You know when someone can write.
The sentences flow, their ideas are clear, there’s a sense of command where every word seems right regardless of the genre.
Sometimes, while getting to know new writers, you’re impressed with their publishing credits, awards, or attention from industry insiders before ever hearing a paragraph.
Sure, as critique partners we come together to help each other, but there’s always that thread of anxiety in your brain wondering how your writing will stand up to theirs.
But no matter the genre, talent, or personality of the participants, learning to give and receive critique is a valuable skill — one that improves the craft of everyone involved… at least when applied correctly.
Writing is tough. It’s subjective. It’s art. People can be petty, filthy, molding ghouls, full of contempt and jealousy who won’t hesitate to crush your spirit beneath a jackbooted Balenciaga heel for a momentary sense of self-righteousness.
The things I’ve heard people say at writers groups have been stunning. The worst usually comes from those without pages to share. “Don’t fool yourself. Nobody will read your crap.”
That’s not helpful.
Then there are these people: “I don’t read (your genre), but you need to fix (everything)…” or, “I only write literary,” followed by unnecessarily harsh critique and condescending smugness as they say they’re only trying to help.
If you’re a genre writer it’s okay to hate critics like that. You’re allowed to construe any number of fictionally cruel scenarios in your head. You may even decide to write them into a story and kill them off like the coffee mug says. Or, perhaps, write an article about them.
The thing is, there’s almost always a thread of truth in even the cruelest, harshest, most self-absorbed critique. People speak from what they know. There’s usually something useful to take away, even if they’re unfamiliar with your genre.
Once, I had a guy comment on an entire chapter with, “I don’t know why you wrote that. I just don’t see the point.” Then he shrugged.
I got pretty heated pretty fast. He said nothing insightful, nothing specific. As he began another loathsome sentence, I stopped him and continued with the rest of the writers group. I don’t have time for insults. Others chimed in with much more constructive critiques, things I could take notes on, approaches I could consider.
When I sat down to angry-edit I realized that the bastard had a point. The chapter was all over the place. Sure, afterwords I rewrote the chapter, but I’ve carried that comment like a scar on my brain and now analyze every piece I write with those questions front and center.
What is the point, and why did I write this?
I could’ve argued. I could’ve told him exactly what the point of the chapter was, but that wouldn’t have changed the words on the page. The best course is to accept genuine critique. It’s your choice whether to incorporate it or not.
If the critique doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. You are the writer. You’re under no obligation to free advice from people who may not know any more than you.
Personally, after everyone has given their initial critiques, I find it helpful to explain the effect I was aiming for in my own piece. It’s strange, but when a group is asked for opinions on bigger picture issues they become less defensive in their positions, talk among themselves instead of at me, and open up with a flurry of ideas rather than individual, and occasionally competing, criticisms.
Listening to others discuss my work with a direction in mind helps me understand and incorporate the rest of the feedback, even from quieter people who may not otherwise express their misgivings concisely.
A friend read my writers group submission aloud. (I like to hear my work in a fresh voice without personal inflection or theatrical flourishes. Otherwise known as stuttering.) The new attendee pointed out a section with too much exposition.
I heard it as well, and I agreed. Two separate paragraphs, seven sentences in total, bumped the flow.
Good catch, new critique partner.
I appreciate it and I’ll cut that down.
Then, the new member began his turn with the qualifier, “My other stuff wasn’t working. This is my first sci-fi novel.”
The first impression was so different. The credits, the industry attention. I assumed his other stuff was working. I looked for a way out of the imminent lecture guaranteed to explain a massive info dump. Maybe I could get another soda, use the restroom, thwart a robbery…Commit a robbery?
I sat through eight pages of orbital cycles and habitable zones.
First and foremost, I’m sympathetic and I’m actually okay with awkward exposition. It’s fairly easy to fix.
Second of all, what the living F? How can someone pick out seven expository sentences from my piece and not see an eight page info-dump in his own?
When delivering my critique of our new member’s work, I pointed out the ever so slight issue of way too much exposition, which in turn earned the lecturing reply, explaining the scientific nuances that the exposition didn’t fully cover. I’ve heard the lectures before from others taking the plunge into the literary slums of sci-fi looking for an easier path to recognition.
But seriously, this was a sci-fi group. Everybody had a handle on basic sciencey stuff. Some with legit science backgrounds, some with advanced science degrees. We all know math, yet we gather to learn to write and none of us were there to listen to rehashed Wikipedia articles.
By the third interpretation of habitable zones, I knew we’d crossed into the bizarre intersection of credits, ego, and rewriting.
Nobody likes to be told.
Rewriting sucks. Not only is it a lot of extra work, but it’s an admission that entire brilliantly written passages weren’t that good. It can be a gut-punch to the ego, especially in this case where previous credits conferred excellence. But the eight pages could honestly have been cut down to one half.
More argument. I saw where the conversation was going.
This writer’s credits weren’t buying my solutions. Too bad. It was solid advice from somebody who knows the genre pretty well. Unfortunately, I think the critique was resisted as more work instead of as an opportunity to make the piece better.
In truth, no amount of explanation would turn this piece into a compelling printed story. I picked out the parts that could’ve been kept for immediate scenery, but the point wasn’t getting through. I find it a shame; however, it’s not my story and I won’t beat anyone over the head with my vision.
I gave my opinion. That’s the most I should do.
I’m all for writing whatever genre strikes a writer’s fancy, but my new critique group partner may have confused the science for the fiction.
All the same qualities of good writing apply to every genre. Plots need to develop, characters should be sympathetic, resolutions need to be satisfying. Those are basic storytelling elements, but too often they’re ignored by writers deciding to try out a new genre.
The pages of exposition were only a symptom of a larger problem—as if a person swears off gambling by joining a fantasy football league. Quits coffee for energy drinks. Stops smoking for vaping.
If someone hasn’t found success in their passion, then the problem is probably in their skill. Simply switching genres won’t help.
Unfortunately, hardened opinions don’t soften from contrary critique—not until reality intervenes from a similarly credited source.
Every genre has its rules. Mysteries need murder on the first page. Romances need happy endings. Fantasy has constraints on magic systems. Contemporary needs quirky awkward heroines.
All of them solve problems within a given and predictable structure unique to the genre.
Search for writers groups that align with your style, where the people are compatible, and the critique is challenging. Go where you’ll get the most for your time.
Sci-fi has its own groups for a reason. Not because thriller writers think we’re nerds or literary authors audibly scoff, but because there’s a lot more to the genre’s style than it’s given credit for.
At the same time, there probably aren’t any other genre groups that have more fun. Maybe romance writers with their wine and sauciness, but they don’t get into lively debates over systems of time.
Wait… maybe thriller writers have a point.
I always wonder, when writers from other genres come to sci-fi groups, ‘Why are you here?’
Not in a snobby way; more like, if other things are better, then why aren’t you doing better things?
There are lots of genres and that’s how it should be. A little something for everyone. And I really don’t mind critiquing outside of my genre, nor others jumping into my groups, as long as they have something specific and constructive to say.
There’s really no way to learn the craft except by writing your story, joining a group and taking advantage of polite writers with more experience. That’s just the nature of the game. Helping new writers is what I’ve come to expect from attending open writers groups.
But still, when I hear those fateful words, “This is my first sci-fi…” my exposition antennae start to cringe. The biggest question should always be, does the genre fit what the author wants to say?
Benjamin writes science fiction with a little horror thrown in for perspective. He’s also a freelance writer slogging through the literary trenches, keeping his head down and his fingers moving. There’s more to writing than words, there’s also style, craft, and art, all of which have taken one lifetime to learn and will take another lifetime to understand. Until then, he’ll be found editing in dark caves, or coffee shops.