The Art & Necessity of Critique, part 3:

What else I’ve learned about writing groups in the last 7 years—Size Matters

It seems like every time I’ve been on a writer panel in the last few years, the topic of writing critique groups always comes up. Some time ago I wrote a couple of writing tips on how to find/create a writing group, and how to give and take critique once you’ve got one. But I’ve found myself discussing critique groups a lot lately, and while all the things I said seven years ago are still pretty much true, there are a few things I’ve realized lately that are probably worth adding.

Since I published my two tips on writing groups, one of my two groups has folded. (I miss you guys!) The other is still going strong, and we’re now a couple years past our 25th anniversary! Both of them were great groups—but why is one (that met for over ten years) now dissolved and the other still going strong? There are probably a couple of reasons, but I believe the most important factor in the second group’s longevity is: the size of your group makes a difference. And bigger is better.

Group Fade: When most people set out to form a writing group, they think the ideal group will consist of four or five other writers who are their equals or better in skill, who totally get their work, and will become their close friends. They’re looking for a small group of perfect writing soul mates. And you might even succeed in putting together a group like that for a while. But I’ve talked to a lot of writers over the years who are looking for a new group because… “First Gracie moved away, then Juan got transferred, and then Louisa had the new baby and couldn’t make the meetings, and then there were only two of us.”

Meeting Fade: My SF group, that finally folded after Hank moved away, had a total membership of five for most of its existence. My group that has lasted 27 years and counting started out with five people, but it rapidly grew to seven, then ten, and so on and so on till there are now roughly sixteen active members in the group. Only ten to fourteen members are likely to show up for any given meeting, and sometimes in the summer it’s as few as seven—but seven is still enough for a great meeting. If you have five members in a group, and one has to work and another has the flu, you only have three—which is too few for much feedback. And if one of those three can’t get a sitter, you don’t really have a meeting anymore. When you have 16 active members that just doesn’t happen.

Learn from your Opposite: Are all the people in this sprawling, dynamic group perfect writing soul mates? Not a chance! You can divide the group in dozens of different ways—there are the seat-of-the-pants writer vs. the outliners. There are the character writers vs. the plot writers. There are the fantasy writers vs. the problem novel writers. Most of us now write for kids—picture book to YA, but we’ve had adult novels, and novels in every genre. And I believe our discussions have benefited thereby. Sure, you have to evaluate the comments of someone whose taste is very different from yours differently from those members who love your work—but even the most intricately plotted novel has to have good character development and a strong character arc. And in even the most character focused novel, your plot has to work! It’s the writers who have different strengths than you do who can help you overcome your own weaknesses.

A Big Enough Sampling: In fact, one of the problems with a small writing group is that you end up paying too much attention to too few opinions. If you have over a dozen people commenting on your story, you can quickly see where just one person was confused or didn’t like something for personal reasons—but everyone else was fine with it. On the other hand, when eight out of ten critiquers tell you there’s a problem, you know you need to fix it.

Novel Feedback: And finally if most of you are writing novels, you need a large group so you can have one or two full novels to critique at each meeting—because novels can’t be properly critiqued if you only get feedback on one or two chapters at a time.

When you have a small critique group, what frequently happens is that at each meeting, each member brings in their last month’s output for feedback—and this works fine for a short stories, picture books, or any work short enough that you can read and critique the whole work in one sitting. But with novels, this usually means that the writer is bringing a chapter or two to each meeting, and the novel will be critiqued in tiny bits over the course of a year or more—with several bad results.

Novel Pace: The first problem with the “one or two chapters at a time” approach is that the group will end up “reading” the novel over a period of a year or more, which completely distorts the novel’s real pace. There is no way the critique group can tell if a section of four chapters is dragging—or for that matter moving too fast—when they have to wait a month between each chapter. And I’ve also found that sections that seem a bit slow when you’re reading the chapters one-a-month frequently work fine when you read the whole work. Or sometimes it reverses, and chapters that seemed perfectly fine on their own suddenly start dragging when you fit them into their place in the story. The only way to tell if a novel’s pace works is to read the whole book, the way a reader would.

Novel Structure: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people read the first few chapters of a story and make erroneous conclusions about “where this story needs to go” because they can’t read the rest of the book to find out where it goes. “You have to kill off this character.” “He can’t end up with her.” “You have to stop…” Only when you’ve read the whole story can you say what direction the early chapters should or shouldn’t take. In fact, any comments you make on story structure before you’ve read the whole novel are irrelevant, and probably wrong, because you don’t know what climax the author is working toward.

Novel Questions: The second problem is that one of the most powerful techniques in a novelist’s tool box is the “unanswered question.” The questions raised in one chapter which aren’t answered for two or six or twenty chapters are what keep a reader turning pages. In a chapter-a-month critique group, your critiquers can’t possibly tell you if you’re answering those questions too slowly or too fast. In most such groups, the tendency is to demand that the question raised at the beginning of the chapter be answered by the end. This is understandable, since the group is forced by this critiquing format to see the chapter itself as a unit, instead of a small part of the larger story. But if you succumb to the group’s pressure, and answer every question by the end of the chapter in which you raise it, you kill all the suspense in the novel as a whole. And if you don’t answer the question you raised in chapter 3 for nine months, even the best critiquer is likely to have forgotten what the question was! And forget anyone remembering those subtle clues to the villain’s identity, or the deft foreshadowing in chapter 4 that doesn’t pay off till the climax.

Novel Editing: When critiquers are given just one or two chapters to edit, because they can’t talk about the story as a whole, they almost always fall back on line editing—where style is the focus instead of the story. And while style is important, and it’s worth getting some feedback on that too, it’s the story that readers are looking for in every genre but literary fiction.

Making it Work: One of the reasons I urge people to enlarge their writing group is so you can have a numerous novels to discuss each year. (About sixteen active members works pretty well.) But even if your group is smaller than that now (and creating a larger group will take time) I seriously urge you to wait till your novel is finished and then give the whole story to your critique group—because you can’t get the story structure feedback you need any other way.

I know this may be hard if it’s not what your group members are accustomed to. But if the writers doing shorter work complain about having to read a whole novel, you can point out to them that they get your feedback every month or so, and you haven’t asked them for anything for over a year. And for those in your group who are also writing novels, give them this article and point out that the only way to learn story structure is to critique and get feedback on the whole story—not by perfecting the phrasing of the 9th paragraph of chapter 11.

I was talking about this once in a discussion group, and one of the participant said, “But then it’s only your turn to get critiqued once a year? That wouldn’t be often enough for me.” I can see that if you’re accustomed to getting feedback on your work at every meeting this would seem like it isn’t enough. But what this person didn’t seem to realize is that you learn as much or more from critiquing other people’s novels as you do from feedback on your own work. Every time you critique someone else’s work, you’re learning both what to do, and what not to do. And when you try to explain to them what’s wrong, and how they might fix it, you’re learning why a story works or fails. Yes, you’ll only get feedback on your novel when you’ve written a novel—but every hour you critique, you’re also learning how to write. Which is really the whole point, isn’t it?

Winter 2010

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