Friday, February 10, 2017

Don't Bite the Hands of Your Critique Partners

Warning – this post is going to get a little ranty.

When I first started writing romance around 25 years ago, I was very lucky to find a local RWA chapter, the Hudson Valley RWA, to help me in my pursuit of  publication. Back then, there was only one way to be published – by the big NY publishing houses. The first thing I learned was that I had a lot to learn. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to join a critique group, which consisted of several fellow chapter members. Through them, I did learn a lot – how the business worked (at the time), how to manage POV and passive voice, and how to make my characters come to life, and so much more.

Through the years, the group changed – we lost some members, some who went on to become hugely successful, others whose lives took them in different directions, some who moved away, and others who just decided writing and publishing wasn't for them. We gained new members, and helped and supported each other along the way. As time passed, almost every single member of the critique group did succeed in being published over the last decade or so, especially with the advent of ebooks and lots of new opportunities.

Unfortunately (here comes the rant), we've also had a few who left us under conditions that were not, let's say friendly, to put it nicely. One critique member in particular, who at first we were very glad to have join us, soon made clear that she was not a team player.

This author wrote a very good book, and we were very happy for her when she published it. Her succeeding works – not so much. There were several issues – the main characters from that first book ended  up in every sequel after that. There's nothing wrong with that per se, I in fact, have main characters from my books show up in secondary and minor roles in subsequent books in the series. The issue with this particular author was that she made a good 3/4 of those books about that original couple, not the characters who the books were supposed to be about. We tried to help her keep her focus on the main characters in the new stories, but she was having none of that. It was her story, she'd tell it the way she wanted. As she progressed to other titles, we did what we always do – offer constructive criticism. But she didn't see it that way – she saw us as being petty and mean and get this, jealous. After all, she was published and she just knew better than the rest of us (pssst, we're published too). If we didn't heap glowing praise on everything she wrote, she would slam our work and call it terrible and that she "didn't understand what we were writing," or some other such nonsense.

I'm not one to sugar coat, though I'm not mean. If I think there's something wrong with the story, or the wording, or it's missing something, I will say so, honestly. And I will usually offer alternatives to maybe eliminate the problem and hopefully help my fellow authors. I do this because I want the same respect from my fellow authors in return. Sometimes writers are too close to our work and can't see the forest for the trees – that's why critique partners are so important. You bond with others when you share your work with them, and honestly, I've developed some of my best friendships through this group.

Anyway, after several months of the constant petulant "eye for an eye" critiques, we finally had to ask this author to leave the group. She was not helping any of us, in fact, her general pissiness made a usually fun evening uncomfortable at times. No one likes to kick someone out of a group, it's not pleasant, but damn it, if you can't play nice, then take your ball and go home.

Imagine my surprise to learn we've been publicly slammed by this author for being jealous. Yep, we were jealous that her 10 page short stories which were pretty awful were getting published. If you have a publisher that will take whatever you write, no matter if the work has merit or not, you must be doing something right. Right? Um, no. When your publisher just takes it all, without any editing or feedback and just throws it up for sale, that does not automatically mean your work is good. But not according to this author.

When she out and out lied that she was the first one published in the group, I was pissed. This author seems to be in favor of alternative facts – since she was "the first one published," she was the one who knew it all. There were a few things wrong with that assumption.

First, the founding member of our group has over 20 titles to her name and has been published since the 1970's. So technically, she was first. As for knowing more about publishing, again, another alternative fact. She dealt with a total of one publisher, whose reputation isn't exactly stellar, and seems to offer very little of the standard support that publishers give to their authors (Disclaimer: I don't have any working knowledge of this publisher, but I know a couple folks who do. I trust what I've heard). If your publisher doesn't understand how to edit, market and price your book, and is rumored to not always pay promptly, I wouldn't have much confidence in them. I've dealt with nightmare publishers – only took me once to learn my lesson. But I digress.

As for saying we "turned our backs" on her, well, that's just outright BS. It was her own behavior that led us to ask her to leave. She was not good for our group, in fact, she was very bad for it. Everyone always had to tip-toe around her when it came time to critique her. Sorry hon, not everything can be daisies and unicorns. I hate it when someone points out to me that I've royally screwed up a scene (or worse, the whole dang story!), nobody likes to hear their work isn't perfect. But that's just the reality of writing – no one has written the perfect book. There are some that are close, and readers have their favorites that they think are perfect, but reading is subjective, so you can't please everyone all the time. Heck, sometimes you can't please anyone at all. It happens. It's life. But I know where the comments are coming from. No one is trying to "slam" me. I take those comments and suggestions, and use them to figure out a way to fix things. I do not stomp my feet and call their work sloppy and nitpick things that aren't there (yes, I have been harshly criticized for something that wasn't even in the pages I had just read). I'm a part of this group because I want to learn from my fellow authors and hopefully teach them something as well, when I can. This is not a beauty pageant, babe.

This author did however, remain an active chapter member for some time – came to meetings and participated on our private loop. When she shared the sad news of some health issues that had come up, we all wished her well, praying for her, and generally offering words of encouragement and support. Apparently, that was not enough. I don't know, maybe she expected us to drop everything and be at her side daily, maybe she wanted more flowers. Whatever. The nastiness of her response to members who reached out was completely uncalled for. She did that several times to several of my friends and if it was up to me, I would have responded in kind.

But I probably would have let it go if not for the fact that we have now been publicly insulted and lied about. Granted she didn't name names, so apparently she does have some common sense, but still, it was quite obvious exactly who she was speaking of. That was the last straw in my book. You can only push me so far before the Mama Lion in me comes out and I have to defend the cubs - my critique partners.

Yeah, babe, you missed the boat, all right.


  1. The whole point of a critique group isn't for your partners to fawn over you, it's to help you learn and offer encouragement. And sure, if you write an awesome scene your partners are going to celebrate with you. But where there's work to be done, they'll be honest and let you know that as well. That's what it's for. We scratch each other's backs and celebrate each other's successes. If you can't handle an honest critique then you sure as heck can't handle the sometimes lonely and tough world of writing books and - more often than we wish - having publishers reject your babies. But it's the name of the game. If you can't take the heat get the heck out of the kitchen, 'cause you'll never learn to be a good cook.

    1. Exactly! I think it's a sign of respect that we can be honest with each other. No need for pettiness and temper tantrums. Listen, learn and help.

  2. I for one am grateful for a critique group and know my writing wouldn't be what it is today. That is the purpose of critique to get get an honest opinion of your work. If you're not interested in what others have to say or you think they are jealous and disparaging when giving honest advice then why bother joining a group. Your fellow writers are trying to help you be successful.

    1. Some people are just ignorant of how the world works - and forget that respect is to be earned, not blindly given just because. If you simply want unending praise, get someone to start a fan club. I for one, want my critique partners to be honest. Otherwise, I'd still be writing fan fiction.

  3. This is a post that makes one think. The critique group experience may not be for everyone. I truly appreciate all the calls I receive from the others in the group. Helps keep me on point,

    1. You're absolutely right. Being in a group doesn't work for some people, but that doesn't excuse the nastiness directed at us when we were only trying to help. You know how I feel about people publicly slamming their friends - it's happened to me before, and I won't stand for it happening to my critique partners.

      I cannot tell you how glad I am that myself and the others are and will be there to support you, however you need it, because you've done so much for all of us. This group is more than simply writing partners, and you are our fearless leader! :D