Dangerous Critiques can Turn Your WIP into a Jackalope
by Anne R. Allen
One of the most damaging things a new writer can do is try to please everybody who beta-reads or critiques their WIP. I’ve seen a novel turned into a kind of jackalope of unrelated parts.
If you tend to be a “people pleaser” this can be a real problem.
I’ve been swayed by these dangerous critiques a few times myself. One of my Camilla romcom mysteries has suffered the wrath of reviewers because there’s too much realism going on with one character’s tummy tuck. I had made the mistake of taking advice from one of these dangerous critiques: A man told me with great authority what a complicated procedure a tummy tuck is. So in spite of my own experience with tummy-tucked friends who had no such complications, I let his confidence sway me. So I added way too much clinical detail to my breezy romcom.
I learned some things.
- Never let one person’s opinion change your WIP.
- Never make revisions based on advice from someone who doesn’t know your genre.
- Beware the Dunning Kruger effect. (That’s where the most confident people are often the most ignorant on the subject.)
I’m not saying you shouldn’t welcome beta readers and critiques. I think joining a critique group is one of the best things a beginning writer can do. But new writers also have to learn how to weed out the un-useful advice.
And most of it will be not be useful. I wrote about this in my post on Critique Groups: 6 ways they can help your writing and 6 ways the can’t.
And as members of critique groups and writing workshops, ourselves, we need to be careful not to fall into any of these categories ourselves.
Sources of the Most Dangerous Critiques
1) The Realism Brigade
These are the folks who want to know when your characters go to the bathroom, and point out that it really isn’t all that romantic to have your first kiss in front of everybody at work, the window of a department store, or the middle of a snowstorm.
They’ll tell you that gun has too much of a kick for a young women to handle and that nobody could run that fast in high heels.
They must be so miserable in superhero movies.
The truth is that most fiction is not realistic and is not meant to be.
James Patterson said it well “ I don’t do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I’ve written doesn’t seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing. You can say, “I don’t like what you do, or I don’t like Chagall, or I don’t like Picasso ” but saying that these things are not realistic is irrelevant.”
2) The Detailers
These are the folks who want you to tell us the species of trees that your heroine is running through to escape the giant sabertoothed cave rats. They’ll add, “And bring in all the senses here. What do the trees smell like? What does the pathway feel like under her feet? Are there birds in the forest? Describe their songs.”
By this time the heroine has been eaten by the giant sabertoothed cave rats as we’re buried in irrelevant details.. And your reader is bored to tears.
Details in fiction should be like Chekhov’s Gun. Don’t spent two pages describing trees if those trees don’t end up being an important part of the plot.
3) Grammar Enforcers
These people may write nonfiction, or teach technical or business writing. Every one of their suggestions is correct, and they can tear through your WIP and make it read like a grammar text book.
Not exactly what people read for entertainment..
Fiction requires sentence fragments, one-word paragraphs, and unfinished clauses. Sometimes you even need to use a preposition to end a sentence with.
If you let the Grammar Enforcers get hold of your WIP, the result will send all your readers to sleep.
4) Autobiography Sleuths
Have you ever had a reader assume a first-person narrator is the author? They seem to think every novel is an autobiography, so they try to ferret out the bits that give a revelation about you.
I once went to a workshop where several participants referred to my protagonist as “you.” One told me that my character should not wear orange, because it would look terrible with my coloring.
And at one critique group, a member walked out because my ditzy fashionista heroine made a snarky remark about people who wear Crocs. (I happened to own several pairs of Crocs, but this didn’t matter. That character was ME, as far as she was concerned, and she was permanently offended.)
I heard from a writer of YA fantasy — a tall man – who had a workshopper tell him his story would never work because he was too tall to hide in a wizard’s cupboard. Yup. Because the author is a 12-year-old elf.
The Autobiography Sleuths will try to make that elf into you if you let them. If somebody doesn’t “get” your genre or style, ignore their advice.
5) Dr. Phil Meets the Middle Ages
“There are more appropriate ways to establish boundaries,” one critiquer said of a writer’s lady-in-waiting character in her Tudor-era historical novel. The character had just pulled a knife on a particularly handsy duke. The advice was, “She should assert her rights and report his sexual harassment to the queen. Relationship problems should never be solved with violence.”
These are some of the most dangerous critiques. The suggestions may resonate with your modern sensibilities.
But don’t listen. Women in the Middle Ages (or a Fantasy version of them) did not have Feminist sensibilities. Neither did the men. Yes, their attitudes may be offensive to some people who live in very protected academic bubbles. But you need to ignore those people. They are not your audience.
Historical fiction doesn’t always have to be accurate down to the last rivet in a suit of armor, but the author does not want to let anybody put modern thoughts in a 500 year old head.
6) The Soul-Crushers
These might perpetrate the most dangerous critiques of all. It isn’t always what they say, but the tone of voice and harsh delivery. They’ll start a critique with an exaggerated sigh, perhaps accompanied by a pitying half-smile..
They’ll tell you that your premise is ridiculous and you can never write a whole novel about an elf who has accidentally made himself invisible. Or they will deem your voice “puerile” and suggest you give up novels and learn to write haiku.
They also may deliver ad hominem criticism, calling the writer arrogant and stupid, since they have no qualifications for writing on the subject of elves. They may tell everyone, at great length, how personally, they are much more more qualified than the hapless writer, After all, they once worked as a department store elf at Christmas.
After you leave the workshop in tears, you must erase every word this person said from your memory. They have an agenda that has nothing to do with you or your work. Chocolate helps,, as does the company of a good friend who knows the critiquer recently lost is teaching job and is working as a mall cop..
7) Genre Inappropriate Dogmatism
These people have a set of rules in their heads they think apply to all genres.
Your quiet literary domestic novel can be ruined by thriller writers who tell you a novel must have, “more action! Get those people to move. They’re just sitting around talking! Nobody’s going to read that.”
The reverse is true when people trained in literary workshops want to know the psychological motivations of every member of the gang who are trying to whack our hero. And of course they want the hero to be more introspective. “What’s his backstory? Does he have parents? Siblings? Why doesn’t he think about them when he’s chasing the bad guys in the stolen police cruiser?
We all have to remember that specific genres have specific rules that don’t apply to other genres. Don’t let some mystery writer get you to throw a dead body or two into your sweet Romance, or move some terrorists in next door.
Readers turn to genres like Romance and cozy mysteries for escape. Don’t bombard them with stuff they could read in today’s paper.
8) The Writing Rules Police
I’ve devoted whole blogposts to these dangerous critiques. They can ruin any book with their strict adherence to a murky set of rules that may or may not have anything to do with good writing.
I’ve heard from so many writers who have destroyed a WIP by eliminating every example of the word “was” or purged it of every adverb or adjective.
Don’t let anybody ruin your book with silly rules. Some rules make sense to a point, and others are only helpful in certain situations and to solve particular problems.
But anybody who tries to follow all of the rules all of the time is going to end up with a mess.
9) The Morality Judges
Someone in a workshop will often complain that a character’s motivations are less than altruistic, so they find them “unlikeable.” Or they’ll tell you the character’s actions are wrong according to scripture and your book comes across as “Satanic.’
They are shocked and dismayed that your protagonist is planning to murder her abusive husband, when she should go to her pastor for counselling. After all, she made a vow to stay with him in sickness and in health.
These people provide a whole lot of “shoulds” in their advice,. The main one is that all fictional characters must be perfect, upright citizens from page one. There should be no room for growth or a character arc.
You can imagine how boring their own conflict-free stories must be. The only “should” here is you should ignore all their advice..
10) The Recappers
“Who are these people? Why are they dressed like pirates? Are they in a broom closet? Tell us where we are we supposed to be.”
If you belong to a critique group that meets weekly or monthly, most members will remember very little of your story from one session to the next. So they will demand a recap of the plot and characters at the beginning of every chapter.
I followed their advice with a novel about to be sent to my publisher. The editor was furious with me for inserting all this redundant material. “We know what happened! This is all in the last chapter.”
Give a nice oral recap of the story to your c ritters, but don’t put it in your novel. You’ll drive your readers batty. And your editor will call your book a jackalope. Or worse.
By Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) February 6, 2022
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever received one of these dangerous critiques? What’s the most unhelpful kind of critique you’ve ever received? Can you add to this list?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
No Place Like Home: Camilla Randall Comedy-Mystery #4
Wealthy Doria Windsor discovers her late husband was nothing but a scammer and his business was a Ponzi scheme. She finds herself homeless and accused of a murder she didn’t commit.
But Camilla, with the help of a brave trio of homeless people, the adorable Mr. X, and a little dog named Toto, is determined to unmask the real killer and discover the dark secrets of Doria’s deceased “financial wizard” husband before Doria is killed herself.
And NO PLACE LIKE HOME IS ALSO AN AUDIOBOOK!!