Friday, September 30, 2011

The problem with "read & critique" groups

Actually, I have no problem with read & critique groups in and of themselves.

My problem is that I think many aspiring writers put to much focus and energy on this path to improvement, and totally neglect an equally important one:  the plot they start with.

Reading five pages aloud to a group can yield fantastic revelations about how to properly string words together.  What concerns me is that, as aspiring writers, we seem to think this is the only form of feedback we need.  If all you focus on is the quality of writing, as judged in five page chunks, you're missing half the picture (if not more).  Imagine trying to improve your filmmaking skills by showing people one 30 second scene taken out of context.

Why are there no "plot & strategize" groups?  How about getting together with smart, diverse people and brainstorming your ideas, honing your structure, pace and scenes.  Then start writing?

My cohorts and I held brainstorming sessions like this before they started Nanowrimo last year (I skipped Nano to keep editing Darwin).  I found it to be an amazing experience.  It's a wonderful thing to see an idea floated before creative minds, watch it get pushed and prodded and bloodied.  I think everyone in the group left with a much stronger story, or at least a fat list of interesting ideas.

Now, I'm well aware that some writers prefer to start with a blank page and see where the muse takes them.  I wish them all the luck in the world, because I think they're going to need it.  For anyone who likes to at least roughly plan their story before writing word one, consider getting some friends together (they don't have to be writers, just trustworthy creative people), and have them hash it out with you.

If you don't take their ideas at face value, that's okay.  That is the great thing about ideas:  there's no such thing as a bad one when you're in brainstorming mode.  Because even a bad idea can spark a good one.

Consider reading Edward de Bono's 'Lateral Thinking' if you want some great tips on how to effectively brainstorm.  There is an art to it.  But if you don't want to read up on the topic, let me suggest a few simple guidelines:

  • Keep the sessions short. 20 to 30 minutes is ideal.  In our group, we go round-robin.  Each person had 20 minutes.  The first minute introduced the basic idea they wanted to brainstorm.  Then for ten minutes the group rapidly voiced ideas as they came.  The owner of the idea says nothing during this time (unless the group has a clarification question).  At the ten minute mark, stop and let the owner of the idea decide how to spend the next ten.  Maybe they want to focus in on a specific idea, or switch gears altogether.  It is their choice.
  • There's no such thing as a bad idea.  Meaning, discourage the group from critiquing anyone's thoughts.  No one should say "that's dumb" or "that won't work because...".  Either move on, or try to morph the bad idea into a good one (this is often where the best stuff comes from, which is why you don't want to stifle "bad" ideas).  It's up to you, the owner of the idea, to sort good from bad after the session.  The key is:  you want everyone to feel free to say whatever come to mind. 
  • Whoever "owns" the floor owns the ideas being voiced.  This is why it is critical your group is trustworthy.  The last thing you want to do is get some great idea from the group, only to find six months later that someone else in the group decided to start writing about the same thing.  If someone hears something that they truly want to use when it isn't their floor, they must ask permission of the owner. We did this and it worked out just fine.