Methods of Murder

Murder first started out as a critique group. We all knew we liked writing. Being catty and judgmental came pretty naturally to most of us, so it felt like the next natural step to be catty and judgmental at each other, especially if meant improvement. We'd read our stories out loud to each other. The listeners would take notes, or maybe they would just try to remember everything, and then, at the end of the piece, we'd all jump in and give as many opinions as we'd had time to make note of. It worked out alright. Then Jack and I took a workshop class with a really fantastic professor. He introduced us to an abbreviated version of Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process. We brought it to Murder and the difference has been awesome. For starters, it cooled some of the chaos. Now we all take turns like adults. More than that, though, it challenged us to really look into the work, to dig out the parts that work and don't work for us as readers, and to describe the story.

So, here's what we do. It always premeditated murder. We share our work with the group a few days in advance so everyone's had a chance to go over it.

  1. Motive. This part seems silly but it is actually one of the most important. Once you, as a reader, have read the shared piece, jot down what you think it was about. If it was just a chapter or section of a larger work, talk about what happens, how it furthers the story, and how it might differ from the rest of piece. Think about the themes and plot. When you, as a writer, are listening to the readers discuss this, pay attention. Don't talk. Stay quiet and listen. Make sure they got what you intended them to get. Several times, we've found that people inferred things we didn't mean them to. Sometimes, it's been awesome and we've decided to make it on purpose. Sometimes, it's been awful and we've had to go back and get that crap cut out. Example: "In this section, Alex is beginning to learn what really goes on in Camp 16. Sara tries to protect him but is unable to when Esau gets involved. There are strong themes of helplessness and fear, showing us how far Alex has to go before he can become who we know he will be."
  2. M.O. This part can be tricky. If you, as a reader, have any questions, this is when you get to ask them. But, there's a catch-- You're not allowed to be judgmental here. No opinions yet. So, "What did you hope the reader would think was happening in the fight scene?" is fine while "Why is the fight scene so vague and confusing?" is not. Writers, you'll want to pay close attention here. Some of the questions asked will reveal weaknesses in your narrative that you'll want to address. Also, writers are allowed to talk during this portion, but only to answer questions or ask for clarification. Examples: "Where was Jordan going before he ran into Sophie?" "Why did you choose not to describe Rolo's race?" "What do you want the reader to feel at the end of the story?"
  3. MurderThis is to be handled delicately. You don't want to end up with a bloody mess on your hands. Writers, your job here is be quiet and listen. You may ask for clarification, but that is all. Readers, you start by telling the writer what your opinion is about ("I have an opinion about the accuracy of your science and the meteors"). The writer can either say yes, in which case you go ahead and tell them your opinion, or they can say no. Neither one of you allowed to take it personally. Be cool. Be respectful. There are many reasons a writer may not want to hear an opinion on something. With that meteor example, I had done my research and knew exactly where I was being inaccurate. But, if I'd kept it all 100%, I would have had to give up some descriptions that I loved and I don't write hard sci-fi so I decided it didn't matter. There's also the danger of critique fatigue. An author might start to feel overwhelmed and this gives them the opportunity to have more control over the situation. So, just keep in mind that the goal here is to make the piece better, not be smarter or more clever than anyone else. Readers, you are there to help the writer. Writer, you are there for what amounts to a performance evaluation.
  4. Spatter Analysis. So, you, the writer, have answered the questions and heard the opinions. It's your turn now. This is when you can ask any remaining questions you might have about what you wrote. Want to know what they thought about the character arc? Ask away. Curious as to how they felt about something? Go for it. This is when you get to check in and make sure for good that the readers are getting what you're wanting them to. I like to check in on past issues. Like, do they still hate that one character or has he gotten better? Do they think I've made any promises in the story that I need to start living up to?

Most of us type this out or write it on the back of the manuscript so we don't forget. We sit in a circle and take turns sharing what we have. Rather than endlessly agreeing, we knock. It makes a sound without interrupting, so the writer can sort of take a mental count of how many people are on board with a certain question or opinion. This keeps us from getting repetitive, which makes the discussion go faster, which means we get to cover more ground. It also keeps us from banging dead horses.

The upside of writing it all down is that the writer can devote the discussion time to listening and getting clarification rather than trying to take notes or remember everything that was said. It also means that even if they didn't want to hear a certain opinion at that time, they can always go back and read it later.

I should mention that we try to avoid murdering a piece over grammatical issues. That is to say, we mark them on a page with a red pen (some pages end up bloody), but we don't really talk about them. Issues like spelling, grammar, dropped words, et cetera can just be marked. There's really no opinion that needs to be mentioned. In some cases, it might warrant an M.O. question ("Since this piece is in first person, did you intentionally use bad grammar to show the character's voice?"), but there's no reason to get pedantic about that stuff and point every mistake. That kind of just makes you a jerk.

So, there it is. That's how we critique each other's work. How do you do it? I'd love to hear about more methods.