The Demons of Critique Groups – Addendum to Novel Workshop
Now, these can be a problem in short stories too, but some of them are rather specific to novels, and if you’re a first time novel writer and find a writer group for guidance, they’ll eat you alive.
I could give you a list of ten, but I figure it will do nothing, because to counter the poison, you need to know why it’s a poison, and that it in fact has nothing to do with your novel.
Let me start by saying that writing critique groups are invaluable. I understand artists have them too and the last time I took a class, the teacher said I was now ready for one, and that it was the only way to get me from where I was to where I should be.
Because at some point you get past what you can be taught and need to get to what you can learn (on your own/with peers.) It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve been there you know it. As a writing teacher I (and definitely Dwight Swain in his books) can teach you the very basics, but as you grow and develop your own style and flourishes, only your peers reading as readers can tell you if it’s working or not.
That reading as readers is important. You’re going to say “but why a writers’ group, then?”
Oy. Well, if you can’t get a writers’ group then a group of ten or so readers will do. Ignore anything that ten of them don’t emphatically say.
There’s many reasons why writers’ groups are better, though. For one, you’re going to have a heck of a time, as an unpublished author, finding ten people who read in your particular subgenre to read your stuff. (That last sometimes still gets me, say when I’m writing historical vampires.) Second, readers ALWAYS think what you want them to critique is your grammar, punctuation and word choice. No, I don’t know why either. However, it’s universal. They either can’t turn that part off, not being used to seeing books in state of assembly, or they honestly view writing as the important part of writing. By which I mean not the storytelling, but the word use. Because they don’t do either, they talk on the one they’re more competent on. (Be glad. My grandfather, shown a short story when I was 11, critiqued it on penmanship. He was actually a voracious reader and friend with many authors of his time – not a mean storyteller, either – but in his time manuscripts were submitted hand written. He told me no editor would fight my scrawl to read it, and first I needed calligraphy classes!)
Third, and more important, readers lack the vocabulary. They can tell you they like it or not, and whether they like a character or not (I love having beta readers) and they can give you a general “this is the best ever” but they can’t tell you “Chapter 22, the action lags. I think you need to set up a bigger challenge.” For that, you need someone who has at least inked his hands with a story or two.
Interestingly, my husband says that once he’d learned enough to give me useful critiques, he’d become a writer.
Anyway, the problem with most groups, particularly open, come who might, changes every week groups, is that they often don’t read as readers. Having written a story or two, they think they’re now professionals (Particularly if they had some early success) and you’re a lowly amateur who needs to be taught.
Another problem is the groups that have a leader or a gospel. By which I mean, the groups that have the ONE published author (the reason I don’t have a group right now, and I desperately need one, is that I refuse to take up that role) and the author has Opinions on how Things Are Done.
The best group I ever belonged to held me back for two years when we (I was very much to blame in this) fell under the sway of the One Published Writer with a Gospel. In her case, she had sold one book, ten years before. And she had this THEORY of how to write a book. (Which didn’t work at all outside her narrow specialty.) Weirdly for a woman, she disapproved of feelings or interior dialogue, which she thought was “romance.” (No, really.)
She cost us a good two years as we bent backwards to do what she said. Then she moved on. Years later, when I sold, I sent her my first published novel on email. She must not have understood the email, because she told me it would never get published, and it was “romance.” Shrug.
Even the best groups will have one of these:
- The person who never wrote/can’t write a novel and who will do his/her best to discourage you out of inadequacy, though that’s not what they say.
- The amnesiac. If you’re bringing in a chapter a week, he’s forgotten the previous chapter and will query everything he doesn’t get.
- The expert. Your novel is a nail and he has a hammer. My favorite of this was the guy who yelled at me for using burner and how I should give the make and model of the gun – completely missing the (described) fact it was a laser weapon.
- The POV fanatic. You have pov violations. I have pov violations. We all have pov violations. Mea culpa mea maxima culpa. It is impossible to write a story without pov violations. Which is why you should sit in a corner and never write again, you violator you.
- The typo and punctuation priest. He will tell you that you’ll never be a writer because you misplaced a comma on page 455.
- The philology expert and other arcane art priesthood. This is where you get things like “you can’t use words of different origins together.” I believe they make Prozac for that, but these people never take them, preferring to share their neurosis. Seriously, unless you’re writing over-precious poetry most of their concerns are moot. But they’ll still pound you with them. Under this fall the historical expert who isn’t. And the person who doesn’t read your genre but who nonetheless Knows Better. “This is not science fiction. In proper science fiction, like Star Trek….”
- The questioner. This is particularly bad for sf/f. I fell for it once and almost killed a book. (DST.) This is the person who thinks you should have an explanation for every act of magic or instance of non-existent (and sometimes existent) technology. “But how does anti-grav work? When was it invented? You must tell us.”
- The moralist. This critter confuses your characters with you and tries to tell you you’re all wrong. For instance, a story in which a man was so neurotic/confused, he lets a woman be dragged off in front of him got me accused of “supine cowardice” by one of these critters. (He also inferred my character was gay, which he wasn’t, but that’s beyond the point. Oh, and that was wrong, wrong, wrong too, and how dare I.) These people often belong to the traditional religions and sometimes to new credos. I’ve gotten blasted for using “ecologically unsound” materials in a novel. (No, seriously. Hey, the only trees killed are to print the novel, and that’s if it’s not an ebook.) I’ve gotten yelled at for having characters in high heels. (Females, even.)
This is not an exhaustive list, just a place for me to remember some of them. Right now, we’ll take on Pov violations, because it ties in to last week.
First, yes, there are POV violations, Virginia. I sometimes catch myself committing them, and they’re very hard to catch. Sometimes only a reader in ten sees them. That said, readers who are looking for them see a lot of them that aren’t there.
The pov violations that exist are usually glaring. I slip into them when I’ve been reading Romance, which does not consider them violations and uses them everywhere.
So, for instance,
“She felt her heart melt as he looked at her with those longing eyes. He was thinking about how great she’d look making him a sammich.”
That’s a pov violation because you jumped between heads. You’re either in her head or his.
In romance, though, that’s how you write. You don’t even wait for the paragraph break to switch. In SF/F… don’t do that.
At least don’t do that if you’re sending to traditional publishers and/or if it hurts the narration. How can it hurt the narration? It’s hard to build tension when you don’t stay still. Say you’re the guy driving down the street, who hits a girl, but you’re also the girl who is fine, and the dog turning the corner who wonders if he can get pets, and…
Second, these things aren’t pov violations, but I’ve had their like flagged as such:
She looked cold. He wondered if he should give her his coat.
He was sweating. The postman wondered if it was from heat or worry.
A lot of people think that if you have something from another pov in the middle, it’s a pov violation. Hint: it’s only a pov violation if it’s something the head you’re in couldn’t have known. If someone is sweating, you can see it. Also, if someone looks cold.
In the first instance, if you have “she was cold” and he’s not touching her, then that IS a pov violation and you can fix it to something like “she looked”.
Third, don’t be afraid of a little violation in the right place. Yes these are violations, but they’re not egregious, and not committing them will make your story heavy as concrete just to establish basics.
So, take a third person close in, like this:
A rendez-vous With Death
The wind bit Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen’s exposed face, whipped his white silk scarf into a frenzy.
He didn’t notice.
Hunched forward, Manfred, the Red Baron, held the control stick of his airplane in his right hand, moved his square-tipped fingers in a well-practiced way, simultaneously controlling the flight of his plane and firing both of his front-mounted machine guns at the fleeing enemy plane.
Far beneath Manfred’s plane, a persistent fog obscured the trenches and the men in them to an altitude of three miles.
Manfred had done his time in the trenches and he would prefer death in the cold, clean air above the clouds to life in the damp mustiness, the sluggish boredom, of the trench.
Despite the cold and the wind that, intensified by the speed of his flight, made the red-painted plywood frame of his plane crackle and groan, Manfred felt warm.
His heart beat fast and his pumping blood made his pale-skinned face glow.
His right hand squeezed the buttons on the control stick, his thumb pressed the button that fired both machine guns at once.
I’m clearly in his head, so how can I describe his hands and his skin color. SURELY he’s not thinking of that. Well, no. But he IS that, and if you don’t describe that, there’s not enough for the readers to latch onto. And having him look at himself on the fuselage or something will remind you it’s a narrative FAR more than those discrete POV violations.
Sometimes you must make the best of what you can and break the rules a little, in order to speed things along. If you look at published things, you’ll find a ton of these. Kris Rusch taught me early on “it’s better to violate the pov and move on, than to have an obvious contrivance to tell us what your character looks like, in a scene that is there ONLY for that purpose.” As in most writing things, she was right.
Another acceptable violations is camera pov in the beginning. I’ve never seen this in a first person, but PTerry often uses it in his beginnings. You set someone in a time, place, universe, and then you drop into your character’s head. I can’t remember a book where I’ve done this, though I’m sure I have, so I’ll just improvise something:
If you’ve never been to planet Earth, you haven’t missed much. It’s a ball of mud and muck floating in space, just far enough from Sol to catch a bad case of life. On a continent in that world, in a country called United States, in a small town called Manitou Springs, perched on the edge of a great big rocky ridge, Bob lay asleep and dreaming.
He was dreaming of elephants. He moved beneath the covers, trying to find the right way to climb the dream elephant, his mind walking the savannah….. etc.
Okay, got it? Questions?