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

hhgg_buttonLast time I talked about some of the responsibilities the members of a critique group or writers’ workshop had to the writer whose work they were critiquing. This time, I’d like to address the responsibilities of the writer, which go beyond the helpful “Don’t panic!” and “There’s no crying in writing!”

At a panel on critique groups at a recent science fiction convention, some of our audience members (aspiring writers, all)  were surprised when the panelists unanimously agreed that the writer whose work was being critiqued also had responsibilities to the group and to her work. They’re important duties, too, because they can make the difference between whether the critique group is ultimately a beneficial experience that makes a writer’s work better, a torturous experience from which she learns nothing (except “critique groups: just say no”), or a ruinous experience that destroys both the story and the writer.

Without further ado:

  1. Listen to the critique as you would have your comments received when it’s your turn to offer critique of someone else’s work.
  2. The significant word in point #1 is “listen”. Try to hear what the critic is really saying. Sometimes this is different than what they seem to be saying. Often a critic will point out what they think is a problem, when the real issue is just to the right or left. Example: A critic complains that they don’t buy the relationship between your hero and heroine. They feel it doesn’t have enough chemistry. The problem may not be the chemistry between the characters as it is that one or both of them may not be well-defined as individuals. Which is important because it might change how you respond—by pumping up the “romance” factor when the two are together or by drawing your characters more clearly.
  3. Be open to thinking outside of what you’ve written. In the situation above, let’s say the problem is really that you’ve paired off the wrong couple of characters. In that case, be open to change. I’ve had stories stop dead in their tracks because I was trying to force a couple of characters together that, for whatever arcane or mundane reasons, didn’t “click”. It took work to fix that, but it was worth the effort—especially since it allowed me to finish the novel.
  4. Accept the critique graciously. Don’t get personal with the critiquers. And don’t argue or defend your ideas. Telling the critic, “You’re just not getting it. Fred isn’t being snide, he’s being sophisticated” will not help other readers “get it”. Trying to figure out why the critic thinks Fred is a smart ass might.
  5. So, if a critic’s response puzzles you, seek clarity. Again, explaining what you meant to convey so you can figure out where you dropped the ball is not the same thing as defending your ideas. Saying, “This is what I meant to say,” then getting feedback on why that didn’t come across can be very valuable. It can also keep you from changing what doesn’t need to be changed because you weren’t clear on what a critic was saying.
  6. Dreamin'


    Don’t be stubborn about elements in your story that are not issues of craft. What does that mean? If your critiquers tell you that the joke in chapter two that you got from your best buddy throws them out of the story, strongly consider removing it. I once was in a convention workshop that critiqued a story the writer had based on a dream. I write from dreams frequently myself, but dreams are illogical and don’t always make sense when you start to write them down. They also often have huge gaps in action or wild POV shifts. When I experience this, I find a way to make the story work by filling in the gaps or smoothing out the points of view. This writer, however, stubbornly refused to do this. For example, when asked why there were sudden POV shifts in the action scenes (which made them impossible to follow), the writer replied, “That’s the way it was in the dream.” When we—every last one of us—recommended he fill in the gaps, adjust the pacing (which went from plodding and surreal to frantic) and detangle the point of view shifts, he responded that he felt he had to stay true to the dream. At that point, we realized that nothing we said would be taken seriously. We wished him luck and moved on.

  7. Conversely, don’t let the critiquers tell you how to rewrite your story. Try to find symptoms in their critique, not necessarily diagnoses or courses of treatment. Unless you’ve asked an experienced writer or mentor for help with a particular issue, and hope to learn something about craft from them, try to find your own way to fix what needs fixing.
  8. Don’t overreact. Last time, I shared the tragic experience of the writer who turned a pretty good story into a train wreck trying to accommodate every comment of every critic. In the destruction of that story the writer, himself, was partly to blame.
  9. I’ve saved what is probably the most important responsibility until last. Don’t change to accommodate the opinion of one critic, unless you feel strongly that she’s just hit on something you’ve already sensed yourself. If more than one person tells you the same thing, you may wish to consider changing it. If everyone tells you the same thing … well, you get it.

You may have surmised by now that this is a matter of balance; take the critiquers’ comments seriously, but not too seriously. Your mind should be open, but not so open that your story gets away. Above all, you want it—no, need it—to remain your story, no matter what your critique group or mentor tells you.



Don’t Crush That Writer (Hand Me the Duct Tape) – Three — 4 Comments

  1. And this is the vital importance of the critique -group-. The very number of critiquers (more than one) is important. One critiquer can be an idiot, two can be coincidence. But three? When no one in the group understood your deep and mystical theme then yes — the odds are you failed to communicate.
    Once in a workshop I was running we read a ms. It was about a relationship, and the story ended with him and her on a beach. It was written so allusively, with so many metaphors and paraphrases, that it was not entirely clear what was happening. =Either= they were having wild sex on the sand, =or= he strangled her and threw her body into the surf. You could parse the text either way.
    We debated it, citing supporting sentences. Finally we took a vote. There were about 10 people in the group, and we split 50-50, half for wild sex and the other for murder. The poor author, who had to sit there quietly and listen to us get lost in her prose, was finally appealed to. It was sex, after all, but boy — she had totally failed to communicate it clearly.

    • Good point, Brenda, about getting several opinions. If one person says the pacing is too slow, it might just be that book isn’t really for that reader. If the whole group is yawing, though. . .

  2. All true. That said, Gene Wolfe said in a panel I attended in Chicago years ago said something along the lines that if people trounce on one specific thing in a story, don’t ignore it. That one little piece is YOURS. It may be the most important piece of the story.

  3. Also, might I share a workshop experience at a con where the format was that soem hapless relative newbie brought in a project and got critique from no less than FIVE “pros” in a group (Not entirely sure why anyone thought any newbie would have enough mental strength to stand up to this kind of overwhelm but eh. that’s the way they did it.) This one dude turns up for his slot and brings in a sample from his novel in progress and also the synopsis for the whole projected novel. The sample is fine as and of itself – the writing was perfectly adequate, if needing a bit of spit and polish, and the characters he showed us seemed to be doing just FINE. But then… the synopsis.

    before I get to the guts of this thing let me preface it by a bit of geography. our newbie sits at the head of this conference table and the crit group sits around the rest of it – three men, two women. it’s the three guys that go first, and they provide perfectly salient critique of the writing itself, very nice, very helpful. Then we come to me, and I open my mouth and say, “I have a problem…” and before I can finish that phrase the other woman on the other side of me is nodding vigorously.

    The problem was that in the synopsis the protagonist’s “change”, the thing that drove the plot… was triggered by a savage rape of his girlfriend. WHo then mostly disappeared from the story. *not one of the males at that table thought this was a problem at all*. ALL the women there instantly did. No matter how good the writing, this is a problematic trope – throwing the girl under the proverbial bus so that the MAN could have the impetus to change and transform and have a personal story (but the girl’s story is, and ends with, “she was raped”).

    if this writer had been presented with ONLY those male critiquers… this would never have even been raised, as a question. Because not one of them did. It would have gone forward as is, with a stamp of “pro” approval.

    In other words… check for biases…

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