Every writer gets the notion — from college, from movies, from the Series of Tubes — that they should be in a critique group.
This notion is seven separate types of wrong.
It’s time for critique groups to go the way of the rotary phone — to make way for something better, faster and stronger.
Peoples of the interwebs: critique groups are obsolete
A critique group is useful for certain things:
(a) university professors who want students to break into groups and leave him alone for the next 45 minutes,
(b) writers who really, really like to read their work aloud,
(c) literary snobs who like to say silly pretentious things about the work of others, and
(d) happy writers who like to socialize with fellow writers and talk smack about the craft while drinking bourbon.
Sidenote: Yes, your particular critique group is wonderful, and you couldn’t live without it. No worries. I’m not driving to your house with the Anti-Critique Group Secret Police to disband it or anything. Also, your critique group’s amazing bylaws and secret handshakes mitigate all the typical disadvantages of plain old boring critique groups that are not nearly as awesome.
Reason No. 1: Critique groups take far too much time
During college, sure, you’ve got time to sit in a group, read chapters aloud and debate what Susie really meant by having the protagonist drink a bottle of ketchup in Chapter 2.
Once you graduate from college, get a job, get married, buy a house and have little pookies, THERE IS NO TIME for this type of nonsense. Do I have three hours to drive to somebody’s house, listen to chapters read aloud, then talk about what I remember of those words and drive home? No. I have ten flipping minutes to write silly blog posts.
People who write for monies, full time, do not gather around a table to read their text aloud while fellow writers and editors listen carefully and ponder the words. It does not happen.
Reason No. 2: Editing as a group is dangerous and slow
Anything written by a committee will stink up the joint, right? Writing is a solitary act.
Editing is, too. You write a thing, then you give it to an editor.
Typically, there are different levels of editing: at a newspaper, you ship your text to the city editor, who gives it the first whack and focuses on the big picture. Later, the draft goes to the copy desk for a different type of editing, more of a polish and proofing.
Also, editing is best done on a keyboard, or with a red pen. Not out loud in a social group, where peer pressure and weird dynamics can screw up a draft in two seconds flat.
Reason No. 3: Critique groups can’t handle most things we write today
Short stories and novels. That’s what critique groups are really built to handle.
And they do a bad job on novels. Why? Because reading a novel in tiny chunks every week will (a) take forever and (b) turn the focus onto pretty words rather than structure and story. You need to see the entire airplane before you can say, with authority, whether it’ll fly or not. Peeking at tiny pieces of it all year doesn’t work.
Traditional critique groups are bullocks when it comes to editing blog posts, speeches, opeds, screenplays, newspaper stories, magazine features, obituaries and haikus. That’s right, haikus. YOU CAN’T HANDLE THEM.
Reason No. 4: Because I say so
I could put some bullets beneath here, if you want to make it official. Here you go:
Let’s invent something new
Now, there is a place for some kind of thing that’s LIKE a critique group, except better, faster and stronger.
Everybody needs an editor. And the more important a thing is, the more you should hire a professional editor who actually does this stuff for a living. But for a whole bunch of things that we write — including silly blog posts — hiring a pro would be a waste of money and time.
So let’s invent a new Writing Monster that’s better, faster and stronger.
The Writing Monster should be flexible, able to handle the editing of any kind of writing, whether it’s a little blog post, a speech, a short story or a screenplay.
It should also expose people to new ideas and new ways of looking at writing, and inspire us to rip the pages out of stupid pretentious books.
And it should expose us to different types of writers and editors, not just fellow writers who have the same exact skills and writerly prejudices.
The Writer Monster Thing should use this thing we call the Series of Tubes and travel at the speed of light rather than the Speed of Steve’s Subaru as you carpool to Jane’s house for the critique group and hope that she didn’t make that bean salad again.
The Writing Monster should be strong and resilient, living in the cloud and forging connections with writers and editors anywhere, like the Borg’s hive mind collective.
BTW: Resistance is futile.
The Writing Monster will NOT die because Steve moved to Idaho or Jane discovered that she hates Tyler’s novel and, to be honest, his stinking guts.
Also, the Writing Monster will focus more on short, important things like concepts, pitches and structure. Things that take up less than a page. (Kristen the Lamb is onto something with her Concept Critique Group idea.)
The alternative is spending every week for the next year dissecting Steve’s 125,000-word epic about vampire elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs and Jane’s memoir about growing up on a potato farm in Idaho.
I don’t care what you’re writing: whether it’s spy thrillers, speeches, newspaper stories or romances about men in kilts, the only thing that matters to the reader is the journey you take them on.
How far – and how fast – is that ride? Where does it start and where does it end?
The roller coaster you take readers on is far, far more important than how pretty you’ve painted things with words.
Oh, there are people who write so beautifully that they can make a trip to Safeway sound more interesting than the latest Michael Bay explosion of robots and cleavage. And yes, there are people who are bestsellers despite the wordsmithing skills of a middling sixth-grader whose main hobby is eating paste.
Those bestsellers are millionaires because story – structure, really — beats pretty words.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t considered the Great Communicator because of his verbal skills. Go back and listen to his Berlin Wall speech, considered a great one. He’s got all sorts of verbal tics and delivery problems. He wasn’t that smooth of a speaker. Reagan’s genius was in being a great storyteller.
The same thing is true of great reporters. It’s not the quality of the prose that makes us hand out Pulitzers and buy Bob Woodward’s books. What he’s truly good at is getting people to give him juicy things to write about, so he can tell a great story, with twists and turns and shockers.
Bad writing is all bad in the same way.
People want a thrilling ride? The Michael Bay School of Storytelling says OK, let’s blow their minds with the most intense story ever. Except when everything is dialed up to 11, the audience goes numb.
Here’s the script for every TRANSFORMER movie ever made. Act 1: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 2: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 3: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions!
You see the same problems with bad action movies starring Chuck Norris, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. If it’s exciting to watch the hero take on five bad guys on top of a roof, then it must be twice as awesome to have him dismember 10 thugs with a chainsaw in Act 2 and three times as cool to torch 20 thugs with a flamethrower in Act 3. Except it’s not.
It’s not much different with the typical Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel, which starts out wallowing in misery and angst in Act 1, moves on to more misery and angst in Act 2 and ends with, just for variety, an extra dose of misery and angst for Act 3.
Technically, the insanely rich hero does go on a journey. He goes to the country club. He goes to dinner. He goes to a polo game where he sneaks a rendezvous with his mistress, who he secretly despises.
The other kind of Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel features a noble poor person, who suffers even more than the rich schmuck, and yes, he also technically goes on a journey, though going from one cardboard box in a bad section of Skid Row three blocks down to a rattier cardboard box WITH HOLES IN IT in an even sketchier part of Skid Row isn’t much of a trip for the audience.
A story like this isn’t a thrilling roller coaster. It’s a slow slog on the Train of Misery.
This is why tragedies work. Inherently, they are a fast and exciting ride, because you start at the very top, with a king or president or otherwise Important Person Who Has It All.
Then, because they can’t resist temptation, or otherwise succumb to hubris and stupidity, they plummet from the top to the bottom. Not that they don’t fight back. They try. They pull out of the slide a couple times, and you think they might make it until their inner demons get the best of them.
That is exciting. You’re letting the audience peek into a different, secret world – the Land of the Rich and Famous – and bringing one of the exalted few down to earth. Who doesn’t want to watch that, or read that?
Reporters make a living doing this. Greek playwrights were doing it 2.94 bazillion years ago. Novelists and screenwriters are still doing tragedies, and will be doing them until the sun turns into a red giant and fries the earth.
The reverse story, Underdog, is so simple and well-known that I won’t make a silly chart for it, because I have faith in you.
I believe, deep in my soul, that you have seen ROCKY once or twice, and watched THE KARATE KID many times, because that movie still rocks to this day despite the lame remake starring Will Smith’s kid, which didn’t involve karate at all, because IT WAS IN CHINA and was about kung fu, not karate. Though I do love Jackie Chan.
Unlike the Bad Action Movie, the hero in an Underdog plot doesn’t start out as some insanely skilled and handsome muffin of stud who, if armed with a folding toothbrush, can take on 43 bad guys. Driving tanks.
Rocky starts out as a washed up boxer, a loser. Ralph Macchio starts out as a skinny kid who gets his butt kicked by local bullies 25 hours a day.
Rocky and Ralph go on real journeys, from rock bottom to the top. Ralph goes from getting beat up by the bullies to beating the leader of the bullies in an honorable way, and having his foe shake his hand. He gains their respect. He suffers and sacrifices in order to change and grow. Also, Mr. Miyagi is the Man.
ROCKY has a more interesting plot, and the script won a freaking Oscar because of it. I kid you not: Sylvester Stallone, Mr. B Movie, started out by winning an Oscar for screenwriting. That is the only thing in the world he has in common with Matt Damon.
The end of Rocky isn’t your typical action movie, which features the hero (a) impaling the Villain of the Week, (b) throwing the Villain of the Week into a bottomless pit or (c) watching the Villain of the Week get impaled after he falls down the bottomless pit.
Rocky ends without a victory at all. He doesn’t beat Apollo Creed, despite all his sweat and blood.
He battles Apollo to basically a draw, and for him, that’s a huge moral victory. He has grown. He has changed. And when he gets the girl, it’s not perfunctory movie nonsense, the typical, “Oh yeah, it’s the end, so the hero needs to kiss the girl after he says some clever one-liner.” You care about this schlub getting the girl, even if you didn’t care one bit for TANGO AND CASH.
Sidenote: I did enjoy DEMOLITION MAN, mostly because Sandra Bullock was awesomesauce, Wesley Snipes was believably insane and they made it so after the apocalypse or whatever, every restaurant was Taco Bell.
To whoever wrote that script, I salute you.
The lesson here: no matter what you write, figure out the ending, and that determines the beginning.
If you have a down ending, you need an up beginning. Otherwise, you’re not taking the audience on any kind of ride.
If you have an up ending, you better have a down beginning. The lower, the better.
ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are minor examples.
Let’s go big. The billion-dollar stories follow this formula: STAR WARS, the Harry Potter movies and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the three biggest stories on this planet, spanning many movies, countless spin-off books and enough merchandise to sink the continent of Australia.
George Lucas and J.K. Rowling have more money than God — end of debate.
All three of those stories start down. Way down. The evil emperor is gaining power. Harry Potter is an orphan because Voldemort killed his parents, and now he’s coming for Harry the Potter — and meanwhile, this big glowing eye on top of a volcano controls all sorts of trolls and scary dudes in hoods who ride black horses of the apocalypse. Our only hope is a tiny man with hairy bare feet and a magic ring whose mighty magic power seems to only turn him invisible and really grumpy.
Sidenote: while in Maui, I read the preface to the introduction to the liner notes for LORD OF THE RINGS, and around page 83, after the index of Elvish words and an anthropological study of Hobbit culture, I was still waiting for the actual story to begin. I did not throw the book across the room, because there were no men in kilts in it that I could detect, but I did lay it down gently and look hard for a hollowed-out pineapple full of alcohols.
Now, I’m not saying all stories are either comedies (up ending) or tragedies (down ending). That’s simplifying things way too much.
For example, dramas and sitcoms are the most common things on TV, right? And they are completely the opposite of what you expect, when you drill down into the story structure of dramas and sitcoms.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: dramas are not tragedies. Dramas end up.
LAW AND ORDER is probably the most famous drama, since at least five cable channels play nothing other than reruns of LAW AND ORDER, LAW AND ORDER: CSI, LAW AND ORDER: LA, LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, LAW AND ORDER: SOME FIELD IN NEBRASKA and, best of all, LAW AND ORDER: BRITAIN, which I threw in here at the end as a sneaky segue allowing me to play The Best Video On the Planet.
Yes, dramas are about horrible things like murder and rape and war.
Except what they’re really about are heroic people who swim in the muck and chaos caused by idiots and greed. Dramas really say, “Despite how bad things are, there are people who’ll try to make things right.”
That doesn’t mean they succeed every time. About one out of twenty times, LAW AND ORDER lets the bad guy get away with it, and yes, it seems like one out of three times, but if you’re reading this, you’re a writer, and bad at math, and you’re not going to go back and watch all 4,398 episodes to do a tally. So I could make stuff up all day.
Comedies don’t always have down endings, per se – but they are NOT happy.
Comedies are about how absurd, hopeless and screwed up things are.
Specifically, comedies target an institution.
Sitcoms usually go after marriage and family life, usually middle-class suburban families.
M*A*S*H was an indictment of war.
ANIMAL HOUSE lampooned frats and college life.
Comedies have mixed endings. It’s OK for the hero to get what he’s after – but only in an absurd way. His best efforts to achieve his goal always backfire. Things don’t happen like they should. It’s screwball.
The other kind of mixed ending is ironic. The hero gets what he wants, but decides he doesn’t truly want it. He finds the king’s treasure after slaying the dragon and decides he doesn’t want all that money, that he’d rather go back home and be a simple farmer. That sort of thing. ROCKY is a bit of an ironic ending. He doesn’t win the fight. He wins other things: self-respect, a future, a girlfriend. Then in the sequels it gets all conventional and boring, though Mister T, for a brief moment in time, before he sold out and joined the A-Team, was a scary, scary man.
Bonus material for story nerds and intellectual types
There is another type of ending, Random Nonsense, which is more common in indie films with subtitles. Think black and white. Think French existentialism.
Here’s an example: the hero is a downtrodden detective, investigating a killer far smarter than he will ever be. His only son hates him, his boss wants to fire him and wife just left him, though he starts up a flirtatious thing with a girl who works at his local café. Just as he starts catching some breaks – he’s walking the café girl home from their first date when he spots the killer running from an alley, the scene of his latest crime – he’s hit by a drunk driver. The End.
Random Nonsense has a message, too, just like tragedies are about hubris, dramas are about the human spirit overcoming adversity and comedies are about how absurd life is. Random Nonsense is trying to make a point about existentialism and chaos, that we don’t really control events. Things just happen.
This may make for deep conversations in your Philosophy 301 class, and you may feel all intellectual talking about what the movie really meant at 3 a.m. at Denny’s while you eat sides of fries and drink bottomless cups of coffee while smoking cigarettes bummed from your roommate, the sociology major. Sociology!
But it makes for a terrible story. There’s no roller coaster. That’s why the audience for these kinds of stories fits on a postage stamp.