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Science Fiction Association of Bergen County

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The Association's Writers' Critique Group meets once a month, usually-- although not always--on the fourth Sunday of the month. It normally runs from 4:00 - 7:00 PM at the Borders Books & Music, 81 Wayne Towne Center Mall (next to the Willowbrook Mall), Wayne, New Jersey (973) 785 - 0037. Patricia Nash is the Coordinator of the group.

The Critique Group is the longest continually-running Special Interest Activity of the Club. Although there had always been some members with an interest in writing and storytelling, and a certain amount of writing for fan publications by members, it was not until Patricia and Christopher Nash became involved in the S F A B C that we had the proper conditions to start such a group.

After determining that there were enough people interested to make this a worthwhile project, we began brainstorming. Former member Nancy Cucci had organized a number of different Critique Groups and wrote an article about starting them. This appeared in the November, 1991 Starship Express and is reprinted below. The first actual meeting of the group was held a month later at the home Chris and Pat Nash.

The core of the group were the Nashes, Charles Garofalo, and Philip De Parto. Pat Nash had begun a short science fiction adventure story which evolved into three-books-and-growing as she explored different aspects of her universe. Chuck had been writing for fan markets for years (he has since made professional sales), working mostly in horror and YA fantasy. Chris brought well-developed copy-editing skills and Philip brought a knowledge of the marketplace.

The basic decision the group had to make was whether to be a nurturing/ supportive/informal group, or an intense/competitive/critical group. Given the temperments of the people involved, we decided to go the mellower route.

This has not been a universally-praised approach. Two talented people who had come for a while decided the group's approach was not professional enough for their purposes. They chose to establish a Critique group of their own. We applaud their initiative. We have never claimed to be the only valid way of doing things. Different groups with a variety of approaches is a good thing.

The group met once a month on a Saturday at the Bergen Highlands United Methodist Church before S F A B C meeting. An ever-changing supporting cast orbited the core group. Some people came once or twice and never came back. Others stuck around for a while but eventually drifted away.

When the Association lost the use of the Church at the end of 1993, the different pre meeting groups had to scramble around to find new quarters. The loss was probably a blessing in disguise, as the Writers' Group and the Dungeons & Dragons Group are both much stronger today then they were at that time.

We're currently drawing 8 - 10 people to our gatherings. The core has expanded to include Nancy Denker, Lucy Schmeidler, and Pamela Webber. Although neither Nancy nor Pamela are aspiring authors, the writers agree that they make some of the most useful observations and story suggestions.

It should also be noted that, unlike the Garden State Horror Writers, for example, most members of the Association are not aspiring authors. Nor, for that matter, is every aspiring writer in the club a member of the group. In an ideal world, lots of published stories would come out of this group, but that has not happened so far.

In the meantime, we content ourselves with the knowledge that most that are run through the group come out stronger than they were going in.

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Report on the First Meeting of the Writers' Critique Group by Philip De Parto

[Editor's Note: The following article first appeared in Volume 6, Number 1 of The Starship Express Copyright © 1992 Philip J De Parto and is reprinted with permission.]

The first meeting of the S F A B C Writers' Critique Group was held on Saturday, December 14, 1991 at 3:00 PM at the home of Christopher and Patricia Nash in Ridgewood, New Jersey. In attendence were Philip De Parto, Charles Garofalo, Cindy Henry, James La Barre, Chris and Pat, one daughter, and four cats.

After a considerable discussion of cat (and other pet) stories, the group settled down. Philip De Parto read the "How To Organize a Critique Group" article by Nancy Cucci which appearred in the November Express, interrupting and being interrupted by those present for comments. The group will be pretty much patterned after the suggestions in Nancy's article.

Pat Nash read aloud an eight page horror story by Chuck, An Afternoon with Buddy and Rusty. Cindy Henry read the first half of Need a Better Title, the working title of a science fiction story by Pat Nash.

Coffee, tea, and cookies were served. The cats were very affectionate. The group broke up about 5:45 PM. The next gathering will be held on Saturday, January 11, 1992 at a site to be announced.

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How To Organize A Critique Group by Nancy Cucci

[Editor's Note: The following article first appeared in Volume 5, Number 11 of The Starship Express Copyright © 1991 Philip J De Parto and is reprinted with permission.]

The first thing you need is a group. You certainly know how to start one of them. Ask around. Put an announcement in a local paper, a college pager, a local library. Talk to the members of the local SF clubs. Caution: the ideal size for a writers' group is 8 - 10 people. Any more than that gets crazy and does not meet the needs of the members. If you get a TON of people, be prepared to split off into special interest groups such as horror, hard SF, fantasy, short stories or novels.

With a group of 8 to 10 people, not everyone will want to read every time. If someone wants to read, but time does not allow it, they are first at the next meeting.

You need to decide when and how often you want to meet. Our gorup meets once a month, but I know of other groups that meet once a week! It depends on the needs of your group. If you have a prolific group that writes all the time, you may want to consider meeting more times a month.

Where to meet is a question of where you got your members from. If you have a lot of people you don't know in the group, you may want to start out in a room at a local library or college. These rooms are free. The drawback is that your meeting has a time limit on how long it can go on. A lot of restaurants have meeting rooms free with a meal. That's aother option until you are comfortable with the group and are convinced that there are no crazies that will rape you and rob your house.

However, the most ideal place for a meeting is members' homes. They are comfortable and usually do not have time limits imposed.

One of the most important things we have found in our groups is cake. Our group is called the SF Writers and Cake Appreciation Society. While the cake itself is very important, it's what it does to the group that makes a cake important. No writers' critique group can function well without friendship. The cake portion of the evening lets people talk, the stories give them a spiringboard to talk about other things. It is important for the group to be friends because of the criticism given. It's easier to take a bad review from someone you know and like than someone you don't know or like.

Our group has an Anniversary Dinner and a Christmas Dinner. At the anniversary party, we give a resolution (which we put in a bottle to read at the next year's anniversary dinner). At the Christmas dinner, we give gifts and look at any pictures we've taken at the various group parties. We do not read at these parties (except I do sometimes read from A Christmas Carol).

We have group traditions and rules. Anyone who describes a person's work as "cute" gets fined .50. We never pay up (yet), but the money is to be used for the parties. Anyone who does not finish a piece of work during the year must bring wine to the party. Anyone who gets published must bring the cake. This year we will have at least three cakes at the Christmas Party.

Back to work. Our group is not made up of dynamic writers. Sometimes only one or two people will have something to read. Sometimes everyone has something. At the beginning of the meeting, we all announce what we have, and how many pages. Usually 10 to 15 pages is all a person's attention span can tolerate, especially if you are dealing with novel lenght stuff. But, hey, if no one else has anything to read . . . go ahead!

We NEVER let the writer read their stuff aloud. The writer will get a whole lot more out of the reading is someone else reads it. Someone who has never seen it before so if there is a problem with dialogue, you can HEAR if it works on the first reading. It also gives the writer a chance to really pay attention to the story and not his own voice. (Of course, sometimes the reader cannot pay as close attention as he or she could. Sometimes the reader can do a better job of critiquing because they have a copy of the work.)

Which brings up the question of copies of the story for the group. Copies are nice, but not always practical for longer pieces. What we sometines do is appoint a designated speller other thatn the reader to see and correct English grammer and spelling.

There are two methods of critiquing. A) letting the person read the whole piece until finished for comments (this usually works best for short sotries).

Your group MUST use paper to jot down their notes for this type so you don't forget. B) interrupting while they are reading (best for novel length).

There are two types of critiques: indepth or cursory. Indepth is quibbling about words. (For example, I always catch the regionalisms and inappropriate words.) Indepth is "suit integrity," wrong tenses (or tense changes), illogic in the plot, inappropriate words or reactions (especially true when men write about women). Cursory is, "Well, there are no major plot flaws."

An important thing to remember is that if you don't understand a story, chances are that someone else may not understand it. (We had a major contraversy here about a "fire fight." Half of us thought there was a Magic fight, the others thought they were fighting a forest fire. In one of the stories, half of us loved the clever ending, the others had no idea what happened.) If one person doesn't understand, the writer needs to look at the story again to make sure it's clear.

Don't personalize your comments. One of our group wrote a splatter horror story about Nazis. A Jewish member of the group attacked him personally. He didn't believe the stuff he wrote . . . it was just a stand he needed for the story. It was supposed to be revolting, and it revolted him too!

Don't harp on your criticisms. I had an experience where one of the people in the group HATED the story. And complained about it for about 20 minutes non-stop. Someone should have stopped him. I should have stopped him. I felt terrible for two days and he stopped coming to the group he was so embarassed.

The problem was that he expected an Adventure Story and my story was absolutely not an adventure. So absolutely none of his criticisms were appropriate.

Don't insist that a person take your advice. Take and give the opinions for what they are worth. It's ultimately the writer's decision what he is going to use, what he is going to ignore. If you want your hero's eyes blue, make them blue. If you want to ignore physics without a logical explanation, ignore physics. But you should use the group's expertise and advice to help your story.

The bottom line here is "Are you writing for yourself or to sell?" If you're writing for yourself, you don't need a critique group. If you only want praise and people to tell you how wonderful you are, you don't need a critique group. If you are interested in writing a good story that will be publishable, try it on your group, listen to their criticisms, and make your own decisions.

Original Fiction from the SFABC

Websites of Interest To Writers

Critters Workshop . . . . . (http://www.cs.du.edu/users/critters)

Critters is an on-line writers workshop. One of our members speaks highly of it.

Lonely Blue Coyote . . . . . (http://www.lbcoyote.com)

We make no recommendations of this business, pro or con. They offer various services to writers. They contacted the Association to notify us that they had added our group to their resource page of writers groups at: http://www.lbcoyote.com/Resource

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