The Murder Method
The Murder Method is a five step process used to critique a piece of literature. It is optimized to provide a wide range of literary support, from grammatical to content analysis.
Step 1 - Premeditation
Members read the piece and take notes. This can be physically or electronically.
Step 2 - Statement of Meaning
Members say what they thought the piece was about. The author listens and knocks* if/when appropriate. No talking!
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.”
*Instead of voicing agreement, members knock on the table to quickly and succinctly indicate they agree with what was just said.
Step 3 - Neutral Questions
Members ask nonjudgmental questions of the Author. The author may 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?”
Step 4 - Permissioned Opinions
Members start by telling the Author what their opinion is about.
Example: “I have an opinion about the accuracy of your science and the meteors.”
The Author can either consent or decline to hear the opinion. However they choose, they should not use more than five (5) words to answer.
Members whose opinions are declined to be heard do not get to voice another permissioned opinion this round. If the opinion is written in the Member’s notes, the Author can choose to read it later.
Members whose opinions are consented to be heard present their opinions in a kind, respectful, and concise manner. Any other Member may "dovetail" on the permissioned opinion and give their own opinion on the same theme.
The Author may ask clarifying questions of any member who gives a permissioned opinion or a "dovetail" opinion. Otherwise, the Author cannot speak. The Author must never, ever, ever defend their piece to another member. This is not a defense, this is a workshop, and at no point is the Author or the material they brought to workshop being attacked.
If an Author ever does feel attacked, they are allowed to stop the critique by saying, "Nevermore! Nevermore!" The group will move on to critique the next piece of the night without further ado. Members may address any serious concerns they have with the Harassment Committee.
Step 5 - Author’s Questions
The Author asks questions of the Members. The Members may answer the questions posed by the Author.
Example: “Now that you know Scott is the killer, what do you think of the diner scene two chapters ago?”
Members then turn in any notes they have to the Author either electronically or in person.
For a more detailed examination of The Murder Method, read below.
How Do I Give Critique?
by Adrean Messmer
A hundred years ago (give or take a few dozen), we started a little critique group. We discovered each of us liked to write. We already knew we liked being catty and judgmental. It seemed like the next logical step. Back then, the author would read the piece out loud while the listeners took notes, or didn’t take notes and just tried to keep all their comments stored in their brain until commenting time. Then we’d all dog pile on after the story and give as many opinions as we could remember. It was… fine.
Then Jack and I took a workshop with a really fantastic professor and he introduced us to an abbreviated version of Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. We brought it to Nevermore and—damn, it’s been great. It helped calm the chaos of everyone talking at once. And, even better, it challenged us to really look into the work we were critiquing and dig out the marrow of what was working and what wasn’t.
We only ever commit premeditated murder on pieces. Everything is emailed out in advance and, for the most part, we read them prior to the meeting. I say “for the most part” because sometimes things happen and we find ourselves sitting at the murder table, reading a thing while hoping no one calls on us before we’ve been able to form some thoughts about the piece.
But we try very hard not to do that. Much of the information you’re about to read can also be found in Mac Boyle’s video the “Murder Method Instruction Video” featuring a full cast and an award-winning script. You scrolled past it, so feel free to go back up and watch before continuing on. I’ll wait. I’m only pixels on a screen after all.
Statement of Meaning
Listen, when I explain this it’s going to sound silly, but it can be super helpful.
Once you, as a reader, have read the 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.
“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.”
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 do you want the reader to get out of 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.
“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?”
This is to be handled delicately. You don’t want to end up with a bloody mess on your hands. So, here is how we lay down our plastic tarps to protect writers. Writers, your job here is be quiet and listen carefully. You may ask for clarification at any time, but don’t try to explain things. Remember, whatever you wrote, once you send it out into the world, it’s on its own. You won’t be able to explain to people what you meant. You must allow your words to stand on their own.
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, in which case you must happily stfu.
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. I don’t write hard sci-fi, but the person offering the opinion does. I felt pretty sure I knew he was going to tell me what I already knew and had no intention of changing, so I said no.
There’s also the danger of critique fatigue. Sometimes pieces can be very personal and a writer hasn’t gotten the needed emotional distance for some kinds of critiques. Sometimes, a writer is just tired of hearing opinions about the weaponry in a story that’s not about weaponry. Sometimes, a writer doesn’t need a reason at all. It’s their work being put on blast here, so they get control the severity and frequency. If the reader has written their opinions down, the author can always go back and read them in private.
We try to avoid murdering a piece over grammatical issues. That is to say, some of us mark them in our line edits, but we don’t really talk about them. Issues like spelling, grammar, dropped words, et cetera can just be silently noted. There’s really no opinion that needs to be mentioned. In some cases, it might warrant a neutral 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. Unless it’s really funny, or you actually do need clarification on it.
When you, as a reader, agree with something someone has said, simply knock. It makes a sound that can be heard but does not interrupt. It keeps us from getting repetitive with our critiques and dragging things on for too long. However, we do, often, run into a thing called a dovetail. It’s when one reader has an opinion that is very related to the current opinion being given. In this case, we add on our opinion to it. But, we should always be sure it’s not the exact same thing re-worded.
In all cases, remember to be mindful. We are working with art created by a person sitting at the table with us.
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—or new—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. Need some advice on how to make that very important detail more clear without ruining the twist at the end? Ask.
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? Does anyone else at the table know of any publications looking for work like this? Has anyone had experience shopping work like this around?
That’s it. That’s all there is.
Now, go write or read and make the world more awesome with your words.
How Do I Take Critique?
by Erin Fuller
You want to be a better writer. So you join a writing group. You join Nevermore Edits. So far, you’re doing the right thing. Being in an encouraging environment and getting feedback on your work are key to improving your writing skills… if you can take criticism.
There are two kinds of writers who do poorly in workshops. The first is the self-appointed Voice of Their Generation. The workshop isn’t for them to improve their work. It’s for others to be amazed by their golden prose. They don’t consider comments that are on the wrong side of neutral and don’t like being surprised by a suggestion they haven’t thought of themselves.
Their opposite is the Spineless Writer. They have no idea how to improve their writing, and rather than thinking up their own ideas, they take everyone else’s. They may not have the confidence to stand up for the parts of their work that they like; they may simply be lazy. Either way, they stitch every suggestion, comment, or criticism into their story without considering whether that suggestion works their vision for their work.
All-criticism writers or no-criticism writers will not find the workshop useful. The workshop isn’t meant to stroke egos or do homework on behalf of the writer. The workshop is made up of readers with opinions about writing, sharpened by education and practice, who represent the voice of your eventual readers. General readers can tell whether they like or dislike a story, but they can’t tell you that in person. Workshop readers will tell you clearly what they think, and you will thank them, for better or worse, because any other reader will simply drop your book and never take the time to tell you why.
Workshop readers will read anything all the way through, think about it, and criticize it.
How do you make the most of people telling you your work stinks?
First, listen to readers when they say something is off, but think about why they said it and whether it will make your story stronger. It is rare to be in a workshop full of people who write in the same genre. In Nevermore Edits, we have horror writers, speculative writers, essayists, poets, and literary types. Not everyone will enjoy your work. It might just be your genre. It might be because workshop writing usually means early drafts. Who likes reading those? If someone who only reads experimental work by the Russian River school of poets slams the second draft of your slashfic, consider: is their criticism helpful? Probably not. But if everyone else more-or-less agrees with them, they might have a point.
Second, listen without interrupting. In Nevermore Edits, we ask authors of the workshopped piece to be quiet. This is so you know whether your words line up with your intentions for the story. You can’t get that pure first impression— the way readers will read published work— if you interrupt them to explain, “Actually, this is a metaphor for the event that happens 50 pages later….” etc. When you correct somebody’s first impressions of your work, you correct everyone’s first impressions. This means you lose that valuable knowledge of what different readers take away from your work. Get out of your own way! You can ask questions at the end.
Third and last, listen to understand your work and your weak points as a writer. Improving as a writer means catching mistakes in your own work, such as a weak character, a lack of conflict, and uneven pacing, and correcting them according to your intentions for the work overall. You can’t catch everything on your own. That’s why we have the workshop! But you should grow sensitive to the patterns of good writing, develop an awareness of your sticking points, and train your eyes to see your work objectively.
The sting of criticism never truly fades. When you hand your work over to the workshop, you say, “Here. Have this thing I cut out of my heart, this imperfectly expressed essence of what I think is important to say.” You harbor the secret hope that workshop readers will devour it, lick their fingers, and beg for more, yet you know it’s far more likely that they will chew it up, spit it out, and wash out the taste with Listerine. You’ll have to sit quietly while they tell you how it’s bad.
But remember, we want you to be a better writer. We all want to read something great, and we all have stakes in each others success. The best workshop is a positive feedback loop, where our improvement helps others improve, so they in turn help us improve. We know what it’s like. We’re always offering cuts from our own hearts.
We won’t hurt you any more than necessary.