At a recent science fiction convention, I was on a panel about critique groups. We started by sharing horror stories. I had the singular honor of having the most horrific in the room.
I once mentored a group of writers in Sacramento that called themselves the Space Cadets for reasons that should be obvious to readers of genre fiction. They had a critique group which I met with on occasion at their request. They were, generally speaking, a great group, though they had some issues that arose out of the differences between the SF and fantasy genres.
One of the young men—I’ll call him Andy—shared a story with the group that was a diamond in the rough. I critiqued it and told him that with just a bit of tightening and a bit more clarity around a particular plot element and timeline, it would be an exciting and salable story. What happened next was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen happen to a writer.
During the critique group, the other writers made suggestions that changed the entire thrust and scope of the story. The fantasy writers wanted it to be more fantastic; a writer who also wrote romance thought it should have a romance element; other people seized on this or that plot element and ran with it. The critique was often in the form of “I think you should…”. A couple of the writers gave commentary that seemed unusually acerbic.
I was bothered by some of the critique simply because it changed the story so much and in ways the writer had obviously never envisioned. It was, in every case, far more than I felt necessary to make the story work. I didn’t say anything though, assuming they’d worked together for a while and that Andy knew what to take and what to throw out.
The next time I saw the manuscript, it was a muddy mess—confusing, with no plot to follow all the way through. The characters’ motivations were no longer clear or compelling and the pacing was glacial. Andy had tried to incorporate every suggestion of every writer in the group—some of which were diametrically opposed. He had ripped out dialogue and replaced it with exposition and, because someone had said a character’s motivation was unclear, he had minutely recorded every thought that flitted through his protagonist’s head. His reasoning was that his comrades were more experienced writers than he was and he respected their input.
I was stunned. The sparkle that had existed in Andy’s first draft was gone. Utterly snuffed out. “You have a backup of the first draft, though, right?” I asked. I keep multiple drafts of my manuscripts whenever I make major changes. I was hopeful that he did too.
I’ll never forget the look on his face. “No,” he said. “I figured that was trash. I mean everyone hated it the way it was.”
“I didn’t,” I said. “Your first draft was close to being publishable. Do you think you can remember what you did?”
He couldn’t, he said, and further more he didn’t want to. He didn’t have the heart for it. “Besides,” he said, “my wife really doesn’t like me writing. She says it’s a waste of time.”
Andy gave up writing completely. I wonder to this day if his critique group realized they were responsible for that in large part. I also wondered if the excessive harshness of some of the critique was motived by jealousy.
To this day, whenever I critique someone’s work or participate in a writers’ workshop, I am careful to say this to the writer whose work is being critiqued: “If one person tells you something, consider it, but don’t take it as a mandate unless the little writer’s conscience inside of you is jumping up and down squealing ‘Yes, yes, yes!’. If two or three people tell you the same thing, you may have an issue that needs addressing. If everyone in the group says the same thing, it’s time to put on your editor’s cap.”
Clearly, excessively harsh critique can crush a writer if he lets it happen. But there are optimal ways to receive critique just as there are optimal ways to give it. I’d like to explore some of that territory in the next episode of Don’t Crush That Writer.