Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types


Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types

In writing groups, there seem to be two kinds of writers when it comes to criticism of their work. Both shoot themselves in the foot (feet?) without realizing it.

Type 1: No, no, no.

This writer spends all his time telling you that your suggestions are impractical, impossible, and artistically wrong. There is already an example of this in Feedback Defensiveness, but I think the phenomenon bears repeating.


Fred, I was really liked your premise. However, would people adapt quite so quickly—


Well, how long should it take?


I don’t know, but a clearer indication of the timeline—


The vagueness is intentional—it will all make sense eventually.


But if the reader can’t situate himself—


Well, no, you can’t. I have more faith in my readers.

Might as well have spared your breath. Not only did Fred fend off any feedback but handed you an insult as a bonus.

Fred wins the battle and loses the war by turning the feedback session into a combat zone.  He leaves with his manuscript unaltered and may even have the mistaken impression that, by fending off all criticism, his piece is closing in on perfection.

Yet I have a sneaking sympathy for Fred. You have to believe in yourself and your writing. Otherwise, why would you keep going?

And, let’s face it, there is usually a variety of levels of experience and talent in any writing group. Some give great on-point feedback and others can’t distinguish between how they would write your piece and helping it be the best it can be.

I get why Fred might be defensive but it’s not an effective way to improve his or your work. But there is another more insidious way to prevent progress.

Type 2: I agree with all your criticism

This writer usually takes copious notes in a feedback session. When anyone suggests a change (Didn’t buy the motivation; the flashback was too long; don’t have the protagonist tell the story), Sheila writes ‘change motivation,’ ‘shorten flashback’, ‘lose story frame.

This writer seems the perfect antidote to Fred. Tries to benefit from all the feedback. But her approach is also ineffective in the longer term. Here’s why:

  • You get different points of view, which of course is why you’re in a writing group. But one piece of feedback might be, ‘I found Melissa cold and distant,” while another says, “Oh, no, she reminds me of my aunt Zebby—we all loved her.” So, cold and distant or warm and loving? When Sheila tries to fix her piece, she doesn’t know which feedback to choose.
  • You are allowing others to shape your voice. While Fred’s belief in his writing is getting in the way, so is Sheila’s willingness to treat all feedback as equally applicable. With this approach, you run the danger of establishing a voice which is a composite of your writing group rather than one which is uniquely yours.
  • Feedback can be idiosyncratic. Perhaps the group member liked Melissa because you put her in a blue dress which was Aunt Zebby’s favorite color. Which is not to say that the feedback of Melissa being cold and distant is right, either, since it may also be an idiosyncratic response.

So, where are you? There is a way to receive criticism which would work for both Fred and Sheila. Next post.

The Green Book: Character Not Plot


The Green Book: Character Not Plot

The Green Book is an example of the pitfalls of creating fiction based on fact but also of character study films. This category primarily explores the main character’s personality.

Other character study films are Remains of the Day and even Little Women. If you remember (I may be speaking to only half the audience), Little Women focuses on how Jo realizes her dream to be a writer, Amy to be fashionable, etc.  There isn’t one big climax to which all the other component parts contribute.

Similarly, the Green Book is a study of character and, although lots of things happen, there really isn’t a plot.

The movie does so have a plot

I can hear the protest, “The movie does so have a plot—I mean, they meet in New York, and drive through the South…” Yes, yes. But those are events and even lots of events don’t necessarily add up to a plot. It is particularly tough to see in this movie since the character development is so well written (and acted) that you don’t even notice the lack of a story.

How can you tell the difference between character and plot driven stories?

Usually by the elevator speech about the story. Someone asks what the Green Book is about. Which are you more likely to say: “It’s about two men who find the humanity in each other despite their differences in race”; or “It’s about two men getting into trouble in the Deep South during the 1960s.”? Both are correct but I think the first in more accurate because it gets at the real intent—character.

Why does it matter?

Well, it doesn’t for the reader since both types can be very satisfying. But it does for the writer.

At some point, you need to understand whether you are writing character or plot. Is it about the growth of your main character’s humanity? Or does the story have a climax moment which resolves the issues presented in the novel?

The annoying bit is that you often want to do both—develop your characters into real people and put them in situations which they resolve. And frankly, it is a better piece if you can.

Both character and story

So why the fuss?

The problem arises when writers just keep writing interesting, entertaining, or even touching events which don’t really lead anywhere. Just stringing a set of scenes together, no matter how true or life-like, will not necessarily make a story.

In fact, novels or memoirs written this way often dissatisfy the reader without her knowing why. She might say something like, “Yeah, it was okay—lots happened to him.” But won’t say “Wow, I really understand how his life shaped who he became,” OR “Wow, it was fascinating to see how he overcame such a difficult challenge.”

What about your writing?

You don’t need to start a writing project knowing which direction you want. In fact, might impede your creativity if you do. Instead, consider this after the first draft when you’re looking to create a final product.

Do you have a classic story arc with interesting characters who change? Or is the essence the growth of the main character, illustrated by events in his life? Which you decide will help focus what needs to be added, cut, expanded or shortened in your second draft.

I know this is a tough one so I will do another post (later) on a movie where this events- without-story is more evident.

The Green Book: Inspired By


The Green Book: Inspired By

The Green Book won the Best Picture Academy Award for 2019 for a story ‘inspired by’ true events. It was controversial with some challenging its depiction of American racism.  That aside, the movie can provide an interesting writing lesson.

What does ‘ inspired by’ mean?

Movies seem to make three distinctions:

A true story is a pretty close to real life events, sometimes using transcripts or historical records.

Based on a true story allows artistic license to perhaps combine real life people into one character or alter the flow of events to increase the drama.

Inspired by a true story is a kind of all-bets-are-off movie. The real events can be a springboard for the writer to weave in scenes and characters which may not have existed. This is the category closest to, but perhaps not actually, fiction.

 All this is fine as long as the viewer knows what he’s getting. But for the writer, the ‘inspired by’ category can cause problems, perhaps illustrated by The Green Book.

How does this apply to the Green Book?

On his 1960s tour of the Deep South, a black pianist is forced to stay in black-only accommodation, generally depicted as down-at-the-heel places. His white chauffeur is not confined to these choices.

The exception occurs when the pianist, his chauffeur and two of the chauffeur’s (white) buddies all stay at the same hotel. Now, I can imagine that white people might have stayed at black-only hotels during this era. However, given that segregation of accommodation is an important premise, I think that the movie makers made a mistake by not explaining away this seeming anomaly.

But I also wonder (just wonder) whether the ‘inspired by’ allowed the writer to get carried away.

A speculation

The incongruity just discussed could have been caused by information edited out in the final cut or because it was assumed that everyone knew white people stayed at black inns but not vice-versa. I grant what I am about to propose is pure speculation but bear with me.

Generally speaking, interest is heightened when the protagonist faces a challenge. After the pianist and the chauffeur have started to understand and even like each other, the chauffeur’s buddies offer him a job. To set this up dramatically, the pianist needs to overhear the other men discussing the offer and agreeing to meet later to finalize the details. It is only with this knowledge that he knows he’s in danger. So, the writer needs a setting where all four characters are present and a hotel is chosen, even given the jarring aspect.

Because the setting is at variance with the major premise of the movie and is not explained, it made me wonder whether the meeting actually took place or whether this was just the writer heightening things with some conflict. I.E. did he make it up?

Staying true to the spirit

A lesson can be derived for writers. Creative use of the material is of course important. This is true even in a memoir.  However, in doing so, you need to stay connected to your setting, characters, and historical period. I understand the need to build a good story and applaud the effort. But you’ve gotta stick with the essence of the characters and settings you’ve created.

Depicting characters doing or saying things not consistent with who they are doesn’t make a better story. It might be better dramatically but it won’t ring true to the reader.

The Green Book is interesting in other ways. Next post.

Turning the Haphazard Approach into a Full Narrative


Turning the Haphazard Approach into a Full Narrative

In the last post, I suggested that you might want to try the haphazard approach to writing. There will be a point that you have written all the component parts of your story or memoir but they’re not in an order or form which would make sense to a reader. This post is about taking all the bits and bobs of scenes you have and whipping them into a full narrative.

Building into a full narrative

Read over all the pieces you have related to this story. In doing this, you get a shape of the story. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What is the rough order of the scenes? How do you want to tell the story? Sequence the scenes in a way which feels right to you.

What scenes are missing? Sometimes (often), you need a transition from one event to another. Or you might think that the reader needs to understand the motivation of the mother better to make the rest of the story work. Note the ones you need to add.

What are redundant? If an event is especially important, you may find that you’ve written more than one piece covering more or less the same ground. Actually, this is good. It allows you to consider the different ways you handled that scene (e.g. different point of view, told rather than shown, etc.) to decide which fits best with the shape of the story. You may even find that combining the scenes works.

Are all the scenes building to where you want to go? Sometimes, you write scenes which don’t fit. This makes sense. Creating the body of writing gives you a feel for the type of world you created. It is only at this point that you understand the shape of the story enough to know which scenes contribute and which take it off in another direction.

This is where writers can get unnaturally attached to pieces or scenes they love. You need to keep the whole story in mind and cut or change ones to fit its flow.

Where does the story start? On reflection, you may find that the story starts later than you thought. This is often because you have scenes which give background or do set up. Try to start the story as close to the beginning of the plot as you can.

Does your original ending still work, given the rest of the story? Might, might not. But it’s worth considering whether the originally planned ending fits with how the story has evolved.

You’ve still got editing

This may feel like editing but it’s not really (okay, maybe it’s a kind of substantive edit). You’ve still got to go back to fill in missing scenes and ensure the story builds in a way which engages the reader. This is the point where you need to check the name of Aunt Mary’s third cousin by her second marriage.

Writing with Energy: The Haphazard Approach


Writing with Energy: The Haphazard Approach

In the last two posts, I discussed why starting a writing project at the beginning of the story or at the end, can have unexpected challenges. In this post, I’ll discuss what the haphazard approach is and why I think it produces works with more energy.

The haphazard approach to infuse energy into your writing

Seems a bit silly to call this an approach but it’s the only term that comes to mind. And being haphazard, it also seems a bit odd to be listing the steps to follow. But here goes:

  • Close your eyes. Think about your story or memoir. What comes to mind? The day you found out there was no Santa (I hope I’m not giving anything away)? When the heroine finds out she has been betrayed?
  • Whatever comes up, write about that. Just start typing.
  • Keep going. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the middle of the narrative you want to tell or if you’re unsure of the exact surname of Aunt Mary’s third cousin by her second marriage. Make a name up and keep going.
  • Write as much of the scene as you can, investing all your energy and creativity into making this the best scene you can.
  • When that scene is done, repeat the process with a different scene. Doesn’t have to be the prequel or sequel to the scene you’ve just written. Just anything that interests you at this moment.

It can’t be that easy

It isn’t easy, in fact. It’s very hard work to get down the emotions, action, and settings in a way which reflects what you want to depict. But it ups the chances that you are writing from a place and about a subject which energizes you and your writing.

So, you continue this haphazard way, not worrying about continuity of story, possibly changing the name of your hero half-way in, perhaps writing a scene which is very similar to one you have already written. Doesn’t matter. This is all stuff you can fix later. Just get down as much as you can in as vivid a way as you can.

One problem

I am basically advocating separating the creative process of generating the story from the equally important but different process of developing a narrative which hangs together and makes sense from the first page to last.

But the astute among you will have figured out that, while this haphazard approach helps get the story down, there is a point where you have got all the component parts but not in a form which others would recognize as a story. Next post.

Not the only way

Naturally, this isn’t the only way to tackle a writing project. One writer I know has to have the first line before he can start. Dickens had to have all of his characters named before he could get going. Other writers plot the whole thing out before they write a word (I’ll have more to say about this in another post). You can even actually start at the beginning or end of your narrative if you take into account the caveats I’ve outlined previously. But I encourage you to give my method a try. I have found it works not just to write the story but occasionally, even allows magic to strike.