Author Anne R. Allen published yesterday a great post titled, 10 Dangerous Critiques: Beware Misguided Writing Advice. In it, she explains how trying to please everybody who beta-reads or critiques your WIP can turn a novel into a kind of jackalope of unrelated parts.
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 woman to handle or that nobody could run that fast in high heels.
The truth is that most fiction is not realistic and is not meant to be.
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. Only describe trees if your heroine is planning to beat said rats to death with them.
3. Grammar Enforcers
For my first Pearseus book, I paid good money to have my book proofread by an expert. Unfortunately, this was a grammar expert. Big mistake, as he had probably never read fiction in his life to judge by his comments. Most of his advice was unhelpful. Some comments were simply wrong.
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 textbook.
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 (or Grammarly, for that matter) get hold of your WIP, the result will send all your readers to sleep.
4. The Writing Rules Police
Closely related to the Grammar Enforcers are The Writing Rules Police. 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.
Several writers 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.
5. 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.
Allen says she once went to a workshop where several participants referred to her protagonist as “you.” One told her that her character should not wear orange, because it would look terrible with my coloring.
And at one critique group, a member walked out because her ditzy fashionista heroine made a snarky remark about people who wear Crocs. Apparently, Allen owns several pairs of Crocs, but this didn’t matter. That character was Allen, as far as that member was concerned, and she was permanently offended.
She also mentions 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.
6. 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.
7. The Morality Judges
The Morality Judges are related to the above group. 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 counseling. 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.
8. The Soul-Crushers
Shortly after I started my Indie career, I argued on LinkedIn with someone who said no Indie work can possibly be good. She was so offended by my disagreement that she bought Pearseus: Schism and proceeded to leave 1-star reviews on every single Amazon site, from Japan to India, Mexico, and Australia! While I admired her dedication, her review made little sense. For example, she complained that she gave up reading once giants made their appearance. The thing is, none of my works feature any giants.
This is an extreme case of a soul-crusher but others can be just as bad. They 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 you arrogant and stupid since you have no qualifications for writing on the subject of elves. They may tell everyone, at great length, how personally, they are much 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.
9. Genre Inappropriate Dogmatism
Turns out that being a “people pleaser” can be a real problem.
As Allen explains, she inadvertently turned a breezy rom-com into a Grey’s Anatomy episode after a man told her with great authority what a complicated procedure a tummy tuck is. So, she added way too much clinical detail to her novel. Reviewers were not impressed by the added realism.
From this, she learned that you should never let one person’s opinion change your WIP, especially if they don’t know your genre. This is not just because of the Dunning Kruger effect, whereby the most confident people are often the most ignorant on the subject. It is because even the most well-meaning beta readers can give you poor advice when they are not part of your target audience. They don’t do it because they want to ruin your WIP. It’s just that some people have a set of rules in their heads they think apply to all genres.
So, keep in mind that 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 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.