, the woman was right about one thing; she doesn't need to get any releases to use the article she wrote. Guideposts may reject it, but it won't be for this reason.

If you had to get a signed release from every person used in an article, or from every business used in an article, hospital or not, darned near nothing would ever be published. And certainly no article that had anything bad to say about anyone or anyplace would never be published because no one would sign the release.

Now, if these people feel they've been libeled, they're free to sue, but libel is very hard to prove, darned near impossible when you're simply stating an opinion, and no one ever needs a release to write and publish an article, real names, uncomplimentary, or whatever.

Oddly, you do have to have a signed release to use a photo of a person, but not to write about them.

Calla Lily
10-03-2007, 10:56 PM
Thanks. I didn't know that. I was working from my printing background when people would walk up to the counter and aks me to photocopy copyrighted material. They always seemed to get offended when I pointed out the little "copyright" sentence.