Finding Nemo (aka the Perfect Critique Group)

Finding a good critique group is hard work. Get into the wrong one and it’s easy to have your ego bruised or to lose your writing mojo. Some writers hate critique groups while others swear by them. How does a writer choose?

writing event
NaNoWriMo 2016. Image credit: Terry Chay

First off: let’s get our definitions straight. There are writing groups and critique groups. The former is a convivial place where writers can gather to write in each other’s company. Sometimes there’s chatter but mostly it’s about getting words on the (virtual) page. There are international events like NaNoWriMo and there’s the local coffee shop on Thursday mornings. A writing group, in my book, is about moral support.

A critique group, on the other hand, is where members are expected to point out the flaws in a manuscript. That manuscript might be a couple of pages to read on the spot or ten thousand words circulated a week in advance. It may not be the same people around the table from one time to the next. Whatever the rules of engagement are, the purpose of a critique group is to offer feedback so that we can improve our craft.

shark-infested waters

That’s the theory at least. In practice, there are plenty of dangers lurking in the sea. An emerging writer is particularly vulnerable because you don’t yet know your own strengths and weaknesses. You may not like to hear that your dialogue sucks. You may not believe that you have a real talent for description. It can be hard to separate what you want to hear from what’s actually being said.

This is why every writing workshop, class or critique group I’ve ever attended uses a cone of silence. The person whose work is being reviewed cannot respond to the critique being given. That’s hard sometimes. It’s natural to want to defend your work or to explain what you really meant. But if you’re talking, you can’t be listening.

shark critique
By Nevit Dilmen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons
Rather than a cone of silence (which I always visualize as a large dunce cap), it may be more helpful to think of it as a shark cage. If you stay inside, you can take it all in. But if you get out of your cage, well, good luck to you.

perils of the deep

You see, critics come in all shapes and sizes and levels of experience. There are the clownfish who never want to say anything negative. They may not bite off your leg. But they will put on such a happy face that you might be deluded into thinking you’ve just written the great American Novel when chances are, you haven’t.

Sadly, there are also electric eels out there who will zap you just for the fun of it. Writers who think they’re better than you are. Who know exactly how to fix your miserable excuse for a manuscript and are happy to share their wisdom with you. They’ll tear you from fin to fin.

Last but not least are the scavengers lurking close to the sea floor. We like to obsess about minutiae. Punctuation and formatting.  Whether the world-building is consistent. Time markers that correlate with actual history. You can waste a lot of time peering at the plankton.

the jellies

How then to avoid all these maritime perils? There is, of course, the option of crawling into your nautilus shell and write in accordance with your own lights. If you’re a solitary genius, then being alone works great.

But if you’re not, another option is to go to school. Writing is a craft and a craft can be learned. You don’t necessarily have to plunk down a load of dough for a multiyear Master of Fine Arts degree. There are master classes and writing workshops. And anyway, reading is the best way to learn how to write.

jellyfish critique
By Brocken Inaglory [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons
But suppose you’ve already started writing. You’ve got a plot and some characters and it’s all going along swimmingly. Then you start to question yourself. Is my story zipping along quickly enough? Too many characters or not enough? It’s easy to get lost in the kelp, turned upside down by the currents, lost in space.

You could always hire a  book doctor, coach or editor. But that feels like something you do when you’ve got a finished manuscript. If I’m still navigating my way out of the Jellyfish Forest and I’m hoping to get across with a minimum amount of pain, what do I do then?

riding the current

I’m a member of two critique groups. I joined at a time when I realized that I wasn’t writing a novel but four novels at the same time. Clearly, I needed help.

One of my groups favors genre writing like science fiction and murder mysteries. They’re laser sharp on plot and pacing. My other group leans toward literary fiction and is more concerned with theme and aesthetics.

What they have in common is honesty intertwined with a desire to help the author write the story she wants to tell. This is hard work. I have played the clownfish, electric eel and plankton expert. Every time my critique group meets, I have to remind myself that it’s not about me.

I recently heard a story about a writing class in the US. The structure was similar to a critique group in that each student was assigned a date to submit. Problem was, students only attended when it was their turn to receive critique.

Being a member of a critique group means you’ll be giving more than you receive. My group has 8 members and meets once every two weeks. That means, on an annual basis, I can only submit three to four times. The rest of the year I’ll be spending on someone else’s work.

That may sound like a waste of time but it isn’t for me.  I feel like I learn more when I think deeply about what another writer is trying to achieve.

home

In a good critique group, you feel safe enough to take risks. Everything else is logistics. Size doesn’t matter. Frequency doesn’t either. It’s entirely up to you whether to meet in the physical world or online.

Pixar critique
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Image source: http://www.creativityincbook.com/about/

The makers of Finding Nemo have a critique process all their own. Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, has written a whole book about their critique process. Pixar calls this group the Braintrust and they live by three rules.

  1. You understand story. You’re able to pick it apart and put it back together without leaving a bunch of parts on the ground.
  2. You tell the truth and nothing but the truth. No politically correct fudging. No flamethrower activity. In a critique group, all members are equal.
  3. You don’t try to fix the problem. Instead, you give good notes. Good notes are specific. They contain examples. They do not prescribe a course of treatment. A good note inspires.

Here are the questions those notes should address:

What’s wrong
What’s missing
What isn’t clear
What doesn’t make sense
And because we all need encouragement every now and again, you can also ask:
What did you like
What would keep you reading
If you can do that, then you, too, can find Nemo.

 

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