Red Shirts & the Importance of a Critique Group

By Francis Sparks

I haven’t always been involved in my writing community. I’m an introvert.

But for the last few years, I joined every writing group that I could find, but none of them were a real critique group. A few months ago I was toying around with the idea of starting my own group when I did a google search that turned up Des Moines Writers Workshop. One of my favorite anecdotes about Napoleon centers around the promotion of a young officer to general. His advisor tells Napoleon about the various strengths of the young officer when Napoleon stops him and asks the simple question.

“Is he lucky?”

In the glorious struggle that is writing, we are all competing for attention and exposure for our work. I think a fair portion of success is striking at the right time. Luck. I lucked into finding this critique group at the perfect time. The members are the original founders of the workshop and are extremely passionate, talented and knowledgeable writers, writing in a broad range of genres from literary to science fiction to historical fiction.

Which brings me to my point. Find a group. If you can’t find a group, start your own. There are other people like you who want a writing community to turn to for support, for help, and to in turn help their fellow writers.

Here’s an example of why. The first month I submitted a heavily polished short story to the workshop. It was a story I had worked on for some time and knew was good. Why? I wanted to impress the other writers and lend some credibility to myself as a writer with some talent. The workshop went great, I got some good compliments, but I didn’t learn a lot. I had worked on the story for over a year and it had been edited into a pretty good piece that didn’t need much help.

Fast-forward to earlier this month. Full disclosure, I’m a pantser. I don’t want to change into a plotter, I like being pantser. I’m digging up the fossil that is my story as Stephen King says. So this month I decided to submit the first 2500 words of my new manuscript to the group. It’s a fantasy novel that I’ve written to a grand total of 14,000 words (expected to be full length 80,000).

The group again had lots of praise for my writing which felt good. Yay, I can write! Then we turned to the critique portion and several of the members pointed out some big no-no’s if I decided to submit to an agent and go the traditional route with this book.

First No-No: I introduced a character just to kill them (known as a Red Shirt). Sounds fun, right? I thought so too. I love killing characters, but apparently that is frowned upon in the traditional world. More on that later.

Second No-No: The scene with the Red Shirt was told from his POV. When I killed said Red Shirt, I jumped out of his POV and went omniscient!!! No, you say, you cannot write! You, sir, are a fraud! I could only agree when I discovered my rookie mistake.

So what happened after that? They kicked me out of the group right? They said wow we really thought you could write but now, with your POV F-up it is clear we are mistaken.

No, that didn’t happen. They picked me up off the floor and gave me suggestions on how to fix it! WTF you say? Yes, they helped me with my story and gave me constructive ideas on how to fix the problems. The great thing is, I’m only 14,000 words in and while I am a pantser and cannot return to edit that problematic area until later (that’s just how I pants) I already have ideas on how to fix this glaring POV issue. The original Red Shirt issue I’m not so sure on. I really like killing this guy right away, but I’m thinking about it and I’ll come back and address it in some fashion on the rewrite/edit.


Beth Burgmeyer

2 thoughts on “Red Shirts & the Importance of a Critique Group

  1. Too right, Francis. Writing is a solitary act but one that, in the end has to about engaging the reader as much as the writer. There’s no substitute for the first feedback of a talented group of peers to help writers on their way. Writing may be done alone – but genius germinates in groups.

    Nothing helps a writer on their way more than a good writing group or writers retreat to focus and improve their work.

    Scott Stavrou

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