Where are meetings held?
Currently we meet on zoom. Pre-pandemic we met in a public meeting space in downtown Ithaca near the Commons (directions provided upon acceptance).

Why aren’t members’ bios and publications on the website?
After discussion, the group decided the website’s emphasis should be on the group and our goal of learning better writing through critiquing rather than individual member credentials. When you contact the group leader, she’ll tell you more about individual members. The group’s membership consistently includes a mix of published and unpublished novelists of fantasy/science fiction, romance, historical, mystery/crime/thriller, and YA.

Do all twelve members attend the meetings?
Sometimes, but not always. Typical attendance is 5-10 people.

Do all twelve members submit pieces for reading at a meeting?
Occasionally. More typically we have 3-5 pieces at a meeting. When we have fewer, each piece can be longer (up to about 4000 words). When we have more, the group leader will encourage people to stick closer to 2000 words.  (Exceptions can be made for contest, application, publisher, or agent deadlines.)

Is it really possible to give in-depth critique when pieces are read aloud at meetings?
Yes, it is possible to give thorough, detailed, in-depth feedback when pieces are read aloud. (In our case, the piece is read aloud AND we’re following along with a printed copy). Lots of critique groups adopt the read aloud method for many of the reasons outlined below.

It helps to be a fan of audiobooks, podcasts, or the radio. Listening is a muscle like any other. It gets easier the more you do it. Listening, or in our case, following along, requires undistracted laser focus. Which is good thing.

Because feedback is delivered on the spot, it is based on initial reaction. We try to avoid re-reading, second guessing ourselves, and talking ourselves out of initial confusions. Which is a good thing.

Spoken-aloud critique is fast-paced. To respond with valuable feedback requires a rock solid foundation in the principles of strong fiction, not just knowing the principles on an intellectual level, but having internalized them, having them be second nature. For inexperienced writers who don’t realize fiction has principles and techniques, this is particularly challenging and they’ll need to work hard on their own to get up to speed. Yes, shy people may feel at a disadvantage. (Sorry, we might not be the group for you, but give it a chance.)

This group operates at an advanced level, but it has members with a range of writing experience. Quite a few members have MFAs or are graduates of Odyssey Writing Workshop, Clarion West, or Viable Paradise, and/or are published, but not all. Quite a few members come to us with no prior critiquing experience. No matter the experience level, comments written in private can be problematic, unhelpful, and occasionally even casually hurtful. The group leader is not paid to be a teacher. She keeps the group functioning but has neither the time nor the energy to monitor comments written privately on manuscripts. When comments are spoken aloud, the entire group collaboratively monitors and moderates the tone and content of feedback.

Why aren’t pieces submitted ahead of time so people can write up critiques at home?
Reading a piece and writing comments is a time-honored and invaluable critique practice.  It’s also demanding, time-consuming, inefficient, and focused on the critiquer.

This group focuses on the piece rather than the critiquer. We do not aim to provide each member an opportunity to thoroughly analyze a piece on their own. Our approach is discussion-oriented and collaborative.

Members contribute to discussion at different levels, according to their experience, comfort levels, and knowledge of fiction.

Written critiques generate an enormous amount of  feedback, much of it very similar.  When critiques are written, critiquers often spend a lot of  time describing the same flaws as other critiquers and that’s valuable when it’s an assigned aspect of a course/workshop with the aim of sharpening students’ critiquing. Our approach is less labor-intensive and more efficient: one critiquer brings up a flaw, other critiquers might cite other examples of it, notice other aspects to it, relate it to other elements, or suggest ways to mitigate it.

This group’s critiques are practical and concrete.  They are not focused on literary theory, precedents, or creative choices. The purpose of our critique is to identify the elements that could most benefit from being strengthened to give the piece the best chance of being published.  We often collectively brainstorm diagnoses and solutions. Through discussion, the group often arrives at consensus, but not always. Individual perspectives are always welcome and encouraged. Disagreement, in a professional, impersonal manner, is useful for the group and the writer.

While our feedback is concrete, detailed, specific, and rigorous, it is not always comprehensive. This is intentional. We’ve found comprehensive can be overwhelming and discouraging, especially for newer writers. Practical, selective feedback tends to be more manageable. Writers might take a page or two of notes on feedback that came out of the discussion. Writers do not leave with a pile of manuscripts scrawled with conflicting advice and indecipherable comments that requires time to sift through and incorporate.

Written critiques are a form of homework and although it’s valuable homework, it also takes time away from producing new writing, sometimes to the extent that no new writing is produced.  Most of our members try to produce at least 2000 critique-ready words for the meeting every two weeks. The focus of this group is keeping writers producing their own fiction, not producing written critiques.

Our discussion-oriented approach to feedback means that there is no homework. There are no deadlines for submissions that are missed or “turned in late.” Members either show up to the meeting with copies of a piece to be read or they wait until next meeting. There are no complaints about the manuscript arriving too late to be critiqued. There are no excuses for why critiques have not been written ahead of time. The group leader does not have to censure or remind people. The only homework for this group is writing fiction and studying craft.

Before submitting a revised manuscript to contests, publishers, or agents, many group members supplement our read-aloud approach by soliciting volunteers to read and critique at home in writing over email outside of the meetings.

Updated July 21, 2023

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Header photo: Ithaca, NY courtesy of the talented Paul Joran