To meet or not to meet – that is the question.
I’m a big advocate of critique groups. I’ve been attending the Milford Writers’ Conference since 1998 with enough regularity that eventually I’ve ended up being the secretary. Milford is an annual event for published SF writers, and a great battery recharger. It’s held in September each year at Trigonos, about nine miles south of Caernarfon. For the last few years we’ve also held a writers’ retreat there in the spring.
Of course, this year, during the pandemic, we are still waiting to see if the events will happen, in particular the spring Retreat which is due to start on 6th June. More about that on the Milford web pages as soon as we know what’s happening.
Eight years ago, a few of us from Milford decided that it was about time we had a regular writers’ group in the north, since there were a number of London-based or southerly ones, but nothing in our area. So we got together to form Northwrite SF. We meet four times a year on the second Sundays of January, April, July, and October – only ever moving the date if it clashes with a major SF convention such as Eastercon or Fantasycon.
This year we moved the date to the third Sunday in April so as not to clash with Eastercon, but, of course, we needn’t have bothered since, by late March we were all on Coronavirus lockdown. We normally meet at our house (on the edge of the Pennines, near Huddersfield) because we have plenty of room, and we’re relatively central. Our original members came from both coasts (Yorkshire and Lancashire) and from all points between, on both sides of the Pennines. There were ten of us originally, and though some members have changed we’ve maintained a steady number. The geographical nature of our membership has broadened. We now have members from as far away as the Isle of Arran, Gloucestershire and Cambridge. Some of the ones with a long way to travel arrive on Saturday and stay over until Sunday evening or Monday morning. As I say, we have plenty of room and it’s lovely to see people.
This year, with the Covid 19 lockdown in place we either had to cancel or meet up online for our session on 19th April. We tried a few different meeting apps and eventually decided to go with Google Hangouts. I confess to being technologically challenged. Yes I’m familiar with Skype, but a novice at Google Hangouts, Zoom and Discord. Zoom allowed multiple meeting members, but the free version limited meetings to 40 minutes. So we decided on Google Hangouts. One of our members set up a meeting, sent out the invitations, and we were on it from 10.30 a.m. to almost 5.00 p.m. with a few bathroom breaks and a half hour for lunch. I have to report that most of us had better picture clarity than with skype. One had difficulty with sound, and one was a little fuzzy because of bandwidth problems in his rural location, but by and large it worked very well.
We use the Milford Method of critiquing, which evolved way back in the 1950s when Damon Knight formed Milford in Milford Pennsylvania, USA. (Milford was brought to the UK by James Blish in 1972.) The Milford Method: we read and critique the pieces in advance of the session. Then everyone sits around the room in a circle, and the person whose piece is up for critique has to remain quiet while the rest take a turn to offer their critique in a (timed) four minute slot. (They need not use their full time. If four minutes doesn’t sound like much, believe me, it is.) When everyone has offered critique, the author gets uninterrupted right of reply. Then at the end there’s usually a short period of general discussion if matters have arisen during the critique or response. Afterwards it’s customary for the written critiques to be handed to the author, or sent by email after the meeting. Critiques are thorough, but must be delivered to help the author make the piece the best it can be. No ad hominem attacks allowed.
So this tried and tested format actually works well online as well as face to face.
With Google Hangouts, whoever is talking is on full screen while the others are tiled down the side. This is particularly good because during the crit we pass from one person to the next, one voice at a time. It works less well if several people are trying to bat a conversation back and forth between them. You can’t talk over each other as that simply doesn’t work. The result being that on Sunday the discussion after the author’s right of reply tended to be truncated, but in general we got through all our critiques in good time and four or five of us hung out at the end for a bit of social chat, which was lovely.
The one thing we couldn’t do on Google Hangouts was share lunch and take a break mid-afternoon for cake o’clock as we usually do. (I cook lunch since I don’t have to travel.) We’ll be glad when lockdown is over, but in the meantime, I pronounce Google Hangouts to be a workable substitute.