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David Pearce
Posted: Sunday, August 4, 2013 9:38 PM
Joined: 4/7/2013
Posts: 26

Ugh.  Went through a difficult time yesterday, with a critique group that I just joined.  Got the second scene of my first chapter to torn to shreds.  Apparently, I need to do more world building, which is fine. Figuring out how to do it without an info dump and boring the reader to tears . . . that may be more difficult. But then they told me to lose the introspective thoughts of my villain, because nobody wants to peer into that dark mind.  Apparently, nobody wants to know how he justifies his own actions.


So . . . the question I thought I would pose is how do you take your critiques that make you wonder whether to throw the manuscript in a drawer.  I'm not going to give up, but now I wonder just what the hell I've been doing with the last three years.

Lucy Silag
Posted: Monday, August 5, 2013 9:55 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

Hey, David. Saw your message last night before I went to sleep and was thinking about it first thing today. I am so sorry to hear that you had such a discouraging time with your critique group. Ugh. I've definitely been there!


I am curious to know how your critique group works. How do you set up the discussion? Do the other members write in the same genre that you do? Do you write letters/notes to each other, or does the group discuss? Is the author allowed to participate in the discussion, or just listen?

David Pearce
Posted: Monday, August 5, 2013 6:57 PM
Joined: 4/7/2013
Posts: 26

The critique group requires every participant to bring up to ten pages of their work to read out loud, with copies distributed to the others.  After reading the scene out loud, the moderator goes around the table to receive oral comments from every one else.  There is the opportunity for dialogue back and forth with the author.


I am the only person in the group that is reading fantasy.  Everybody else has a memoir, historical fiction, YA, etc.  Not sure what the background of the group organizer is, other than she runs the store that caters to in-state authors.


This is my first time joining a critique group, so I have no idea if this is the norm.  Maybe I'm just going through the ritual that every new author goes through with this group?  I can understand the criticism about providing more of a setting for world building, but I certainly don't want to spend the first scene explaining how magic works, political system, economics, etc.  It's a fantasy world.  Should there to be things that you don't understand until you get into the first few chapters?  Unfamiliar terms, i.e., referring to magical ability as "the Skill" that are understood after reading the first few chapters instead of just the first scene?  I am trying to avoid an info dump, and it's a fine line between that and showing the setting and world building in the first scene, particularly when I am trying to use the "in medias res" technique.


Not sure what to make of the comment that I should dump the internal thoughts of the villain in third person limited POV.  That would mean an entire re-write of the book.  I also think it would make the villain two-dimensional.  I hate villains that have no depth.


Anyway, I think I just needed to get some perspective on how a critique group is supposed to work, and how much stock I put into their opinions.  And I also wonder how to handle the matter diplomatically with the group leader in future meetings if I don't follow the advice regarding the villain.

Lucy Silag
Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 9:06 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

I am so sorry that this was your experience, David.


I found it really interesting to hear about how your critique group works. It's very different than the writing workshops that I have been in. The format I am most familiar with is that all the participants get the story/excerpt ahead of time, read it, write comments into a letter to the author, and then meet to discuss. The author stays out of the discussion, and just has to observe everyone's reactions to the work. At the end, the author can ask clarification questions but can't make arguments in favor of the choices s/he made on the page--the work is, of course, supposed to be able to speak for itself.


I am not necessarily advocating for either format, but now I am very curious to know if other folks on BC are in critique groups, and how they work. Would other members be interested in sharing?

Lucy Silag
Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 9:08 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

I am also curious to see what other BC member advise David as to how to 1) Handle the feedback he got and 2) Negotiate how he can effectively work with this group. Since I've usually done writing workshops in a classroom setting, I don't know much about how to handle such a situation. I'd like to know more.

Mimi Speike
Posted: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 2:38 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

David said: "But then they told me to lose the introspective thoughts of my villain, because nobody wants to peer into that dark mind.  Apparently, nobody wants to know how he justifies his own actions." 


David, I would disagree completely. I would be very interested in the thinking of the villain. I do the same thing. Characterization is the backbone of my story, and the internal aspect is a huge part of that.


World building is also a big thing with me. How to parcel it out, that's the question. I'm working my way in the direction of a few solutions, but they are non-standard solutions that may please no better than what I've got now. On my Amazon list is Hopscotch, in which the author plays with structure. (So I've read in a review.) I hope to get some ideas out of it that expand my own odd approach.


Criticism, how do you handle it? Simple. Listen very closely. There will be something valuable in every comment. Mull it over. It will influence your thinking to some degree, for the better. If only to convince you to Stand Your Ground.


I've meant to read your book. I still mean to. I have a list I'm working through, slowly, I'm afraid, here and elsewhere.




Well! I've finally got my butt in gear! I just ordered Hopscotch, and also Lily's Christian Astrology, an early seventeenth century work, which I hope will give me the ammo I need to put some substantial whacky arguments in Sly's butter-brain, for when he butts heads with John Dee, Elizabeth's Royal Astrologer.


--edited by Mimi Speike on 10/9/2013, 3:05 PM--

David Pearce
Posted: Monday, October 14, 2013 11:41 PM
Joined: 4/7/2013
Posts: 26

Well, I've gone back and drafted a new beginning to the book to provide some world building.  It's a trade off between that and starting off with an exciting beginning but no reference points to guide the reader.  The "in medias res" technique is SO hard to pull off.


I've been back to the critique group a couple of times, and they like the new beginning better than the old one, which got shuffled off to a later chapter.  I've kept the internal dialogue for the villain.  I had to stick to my guns on that.  Otherwise, he becomes a cardboard cutout.


We'll see what they think of future chapters when the villain makes his next appearance.


Has anyone else had a similar experience with their critique groups?  Just curious what people think about critique groups versus online communities.  To me, I see the value in each.  Specifically, there are more people in Book Country that follow a specific genre, and that sort of response really helps.


Mimi -- Thanks for the feedback about whether to keep the villain's internal thoughts.  Just wanted to make sure I wasn't completely out in left field.

Lucy Silag
Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2013 9:50 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359

Hi David--just wondering how things were going in your critique group. Any new developments?
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2013 8:01 PM

Some red flags that hit me:


No way in hell can a critique group that has the author read the text be anything close to competent. You are the very last person to be reading your work because you don't read it, you perform it—a very different thing. You begin reading knowing the mind-state of every character in the story. So you make use of your performance skills as you read. You place the proper emotional tone into the words as you read. You pause exactly where required, and for as long as required for best effect, be there a comma there or not. You hesitate meaningfully.You add emphasis as required. You wear the proper expression to illustrate the character's emotion. You use gesture to punctuate, visually. You amplify the emotion via body language. But you're not there when the reader gets the words.


The point is: without the advantages you posses, will the placement and choice of words force the reader to give precisely the same performance, by making them know the protagonist's mindset and objective for speaking/acting? The only way to find that out is to have the page cold-read by someone who has never seen it, and who has precious little acting abilities.


As has already been noted, the usual way is to have the people critiquing read the piece without and think over and record their comments with enough time to give the work the thought it deserves.




The fact that you felt you had to do more world-building says that your critique partners haven't a clue. Your reader comes to you to live the story, not read a travelogue about the society the protagonist lives in. That's both boring and unnecessary.


Let's say your character runs out the door, hops on his grav-bike, stomps the go pedal and heads skyward, swinging around toward the disk of Samalza city, some ten minutes run above him.


I've done all the world building necessary. I don't have to explain that the city is floating above the ground. That's obvious by context. I don't have to talk about what a grav-bike is. He's using it, and his function is obvious through context. Does a reader need to know what fuels the thing, or how it stays up? No, because it's not germane to this story at this point unless he has to adapt it to some other function, or runs out of fuel at 10,000 feet.


Write this on your wall where you can see it: Never, never, never explain. Entertain.


People aren't looking to learn about all the interesting things in that world. They want excitement and problems. They don't want to know about the plot, they want minute-to-minute reading pleasure. They want uncertainty and terror. A reader who is saying, "Oh shit...now what do we do?" is a very happy reader, especially if you motivate them to use "we," in the way I just did. A reader who is nodding and saying, "uh-huh," is one who is about to close the book.


So drop a body through the ceiling. Set the place on fire. Have giant alien wombats invade and threaten to eat everyone in site. Give the character lots that must be done and not nearly enough time to do it. But set it up so s/he has absolutely no choice but to do it. Make the reader's jaw drop, and stay dropped. Make them scream advice at the characters in your story the way kids shout at the screen. Involve them to the point where, when someone shoots at the protagonist the reader ducks. Make it so damn intense that the reader has to stop and catch their breath before diving back in. But don't show the reader either a history book or a travelogue.


And you can tell your critique group I said that.


I'm betting that the big-shots in that group are self-published, and think themselves as knowledgeable because of that. I'm also betting that none are published by a real publisher, because both points you raised should have thrown up red flags for them, too.


Posted: Saturday, November 16, 2013 10:15 AM
Joined: 9/17/2013
Posts: 104

Jay gives us some good things to think about. 


 Also, in my small town/rural community, there are only a few critique groups within reasonable driving distance. I've been to meetings, and I've yet to find another person in any of them who I feel is qualified to help me with my writing. I'm not trying to sound like a jerk. What I mean is that they are writing family memoirs, community histories, and weather reports, and trying and failing to be published in the local community events newspaper. I write short "literary" fiction. They don't write what I write, and they don't read the kinds of things that I write. They're fine people, I just don't think they have the background to help me.


As I've posted elsewhere, I know a couple of fine writers, a "sentence-smith" and a story consultant, who have given me more help than any critique group I've met to date.


Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 7:29 AM
Jay: Your commentary on this subject should be set in stone. Without the slightest trace of pontification you have imparted the most seminal instruction an aspiring writer will ever get. I've read my work aloud, challenging putative errors the proofreader annotated, and found indeed that I was performing, reading what I believed should be there, totally oblivious to what needed fixed. Relying solely on one's dubious ability to proofread one's own work is the epitome of self-denial.

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