Monday, July 11, 2011

Critiquing and the Critique Partners with Karen McCullough

First off, tell us a little about yourself.
Here’s the quick bio: Karen McCullough was born in New York, grew up in New York and Massachusetts, and now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the author of ten published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. Her most recent release is a cozy mystery with a bit of romance titled A GIFT FOR MURDER, published in hardcover by Five Star/Gale Group Mysteries.
What are your thoughts on online critique groups’ verses meeting in person?
I've done more with in-person critique groups in the past, but have done some online critiquing as well. More and more critiquing seems to be moving online where it’s easier to find authors working in the same genre and/or types of stories you are.
 I find online critique groups difficult. You have to be brief yet careful about what you say since comments you make have no context for the person reading it, at least not in the same way that you have for an in-person group. The person receiving the critique online in a chat or email can't see your face, read your body language, or hear your tone. As humans we depend so much on the non-verbal in our interactions, and I'm surprised at how many people don't understand what a difference that can make. The bare words just don't always convey the totality of what you want to say.  There’s a reason we invented things like emoticons to use for online communication, but even they can’t replace the subtleties of inflection, the warmth of a smile, the hand gestures that say I was a bit confused by this bit.
I currently work with a couple of critique partners, and while we do exchange manuscripts and critique text via email, we also pick up the phone when we really need to talk to each other about something that’s not working or where we might have suggestions for improvement.

What is your ideal critique group? How many is too many?
It depends to some extent on what you are critiquing.  For short stories, it’s not hard to have a number of people in the group.  I think six to eight works best for giving a variety of points of view and different perspectives. However, for novels, I don’t think you want more than three or four.  In part because of the amount of time it takes to read and comment on a novel, whether all at once or chapter by chapter, but also because if you do it chapter by chapter, it’s hard to keep track of more than a few in progress.
My ideal critique partner (and I’m fortunate enough to have a couple) gives honest feedback, is willing to brainstorm with me when needed  but tries to avoid imposing her own vision of the story on what I’ve written, listens to what I say, but will call me on it when I’m really off base.
How often do you feel it’s necessary to meet (e-mail) you’re critique partner(s)?
Working with just a couple of critique partners, we tend to be somewhat informal about it and don’t do it on any strict schedule.  We trade stories or chapters when we need feedback.
When I’ve been with more formal critique groups (and I’ve been part of several) we generally met once or twice a month.  That gave enough time for everyone to read and think about material submitted and to work out their responses.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in regards to critique groups and the critique concept?
Critique groups don’t work for everyone, and if you don’t find it helpful, then don’t worry about it.  And sometimes the chemistry isn’t right, so don’t hesitate to leave a group if it’s not working for you.
But I think they can be invaluable for a beginning writer!  I know the ones I belonged to early in my career were very helpful for me.  When you’re starting out it can be particularly hard to spot problems in your own writing. Because the mental image of what’s happening on the page is so clear in your head, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re conveying a clear picture with your words, and if you are, whether it’s the picture you want to convey. Critiques groups can point out weaknesses in your writing, your plotting, your characterization, etc.  Things you might never see on your own.
The other piece of advice I would give is to be very respectful of the other members’ writing. Keep in mind that you’re critiquing something they spent a lot of time on, something they likely poured heart and soul into. Don’t criticize lightly and always make suggestions for improvement. Remember to praise the things someone does well in addition to pointing out problems.
Karen invites visitors to check out her home on the web at and her site for the Market Center Mysteries series,        


  1. I've just joined a critique group and am finding it a difficult balance between wanting to be helpful, but worrying about being too pick-nicky.

  2. HI Clover -- It is a difficult balance. Until you're more comfortable with the group, why not focus on just one or two problems you see in the manuscript you're critiquing. Once you get the feel of the group, you'll have a better idea how deep to get into the details.

  3. I love my on line critique group, but you're right. When you can't hear a person's voice or see expressions, that makes it hard. One of the members thought I hated her story because of a comment. I forgot to insert a smiley face at the end.

  4. Hi Shawn - And we're so used to having the context of the nonverbal communication that we sometimes forget how the lack of it can cause problems and misunderstanding. We have to be doubly cautious when doing online critiquing!