Critique group rant (antique, recycled rant)

I’ve just come away from a very invigorating visit with several Dallas/Fort Worth-area writers who are all doing NaNoWriMo, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month (in contrast to NaNo-NaNo, which is what one writer put on the sign at the cafe.) Actually, that was several hours ago, but we’re currently in Journal Time, during which an update may take place on a completely different day from the one in which the action takes place. Ahem. Pressing forward . . . anyhow, some of the things mentioned in the group made me think about the various critique groups I’ve been in over the years, and a posting I made some time ago to the FidoNet WRITING echo about them. Since my husband is STILL at work (it is now 3:12 AM, and he has worked a full day, hit home from 7:30 to 10 PM for dinner and TV, and is now back up there working on some junk or other, probably making typos because he has to be tired and he has missed taking all his diabetes/bp/etc medications, which worries me–that’s dangerous), I might as well dig the article out and let you see if you can get anything out of it. Enjoy.
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I wanted to call to your attention the worst problems you’ll encounter if you go to an online or in-person critique group. Listen only to their comments about story structure and plot holes. You generally don’t want to listen to their crazy, wrongheaded, misguided, and just plain wrong comments about prose, punctuation, and the craft of writing. Take a look at these typical errors, taken from an online critique list.

1. The hate of past perfect tense.

The original story had these lines:
“I don’t. She had just put about two hundred dollars’ worth of clothes in the trunk before it got towed.”

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

Later, the writer had occasion to say:
Some time ago, Aaron HAD secured a large and plush condominium on Capitol Hill. Sally, preferring a quiet location along the waterfront, HAD bought a modest (by Aaron’s standards) condominium in Old Town, Alexandria.

This foolish critter said, “Delete ‘had’ everywhere you find it. Your overuse of ‘had'” deadens your writing. Delete most of them and your story will automatically be much better.”


This is a symptom of not understanding the past perfect tense and why it is used. (Passive voice is perfectly okay and legal in that last phrase.) If something happened before story “now,” since the story is in past tense, those events are placed in the proper temporal view by using “had.” They’re probably thinking about the advice for people writing flashbacks: use “had” a couple of times as you go in, and then switch to the simple past tense. As you come out of the flashback, you might need to use one more different tense to signal a return.

(ADDED LATER: I should mention that this is probably related to the widespread misunderstanding that has led to the use of “would have” where “had” is appropriate. “If only he had told me” is generally phrased as “if only he would have told me,” which is wrong on two counts. “I wish he had told me” is also correct (never “wish he would have.”) “I would have told him” is correct for a different situation–it relates to time in a different context. I won’t go deeply into this except to mention that this change is one that hurts the language; I realize that “language changes,” but I feel that changes should not become generally accepted just because people start making a mistake, especially if it muddies clarity. If changes improve clarity, then I’m all for them, but if they don’t, we should try to inform people about the correct constructions–the ones that make meaning clearer on first reading. The entire “myself” debacle (using “myself” every time, thinking it sounds nice and pompous-ass, because you don’t know whether to use “me” or “I”) is another example of ick. But I digress.)

2. The confusion over passive voice.

In the first place, passive voice is perfectly normal; there’s nothing perverted or abnormal about it. Active voice contains an actor, whereas passive voice doesn’t. Passive voice can be useful when the actor is unknown or unimportant, and the action itself should be emphasized. “Ballots must be received by Tuesday” is fine, because “We should receive your ballot by Tuesday” doesn’t emphasize the ballot enough. “Tuesday is the deadline for turning in ballots” might be better if you wish to highlight the day, but it’s really silly to agonize over this.

Not every “be” verb or linking verb indicates passive voice! “The tire is flat” is NOT passive voice, now, is it? Let’s see you rephrase that one and make any kind of sense.

Among the sentences I’ve seen accused of being in passive voice are:
The way her breasts swayed with every step she took captivated him. (Critter said, “Drop the somewhat passive voice of that sentence.” There’s no such thing as “somewhat” voice. She intended to say that it seemed like a passive activity for the character, or something. People have invented something that they call “passive verbs,” but there really is no such animal. A verb is a verb. Some are more specific, some more evocative. They’re all actions. Some verbs are linking verbs. Other verbs may not be as gung-ho as others. They’re still not “passive.” That’s a term for a voice.)

The plastic patient I.D. encircling his wrist came off somewhere between the second and first floors. The incriminating band landed in the overflowing garbage can beside the door into the main floor.
[The listers claimed these were in passive VOICE, which they’re not. They suggested changing the second sentence to begin with “He tossed the incriminating,” but that assumes that she meant to write that she deliberately tossed it, not that it fell there as she passed. It all depends on the meaning and original intention.]

3. Hate of “there is” and “there are” or “it is”

The fact is that many phrases are idiomatic in English, and when you try to twist them into some kind of “active” tone, you torture them into unintelligibility. “There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun” is a proper beginning for that song. You shouldn’t feel pressured to change everything. “It’s raining” is the way one says that, for Heaven’s sake!
This obsession probably stems from advice not to start every sentence that way. It has been taken to extremes here.

4. Verbing weirds language.

Please, don’t ask if you can “beverage” me.

5. The implied POV shift “problem” and the “simultaneous action” problem.

You do have to be careful when you write, “He knew I’d done it,” if you’re in the other character’s POV. She can’t know that he knows for sure, unless she’s a mind reader; she has to assume it from his demeanor. So maybe you should write, “It was apparent from his expression that he knew I’d done it.” Or “I could see that he’d guessed I did that.” Or whatever.

The “simultaneous action” thing can be sticky. “Jumping into the car, she hit the ignition and sped away down the highway.” Okay, we all know these actions are in sequence, not simultaneous. But many books contain this kind of sentence, and it’s understood by readers that it’s a kind of shorthand for what happened. Still, some editors and agents will get all knicker-knotted about that, so beware. If a sentence like that bugs you, don’t write ’em.

Some people have overgeneralized and extrapolated and created an entire class of senseless rules. You hear them everywhere! So be logical and stand your ground when you know you’re right.

It’s painful to see all of this rot being spouted over perfectly normal sentences. What’s more, these critters miss the completely necessary points that should be critiqued in these stories, such as the ridiculous coincidences and lack of motivation. Sheesh.

And don’t tell me to write to correct them. That just gets me flamed. Never try to teach a pig to sing, and all that.

It’s interesting that I have never managed to get into a critique group with published authors. Most of the time, I wasn’t working with very many people who had any talent (sorry for the non-PC word there, but it’s the only one that I can come up with) or who had developed their craft to any extent. I have managed to get into or start four different groups, all of which were lame. It could be me. Yet I found all the groups to be very discouraging and detrimental to my productivity.

Three of the groups were made up of people who had no command of the basics, the mechanics of writing itself (they told me that the semicolon no longer existed, for one thing, and that one must never use an actual brand name for a product in a book–such as “Coke”–because those names are protected and also date your work; Stephen King and others use brand names for erisimilitude (oops–a typo/thinko! That’s “verisimilitude”!) so this edict can’t be widely listened to. Not that I want to be like Big Steve, but the point is that they don’t get it. The issue of “dating” the work is valid, but I often throw in brand names or mention the sitting President to clue in readers that the action is taking place in the 1960s, not in the present day. So that can work.)

Worse, when you gave a critique, they’d often say, “Well, I didn’t have much time to really work on this,” or “I’ve already revised that out in the current version,” but you got the feeling it was an excuse, that they just didn’t have much dedication. Many people would come to one meeting and say they’d always
wanted to write, but they didn’t mean professionally, and they’d never show up a second time.

One of these groups had been told that your group is worthless if tactful or pleasant, so they were called “the Hack and Slash team,” and they prided themselves on being sarcastic and nasty. They would say, coquettishly, “Now, listen to this,” and proceed to read from the victim’s work a couple of paragraphs, using a sarcastic tone to show how BAD the work was. (“She blinked her EYES”–so what OTHER body part could she BLINK? Huh? Huh? And followed him with her EYES–look, group, the wandering eyes again! This is science fiction, or else it’s really gross
horror!” Etc. Mind you, these suggestions could have been phrased more constructively, to wit: “You could delete from this phrase ‘her eyes,’ because ‘blinked’ says it all for you, and you might consider not following him with her eyes, but her gaze. It works better that way for me.” But they’d been taught by the original founder of the group, who’d long since left, that if you are soft on others, you learn nothing and will not advance and Get Published. They never gave positive comments so that you knew what was good about the selection (if they ever saw any good in anything), but they often missed plot holes and motivational lacks that I saw easily. This group subscribed to the “keep quiet while being critted” rule, and many people either learned to do the shit-eating grin and laugh at their own stuff, saying it really WAS bad and they were terrible children, Mommy, or else would look away and say defensively that it wasn’t their final revision (to which the group would shriek, “Then why did you bring it to us? You are supposed to make it the BEST YOU CAN before you HAVE US SPEND OUR VALUABLE TIME ON IT!!”)

The fourth group became more and more social and less professional over time; their main objective was to “get famous and have a TV show made out of their characters,” etc. (This was a fantasy/SF group that turned out to be mostly about media tie-ins. Their dialogue often sounded like the stuff in the SF series, wry and in-jokey and not really very book-worthy in many
ways.) I exited that one, spouting excuses.

The best experience I ever had was with several friends I’d known since college, all of whom decided they’d start writing fiction. We formed a group that was really pretty good (even though during the time I belonged to it, I had a couple of serious surgeries and illnesses, and I didn’t always make it to the group.) I got a lot out of that group now and then, and other times I didn’t feel they completely shared my vision of the work, but I knew they meant to help. Still, it mixed me up to be in a group, and I think I started writing to please them rather than myself. I then went to a workshop in which an editor actually told me that my revision of one novel’s opening was worse after they’d given me suggestions (they would encounter a name or a term and want me to explain/expound upon it immediately rather than telling about it later, and wanted more and more descriptions of things that don’t need to be described early on, and I’d go overboard with backstory and explanation, front-loading the work with junk), and said that apparently I wasn’t the type of person with sufficient discrimination to tell between the good and bad suggestions, so I shouldn’t go to critique groups. I left the group and soon changed genres completely, so I don’t know what the effect of the group would’ve been on the new genre (mystery). It’s a tough decision.

Still, after hearing others’ praise for groups, I feel that if I could find a group in the Dallas/Ft Worth area that contained published authors, I would benefit and could help them.

But perhaps not. I don’t know. Again, I could be a “Jonah.”

Anyway, with each group (most of which met at most once a MONTH, because people had day jobs and didn’t want to give up more than one Saturday a month, because that was family day or shopping day or washday or. . . .), I would get to the point that I dreaded that Saturday all month, and I couldn’t work on things without thinking, “They’ll hate this, so why bother?” They hated my voice (which is awfully strong, but which is the reason I write–when each novel is starting, I experience a strong voice of the character whose story this is, and that’s the way it is for me) and would constantly rewrite me. Occasionally I took a suggestion, but mostly it was mystifying. The fantasy group wanted me to change “the kitchen smelled of burned toast” to “the aroma of scorched bread assaulted her nostrils” and every occurrence of “smelled” to “stank” and so forth. That example seemed to me almost pathetically overwritten, and thus stayed with me, but there were other times when they just couldn’t leave
alone a “There was” or whatever. I mean, if “there was a possum at the side of the road, the victim of a heedless truck” is idiomatic in English, you don’t have to change *every* occurrence to “a possum lay splayed at the roadside,” with gory details. (That was an off-the-cuff example, so it was lame. Sorry.) Or if they claim that something’s passive voice and will not recognize that sometimes passive voice is what you *want*. In fact, the phrase “the tire was flat” has been accused of being in passive voice. (“Her tire had gone flat” is not a rephrasing of that sentence in “active verbs,” either.) If I challenged them, they’d say I wasn’t trying to learn from criticism.

On the other hand, once when I had a co-worker who was eager to read the rest of a book that I’d been working on (she saw a chapter printed out on my desk and read it while waiting for a boring meeting to start), I was motivated to crank out the rest of the novel, passing her chapters every few days or so. The novel may still have a number of flaws, but since I had a willing audience who gave me some limited feedback that was useful (“did she forget that she already sold one of those? Oh, and his hair was raven in the third chapter, and now you say it’s a mousy brown”), it was a joy to type. The words flowed as if I channeled them from the Muse herself. (Probably Thalia, Muse of comedy, because it was a funny book.) Since then, I have tried to imagine a willing audience for whom I’m writing, along with myself, and I’ve had a far more positive attitude. This could be your “friendly reader,” the one like yourself, the one who wants to read what YOU like to read, which is the reason you’re writing it that way . . . you like to read that kind of thing.

Far better for your mental health.

I realize that completely inexperienced writers need guidance. We
all know the horror stories about the manuscripts sent in in velvet-covered pizza boxes and written in red crayon. Bad writing often includes POV shifts that don’t work, so it’s good to be aware of them.

But THERE ARE NO RULES. Those who follow the rules set by the people who write those “How to Write Bestselling Fiction” books who have never themselves written bestselling fiction are merely fooling themselves.

If you submit your chapters and synopses on white paper in a standard monospaced (and serifed) font, and if the first three paragraphs grab the reader and make them wonder “What happens next?” you’ve done what you have to do. All this focus on trivialities does not help anyone write bestselling books.

It’s all about the story . . . which should flow out of the characters, IMHO, because the characters keep them reading. People stick with series that have jumped the shark several volumes previous because “that’s how I can see what’s happening to my favorite characters.” So tell the story. And use your authentic voice. And channel those wonderful characters who come to you to tell you their stories.

And don’t panic if you write “there was a spot on the page” or “the book was taken by some criminal” or even “once upon a time.” It’s okay. It’s yours.

See you next time.