10 Dangerous Critiques: Beware Misguided Writing Advice

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

One of the most damaging things a new writer can do is try to please everybody who beta-reads or critiques their WIP. I’ve seen a novel turned into a kind of jackalope of unrelated parts.

If you tend to be a “people pleaser” this can be a real problem.

I’ve been swayed by these dangerous critiques a few times myself. One of my Camilla romcom mysteries has suffered the wrath of reviewers because there’s too much realism going on with one character’s tummy tuck. I had made the mistake of taking advice from one of these dangerous critiques: A man told me with great authority what a complicated procedure a tummy tuck is. So in spite of my own experience with tummy-tucked friends who had no such complications, I let his confidence sway me. So I added way too much clinical detail to my breezy romcom.

. . . .

I learned some things.

. . . .

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 women to handle and that nobody could run that fast in high heels.

They must be so miserable in superhero movies.

The truth is that most fiction is not realistic and is not meant to be.

James Patterson said it well   “ I don’t do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I’ve written doesn’t seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing. You can say, “I don’t like what you do, or I don’t like Chagall, or I don’t like Picasso ” but saying that these things are not realistic is irrelevant.”

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. And your reader is bored to tears.

Details in fiction should be like Chekhov’s Gun.  Don’t spent two pages describing trees if those trees don’t end up being an important part of the plot.

3)     Grammar Enforcers

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 text book.

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 get hold of your WIP, the result will send all your readers to sleep.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Here’s a link to Anne R. Allen’s books

9 thoughts on “10 Dangerous Critiques: Beware Misguided Writing Advice”

  1. If I let “realism” get in the way of Story I could never read or enjoy any book.

    I started listing examples of different books that fail in “realism” — yet are still fun reads — and then abandoned the list because it wore me out just thinking about it, and that’s precisely the point of the OP. Yikes!

    Thanks for the link. I need that list because it is all too easy to fall into those traps when you’re not actively protecting yourself.

    • One still has to remain below the level at which belief is no longer willing. If, for instance, a 90 pound character (gender does not matter) fires a .357 Magnum, any result but them being on their rear end with probable broken wrists will take me right out.

      • I was thinking of one book in particular, Killing Floor by Lee Child, as a great example.

        They are counterfeiting money. They would take one dollar bills, clean them, and print hundred dollar bills on top. That would not work today, because now they add the plastic strip going through the bill that says the amount to prevent just that. That’s not the problem, because the book was wrtten before they did that.

        Where the story blows up at the end is they have a mountain of loose bills sitting in a warehouse. They are not bundled into bricks. That’s a flaw, but it’s a fun visual.

        Reacher destroys that mountain of money by setting fire to it. That’s fine, but what he does is pour a bottle of gasoline outside the warehouse, at the base of the vehicle door. The gas is supposed to flow under the door, reach the pile, then he sets fire to the gas outside and the flame flows to the mountain of money.

        The problem is, no warehouse has a floor that slopes inward from the vehicle door. That’s to avoid rain water from pooling inside, so the gas had to flow uphill to reach the mountain of money.

        – We know that the floor does not slope in, because the book starts with a pouring rain, and there is no water soaking the bills.

        I get the fun image of what he was trying to do, so I let him get away with that flaw, because the rest of the book is fun.

    • I believe C. S. Lewis hit the nail precisely on the head in An Experiment in Criticism:

      The demand that all literature should have realism of content cannot be maintained. Most of the great literature so far produced in the world has not. But there is a quite different demand which we can properly make; not that all books should be realistic in content, but that every book should have as much of this realism as it pretends to have.

      Any story contains an implicit contract between the storyteller and the audience. The first article in that contract is that the teller promises to tell a particular kind of story, and the audience expects him to keep his promise. If you promise to tell a police procedural, you’d better get the police procedures right. If you promise hard science fiction, you’d better get the science right, except where you are explicitly assuming a future discovery that contradicts present knowledge – and then you had better employ that discovery in a consistent way. If you’re writing a psychological novel, you must do your best to make the psychology of your characters plausible.

      If you break that contract to resolve the plot, that’s a deus ex machina and readers will hate you for it. If you break the contract earlier in the story, your book is liable to go splat against the wall and remain unfinished.

  2. I only agree with the third point without having to add any caveats. The first two, would be it depends. But there again I mostly write military science fiction. The military setting means that certain things would cause a character to be reprimanded, and science fiction that is concerned about the science needs to acknowledge the existence of cause and effect.

    OTOH, I only sell a handful of books, while those writers who wave away the restrictions sell bucket loads of books. So I guess I don’t know much, and my opinions on said matters are worth exactly what you paid for them.

  3. “Grammar Enforcers… Every one of their suggestions is correct…”

    That snort of derision you just heard came from me.

    “Fiction requires sentence fragments, one-word paragraphs, and unfinished clauses. Sometimes you even need to use a preposition to end a sentence with.”

    Ah, I see the problem. She has not the faintest idea what is and is not grammatical, or even what grammar is.

    • And that’s why she’s published well over a baker’s dozen books or so, partners with a NYT best seller writer for her blog and has one of the top ten writing blogs around.

      • Non sequiturs-R-Us: in this case a crude Argument from Authority (argumentum ab auctoritate: it is never a good sign when your logical fallacy comes in Latin, though I suppose that is better than coming in Greek). Lots of commercially successful people say silly things. Look at Elon Musk. If she believes that ending a sentence with a preposition is grammatically incorrect, or that the length of a paragraph is a matter of grammar, she is simply wrong. Getting on the NYT best seller list does not make that right.

  4. The most-dangerous critique is the one an author doesn’t get because he/she/they is only obtaining critiques from people at a similar skill-and-experience level with the particular type of writing.

    Inexperienced writers can benefit from those with more skill and/or more experience… and vastly more experienced/skilled writers can benefit from the “please explain how/why you did that that way” inquiries of the less skilled/experience, because teaching something gives one’s skill a different nature of mastery. It’s especially helpful when moving to a new kind of writing…

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