Monday, May 26, 2008

Carol J. Amato Interview: How to Start and Run a Writer's Critique Group

Carol J. Amato is the author of 19 books and 175 articles. Her many memorable books for young people include the acclaimed series Breakthroughs in Science (The Earth, Astronomy, Inventions, and The Human Body), 50 Nifty Science Fair Projects, the Super Science Project Book, and 50 More Nifty Science Fair Projects.Firmly believing that kids’ fiction can be educational as well as entertaining, Ms. Amato has applied her Master of Arts in Anthropology to creating an exciting middle-grade mystery series, The Phantom Hunters™. Each mystery takes readers to a different culture. The first book, The Lost Treasure of the Golden Sun, published in 2005, takes place on the Navajo Nation. Book #2, The Secret of Blackhurst Manor, set in Lincolnshire, England, will be out this fall. Her other recent titles include How to Start and Run a Writers’ Critique Group and The Lost Treasure of the Golden Sun Teacher’s Guide, both of which came out in 2006. Her articles have appeared in national magazines, such as PC Novice and Smart Computing.Ms. Amato is a board member of the Writers' Club of Whittier, Inc., a professional writers’ critique group, and a member of the Children’s Literature Council and California Readers. She is listed Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in the West, the World Who's Who of Women, and Who’s Who in America.

Carol J. Amato Interview:
How to Start and Run a Writers' Critique Group

Q: What topics are covered in your book?
A: The topics covered in the book include how to find original members, organize the critique group (decide the level or writers to include and how many), find a location, establish critique group rules, critique manuscripts, admit new members, and deal with difficult people. It also covers how to grow into a formal club, sponsor events, and get publicity for those who are interested in expanding to this level. The appendices include checklists, a sample set of critique group rules, and, for those who want to organize a large formal group, a sample set of bylaws.

Q: Where can your book be purchased?
A: Through any major wholesaler, from Borders and Barnes & Noble through special order, on, and through Since the book is carried by the major wholesalers, most bookstores can order it, even independent ones.
The ISBN of this 128-page book is 0-9713756-8-2, and the retail cost is $14.95.

Q: How will a critique group benefit writers?
This is a great question. The tangible benefits of a critique group are readily identifiable:
- Outside reaction to your writing
Did you communicate what you thought you did?
- Listening to and analyzing others' work (phrasing, plot and character development, book and article structure, etc.)
This exercise in thinking is very growth-producing and you'll pick up many tips for your own work.
-Camaraderie with other writers
No one understands a writer like another writer.
-Intellectual stimulation
You’ll hear a lot of great ideas presented.
- Exploring new genres of writing
Once you hear manuscripts from another genre, you may decide to write one yourself!
- Reputation extension
-Other writers can recommend you to agents, editors, etc.
-Opportunity to hear some great stories

You’ll be entertained while you work!

Q: Do you belong to any writing groups and has it increased the marketability of your writing? Can you give an example?
A: Yes, yes, and yes! I have belonged to several groups over the years and am currently in four. One group is a large formal club, the Writers’ Club of Whittier (WCW), to which I have belonged for many, many years. The group itself was originally formed in 1953, so it’s been going a long, long time. It had several different critique groups at the time: fiction, nonfiction, juvenile, drama-TV, and poetry.
At the time I joined, no unpublished people had ever been admitted. I was the first one. The club had changed slightly to accept people whose writing was of publishable quality. I applied to both the fiction and nonfiction groups. The first thing one member said of my fiction was, “Do you realize you say what you’re going to say, then you say it, and then you say what you just said?”
The minute she mentioned that, the lightbulb went off in my head, and I realized how repetitious my writing was; I was saying the same thing in several different ways. I went through my manuscripts and deleted all the excess words. That’s one major help I got way back when.
Lo these many years later, I still get great feedback; for example, people point out word choice, perhaps a better plot twist, and concepts that might be made clearer. On my current novel, I am running into a problem in the next chapter. I know I will get some great ideas from my critique groups on how to get through that problem.
Over the years, I have picked up hundreds of tips, such as subleties of plot, characterization, dialogue, and theme in fiction, and how to write better article leads and closes. I completely attribute the fact that I now have published almost 175 articles, eighteen non-fiction books, one fiction book, and two short stories to the critiques I received and others to which I listened. I say "listened," because writers can learn just as much from hearing discussion about others' work as they can from hearing about their own.
That group is so valuable that despite moving to different cities in the SoCal area and the high price of gas for that 60-mile round-trip, I continue to attend the critique group three times a month.
I belong to three other local ones, one of which is strictly for children’s writing. In that group, we have all become such close friends that I know this group will last a lifetime, too.

Q: At what point in your writing career did you begin using one?
A: Almost from the very beginning. While I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in the 4th grade, I didn’t begin writing seriously until I was out of college. I was lucky enough to be able to travel aboard an oil tanker for a year (the subject of yet another book, so I won’t go into any details here), and that’s where I wrote my first novel, a western that never sold.
When I returned to the United States, I immediately looked around for a fiction-writing class. I found one through adult ed called “Writing for Publication.” I knew this was right up my alley, so I signed up. The teacher of that class was the person who recommended that I and another student apply for membership in the WCW. I have been in that group ever since.

Q: What is your view of online critique groups? Pros? Cons?
A: I think online groups are great! I have no experience with online critique groups, but I do teach writing classes online, and many of the pros boil down to one concept: convenience. These are the pros and cons I can see based on my experience teaching asynchronous classes:


Let’s restrict this discussion to people who are writing and publishing/hoping to publish in English.
With the rising price of gas, the idea of not having to drive to a group is very appealing.
People with childcare issues don’t have to worry about getting babysitters, because they can log on at their convenience.
A person can attend via the comfort of her/her own home no matter how foul the weather is.
People who are unable to for whatever reason (no license, disability, illness, etc.), can also belong to the group. An online group levels the playing
Members can belong no matter where they live. For example, in my classes, I have students from all over the globe. Some are Americans living overseas; others are foreign students proficient in English. A critique group might not be available or feasible in those countries for people writing in English. I also have student who live in rural areas where no universities are within any kind of driving distance. The ability to belong to a group online erases all geographical boundaries


There are only a few cons that I can see:
The Internet is not secure. A writer’s material is floating out there and available to who knows whom. While no one in the actual group may be doing anything untoward with the writer’s work, hackers could get to it.
Without being able to interview the people who want to join the group and verify their backgrounds, it may be hard to tell if people are truthfully representing themselves. This is a stretch, but a con artist in prison may want to become a writer, but unless the e-mail address provided stated it was from a prison, the organizer of the group would have no way of knowing that. Extra care would have to be taken to ensure that all members are reputable people.

Q: How would you suggest recruiting members?
A: Start by contacting groups that are reputable, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the National Writers’ Club, Sisters in Crime, the California Writers’ Club, etc. If the organizer belongs to any lists, checking with the members would be a good idea, too. If the organizer doesn’t belong to any, he/she should join some, as this avoids going to the Internet at large. The organizer should be a member for awhile to get to know the other members before asking for potential members.
Once the request is made, however, ask for writing samples. You want to make sure the writers recruited are at the same writing level. If this is a beginner group, it’s expedient to have an advanced writer in the group to offer more professional feedback.
All of this information is detailed in my book, How to Start and Run a Writers’ Critique Group.

Q: What elements should be considered when setting up a critique group?
A: There are several. The size of the group, where it will meet, the level of writers it will include, and how manuscripts will be read and for how long. This latter means such things as whether or not the writers will read their work out loud to the group, ship manuscripts to the members in advance of the group so only the critique is presented at the actual meeting, bring copies for the other members to mark up as the writer reads, etc.

Q: How long does the writer get to read?
A: In the WCW, we are allowed 20 minutes to read. We’ve learned that more than 20 minutes can lead to people getting bored.

Q: How do you think a group leader should be chosen?
A: Generally, the group leader should be chosen by consensus of the group once it has been formed, but this is not a hard and fast rule. An experienced writer may want to mentor beginners, for example, and so organizes a group in which he/she is the leader.

Q: What qualities should a group leader have?
A: The group leader should be chosen based on his/her writing experience, his/her level of diplomacy, and his/her ability to keep the group on track.
The WCW has very strict rules about no one interrupting the writer while he/she reads and the members critiquing in turn with no defense from the writer or interruptions from the other members.
I’ve been to groups in which the leader allows the members to start a free-for-all debate over issues that have nothing to do with the manuscript or cuts the writer off midstream because he/she has “heard enough.” I never went back for a second meeting with these groups.

Q: What do you think the most important elements are for writing nonfiction for a specific audience like writers?
A: As in any type of writing, the audience has to be the first priority. Let’s say you are writing for writers. Beginning writers? Intermediate writers? Advanced writers? The level is going to determine the content and the amount of detail presented. If you are writing an article about how to write a lead, for example, beginning writers may not know what a lead is. The writer would need to explain it. Overlook this and the reader will not know what the writer is talking about. Explain it to an audience of expert writers and they will tune out because the material is to elementary.
If you are writing about a topic that is technical but the writing is aimed at a general audience, avoid jargon. If some has to be used, be sure to explain what it means.
Any scenarios or examples presented should relate to the subject matter at hand.

Q: How many critique groups have you participated in and how many have you quit?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I have been in the Writers’ Club of Whittier for many years. I have participated in at least seven or eight more over the years, but I’ve stayed in only three others besides the WCW for the following reasons, some of which I’ve already mentioned: quality of the critique, the order maintained in the group, the closeness I’ve developed with the other members, and perhaps most importantly, the seriousness with which the writers consider their craft. This means they consistently attend the group and have manuscripts to read. They heed the critique and their writing improves over time.
If those characteristics don’t define a member—if he/she doesn’t come regularly or write consistently because “life gets in the way”—think twice about retaining that person in the group. The quality of the other members’ own development as writers depends on it.

Q: What are some examples of reasons for leaving a group?
I think I’ve already covered this, but to reiterate:
1. The members aren’t committed to attending.
2. The group is not run efficiently: there is too much off-topic discussion, arguing about the merits of the manuscript, defense on the part of the writer, dictatorial behavior on the part of the leader, and tension between the members as a result.
3. The manuscripts being read aren’t geared for publication if that’s the direction the group is headed.
4. The critique isn’t helping out the writer.

Q: Why have you stayed in some?
A: I’ve stayed in the WCW and the other three groups because of the quality of the critique, quality of the manuscripts being read, the well-run nature of the groups, and the friendships I’ve been able to develop with the other members.