The value of critiques: clarifying story problems

For the second time since joining the Arlington Writers Group back at the end of August 2010, a story of mine was critiqued during the group last night. The story I submitted for critique was a science fiction mystery that I like quite a bit, but that has been rejected just about everywhere I sent it. I got some good feedback from a few of the editors to whom I sent the story, but I thought it would be useful to submit the story to the group to see if they could find out what was wrong with it.

And the group came through big time. How?

Many of the people in the group identified the very things that the editors I’d sent the story to pointed out. Too many coincidences in the story, for instance. A deus ex machina ending. Trouble with the timeline of the story. This not only reinforced the judgment of the editors, but it demonstrated the perspicacity of the group as a whole. If they are saying they same thing that professional editors are saying, they are doing something right!

But the group also identified some specific flaws in the story that I hand’t seen and that added to the confusion of the story-telling. For instance, the main character in the story is a detective named Reese. I’d always pictured Reese as a woman and always imagined that Reese was her last name. Without realizing it, however, I didn’t use a pronoun until page 2 and just about everyone in the group thought Reese was a man until they got to that pronoun. About half the group through it was a cool reveal to find out she was a woman, while the other half had trouble thereafter picturing her as a woman because they’d started out picturing her as a man. There followed a fascinating discussion about the sexism of readers in presuming a specific occupation (detective) to be male. The truth is that I wasn’t trying to be clever or sneak in an unexpected reveal. I wanted the readers to know that this was a woman from the outside and I clearly failed in that regard, and what’s worse, it preoccupied people through the rest of the story. The thing is, this never would have occurred to me if not for the group pointing it out, and it is a story problem that can be clarified with the addition of a single word very early in the story. (People pointed out, too, that Reese could be a male or female name and perhaps I was being purposely coy. I’d like to take credit for that, but the truth–as I pointed out to the group–was that I was eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup when I wrote the opening scene and I did as I often do when struggling for a name and not wanting to get bogged down–I chose something right in front of me.)

The folks in the group provided plenty more feedback on the story, and it is clear there are problems with it, but this is exactly how you learn to improve your craft. By listening to what critical readers think of the story, recognizing those places where they have problems, and figuring out how to avoid those problems in the future.

I’m grateful to the group for giving me honest, helpful feedback. I haven’t even gotten through all of the written feedback I’ve gotten yet. I imagine this has to be difficult for some people. After all, a story of mine is in the current issue of Analog, and many of the writers in the group are not yet published. I know I would feel awkward giving a “published” writer feedback on a story, but I am glad this crew didn’t hesitate and didn’t pull any punches. (They were direct, but very kind.) Whether you’ve sold stories before or not, each story is a new adventure and what worked well in one story may not work in another. It’s another example of just how valuable critiques are, but also an example of what a good group of people this group is.

I’m serious. If you are a writer and live in the Arlington, VA area, you should check out the Arlington Writers Group.

4 thoughts on “The value of critiques: clarifying story problems

  1. Thanks for the feedback on the feedback, Jamie. When our group does it right, we do it RIGHT. And with good material to work with, it’s that much easier. I’m looking forward to the revisions – but hope you don’t kill too many of the babies I love in the story.

  2. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about our group too. They point out the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. That way, you know what’s working in the story already and what needs some work. Hope the revisions go well!

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