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2003-08-24 12:45 AM
A couple of months ago, I mentioned on rec.arts.mystery that I had some thoughts on how to most effectively run a writers' group. So, for what they're worth, here they are.
A writers' group can be the worst thing that ever happened to your writing. Give half a dozen inexperienced writers carte blanche, and huge, fatal structural problems go unnoticed while tiny details of phrasing and tone get bickered and moused to death. Those who have read most extensively on "how to write" will quote Sol Stein or Robert McKee, and still say nothing truly useful.
They may, in fact, cause great harm. I once brought up a mystery writer of my acquaintance with my editor at Walker, Michael Seidman, and he told me that when he saw the first few chapters of this writer's manuscript, it was "nearly transcendent." He asked to see the rest, when it was finished. By the time he got the entire manuscript, "the writing group had gotten to it" and it wasn't special anymore. He passed on it.
This writer did, in fact, sell it to another publisher, one less iconoclastic than Walker. So you can take this story either way.
A writers' group can also be useful. I've been in three. The first was a short story writing class at L.A. Valley College, taught by a professor L.P. Boston. This is where I learned that the best thing you can get from any writing class is a deadline. But it's also where I first encountered the critique method that I still think is the most useful way to approach the job, and which I still use when I critique other people's work. It's reproduced below.
The second was a group of hand-picked cronies in Los Angeles. Blake and I wanted a writers' group, but we didn't want whatever random people we'd get if we posted a notice somewhere. So we thought about who to invite, and invited them. I was the only published novelist, and another member had been hired to write a screenplay. The other three were an aspiring chidren's writer, an aspiring screenwriter, and an aspiring mystery novelist. At each meeting, one person would distribute copies of a finished or semi-finished work, and the others would take it home for reading and critiquing, using essentially the same form that three of us had learned in L.P. Boston's writing class. At the next meeting, we'd go around the table until everyone's critiques had been read and discussed. The writer was expected to stay mostly silent.
The third, in New York, is a group I came to after it had been in existence for years. I was one of two published novelists; the other is more successful than I am. At each meeting, whoever had new work since last time would read it aloud, and the others would take notes. Then there was immediate feedback from the group--again, going around the room until all points had been made, with the writer expected to do more listening that talking.
I think this is the least useful approach. One problem with it is that it's hard to see overall structure when you're hearing a chapter a month--and if one of the members is prolific, you never get to hear the entire story. Another problem is that since the writer is reading his own work aloud, he fixes phrasing problems unconsiously. He reads each line the way it's supposed to be understood, never tripping over it the way a stranger might.
The great advantage to this approach, however, is that there is no homework. I don't think this particular group would have survived this long if its members had been expected to pore over manuscripts on their own time and create formal critiques. And the most useful thing any writer can have is a deadline, and this kind of group can provide those.
However, my vote--especially for novels--is still for the take-the-whole-thing-home-and-critique-it approach. I can imagine no other way to get effective feedback on every level of a story, not just the line-by-line level of an excerpt reading.
I've come to believe that making suggestions for "fixes" is not a good idea. This is because a critiquer doesn't really know what the underlying problem is; he only sees symptoms. What a critiquer sees as a plot problem may actually have arisen because the writer doesn't know her characters well enough. So suggesting a plot fix is counterproductive. In a critique group, it often turns out that everyone had a problem with the same section of the story--but that everyone identified the problem differently. One person says it's a plot structure problem; another person says the character seems inconsistent there; a third says it "just didn't work for me."
All the writer needs to understand is "Something's wrong right here." She can then figure it out on her own. Most likely, she already had a feeling about that section. If she wants suggestions, she can ask for them, but I'd advise against "fixes" being staples of any critique approach; just identify problem areas, articulate your feelings ("I lost interest here," or "I just didn't believe it") and let the writer figure out what's actually wrong. Every writer finds a different pathway to the grail of "integrated plot, character, and setting." Your fix, clear as it might seem to you, might just confuse things more for her.
Some people are able to suggest practical techniques to help the writer discover a solution on her own. These people are extremely rare. Assume there's not one in your group until it's proven otherwise.
I am not fond of the "say some good things first, then move on to the problems" approach. I realize that many people do prefer that, and that it can be a useful strategy in preventing critique group meltdowns. But when my manuscript is the one under the microscope, I find it a patronizing waste of time. I don't want or need ego gratification from a critique group. What I'm here for is concrete ways to improve the writing.
Regardless of your preferences on the matter, the single overriding criterion for judging a critique group is this: Are people improving?
If most of them aren't even writing, the answer is no. Drop the group and go write.
- - -
WRITERS' GROUP CRITIQUE FORM
No judgment or analysisjust "this is what happens in the story."
No judgment or analysisjust "this is who each character is."
No judgment or analysisjust "this is where it takes place."
What works, what doesn't, and why
What works, what doesn't, and why
Grammar, tone, appropriateness, etc.
Anything that doesn't fit in the above
- - -
The great strength of this approach is that it divorces the "STATEMENTS" from the "DISCUSSIONS." This allows the writer to see immediately whether the critiquers were even paying attention--but also to see whether the "DISCUSSIONS" are based on some misunderstanding that the writer didn't realize existed. If it's clear that the writer neglected some key piece of information in the first place, then "DISCUSSIONS" that could otherwise deteriorate into arguments can now be accepted with a sad, "Yeah, I see why you thought that whole wrong thing. It's because I didn't make X clear."
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