Monday, July 23, 2007

How Workshops and Critique Groups Go Bad

As I said earlier, regular workshops and critique groups can be vital helps to writers at some points in their careers; and some writers, even pros, find a group that works for them indefinitely. Most writers, though, will find that at some point they need to move on. The following is my list of ways groups become counterproductive.

Family Dynamics. Put a group of humans together for any purpose and they become a social organism that mimics the structure of family and society. And once family dynamics, good or dysfunctional, are established, it is hard for any member of the family to break out of their assigned role—the good kid, the black sheep, the mom, the dad…

There is comfort in being part of a family. But it is also a sort of rut, and your writing won’t evolve if you never leave home. Writing is lonely work, and there is always a tendency to use workshopping or critiquing as a way for writers to get together and socialize under the guise of working. Great—but it might be better to get together for drinks and keep the chapters out of it.

Homogenization. Your previous chapter was a killer—intense, fast-paced, edgy (or perhaps, lyrical, hypnotic, gorgeously languid). The group loved it. But your new chapter, the members of the group point out, just doesn’t have the same qualities…

Maybe that’s a problem with your chapter. But perhaps it’s a problem that tends to arise when chapters are considered one at a time. If there is a chapter a group loves, they will tend to pressure the writer to use that chapter as a standard for all subsequent chapters. And while each one written to that standard may be excellent considered in isolation, a whole novel written in this fashion will tend toward monotony. Variations in tone and pace are one of the joys of reading a novel—and one of the things likely to be eliminated when chapters are considered only one by one.

The Cliché Scorecard. Most how-to writing clichés have some reasonable foundation. But some writers learn these as ‘rules’ and trot them out as though they are playing a game of ‘how many animals can you find hiding in this picture?’ (This can be especially bad in formal workshops.)

Showing isn’t always better than telling. A sympathetic protagonist isn’t always ideal. Authorial omniscience isn’t always bad. Shifting point of view in the middle of a scene is not always off-putting or confusing. A gun over the mantelpiece in Act One need not always be fired by Act Three.

And two heads aren’t always better than one.

I’d never discourage anyone from joining a workshop or critique group, especially when they are in the early stages of developing their skills. But I’d never discourage anyone from leaving a workshop or critique group when they feel it is no longer useful.

You can still be friends afterwards. (Or is that still-be-friends thing only after divorces?)


Neil said...

The thing on chapters is interesting David. I've only been in short story groups, not ones that work with novels. Don't think I ever would either. Sounds a bit daunting, considering the amount of trouble I'm having with my own writing reservations and anxieties.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil...

I don't have much experience in the short story world, since I can't write one to save my life. Not for want of trying. But when I start one I seem to raise so many questions that readers say, "Interesting first chapter." That is not a good sign when you thought you'd written something with a beginning, middle and end.

I think critique groups for novels can be very supportive; it's just that they aren't usually that helpful after a time.