The Demons of Critique Groups – Addendum to Novel Workshop – A Blast From The Past From December 2014

*Sorry to do a blast from the past, but not only am I on the homestretch of an overdue novel, but I woke up really late and I have a doctor’s appointment.  But this is old enough you might not remember it, and it sort of ties in with Amanda’s thing. – SAH*

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 For one, you’re going to have a heck of a time, as an unpublished author, finding ten people who read in your particular subgenre to read your stuff.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?


  1. My drafts show the POV problem, and I have to keep reminding myself “No, she wouldn’t see that/know that. He would see that, because he’s standing here, facing her.” I think limited third is the easiest for me to write, followed by omniscient third. First person… tried once and found wanting.

    Douglas Adams did the “narrator drop in” very well. I think it works better, or at least I’ve seen it done better in humor than in [sits up straight, looks over top of glasses] “serious” writing. The reader is anticipating a little oddity and the bounce doesn’t feel as out of place.

  2. I am so relieved to see those square fingers. I long to zoom out when writing tight 3d person, but I’m a bit rigid about following rules. What you did worked.

    The other bit that wasn’t quite tight third was the description of the fog below. That felt more like an objective narrator, but it, too, worked.

    It’s truly a fine line to walk. On the one hand, we want to grab readers by putting them in someone’s head right away by making them feel what the character feels. On the other, we want to get to show things going on in the story. I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction of late. Narration takes place. POV shifts happen without asterisks! It’s a heady, wild world out there in the mists of time.

      1. if it makes you feel better, I also dojn’t know how to italicize.
        Actually the fog is not a violation. Someone might have told him before he took off, and it crosses his mind…. Eh.

        1. I wasn’t thinking of it as a violation, but as a looser focus.

          It seems sometimes that in 3d person the strictest of POV police want us to write like we’re in first person. First person makes it difficult to say things like “I pulled my wheat-colored hair off my shoulders,” unless you want your character to sound a wee bit narcissistic. OTOH, in third person, she can pull that golden, wheat colored hair off her shoulders all she wants and we just think she has nice hair.

  3. Experienced the group archetypes first hand. Been guilty of doing some of those things too. I think some of these foibles come from not knowing what else to say. I could be wrong about that.

    1. Speaking off the cuff is genuinely challenging and a skill. Detecting technical problems that may or may not exist is genuinely challenging and a skill. Being able to communicate the nature of a problem is likewise. As is identifying possible fixes and communicating them.

      Writing a story is a bunch of different skills, and the correct process depends on factors internal to the writer. In every field it is hard to be able to ask ‘are we making a mistake here’ without falling into the traps of overlooking a problem that needs addressing and of talking about hypothetical problems so much that people have to tune you out to function.

    2. Been wary of critique groups, ever since a college creative writing class. It seemed like the whole point of the exercise eventually was to tear the object of criticism to bits, and make the writer of it so self-conscious that they would never want to write again.

  4. I honestly don’t consider the Manfred and Pterry examples to be POV violations (nor the “she looked cold” examples). I’m used to works that go from omniscient (long shot / aerial view) to “close-ups.” I certainly prefer those “violations” to the clumsy “solutions” that POV fantatics go with.

    I’ve been lucky for the most part, in that I haven’t encountered the archetypes of beta readers. I would like to find some that are more grounded in history, but the ones I do have at let me know when I’ve failed to put on paper the idea in my head.

    My own style is to critique world building — a duke outranks a baron and isn’t just randomly rich, and character — this protagonist is too passive and never moves the plot, and plot points — if this monster is rarely encountered in the wild, surely the monster hunter would be astonished to see it, no?

    I figure the writer will get copy edits later, so why focus on misplaced commas if the whole scene is going to be rewritten anyway? Occasionally I might flag misspellings that affect meanings e.g., fay vs. fey. And I try to catch fridge logic, or what might be mistaken for fridge logic — why didn’t the Fellowship just ride the Eagles to Mordor? Well, there are eight eagles and nine Ringwraiths. Do the math, reader, but the writer needs to put the math in there.

    1. He does the math in the Hobbit. “We will not take you further there are men there and they would shoot us with their bows thinking we were after their sheep, and in other times they would be right!” (Near as I can remember the quote.) Why would that be less true in the LotR than in the Hobbit? And the LotR was written for the audience of the Hobbit, so he had reason to believe that they would have read and remembered.

      1. I’m not criticizing Tolkien, the question about the Eagles came from those who exclusively saw the movies vs. reading the books. I kept seeing it over and over again after the movies came out, so I thought it was a popular enough question to use it in the example here. It’s a mistaken case of fridge logic, but it’s a mistake only because Tolkien actually gave the answer in the story. Some writers keep such pertinent information only in their heads, which is why it’s useful to have beta readers to catch the resulting fridge logic.

  5. With some really close reading of some of my favorite books, I’ve noticed that books written in tight third tend to vary throughout the text in the degree of tightness maintained.

    Sometimes the POV is very tightly focused, very close in on the POV character. Other times it is looser, sometimes so loose as to resemble omniscient third. It all works and doesn’t jar me as a reader. As a reader, I wouldn’t ever have noticed.

    But as a writer, I got curious about how a master handled POV, so I went looking, and I was really relived to see that variation in the tightness of the focus can work just fine.

      1. LOL! I was analyzing The Sharing Knife tetralogy by Bujold, specifically. I realize that it has such a strong romance element that it may come under romance rules, but it still gave me a really good sense of how the tightness of tight third can vary.

          1. Out of topic, but I’m so overjoyed with the news that I have to share. Bujold is in the last steps of publishing a new story in that world. Probably novella-long, since that’s what she’s writing lately.

  6. I recently left the library writers group over such personality clashes. I didn’t run into quite the same archetypes, but I did run into the, “I hate fantasy and the fact that you have magic in your first scene turns me off,” as well as the “I am so deep in Trump derangement syndrome that I am incapable of writing or talking about anything else.” Those guys, as well as the fact that a writing exercise of “take this pretty picture and write a children’s Christmas story” produced only one other person who wrote anything with any joy, convinced me it was time to move on.

    As far as the PoVs go, I often think we’re too picky about that. If, on a snowy day, I see a woman wearing a t-shirt and shorts and shivering, I’m not going to think, “She LOOKS cold,” I’m going to think, “She IS cold.” I could be completely wrong, of course; she could be one of those people who’s always hot, and she’s just shivering because someone jumped up behind her and says, “Boo!” but none the less, my thoughts aren’t going to include any qualifications.

    1. If, on a snowy day, I see a woman wearing a t-shirt and shorts and shivering, I’m not going to think, “She LOOKS cold,” I’m going to think, “She IS cold.”

      Me, too!

      1. I have run across people saying that you should not even been saying “looks cold” but “shivering, with her arms wrapped around herself” and a lot more details that in reality would not be suitable to all point of view characters.

  7. Blargh. This post isn’t showing up on my WordPress reader. (Other Mad Genius posts are, and it says that I’m following.) Think I wound up finding it through Facebook…

    Anyway. Glad to have gotten to it, thanks for sharing ^.^

  8. Here’s a question: When a writer adds bits like “he wondered,” “she thought,” or “he figured,” does that make the POV tighter or looser? I’ve heard people take both sides. I remember dropping them in my first book because I felt like it was obvious this was what the MC thought. Then someone called it 3d person omniscient.

    I would love to find a book on the mechanics of POV–not all the artistic stuff, just the mechanics.

    1. I believe what’s called “deep POV” subtracts “he wondered,” and “she thought.” Deep POV is tight, and often strict.

      So tight and deep third person limited: Gollum paused. What did other people have in their pockets?

      In strict deep POV, you can only convey what Gollum himself knows.

      Looser, third person limited: Gollum paused. What did other people have in their pockets, *he wondered.*

      In the second version, you have the freedom to pull back and have an omniscient narrator tell you what the townsfolk think of the Bagginses who have lived on The Hill for “time out of mind”: Bagginses are very respectable, per the narrator, for they do not go on adventures!

      I personally like to combine Deep and what I’ll call “Wide.” As I said, I like doing an “establishing shot” before pulling in for a closeup. The narrator does not have to be as visible as the one in the Hobbit, who directly addresses the reader in first person. The narrator doesn’t have to “speak” to the reader as such; consider the opening and closing paragraphs of The Haunting of Hill House. Whatever walked there, walked alone, the narrator tells us. This method seems great for creating atmosphere, especially if the setting is a character in itself.

      I recall someone in Writer’s Digest (many, many moons ago) demonstrating the pull back / close up technique in order to shift POVs within a single scene. It was not even remotely confusing. IIRC, the reader was primed for the shift by having the second character commit an action (he nodded, she drummed her fingers on the desk, etc) before their closeup began.

      I hear Nora Roberts is really good at POV shifts, but I can’t confirm/deny this since I haven’t read her (yet). Perhaps go with the techniques of the writers you consider to be the “master” to your “apprentice.”

      1. Yes. In his Sharpe historical novels Bernard Cornwell used this exact technique. First the new POV acted, and then we moved into his head. The first time it happened I admit I was thrown. Then I was on board. I have tried to use that technique, with varying degrees of success, often depending on how much the beta reader thinks it’s important.

        Flynn’s The Wreck of the River of Stars used this as well, right from the first page, but it’s one of the rare examples of more modern SF doing the forbidden head hopping. I’m sure it was meant as omniscient but it took some getting used to. Heinlein in Stranger would start each chapter, IIRC, with some snarky observation about the culture, before shifting over to a tighter POV. And Georgette Heyer has the balance just perfect.

    2. I would love to find a book on the mechanics of POV–not all the artistic stuff, just the mechanics.

      have you seen Patricia Wrede’s WREDE ON WRITING? She’s pretty analytical about writing and has a chapter on POV, with examples, all showing different ways to handle POV with variations on the same scene. Such as 1st person: #1 “I hate the prince’s birthday. I’ve always hated it, Prince Conrad is a brat; …” #2 “Dear Mother, Well the Prince’s birthday has come and gone and what a relief..” and a couple others, then 2nd person, then some 3rd and omniscent.

      she also has a fair amount of discussion about POV over on her blog, just search for POV and go from there.

  9. We have a poker game. Each paragraph is a person doing whatever you do in poker. In each paragraph, we hear what that person is thinking. When we skip to the next paragraph, it’s the next person thinking. POV is shifting as fast as possible.

  10. “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.”

    I’ve encountered all the types here. But, as someone who writes somewhat complicated, twisty intrigue-laden plots, this frustrated me more than any other type.

    Especially so because myself and the other writers made every effort to make notes and remember what everyone else was writing about, so to critique better. And then these jerks come in every week like it’s the first damn day of kindergarten:

    “Why is the airship plummeting through the clouds?”

    “Because in last week’s chapter, the giant f@#king spaghetti monster attacked the damned Airship! Remember that chapter?!? When you asked me why the f@#king spaghetti monster was attacking the Airship?!? REMEMBER THAT YOU DOLT?!? THE TITLE OF THE F@#KING STORY IS “THE AIRSHIP VERSUS THE FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER?!?!?! You’re a CHEMICAL ENGINEER for F@#K’S sake!! You’re supposed to be SMART!!”

    Sorry about that…

    Some bad memories there and the main reason I gave up on Writer’s Groups. That person. That person was the hardest to take. And every group had at least one. I tried Writer’s Groups three times. Always that one person.

    I may have lost my patience. Once or twice…

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