We sometimes get the question how does our writers group manage to critique a whole novel in a single meeting. Part of the answer lies with the process, but another part lies with a few time saving devices we have developed over the years. Voting is a major time saver.
So most of what we send through our writing group these days are novels that a member has written and wants to pass through the group for a critique. Our meetings occur once a month. A work to be critiqued must be submitted in advance of the meeting, allowing enough time for the members to read and review the work (usually this means the book is delivered at least three weeks in advance – especially for longer works). So members are on the hook to read the book before the meeting begins. We never read any work out loud during the meeting (as some groups do). Each member brings his or her own marked-up version of the work to be critiqued (sometimes this is on paper, sometimes electronic). We move sequentially through the book. This goes something like this: Does anyone have anything on page one (there are always comments on page one of any work we do!)? How about page two? Who has the next page number? Sharon has something to comment about on page 10. Debbie has something on page 12. Marella has something on page 5. Okay, Martha goes first.
Let’s say Rett has an issue with something on page 85. Say for example Fruitloop the loveable one-winged, one-eyed, one-clawed bat, has been attacked by a 50-foot tall robot off stage and has met his maker (yeah, this example is so made-up). Rett thinks we have a lot invested in Fruitloop and so we need to see this scene or maybe we need to learn more about the 50-foot robot and this is a great opportunity. Rett makes her case for showing this scene. Other folks may chime in with their thoughts on this issue. After a brief discussion (and I mean brief – usually only a minute or two) we ask for a vote. Let’s say Mark agrees with Rett, but no one else wants to see this scene. So the vote shows two people would like the scene added. Four people are fine without it. That ends the discussion and we move on. The point is that the group has provided feedback, but ultimately it’s the author’s work and author’s decision on whether to take the advice or leave it. That decision can be made by the author outside of the meeting. We don’t need to spend more time on it unless the author requests that we do so.
We use this voting technique very frequently and for various reasons. For example let’s say the author started a particular chapter with a time shift and Tom didn’t pick up on that so he says he was bothered by that. We poll the group and find that only Tom had a problem with it. Everyone else thought the time shift was pretty obvious. So we have a one in six or 16% bother factor. Or maybe the author talks about a dog on page 124, but there have been two dogs mentioned earlier in the text. The author thought it was pretty clear which dog he or she was talking about, but everyone in the group was confused by this. So the voting goes six of six or a 100% bother factor.
Logically the author may figure that if six out of six readers thought the work should spell out which dog is referred to on page 124 then the odds are good that an editor or another reader might have this same problem. So maybe this change should be made. Likewise the author may think that if only one of six readers had problems with the time shift maybe that could be left alone. At the end of the day though these decisions reside with the author. The vote provides guidance, but the author is a dictator and can (and should) do whatever he or she feels is best for the work. The vote does however achieve the twin goals of providing feedback to the author while keeping the critique from getting bogged down in time-consuming minutia.