Keeping Your Group Running

Copyright 1996, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter # 183, December 1996.

Over the last decade I have been involved in a number of workshopping groups, both by mail and on-line. In that time I have seen enough successes and failures to draw some generalizations on what factors contribute to the fate of the group. After watching more than one group grind to a halt over unpleasant disputes, I've found three major things to remember to help prevent such events and keep your workshopping group running well.

The first thing to remember is that the writer has come to you as a fellow writer. Far too many people, even beginning writers who haven't had a single thing published, will present their critique as a series of commands, then wonder why the author goes running for cover. These critiquers really don't intend to come across as bullies, so they wonder why the writer isn't appreciating their efforts. Part of the problem stems from the fact that we learn from example. What examples do most beginning critiquers have besides teachers and editors? What these critiquers fail to realize is that both teachers and editors are in priveleged positions of authority. The teacher, particularly at the elementary and secondary school levels, is consulted not as a colleague but as an authority. The editor has the power to write a check, and therefore is in the position of an employer to demand conformity to his expectations. (For instance I was recently in a writer's workshop at a convention which included the editor of a professional SF magazine. Had that individual told me "do this," I would not have been surprised or insulted). But you as a critiquer have neither of those prerogatives. You have been approached as an equal and therefore are expected to treat your critiquee as an equal, not as a peon to be commanded. Just the simple grammatical adjustment of softening commands into suggestions can make the difference between a critique that provokes resistance and one that is taken to heart.

The second thing to remember is that you are critiquing the story and not the writer. Most people will immediately respond that they'd never do a thing like that, and that they know the difference between "the story's stupid" and "you're stupid for writing it."

However many of them do not realize that not all personal attacks come in such naked, ugly form. Far more come in the form of "stealth attacks," innocuous-seeming statements that hide their venom in the assumptions behind the words. One of the cruelest is, "If you really wanted to write a good story, you would...." On the face of it, it doesn't look that nasty, which leads many people who see a writer get upset at receiving such a comment to conclude that the individual just can't take criticism. But if you look closely at the construction, you will realize that this sort of "If-then" statement carries an assumption that the "if" clause is not presently true. That means that this statement is really saying, "You don't really want to write a good story, because if you did, you would...." In other words, the statement is attacking the writer's level of concern about his/her craftsmanship rather than dealing with the story itself.

A kissing-cousin of this kind of attack is the one that begins "Even an idiot can see..." We've all heard it lots of times, from teachers and bosses and people on the street. What's so terrible about it? Its venom is in the implication that because you failed to notice this particular flaw that even an idiot can see, you are therefore stupider than an idiot. There are several other kinds of these stealth attacks, and every one of them simultaneously wounds the receiver and destroys any possibility of successful communication that leads to learning. Anyone who is still unsure of what they are or why they are so particularly wounding should find a copy of Susette Hadyn Elgin's The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense and not just read it but study it.

Sarcasm is another absolute no-no. While "stealth attacks" are like poisoned needles hidden in a bundle of flowers, sarcasm is a backhanded slap in the face. Instead of attacking intellectually through implication, sarcasm hits us at our gut level, leaving us feeling put down and abused and anything but in the mood to look at whatever genuine flaws in our writing the person was trying to address. One particular incident sticks out in my mind very strongly. A critiquer, trying to point out that I had failed to forshadow an important plot point adequately, made a remark to the effect of, "It's so nice that X just happened along." Given the fact that the X in question was an inanimate and fixed feature of a building that the critiquer knew perfectly well wouldn't be trotting about on its own, it was a very clear case of sarcasm. I was deeply wounded by this person's comment, and had it been done in an in-person setting rather than online, I might well have slapped the individual (especially given the body-language cues that generally accompany such sarcasm in face-to-face settings). It was only after the sting of the sarcasm had subsided that I was able to see past the crude delivery and realize the criticism was valid. Had this person simply told me in neutral terms that I'd failed to forshadow the existance of the artifact adequately so that its sudden appearance when it was needed was too convenient to make good fiction, I probably could have accepted it with far more equanimity and wouldn't find myself feeling a nagging measure of resentment as I went about correcting the problem.

The third and final thing to remember is that this is the writer's story, not yours. All too many times I've seen eager and well-intentioned critiquers grab hold of a story and try to force it into the mold of their own writing, leaving the writer feeing as if the critiquer has stolen the story and is turning it into a monstrosity. Often this happens when the writer lacks the skill to clearly transmit her own meaning, so that the critiquer reads it as something that the writer never intended. For instance the writer is trying to create a story exposing the unfairness of a given situation, but the readers perceive it as the story of a whiner who needs to learn to adapt to the situation. Maybe the writer hasn't learned how to use specific details to convince the reader that the character is indeed being screwed over and does indeed deserve a better fate. (This is an important skill in non-fiction writing too. Edward Beach suggests that Admiral Kimmel's Story failed to convince the American public because the Admiral concentrated too hard on the technical details of the naval situation and failed to include the sort of personal details of his hard work which would allow Joe Average to see him as a regular guy who had earned his high position through faithful effort and then was played foul by the government to which he'd given his best years).

The best way to avoid situations like this is to avoid imposing one interpretation on the story and implying that it must be rewritten the way you suggest. A critique should always leave an honorable out for the writer who cannot do as you suggest because s/he knows that "that isn't my story." Even if the changes are necessary to make the story commercially saleable, a good critiquer will always recognize that this is the writer's story and the author may actually prefer to pass up professional publication rather than destroy what they regard as the central point of the story. The last thing you want to do is phrase your critique so that the writer will wind up looking or feeling ungrateful if they choose to go a different route than you suggest. Here again, qualifying statements with phrases like "I think" and "to me" will make it clear that you are not presenting this as the Only True Interpretation of their story and what needs to be done with it, but as your opinion.

Observing these three principles will help make workshopping a more rewarding experence for all parties involved. Writers join and participate in workshops to learn how to improve their stories and their general writing skills, not to demonstrate how much pain they can endure without flinching. Although growth can at times be painful, the infliction of pain for its own sake does not lead to growth and can often hinder it by distracting attention away from the areas requiring growth and onto the infliction of pain. Since workshopping is a voluntary activity, a person who turns the critiquing process into an ordeal is likely to drive away those who most stand to benefit from the process. This is counterproductive for everyone. The best critiquing groups are those that work together to help all the members grow.

Copyright 1996, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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