Despite the COVID-19 lockdown, my long-running Portland-based critique group is soldiering on, using the now ubiquitous Zoom videoconferencing service. With many people adapting to Zoom (or Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.), now might be a good time for geographically dispersed MWA members to form virtual critique groups that will outlast the pandemic. I’ll share what has worked for our group generally and provide a few Zoom-specific pointers.

  • Group Size: Our group has five people—and we’ve had as many as six. Four feels too small, and more than five means you could be reading a lot of submissions.
  • Frequency: We try to meet every other week. Two weeks provides time to revise what’s been reviewed and draft your next chapter.
  • Submissions: We don’t read aloud—and everyone can submit for every meeting. We generally keep submissions to under 15 pages per person (1.5 spacing). We spend about 10 or 15 minutes talking about each submission. Though our group mostly discusses chapters and stories, members also share outlines, query letters, jacket copy, and so on for feedback.
  • Compatibility and Diversity: My group includes three women and two men, who write across different crime fiction sub-genres. We also occasionally share stories outside the mystery genre. This diversity keeps the reading fresh, but also means we are not providing (or receiving) precision sub-genre expertise. So, I may be commenting on a cozy even though I don’t read cozies. If you’re starting a new group or adding a new member, review one another’s work to see if you’re compatible—and if you’re up for reading one another’s prose for the long haul. You may be broadly flexible, but not want to read grisly serial killer fiction month after month.
  • Respectful Criticism: Members of our group support one another, but we also share what we think isn’t working, without sugarcoating. Be sensitive to others, be willing to accept criticism, and look for a balance between support and critique. If you disagree with someone’s critique, nod politely and then reject the advice when you revise. Don’t expend time on line edits and grammar, though it’s helpful to exchange documents with small corrections (with changes tracked in digital files or handwritten on printouts when you can meet again in person).
  • Conversation and Listening: In her discussion of critique groups, Ursula K. Le Guin staunchly recommends that the person whose work is being reviewed remain entirely silent until everyone provides feedback. Our group isn’t so strict. The writer mostly listens, but will sometimes ask questions or explain what she was trying to do. That said, writers shouldn’t be defensive. You can’t argue away someone’s reaction or misunderstanding. If you’re looking for specific feedback—on a character, pace, plausibility, etc.—ask.
  • Manage Your Expectations: A critique group will not magically fix your work-in-progress. It can help you catch incidental errors and identify problems—especially if everyone agrees on the problem. I find that being in the group provides accountability, which keeps me writing, so that’s a big plus.

Here are a few Zoom/videoconferencing tips:

  • Use Your Video: Don’t rely on just voice. Even if your hair is in disarray, show yourself. It is a lot easier to maintain a fluid conversation if you can see one another. You can also show off your pets.
  • Test and Fix Your Audio: Unclear audio or an echo can really mar a meeting. Everyone should be able to hear one another clearly. Try different headsets, positioning your microphone closer to your mouth, using your computer’s built-in microphone, or even switching to a different videoconferencing service. Two computers in one room—or connecting with multiple devices—can also cause an echo. Keep trying until you get it right.
  • Designate a Leader/Moderator: When we meet in person, no one really needs to direct traffic. On Zoom calls, because of latency and the fatigue of videoconferencing, it can help to have someone keep everyone on track.

Note that the free version of Zoom currently cuts off conferences at 40 minutes. When this happens, if everyone just clicks the link to the meeting again, you can restart your meeting and go for another 40 minutes (at least, as of now).

If you want to organize a new critique group, I recommend posting on the MWA-NW discussion board or the Facebook group. If you’re willing to be an online group in perpetuity, you could cast a wider net, posting to the MWA national discussion board and Facebook group.

About The Author:

Doug Levin’s crime fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and three anthologies, including Scream and Scream Again! Spooky Stories from Mystery Writers of America.