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What I've Learned From Critique Groups

Ok, I'm sure this has happened to all of us: You've just written a story, one that's close to your heart. You feel really good about this one. You share it with your critique group...

...and they nearly-unanimously insist that you change your favorite part. For the sake of discussion, let's pretend it's the ending. They don't like it. They feel that it's unexpected, and leaves the main plot question dangling. They all say it has to go.

What's a writer to do? If only a few readers felt this way it would be easy to ignore them, but with so many complaints it seems clear that the end isn't really working. You feel trapped between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Changing the story will destroy its soul, yet if you leave it alone it will likely languish, unsold, for decades to come.

This is the False Dichotomy of critique groups, and it used to be my nemesis. It seemed I always had to choose between changing a story or leaving untouched, and neither option felt right.

I finally realized that the dichotomy is an illusion. Here's the truth: If you wish to satisfy your audience with regard to a plot point, you must either (1) Change it, or (2) justify it.

See? It's not about 'change' vs 'don't change'. It's about 'change' vs 'justify'.

Your first reader didn't like the ending? You can either change it or lay the necessary groundwork to make the ending you've chosen feel right and proper. Your best friend doesn't think Julian should dump Margaret for Cynthia? Well, you can either hook Julian up with a different girl, or you can get the reader farther into Julian's head so his actions make more sense.

If your story feels right to you, it probably means you have information you neglected to share with the reader. Put it on paper. Justify your story, don't let it be cowed into inferiority by people who are missing half the data.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
tchernabyelo
Aug. 24th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
Very well said. That thing about "but it's my favourite part" is particularly telling - why do you have a "favourite part" of the story anyway? Doesn't that actually mean that the rest of the story isn't up to scratch? I see some people in crit groups stoutly defending their story and telling readers they are wrong. Readers are NEVER wrong. If they don't "get" what you are trying to do, that does not make them wrong, it means you have to work harder for them. Of course, not every reader will "get" a story (even the best selling books out there are only read by a tiny percentage of the potential readership available), but learning what a reader does not "get" is probably more valuable than learinng what they do.
nancyfulda
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
>>why do you have a "favourite part" of the story anyway?

Ha! That, sir, is a very good point.
jodi_davis
Aug. 24th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
I have this story that is an action adventure sf future thing - but I told it as an obituary from one of the main people in the story about the other one.

As an obituary, I think it makes it sweet and bawdy and funny, instead of just a straight forward story... people not in the biz seem to love it but every single person in the biz say, "SHOW DON'T TELL!"

So, that's just a huge decision I made that I thought made the story better... but does it - just ditch the obituary part and tell the story as it's happening... I can - but I think it makes it just ordinary... so I played with it but didn't like it as well, so now it just sits on my hard drive.
nancyfulda
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)
Critique groups have a tendancy to pick on a story's most distinguishing feature and claim that's the reason it's not working.

If the story feels ordinary without the obituary angle, then perhaps it's not really the narrative style that's keeping readers from getting invested?
raisinfish
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC)
SO true! Writing groups have been a lot more useful for me since I figured out that when my critiquers say "you can't do this," what I should really hear is, "you're not doing this very well." I can choose to stop doing whatever I was doing in the story, OR I can choose to do it BETTER. Yay!

nancyfulda
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
>>when my critiquers say "you can't do this," what I should really hear is, "you're not doing this very well."

Ooh, well put.
slweippert
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

Posting a link to this in my journal, hope you don't mind. :)
nancyfulda
Aug. 24th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
You're Welcome :)

And I don't mind a bit. Link away!
ellen_denham
Aug. 24th, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC)
Amen to that. I have a novel with two point of view characters, and was strongly encouraged by a few people to get rid of one and replace her with someone else. That might be one way to write the novel, but I had zero interest in writing that novel. What I concluded was that I needed to be very careful with how I used that POV character, pay meticulous attention to voice, and to limit scenes in her POV.

Regarding favorite parts--I don't think having one necessarily means the rest of the story isn't up to scratch. My "favorite part" is usually the story idea or concept that got me wanting to write it, or that evolved as I was writing and made me say "whoa, THIS is what the story is about!" If I took that thing out, the story would no longer have a soul. This doesn't mean I couldn't find another soul and insert it, but I might be more likely to scrap the whole thing.
jongibbs
Aug. 24th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
Excellent stuff! I love that third option :)
jerrywaxler
Aug. 27th, 2010 12:44 pm (UTC)
Important points perfectly said
Yes! Many times, when a critiquer hates a bit of writing, it has more to do with the clarity of the writing than the right-ness of the point. As for listening to all critiquers, I was reading about a teacher at some famous MFA program (Iowa?) who said all the work that comes out of it sounds the same because it has all been through the same workshopping mill. Fascinating.

Jerry
Memory Writers Network
tracy_d74
Aug. 27th, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
(here via jon gibb)

well said. perfect!
nancyfulda
Aug. 28th, 2010 07:37 am (UTC)
Welcome! And thanks :)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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Nancy Fulda -- Hugo and Nebula Nominee

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Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner and a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient. She is the first (and so far only) female recipient of the Jim Baen Memorial Award. Her fiction has appeared in a number of professional venues.

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