Thanks to one of my readers, I now have a copy of my talk at 20Books to share with you. Enjoy!
Ah, critique groups. My experience hasn’t been all bad – I’ve gotten some useful feedback, especially of the “this person is responding to something I never intended to write, so clearly there’s a communication disconnect somewhere” variety, and I’ve met some good friends there (including the only beta reader I currently use, as well as a writer whose work I love but would never have found on my own). But if I could do it over, I would wait until I had more of an understanding of the basics of storytelling, as well as a better understanding of what I was trying to communicate with my stories, before going near a critique group.
The critique group said, “This isn’t a good short story, but it would make a good novel.” If I got that feedback on that particular story now, I would think, “Oh, this story doesn’t have enough plot, and the conclusion isn’t satisfying.” As it was, I thought, “This story would only work as a novel, and I’m not interested in spending a novel’s worth of time with this idea,” and never touched it again.
For years I bent over backwards to avoid ever using a semicolon in dialogue, because someone in a critique group told me people don’t speak in semicolons. I didn’t have enough understanding of language to go, “Hang on a minute; I speak in semicolons all the time! What this person is actually saying is that this specific bit of dialogue sounds awkwardly paced to their ear.” (I see other people go through similar mental gymnastics when it comes to adverbs, and it hurts to watch.)
Someone complained that the section I had submitted had no rising tension. I completely dismissed their feedback because I had put that bit in specifically to raise the emotional stakes and I didn’t see how anyone could see it differently. These days, I would think, “I’m seeing rising tension and they’re not; why? Do we tend to pick up on different narrative cues because we don’t read the same genres? Am I seeing things that are in my head but that I didn’t actually put into the story? Do I need more explicit clues pointing to the relationship shift happening underneath this restrained dialogue? Does this person just not connect with my style of storytelling?” Back then I didn’t have the experience to think beyond “a story either has rising tension or it doesn’t.”
Grammar advice (sometimes wrong) when I was looking for high-level feedback. I’m sure other people were just as frustrated that I gave them high-level feedback when what they really wanted was for me to correct their grammar.
Then there’s the critique group that had such a negative reaction to a novel of mine that, after a few chapters, they decided without me that the group would no longer accept novels and would only critique short stories. Alas, my response was to start writing more short stories (a form I rarely enjoy reading, let alone writing), rather than to make a beeline for the exit.
Thanks for the talk. I just watched it on YouTube. I enjoyed it and found it reassuring and instructive.
I used to attend a writers group a few years back, and your take on them (and why one should avoid them) makes perfect sense to me. Now, I meet weekly with some close writer friends over food or coffee, or cigars, but there’s no written material exchanged—except book descriptions one of us is hashing out.
We do bounce concepts off one another from time to time, though that’s when one of us is rolling a general story concept around in his head. Those times are more free-wheeling spitballing/brainstorming. What we largely focus on consistently is the business and marketing side of things. This has proven fruitful, being, I’m sure, in part responsible for half our group now writing full-time (no more cubicles). I’m pleased to be one who left the corporate world after fourteen years. (Why did I wait so long?!)
The challenge I still wrestle with at least once a month is ‘playing with scared money’. I know Dean is a poker man. Maybe you know the phrase/concept too. Since I’m still building my backlist and I haven’t made a truckload of money to evaporate normal money concerns, I still find myself both pushing my writing/publishing limits and hearing my critical voice sometimes when I’m writing. The good news is, I’m still writing and I understand more practice (writing and releasing) will smooth things out for me over time. Patience and fortitude. (and fun).
Long comment and probably a bit much on the autobiographical, but I wanted to say thanks and share a bit to make the thanks a little personal.
This was amazing. Thank you for uploading it. Now I know why my no-agenda lunches with writer peers work so well and the one critique group I tried was so awful.
Thanks for sharing this. I enjoy listening to writers with years of experience.
Maybe I’m reading the wrong writers, but you’re the only write I’ve come across who uses parentheses in fiction and has them come across as 100% natural.
Excellent talk. Agreed on punctuation. As to Steven King, its the stories for me. Do not like them.
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