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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Bad Advice to Ignore from Your Critique Group

Finding a beta reader or critique group is essential to any writer’s development. We can’t write in a vacuum. Nobody ever learned to be a good writer holed up in an attic with no one to review his work but the cat. (Cats can be so cruel.)

Rachelle Gardner ran a guest post by Becky Levine in April with useful advice on how to choose a critique group by assessing your own stage of writing development.

There are lots of places to look for groups—bookstores and libraries if you want an in-person experience, or writers' forums and genre organizations like RWA online. I’ve heard good things about Critique Circle and there are many more. If you’re looking for a single beta reader, you might try the forums at Nathan Bransford’s blog , the hub of all things writerly on the interwebz

But remember not all the advice you’ll hear will be useful. As Victoria Strauss says in her must-read Writer Beware blog “never forget that people who know nothing are as eager to opine as people who know something.”

Even worse than know-nothings are the know-somethings who turn every bit of advice they’ve ever heard into a “rule” as ironclad and immutable as an algebraic formula. Follow their advice and your book will read like an algebraic formula, too.

Here are a few critique group “rules” I find more annoying than useful.

1) Eliminate all clichés

Unless your characters are wildly inventive poets, space aliens, or children fostered by wolves, their dialogue and thoughts will include familiar expressions. Don’t rob your Scarlett O’Hara of her "fiddle dee-dees" or deprive your Bogart of "doesn’t amount to a hill of beans."

2) More! Make it vivid!

Would we really improve Casablanca with "a hill of Moroccan garbanzos, yellow-pale and round, of the kind the English call chick-peas"?

3) Avoid repetition

Not necessarily. Beware what H.W. Fowler called "elegant variation".

OK: "It was a good bull, a strong bull, a bull bred to fight to the death."

NOT: "It was a good bull, a strong animal, a male creature of the bovine persuasion bred to do battle..."

4) Eradicate the verb "to be," especially in the past tense: “was” is the enemy.

It’s true that it’s generally wise to avoid the passive voice, which uses "was" in the past tense:

"The cat was laundered by me" is passive and sounds lame.

"I laundered the cat" is active and stronger.

But sometimes the passive voice makes the clearest statement: "The cat was abused."

Real problems arise when amateurs confuse passive voice with the progressive tense, which also uses "to be" (with the present participle.) "I was just sitting there when the cat owner punched me," means something different from "I just sat there when the cat owner punched me." Eliminating "was" changes meaning instead of "strengthening."

5) Put your protagonist’s thoughts in italics. 

Unless your editor specifically asks for this, avoid it. Italics are hard to read.

When you write in the third-person-limited viewpoint, it’s read like first person: no italics or "he thought/she thought" necessary.

"I walked away from the 'In Crowd’. They were just a bunch of ill-bred alley cats," can be changed to third person with just a switch of pronoun/noun: "Pufferball walked away from the 'In Crowd’. They were just a bunch of ill-bred alley cats."

6) Characters must behave predictably

Don’t let anyone tell you a character "wouldn’t" behave in a certain way. Only the writer knows if this particular truck driver would read Proust; this bride would run off with the florist’s mother; or that Maine Coon cat would pee in your Jimmy Choos.

7) Describe characters' physical appearance in detail.

When your English teacher told you to beef up that "Summer Vacation" essay with long, colorful descriptions of your new kitty, she was looking for a complete page, not preparing you for publication. Brevity is now and ever shall be the soul of wit. The only thing Jane Austen told us about Elizabeth Bennett’s appearance was that she had "fine eyes". Let your reader's imagination do the work.

8) Protagonists must be admirable

Saints are boring in fiction, unless they liberate France and get burned at the stake, and that’s been done.

9) If we don’t point out everything wrong, we’re not doing our job

A group should tell you what’s right with a work as well as what’s wrong. No one can hear endless negativity. The brain shuts down to protect itself.

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Blogger BECKY said...

Hi Anne. Great post! I recently joined a critique group, consisting mostly of writers I already knew...at least somewhat, so I was aware of their writing abilities. I've gained so much from hearing their suggestions, even when it's towards others' writings, and not mine. Nobody comes across as "mean", which I know exists in many groups. And, rolling along with human nature, I take the compliments and the good advice, and ignore what I don't like! I gotta be me!

May 9, 2010 at 9:40 PM  
Anonymous David Jarrett said...

I enjoyed this post very much. Lots of common sense here. I have also found that critique groups can be very erratic in their evaluations, depending on how experienced their members are, and often they can be, to use a well-worn cliche, "the blind leading the blind."

May 9, 2010 at 10:42 PM  
Blogger SAMUEL PARK said...

Anne R. Allen--this is genius. You should write a writing textbook--seriously, this is great stuff. And it's not cliche, and it's not old news--it's all incredibly useful and not something I've heard a million times before. Lovesit.

May 9, 2010 at 11:55 PM  
Blogger Emily Cross said...

excellent post Ann!! I agree with Samuel, you should write a writing book!

May 10, 2010 at 3:42 AM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

A question for writers: Has it ever been useful to work with a group of non-writers (i.e. Average Joe/Jane Reader), a sort of non-professional "focus group" of what would be your demographic audience? Was having lunch with my sister (a non-writer but a prolific reader of a wide variety of books (i.e. not just "literary" tomes)and a friend of mine who's a writer working on a new book, and my sister was full of advice as to what causes her to fling a book down early on, and a lot of her comments were not "aesthetic, literary" concerns, but Joe/Jane Sixpack average reader's likes and dislikes. So, got to wondering if hearing from your target audience in the form of an "amateur" group read-through would be even possible/practical or helpful. Or do other writers come up with the same Joe/Jane Sixpack comments, since, for the post part, a reader is a reader?

May 10, 2010 at 4:57 AM  
Blogger Yvonne Osborne said...

Hi Anne,
This is truly one of the most useful posts I've seen lately. I followed you here from Samuel's. With a post like this how can I not follow you?
I fear critique groups can do more damage than good if not chosen carefully. I currently don't have one at all. Isn't a bad critique worse than none at all? I've been guilty of the italics thingee and now I'm rushing off to revisit.

May 10, 2010 at 6:05 AM  
Blogger Piedmont Writer said...

Thank you again for such a thought provoking post. I try at all times when I crit someone else's work to always, always, tell them what they've done right. It so helps the relationship.

May 10, 2010 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger Catherine Ryan Hyde said...

Anne, this is perfect, and hits on just about every one of my pet peeves with critique groups.

I once had a group tell me that my male character "wouldn't do" what he did--walk away from a woman he was trying to pick up because she was giving off mixed signals while being quite snotty to him. Their reason? He was a truck driver. So, as we all know, there is only one truck driver psyche on the planet, and it behaves quite predictably. Fortunately, my character, Ray, wouldn't let me get away with the rewrite. He told me in no uncertain terms (a cliche), "I'm not that desperate." So, who you gonna listen to if not your characters?

Lately copyeditors are getting on my nerves because they think it's their job to "fix" all repetition. And I've gotten a bit up in arms about it. If I have a character say, "You think I want that. I don't want that. I've never wanted that," the repetition is purposeful, done for rhythm and emphasis.

My writing group also used to make me nuts re: my precocious kid characters. They'd say, "A 7-year-old wouldn't say that." But there are huge variations in 7-year-olds. And, you know what? I don't want to read about the ordinary ones.

I saw this come up several times in my recent workshop. The group would question the feasibility of a fictional situation. But life is much stranger than fiction, and I'd rather not read about the most ordinary stuff, the stuff that happens every day. Fiction does well to follow life to some unusual places.

I wrote an old piece about receiving (and making sense of) criticism. I'll have to see if I can find it.

Thanks for this post.

May 10, 2010 at 8:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks all for the kind comments. I really needed a little positive feedback this morning, after spending most of the night bailing out my laundry room as the dying (2-year-old) water heater gushed forth. A plumber is now planning how to spend my entire income for the rest of the summer. Makes me long for the days when I rented.

So this was the day I really needed all these sweet comments. I have had other suggestions to put this stuff in book form. Maybe an ebook?

Churadogs--the non-writer reading group sounds like a good idea, at least for a polished work about to go out to an agent. A friend of this blog, Christine Ahern, is planning just such an experiment this week, when her sister's book group will read and discuss her WIP. I'll be really interested to hear what kind of feedback she gets.

May 10, 2010 at 9:13 AM  
Anonymous Terry Galanoy said...

Exterior opinion on non-fiction may be okay because that type of book (not included,, the personal sturm and drang non-fiction missives) usually involves exterior material involving targeted exterior audiences. It could/would be a form of focus group research on clarity and salability of subject matter to agents, publisher, general public. HOWEVER, as to novels, don't agree at all with submitting work-in-progress to a"jury" of peers or otherwise. In 50 years of teaching creative writing at four major universities, I have time and again experienced damn good books stillborn because of critiques from (maybe, maybe not?) well-meaning "outsiders"--my term for anyone not inside the` author's head. A novel is a personal journey; all outriders, passengers, hitchhikers only slow and confuse the trip and the destination. No wonder so many potentially good books end up as
detours, blind alleys and dead ends with all of the bad directions supplied by those outsiders. One more item: I have also found that the more an author talks about or share the work-in-progress, the less energy there is to finish it since the main thrust of "getting it done" is gone.

May 10, 2010 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Terry, you make a good point: sometimes newbie writers seek a critique group too soon, or worse, they show a fledgling work to a non-writer who says something soul-crushing in order to sound "smart."

Becky Levine's post on Rachelle's blog addresses this, and maybe I should discuss it further at some point: you need to know where you are in your creative process in order to know when/if you need critique.

But at some point a writer needs feedback, whether from a peer group, a creative writing prof like you, or, if they've got the bux, a professional editor. Usually the group critique is the first step, but nobody should go marching into it without taking a good look at what's ahead.

You're right that group-think can be deadly. And dead wrong.

May 10, 2010 at 2:06 PM  
Anonymous lorie b said...

Yea! Anne truly awesome. Even though I am in an excellent critique group sometimes I have changed things to please the group and the pros goes flat.


May 10, 2010 at 2:58 PM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

Anne: Oooooo Noooo, not the infamous Hot Water Heater Breaking! In my life that's always been the final signal from God that he's done with plaguing me for a while (First crap rains down on my head until I can't take any more and I shriek, "I can't take any more O Lord! and THEN my water heater breaks and I hear that celestial, omnipotent Heh-heh, and know the travail is ended . . . for now.)

Re Catherine Ahern's experiment to have a read-through from a regular book club group. Will be interesting to see what the comments are vs. a read-through from a writer's group.

Re.knowing where you are in the creative process before sharing the work with anybody, agree totally. First get the thing down on paper because you never know where it's going to take you so it seems to me that input from outside would be distraction at best, destruction at worst. I say scribble, scribble, scribble alone in your garret until the muse finishes with you, and the characters take you where they will, THEN come up for air and a look-'round. Seems to me, writing has to be an act of faith above all.

May 11, 2010 at 7:03 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Churadogs, I thought of your "hot water heater rule" when my heater went. I said, OK, it's horrible, but this means it's the end.

In the past two weeks it's been 1) dead car battery (twice) 2) broken crown + other dental catastrophes 3) lost prescription sunglasses and now the dying hot water heater flooding the house.

But this AM, my back is out from moving wet books and the carpenter replacing the flooded drywall just found termites, so I'm not sure it's over yet...


May 11, 2010 at 8:52 AM  
Blogger mary said...

The fact that you are even blogging amidst your crazy world says you've got fabulous spirit! I'm so sorry for you...ugh.

I agree that who critiques your MS depends heavily upon where you are in the process as well as how established you are as a writer. A newer writer can be crushed into quitting--yes. One with a little more time/practice under their belt can still be crushed but will get up after a day or two, and they'll nicely tell everyone where to shove it when necessary. I've often thought it would behoove writers who are initially looking for valuable critique partners to start with submitting short stories/articles for feedback first. This way, their "baby" (MS) isn't exposed too soon, and they get a fairly good idea of whether the group is right for them.

I'm spoiled with my critique group. They're incredible. We don't always see eye-to-eye (wouldn't be much of a critique group then, would it?), but we have relationship, trust, and respect for each other. And, for the record, I've never told any of them to "shove it." :-)

Great post, Anne. Totally agree you should write a book on this.

May 11, 2010 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Sierra Godfrey said...

I've seen my writing group complain of every single one of these. This post is so important because it validates that you don't have to agree or follow these to write well.

In Catherine's comment, she refers to a recent workshop (which I attended) where a lot of people questioned the feasibility of a situation. That was my manuscript. People had a huge problem with a certain situation and said that it would never happen. Catherine taught me that acknowledging the craziness of the situation is the key, preferably through character thought or speech. ("OMG, I can't believe an alien just burst out of my chest! How totally odd and completely like the movie 'Alien'.")
(That isn't my story. Just saying.)

May 12, 2010 at 9:55 PM  
Blogger BJ said...

I've worked with several kinds of critiquers, in large groups and small. There are the soul-killers - people who think they know everything, whether they are newbies or mildly successful; people who cannot suspend disbelief over anything; people who 'say it like they see it', 'hold nothing back', but never say anything positive; and the people who want you to rewrite everything the way they would write it.

However, I've also worked with critiquers who know their stuff; who never stop learning themselves; who know enough to be able to point out what is good as well as what is bad in a specific work. I work with a small, wonderful group of writers like this, and would be lost without their insight.

That said, I don't always agree with them, either -- but whether I agree or disagree with them, I can usually figure out what brought them to that conclusion, and find my own way to fix it.

The most important thing to remember when in a critique group: it's *your* story. You know the story, and only *you* can write that story. Other people's advice can point you to where readers may have problems, but it's up to you to figure out what fix will work for your story. The corollary is: don't let others usurp your creativity and rewrite your story for you.

May 16, 2010 at 8:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed writing groups for several years. My little print runs of six copies are the closest I care to come to publishing. While I currently attend a critique group, for me, secretly, reading a piece there is the penultimate expression of my art.

I usually have somebody else in the group read my piece. I follow along but secretly I am just feeling the vibe in the room as the piece is being read. Sometimes the piece gets a laugh at an unexpected place--energy manifest into sound! Sometimes the room settles into intense concentration and absorption, other times the attention flags. I consider the other people to be extensions of myself, their unspoken energy helps me gauge whether I've mastered the form I am working in.

One piece of advice: Before your piece is read, it many groups it is acceptable to ask that the ensuing discussion focus on one aspect of the piece. For example, I might say something like I know the prose is a little choppy in this piece, but what I'm most interested in is this different approach to character development I'm trying. So can we focus on the character development in the discussion?

Then, after the piece is read, I may be the one who initiates the conversation. "I don't really understand character development, I tried to do something different than usual with this piece, did you notice? Does it seem effective? How do you all approach character development?"

A lot of times I may talk quite a bit during my own critique session, I find it helpful to verbalize my goals with a piece and the challenges I met in the composition. I find this to be a more fruitful approach to a critique of my own work than just reading it and then sitting back and letting the critiques come about as they will. There are benefits to that approach, too, of course, but it's not what I prefer.


May 17, 2010 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger John said...

I had not thought of having a critique group. I am an aspiring author. I am working on my first book and it is not yet at that stage. I had assumed that I had to do all my work in secret.

Once my first work nears its conclusion I might inflict it on my work colleagues.



May 17, 2010 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger Kristen Lamb Warrior Writer said...

Love it! Laugh out loud love, by the way.

May 17, 2010 at 2:19 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

Holy cow! What a great post. Thanks for the amazing tips.

May 18, 2010 at 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Victoria Mixon said...

Anne, I posted a partial John Steinbeck quote on Twitter last week (I'm reading Journal of a Novel, his letters to his editor, Pascal Covici at The Viking Press, throughout the writing of East of Eden), which I will quote for you in full here:

"I am never shy about it when a professional is doing the reading. But God save me from amateurs. They don't know what they are reading but it is much more serious than that. They immediately start rewriting. I never knew this to fail. It is invariable. They have the authority of ignorance, something you simply cannot combat."

May 19, 2010 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks, Victoria. What a great quote! Deliver us from the "Authority of Ignorance!"

May 19, 2010 at 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Victoria Mixon said...

Anne, I'm finding so many great quotes in that Steinbeck book that I not only tweeted a bunch of them, I appended a different one to each of the posts on the advice column last week. He's inexhaustible. My favorite one is still making the rounds:

"Even if I knew nothing would emerge from this book I would still write it."

(Yeah, I know--and I just wrote that whole SCATHING thing about Twitter. I know, I know.)

May 19, 2010 at 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Rrrandy Wurst said...

Thanks, you hit my peeve-buttons, Anne. Also, I feel like that (I was formerly southern, so all you editors out there in word land, leave the syntax alone, puhleeze.) line-editing comments are a waste of time, energy, and most of all ATTENTION in critique sessions. The writer should be getting comments on such things as avoidance of conflict, over-working or under-working a scene or confrontation, confusion of reader (okay if the protagonist is confused), such things that bring the work to life, or kill it.
I think critique groups work best as a stimulus to keep writing, sort of a regular mini-deadline.
But what the hell do I know. (Not a question; a statement.)

May 20, 2010 at 12:09 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth West said...

I'm not yet privy to a critique group--there is one here, but it meets when I have a prior commitment--but I did give my book to a beta reader I trusted. She is a sports coach and has worked with me before in that context, and also a writer herself. I knew she would be honest about what needed improvement without tearing me apart. And she was. She also liked my book, even though there were a lot of ink scribblings throughout. So I paid close attention to her suggestions.

One thing she used, and that I learned in my brief stint as an education grad student, was the criticism sandwich. The critic will say something good about the work, then in the middle goes the suggestion for improvement, closing with another positive statement. It really helps take some of the sting out of a critique if there is a problem that needs addressing.

May 21, 2010 at 2:39 PM  
Blogger anaisnais said...

A useful piece of insight and yes, you should collate works like this and put them to a useful book for the average writer - for there is every bit of help needed when starting out unless of course you are a natural graduate of language... Thanks for sharing these points, know it's something worth returning to to remind ourselves from time to time...

October 6, 2010 at 8:25 AM  
Blogger Lisa Amowitz said...

I've been a member of two online critique groups for over five years. Many of us have gone on to become published authors. All of us are better writers. I suppose the reason we've worked so well together for all these years is the knowledge that each of us has the other's best interests at heart. We've learned to take the negative critiques along with the praise and in the end it has worked for all of us. Not all suggestions are followed, but no matter how deep the cut, no one gets hurt. We pride ourselves on our honesty.

In the end, I think it's a matter of trust. Trust in your partners, and trust in your dedication to writing. It's tough out there, and the learning curve to becoming a good writer is a steep one.

October 7, 2010 at 12:49 PM  
OpenID eeleenlee said...

'Characters must be admirable'?!?

Boring! You're so right that no one wants to read about saints

Check out the list of AFI's top Movie Heros and Villains and these characters are great because they are bundles of contradictions

October 10, 2010 at 2:16 AM  
Blogger Chris Phillips said...

Great post. I took a lot from it.

October 11, 2010 at 12:10 PM  
Blogger AderuMoro said...

Thank you for this post. I always tell myself I ought to take criticism with a grain of salt. Personally, when I give others criticism, I try to point out what I do like--what I think is charming, a line I like, the premise--and I always try to point out what needs work, but unfortunately I don't always get the same in return.

Anyway, this makes me feel a lot better about the criticism I've received :D

April 18, 2011 at 8:33 PM  
Blogger Susan Wells Bennett said...

This is fantastic! And it's everything I've been thinking about the "writing advice" I find around the web. Thanks for making me feel validated. :)

November 21, 2011 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Gigi Galt said...

Dear Anne,

If there was such a thing as conferring sainthood u upon a blogger, I would nominate you. Your posts are outstanding and have helped me so much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

G. G.

October 20, 2013 at 5:18 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Gigi--Thanks! I love to hear that I've helped a new author. Actually Porter Anderson started calling me "St. Anne" a while back, but I think that was more because I get beat up a lot and he was thinking of a St. Sebastian sort of saint. :-)

Not everybody agrees with me, but I always try to be on the side of authors. We have one of the toughest, most underpaid professions, and everybody wants to boss us around. But the real success stories are the authors who follow the muse, not the rules.

October 20, 2013 at 8:51 AM  

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