The Demon Up close – Novel Workshop addendum


As I said before, I thought some of the workshop demons deserved a closer look than the list I gave.

This time we’re going to go over people, be they in a group or in beta reading, who can derail your writing for months, particularly if you’re a beginner and insecure.

I find it necessary to go over these, even though I named their types in the last post because frankly these are the ones who tend to derail me. PARTICULARLY if they’re well intentioned.

Now, in almost every one of these categories there is an element of malice, but often the person him/herself has no idea he/she is being malicious, and will be wounded to the heart if you tell them they are. They honestly – most of them, some more than others – think they’re helping you. So to confront them with what they’re really doing will just break a friendship and probably a group and accomplish nothing. It is best to be aware of what they’re doing and say nothing.

Unless of course the person gets frustrated at being balked and becomes more and more openly malicious, in which case you have a problem in your hands if it’s a close friend or a valued group member. We’ve had to disband a group, form under another name and change our meeting date and place to get rid of one man who would start EVERY critique with “To begin with, this didn’t work for me.” (My late friend Alan spoofed this the rest of the time our group was together by always starting the critique with that and giving us the fake critique first, “To begin with, this doesn’t work for me. Why are there these Good Men? Where is Starfleet, Uh?” For that alone, that annoying twit of a malicious group member was worth it.)

So, last week, I named the following “demons” which hinge on people/personalities rather than technique. These are important and difficult, because technique you can say “Look, I found this in a book” but if the problem is personality and you’re stuck with this critique for reasons of friendship or group dynamics you’re going to need a better understanding of THEIR mechanics, so you can either get rid of them or ignore them.


  • 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 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.)


We’ll go into the others later.

Let me first start by saying that yes, you might be muffing the book badly; that your words aren’t sacred; that someone saying “I don’t like this” or asking questions ad-nauseum, might in fact be absolutely right.

The only way to be sure it’s not you but the critiquer are a pattern of behavior, either because he also critiques other people this way or because he contradicts what trusted people say.

Also, I should point out all of these, often, flow into each other. Even the can’t/won’t can be an “expert” who in this case has several books written.

You see, the malice in both those cases is attempting to slow down someone who is doing what you can’t. And yes, it is possible for a writer to be envious of another writer producing, even when he/she has produced in the past. Mostly because he/she isn’t producing now. I’ve felt it myself and stopped it, hopefully before damaging anyone.

Now, even if there isn’t a pattern, there are critiques that, while valid, won’t help you. Sometimes it’s because you’re trying to do something quite difficult, fell on your butt, but changing it to what the critique sees will kill it. I’ve had awful critiques, of all people, from my husband, who is normally spot on. He loathed the voice in DST on first reading. Then it grew on him. I think it was where he was at the time, but if I’d listened, I’d have killed the book.

It’s always a judgment call, and I can’t make it for you.

There are occasions too when critiques hurt like hell, but they’re right. Look next week for “When to shut up and take it.”

First though, let me tell you when not to take it. Take the can’t/won’t. If they’re in a writers group, they’re writing something. (If they’re not, kick them the heck out.) Presumably they either write shorts or they never finish anything.

You’ll see why they never finish anything as they take your book to pieces on “logic.”

“But if little Red Riding Hood knew about the wolf, why go to grandma? Why shouldn’t her dad go, instead, armed with a shot gun? Why???”

If you write like I do, the details fall in place as you write, and you sometimes go back and fix things. If you’re being questioned every step, you’ll block hard. (And if you’re doing this to yourself stop it already.)

So. Here is the key: no story was ever told that wasn’t internally inconsistent. No, not even stories from real life, which is often the most inconsistent of all. It’s the way the human brain works. So next time someone says “So, they have anti-grave and still use screws? Why?” tell them “we have computers and still use open fires to cook. Why?”

Then finish the dang thing and fix the more glaring issues in post if you have to. And unless the can’t/won’t is openly malicious, try to get this through his/her skull and set HIM free, too.

The amnesiac – usually not openly hostile. They might just have a lousy memory. I really don’t have anything to say to this except that after showing someone three chapters – to test the hook – you should just wait till you finish the novel. (And if you have to bring something in write short stories or short shorts. What the heck, a story a week will do more for your writing than all the workshops in the world.)

The expert… ah, the expert. Now SOME experts are useful people. Take me. I speak several languages and even though I can make bone-headed mistakes in them (it’s been almost thirty years) in general I can tell you “Why are you writing that in Spanish? Brazil doesn’t speak Spanish.” (Ran across this, recently in a published/acclaimed mystery. Never mind.)

I’m useful to have in a critique group if you need to have your character say a sentence in another language. Check my grammar in French, though. It’s apparently in fast decay. When the guys move out, I’m going to spend a few months brushing up on French again. Useful, French. (And I have a ton of research from the time of the musketeers that’s ONLY in French.)

However for my money the MOST damaging expert is the one who is ahead of you in his/her career. The ones that slowed our group the most were one who had taken a well-respected workshop, and one who had published a novel ten years before.

The problem in these cases was worse back when we didn’t have the internet. Anyone slightly ahead on the road was a respected source.

The problem is both of those people – horribly well intentioned – knew only ONE path. So the first tried to teach us “the way of the workshop” which is fine, except that I’ve noticed unless they have a strong personality all graduates of that workshop read like boiled oatmeal. (I had a small press magazine and could guess a graduate without looking at the cover letter. Impeccable grammar, rigid ideology, and… well, bland.)

The second tried to teach us to write “publishable” except that publishable to her was “as I do it” and she hadn’t been published in ten years because her first book didn’t sell all that well. Also, she hadn’t moved with times and both style and approach to publishers CHANGES in ten years. (Less than that now with indie.) She MEANT well. And she set us back two years, at least.

She wrote (pretty good) adventure SF but she had these internal barriers. Any thought-monologue for instance was right out – which is fine, unless you ARE writing first person, which she didn’t – and she approached stories from “problem to be solved or mcguffin to find” not from “character needs to change.” All character based plotting to her was Romance even if there was not a wiff of love interest on the page. (Which tells me she ALSO never READ romance.)

We drove ourselves nuts chasing our own tails for years…

What is the cure for this? Easy: if someone wants you to change everything about your writing to be another kind of writing, they’re probably wrong. Unless, of course, you’re writing in Martian or its English equivalent.

Look, once past the very basics, there will be good stuff about your writing, and you shouldn’t need to change EVERYTHING.

Also, check your experts. How are they doing career wise? Ignore those who are no longer WORKING writers. (I did a good imitation of that the last two years, but it’s mostly being very ill very often. Never mind.)

The point to remember is there is no magical bullet. No expert, descended from heaven, will hand it to you. If someone says “what you have to do is start with” the plot, or the mcguffin or whatever, be VERY suspicious. Every writer I know has different methods of approaching the story. If you’re comfortable with yours don’t go trading them in on the “expert’s.”

Now, the MORALIST – this is the hardest one. At least he is the hardest if you were brought up decently as I was and if you’re afraid of writing something that will “corrupt” someone else (Well, I used to be.)

They’re not all traditional morality, of course. I’ve had people object because my characters were not using ecologically friendly materials. But what they all are are people who will try to shame you for what you wrote on grounds other than the execution.

For instance the above, right pain in the neck, who started everything with “to begin with, this didn’t work for me” once blew his top because I had an hermaphrodite alien (actually modified human) in a story. (The short story is Lost. It’s up for sale, and gosh, does it need a new cover.) He blew his top because I was glorifying the gay lifestyle. Look, with the best intention in the world, I don’t get it. There’s nothing vaguely gay about the story, except this alien was living as a male (for reasons of looks) on earth. But the story is told from the POV of his sister and there’s NO SEX and certainly no gay … community if you will.

Not that there would be anything wrong if there was, mind you. There just wasn’t. But it must have been one of his triggers because he ranted on for half an hour about what a horrible person I was. (Next week all of us had gay characters. Some very badly written, because some people felt uncomfortable. When that failed to unload him – though it did make him unhinged – we had to resort to other things.)

Mind you, he was blatant. Some people are more … subtle. Some will approach you after the meeting (ALWAYS bad news) put their hand on your shoulder and say “I know you’re a good person. But that story? It will make people think you eat babies for breakfast.”

How to ignore them?

Unless there really is something in the story that disturbs you, remember you aren’t the story and the story isn’t you. If you’re a GOOD writer things come from so deep in your subconscious that they often have nothing to do with you. They’re just a way to make the story work and say what it has to say.

Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. And yes, some fools might think you eat babies. But they’d probably never read you and were only looking for something to beat you with. Ignore it.

When I wrote A Few Good Men I was afraid the characters’ orientation would offend people. It probably did, some people. But I tried to change it (to give the book wider appeal) and it simply wouldn’t work. So I rolled with it. Yes, it will offend some. But some will like it because it is a war story with gay characters. (NOT battle front. If you haven’t read it, chill.) Win some, lose some. I kept it clean, mostly because my characters tend to close the door in my face, but also because it widens the audience.

And that’s what you need to be sure of – don’t offend unnecessarily. If the story will still work without the threesome with the Martian, remove the threesome. If it won’t, leave it in. At best, you’ll have people like it despite it. At worst some of your fans will forever refer to that story as “Oh, [insert your name here] no!”

Next week: When to shut up and take it!





  1. I’ve always wanted to get together with other writers and do a weekly writing group, problem was always finding other writers who were interested. Most groups are usually people who already know each other it seems, so I gave up on the idea a couple of years ago.

  2. I’m part of a monthly critique group that doesn’t mind my novels. But to help with amnesia, I write up a chapter highlights page so the memory gets primed (3 sentences per chapter, max). “Ch.4 Bob and Mary press the wrong button. Galaxy fall down go boom. A freak wormhole opens up and saves them.” It’s also good to remind me of how the story high points are coming along.

  3. If you’re going to start a writer’s critique group, make the first barrier to entry “must have written at least 100 single-spaced pages“. For a new writer, 100 pages is HARD, and generally, it discourages the wannabes/never written.
    The second rule: mix the genres. If you write sci-fi, and all you have is sci-fi writers in the group, you’ll be nit-picked to death. Another genre-writer may be good to help keep your characters believable or sympathetic (romance), or your plot focused (thriller). Try to include some subject-matter experts of the amateur type (not professionals) — once again, sci-fi writing generally benefits from having a rocketry boffin; crime writing a firearms ditto, and so on. Knowledge of other languages is a huge plus, especially for historical fiction. History buffs are necessary, but can be tiresome. (Confession: that would be me.)
    Third rule: no single-sex clubs, unless by accident. This should require no explanation.
    Final rule: meet every two weeks, and EVERY member must have written at least 3-5 single-spaced pages (double-spaced for critique, of course). Once again, this keeps the dilettantes out and keeps the serious writers interested.
    My last writers group lasted 5 years, using those criteria.

    1. When I’ve worked with other genre writers (mainly literary) in college it was pretty hopeless. “What’s a waldo? What’s an AI? You need to explain these things.” I wasn’t quite aware of how many genre conventions there are until that experience. Even if people don’t write that genre, it must help if they’ve read it a bit–enough to know what a character means by FTL.
      That experience gave me plenty more self-doubt. I don’t know, I got some out of it–like the need to describe characters–but other stuff didn’t work out so well. Science fiction characters are incredibly optimistic compared to literary.
      I’m rewriting some of those stories now–the space skits as I referred to them here a couple weeks ago.

  4. I know the libraries and the independent bookstore each sponsor a group here. But they aren’t genre-specific groups, which probably has to do with the size of the town more than anything.
    I got some good feedback from a friend yesterday, mostly of the “I’m so lost” variety (which was half of what I asked him to look for: it’s what I know but didn’t put in). My writing friends are all people that I know personally but who no longer live in the same place because either they or we moved.

  5. “I know you’re a good person. But that story? It will make people think you eat babies for breakfast.”

    Response: “Mmm… babies!. I eat babies! Bring me babies! I tell them to GET IN MY BELLY!!!”

      1. Mmmm, nummy baby toes. Who’s Momma’s nummy baby? Yes, you are!

        Oh, sorry. Don’t really eat the baby, just kiss her. You should hear her giggling (3 months old). It’s the jaw–no idea why she’s so ticklish there.

  6. Online groups, or having the reader write down the critiques, help because they manage to put some distance into it.

  7. Also, check your experts. How are they doing career wise? Ignore those who are no longer WORKING writers. (I did a good imitation of that the last two years, but it’s mostly being very ill very often. Never mind.)

    Yes, Sarah, just wrote daily blogs, published your first indie book, after writing it a chapter a week, etc., etc., you certainly gave a good impression of a non-working writer…. by writing more when “not working” than most people do working….

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