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8 Urban Myths to Squelch During Story Critiques

6 November 2012

From author Adrienne deWolfe via Writing Novels That Sell:

One of the toughest lessons you will ever learn as an aspiring author is how to recognize personal prejudice  or worse, “Urban Myths,” during a story critique.

Not all story critics are created equal.  Aspiring authors and published authors are both guilty of spouting horror stories about the tactics of book editors and literary agents.  Many of these manuscript readers are merely passing on rumors about the book business that should have been squelched at the source.

. . . .

#1. “This idea has been written before.”

No idea is new. Even Shakespeare was stealing ideas from Celtic Bards.  (Romeo and Juliette, for example, is strikingly similar to  the legend of Tristan and Isolde.)  Keep in mind that some readers of commercial fiction actually want to immerse themselves in the same archetypal story over and over again. For this reason, the Western, the Thriller, and the Romance novel still thrive.

#2. “Editors hate prologues.”

While an occasional book editor may be anti-prologue, hundreds of novels containing prologues get published each year, and they sell as well as books without prologues. Scoundrel for Hire and Always Her Hero, my fourth and fifth published Romance novels, respectively, both opened with prologues. Both novels also won awards — and they were nominated for these awards by book editors. I promise you, well-written prologues don’t prevent novels from selling.

. . . .

#5. “I don’t like the word scarlet. Why can’t you just say what you mean and use red?”

This example represents any suggestion in which a literary crusader wants to argue word-choice to death. Give it a break! Scarlet is a perfectly acceptable word in the English language. So are crimson, ruby, Titian, and vermilion.

Unless an adjective, adverb or verb is used to the point of overkill, or in a manner which is inconsistent with the character’s personality, the tone of earlier passages, or the era in which the story is set, the literary crusader is wasting everyone’s time.

Link to the rest at Writing Novels That Sell

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12 Comments to “8 Urban Myths to Squelch During Story Critiques”

  1. I belonged to a critique group and I started to worry when I got the kind of feedback in this article. Long discussions about whether or not contractions were allowed finally made me leave.

    Sometimes it’s hard to manage the balance between good advice and canned advice.

    • A critique group I once belonged to broke up when one person insisted that he knew the “correct” plural for the word “virus”. (Some of us disagreed, some didn’t care, & many believed his stubbornness about this trivial issue was reflected by his difficulty over other issues.)

      Some topics simply need to be banned from any critique group for it to function as expected.

  2. The story of Romeo and Juliet is quite different from Tristan and Isolde, where the impediment to their love was that Isolde was married to King Mark, not that they belonged to feuding families.

  3. No complaints from me about this article. After Clarion, some of my fellow graduates and other NY area writers created our own writers group and managed to critique one another’s writing in completely positive ways. It’s not that hard to do, really.

    I HATE the so-called “muscular” critiquing style. Tearing down someone’s writing doesn’t do a damned thing to help that writer improve.

    In fact, I haven’t workshopped my fiction in over a dozen years, and have no intention to ever do so again. There comes a point in a writer’s career where she needs to decide that she gets final say in her own work. The nuts and bolts? Find a good copy editor for things you miss.

    • Agree Meryl.

      I find most workshops useless. Especially the online ones- you see chapter 13 of some book you have never seen before ,and have to write 250 words critique to get points. No wonder people write pedantic and useless stuff.

      • I second this. I walked away from critique groups years ago, preferring to trade editing services with one or two talented writing friends. The old saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” is perfect in regards to writing groups formed for any reason other than socializing and positive concrit.

        I also agree with using interesting language rather than flat. It’s good to avoid wordiness, but red isn’t vermillion nor is it scarlet. If it were, then The Scarlet Letter would take on an entirely different meaning.

        The Red Letter? Just doesn’t have that ring of scandal and abandonment. Words have meaning. Semantics matter.

  4. English has a wealth of words and I’ve never liked the austerity program when it comes to using the more vivid adjectives and (gasp) adverbs. I prefer to read the more lyric writers who employ them to the more straightforward prose of the Hemingway acolytes which is why I use them myself. Titian conveys a very different sense of color, for example, than crimson or scarlet. This is one urban myth I’m happy to do without.

    • So am I. Crimson and vermillion are two different shades of red, so why shouldn’t I be specific? In some stories they can even be relevant. I think Miss Marple once dismissed the idea of a suspect wearing an item the killer wore, because the item was one shade of red and would clash with the suspect’s hair, a different shade of red. Just saying “red” and “other red” wouldn’t cut it there.

  5. Wow, that Shakespeare mistake is weird. About 5 seconds of googling confirmed my memories from college that the likely source for Romeo and Juliet was The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet a poem by Arthur Brooke from 1562.

    I doubt there is a more well-researched topic in literature than Shakespeare’s sources.

  6. In my critique group we’ve discovered that some disagreement can be gender specific. So often during the discussion one of us will take a quick survey – did this bother you, too? It no longer surprises me to see the boys hold one opinion and the girls another. We use it as insight to the reader and consider it another tool for the author.

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