Monday, July 23, 2018

Quickies: The Perfect Critique Group

     Writers need one another. First, to read our stuff, as no one else will, certainly not our families and friends. (Not that we’d be so foolish as to force our fiction on family members or friends; that’s the express route to permanently alienating them, and we need them, too.) Second, to reassure us that we’re not terminally insane for putting so much time, energy, and emotion into such a thankless enterprise. And third, to catch and point out our mistakes, high, middle, or low. For this reason, we form critique groups. For other reasons beyond the scope of this screed, they tend to meet no more than once a month.

     There are many criteria by which to determine the composition of a critique group. The first, and arguably the most important, is this one: How large should the group be? Extensive research buttressed by masses of empirical evidence have delivered a definite answer: A critique group should be limited to seven persons at most. Fewer than seven members guarantees an insufficient variety of talents, styles, and opinions. More than seven members is a reliable predictor of unhappiness for all, as there are bound to be squabbles over whose story goes next that cannot be resolved before the chips, dip, and coffee run out.

     But for optimal interpersonal dynamics and maximum utility, a critique group (sometimes called a “writers’ circle,” by persons who consider the word critique just too judgmental) must be carefully populated. Certain specialties are indispensable. A critique group that lacks them will do no one any good:

  • The grammar, spelling, and punctuation nitpicker. Every group should have one...and he should be restricted by group consensus to only five minutes’ speaking time per meeting.
  • The “show, don’t tell” maven. His function “should” be “obvious,” but as I’ve said many times before, obvious really means overlooked. Consider how it’s actually used.
  • The guy who notes flaws in second-level mechanics: bad symbolism, inept similes and metaphors, fractured parallel structure, and the unwitting – surely it was unwitting, wasn’t it? – use of hoary old cliches.
  • The gal who focuses on timing and cuts between scenes. The adept handling of these things can take forever to learn. Some writers never do.
  • The guy on the lookout for “Mary Sue.” No one can afford a Mary Sue character. It destroys plausibility faster than any other error in character construction.
  • The PC patrolman. His job is to object to violations of political correctness – and to be whacked across the snout with a rolled-up copy of The Nation or Mother Jones every time he flaps his lips. Vital for morale.

     After filling the specialist slots listed above, there’s one space left: yours. So what are you waiting for? Grab it before someone else does!

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