Don’t Crush That Writer! (Hand Me the Duct Tape) – One

womanAt 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.”

DevilAndy 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.



Don’t Crush That Writer! (Hand Me the Duct Tape) – One — 17 Comments

  1. Early in my career I received a critique, on a manuscript for a book that had already sold on a partial, from I writer I respected. Her words and tone were so scathing I almost quite writing and considered returning the advance.

    Fortunately, another member of our critique group took me aside and told me privately that none of the critique was of value. The writer had let her jealousy of my sale do the talking. Several deep breaths and a few days later I looked at the critique with new eyes and threw out 95% of it. The woman’s tone of voice should have revealed to me where she was coming from more than her words. 30+ published books later I still will not trust her with one of my books.

    Bad critiques happen. Bad reviews happen. No one but the author can know the vision of the story that compelled them to write it the way they wrote it. Respect for that needs to be part of every viable critique group.

  2. The best lesson I learned from critiquing–as the critiqued and the critiquing–was that it isn’t the job of the critique to change the story, just to make it its best self. When I get feedback with an undercurrent of “if I were writing this story,” I know to proceed with caution. But that was a hard-won bit of knowledge.

    Poor Andy.

    • Yes, that’s why I liked my experience at the Milford workshop in the UK so much: everyone there was interested in helping the others write the best possible version of the story they wanted to tell. It was an eye-opener for me.

  3. Oh yeah. The “one two three more” rule is essential when taking critique, as is remembering what YOU wanted when you wrote the first draft. Even people who want to help are coming at it from what THEY wanted from the story, and you have to filter to allow for that.

    (if everyone points to the same thing but says something different about it…that’s when you break out the aspirin and trust your gut.)

  4. Surely that is one of the important gifts that a pro writer has to have: discernment, when to listen and when to ignore the critique. If you don’t have it, you are a leaf blown by the winds. I would not worry about Andy, Maya. If he was so easily swayed by every passing comment, it was never going to work out; if he was so easily discouraged his chances were low. You’ve heard what they say about becoming an actor, right? That if anything can discourage you, you should let it.

    • You’re not talking about a writer with experience, though. Learning what to keep and what to reject in critiques is not an automatic skill for everyone. And it’s not a gift. It is learned.

      And ease of discouragement in newbies is no reflection on talent. Or even future sturdiness if nurtured. Some plants might be easy to kill before they’re established, but survive astonishing things once they’ve got their roots in. No reason to kill them early, especially if you anticipate great beauty. (Huh. Can you tell I’ve been gardening?)

      • Thank you for saying exactly what I was thinking. Many people are easily discouraged when they’re new at something – it doesn’t mean that they still would be once they’d gotten a bit more encouragement and confidence.

        • I talked to a guy once who said he wanted to write SF. However, he said that he would want a guarantee that he would be able to make money at it, before he put pen to paper. I knew instantly that we would never see a work by this gentleman.
          I say again: if you can be discouraged, you should be — the same as actors, or musicians, or ballerinas. Because the field is full of people who cannot be discouraged from ballet by heavy machine gun fire.

          • the way I put it is, if you want to be a writer nobody can stop you. if you don’t nobody can help you. Yes, that’s a bit broad – but the gist of it stands. I believe the mark of a good editor (or critiquer, even) is telling you where they perceive a problem, and why. HOW you fix it, is up to you; so is the basic choice of IF you fix it, if there’s a hill in there you’re willing to die on or not. I was once told – for a book purchased and well within the editorial process – that the publisher wanted to talk to me about “fixing” the ending. I had the choice of rearing up on my hind feet in outrage and telling them that (at the very least) it was way too late to meddle with an already purchased manuscript in this way – or looking at what they wanted done and whether it was doable. In the end I did change one or two things in their direction but there were other ideas I flatly refused to mess with. I think the book came out the stronger for it – but it might have been just THAT easy to wash my hands of it and walk away. So long as I believe in something I have written, I won’t do that – and if only ONE person finds issue with something I”m inclinied to treat it as one person’s opinion and let it go. If more than one person agrees on the same issue, then there may be something in that, and I will take another look… but, if in the end I decide that it’s fine as it is then *it’s fine as it is* and that’s the end of it.

            I just finished working with a newbie author with a book which was clearly very close to their heart. But it had been farmed out before, to an editor who was more aligned with a “screenplay” approach, and the draft that came out of that interaction was leached of all the drama that the writer told me about in the original idea. We went back to that original idea. The book is MUCH stronger now. It’s being shpopped around as we speak, and I”m holding thumbs for it. But THAT author didn’t give up. The book eventually found its level. And there are more books coming in its wake.

  5. From Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing:

    “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

  6. I heard Gene Wolfe say something interesting on a panel in Chicago many years ago. He said that if everybody hates something in a story, look at it very closely. It’s likely that you have something interesting there. The idea being that whatever you put there that was so despised might well be the thing in the story that is entirely yours.

    Personally, I like it when people try to rewrite the story. My own private theory is that any individual writer only really only knows how to write one way– theirs. You get an honest point of view on the story– how they would change it to be one of theirs. This torquing is almost always valuable. It shows the story in a new light, one that you would never have done since it is your story and not theirs.

    Gaiman is absolutely right in that the solutions so presented are wrong– how could they be otherwise? That does not mean they’re not valuable.

    The important point to understand is that a critique does not dilute the author’s ownership of the story. And the owner of the story can always say no.

    • I think it’s valid to say that such things are worthwhile to you as an individual, but not to make that judgment for others.

      As it happens, that kind of atmosphere kills my joy in the story and muddles things up–whether or not I take the advice, I’ve got to sort through it in order to say no, and in that, the damage is done–and I’ve certainly seen this effect in others’ work. When I judge RWA Chapter contest stuff, it’s not hard at all to see stories that need polish but have spark vs work that’s had all the spark polished right out of it.

    • I had some grave difficulty a year or two ago with a novel. I happened to be booked to speak to the Philadelphia SF Society, so I seized my chance. To this captive fan audience I described the entire plot as far as I had got, about 3/4 the way along. Then I invited solutions. What should happen next? I got all kinds of ideas — deux ex machina including Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu, veerings off into romance and porn, everything you can imagine. Cleared my mind wonderfully, and I went off and zoomed to the end of the book without difficulty, using nary a one of the suggestions.

  7. I had a story critiqued by Gardner Dozois once, and before he started and when he finished, he said, “Rember, this is just one man’s opinion, and I could be wrong!”

    I think that the mark of a skilled writer is the ability to give a quality (but humble) critique.

  8. Pingback: Interesting Writings on Writing and Publishing | The Open Window