Dana Martin Writing

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Dana Martin Writing

Murder your own darlings, Darling

When critique groups go bad

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” ― Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

When I met with our WOK (Writers of Kern) critique group leaders last month to hammer out the details of our upcoming meeting on critique groups, I shared a story that I’d never told anyone else. It’s private. It’s about writing—my writing. I had a critique group experience that changed me, and I felt it was relevant to the discussion so that our leaders would understand that the critique group experience can be as damaging as it can be helpful.

You know the damage I’m talking about. Our writers’ egos are delicate little creatures of an unstable existence. One strong gust of criticism can wipe out a single project like a tornado sucking up a two-story house. Poof. Gone. Only the foundation left.

Several years ago I was writing a historic romance novel. My creative writing instructor had called it “literature,” to which my ego answered, “Yes, of course it is!” believing that my writing was an incredible, grammatically sound piece of uncommon art. Clearly I had channeled Jane Austen.

In truth, it simply had no sex scenes in it.

Yet.

Nonetheless, I took my confidence and my beautifully written tome to a romance writers critique group, where I met two lovely ladies who remain my friends today. They are both multi-published writers in the historical romance genre—the bodice ripping, sex having, sword wielding books that fill most of the bookstore (and my office) shelves. I was grateful they were letting me into their critique group.

By the time I summoned the courage to share my first novel chapter with them, I’d been participating several weeks. They were a little rough on each other, but nothing prepared me for how indelicate they would be with my piece.

“You can’t DO THAT!” one said as she slammed her pencil to the table.

“You’ll never get published if you write like this,” said the other in a calmer tone.  “Say what you mean without all these extra words. Just get to the point!”

“This just doesn’t work,” the first said with the disgust of someone trying to dress a dead rat. “You need to re-write this entire chapter.”

They murdered my words, and with it, my confidence to write in that genre. I collected my battered pages and made the changes they wanted, despite the feedback I’d gotten from my college professor who’d called the manuscript literature. I made the changes, and do you know what happened?  I hated it. I hated it so much I put it away in a cupboard and never looked at the 25 chapters again.

That was nine years ago. Then, this December, tired and ragged from marathon editing sessions for two patient clients who’d waited their turn behind my Halloween business, I accidentally bumped into my old manuscript. I was rooting around in a cupboard far over my head when my hand touched the familiar pages.

Winds of Change. There it was. I flipped to the middle of the book and read it with the fresh eyes of an editor now. And I loved it. It’s the best piece of fiction I’ve ever created, and I let it die because of an unfortunate experience with a critique group.

Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about making our critique groups work at WOK. And that’s definitely why I spend time ensuring our critique groups understand how even criticism, when couched as “invitations to reconsider,” can be delivered kindly and without the assumption that any one of us is qualified to murder a darling.

We can suggest it. We can even be an accomplice if asked.

But we cannot be the one to wield the knife and deliver the fatal blow. We just can’t.


    Comments

  • Annis Cassells


    Absolutely, Dana! Respect, kindness, and reasoning should accompany opinions about another person's writing. Critiquing is a touchy thing because the writing is such a part of authors, it's hard for them to separate the two.and not take the critique personally. You've done an excellent job of modeling how it should be done for WOK groups. xoA .

  • Robin


    Well said. It is that sort of experience that makes novice writers hesitant about joining at all. No one wants to leave verbally dismembered.

    I am so glad that you rediscovered your novel so that you could view it with fresh eyes (and years of editing experience).

  • asdfa asdfadf


    Well, maybe it depends on the source. I recently received some really rough feedback, and by rough I mean, "I know you're at 150 pages, but you need to go back to the beginning." But I trusted the source 100%. I know she has my best interest at heart, and even though I didn't want to hear it, I agreed with her. I don't think critique groups should take the slash and burn approach, but I think kid gloves can be just as harmful.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher


    Hi Dana .. what a great post … we all are so opinionated without thought as to the receiver … as you've said there's ways of telling it like it is and ways like it could be …

    Interesting that your years' experiences at editing proved the turning point for your own novel ..

    Cheers Hilary

  • Kathy Wiechman


    I agree. I have also been on the receiving end of a similar harsh critique. "Get rid of this. It's lyrical narrative. Today's readers won't read lyrical narrative." But instead of butchering my novel, I went to past reviewers, who had liked my "lyrical narrative." What to do? Realize, first of all, that not all readers are the same. Some will not read what others will love. I went back & cut my lyrical-ness with a scalpel rather than a butcher knife. Great post, Dana.

  • Elizabeth Seckman


    I would give you a standing ovation for this post, but my dog will think me bizarre. I believe writing books is like raising children…everyone has an opinion, there are obvious pitfalls to be avoided, and plenty of books to be read, but in the end…only you know what is best for your baby…be it the book or flesh variety.

    Robin is featuring you at her blog and I had to follow the link. What you said about attending funerals was so true and so thoughtful.

  • Lexa Cain


    Like Elizabeth above, I'm here because Robin of "Your Daily Dose" featured you – and I'm so glad she did! I'm a pretty tough woman, but when it comes to writing, I'm as fragile as a baby bird. Most of the bashing comes from my own inner editor (which I seem incapable of shutting up), but I agree with your post. CPs should be respectful and diplomatic. I preface suggestions with "You might consider.." or "Perhaps…" There are many tastes in books and writing, and something I think is dreadful may get published and be the next big thing. *shudder*

    I'm A-Z-ing using ghost stories and haunted places, which are so much fun!
    (new follower)
    Lexa Cain’s Blog

  • Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com


    Hi, Dana.
    Great to meet, and now follow, you through Robin.
    I wonder if we all have pieces of worthy writing stashed away somewhere, collecting dust, because one know-it-all idiot said it was garbage. Yet have we noticed that most of these know-it-all idiots haven't published anything worthy? Nah, we don't consider the source. Smiles.

  • Sandra Cox


    What a great post! And didn't you hit the nail on the head about our insecurities….And well written;)

  • Jasmine Lowe


    Hello, I’m nominating you for the Versatile Blogger Award 🙂 You don’t have to accept it if you don’t want to, just so you know I thought of you. http://jazzedaboutstuff.com/2014/04/23/kudos/

  • Rich Partain


    In life it's always best to follow your heart and instincts. Everything experienced in the past, both good and bad, makes up who we are now.

    Talent is only a starting point. All the greats worked hard to become better and even harder to be the best.

    No doubt about your talent, strong work ethic and spirited drive for excellence. March ahead with your dreams and live life to the fullest. Dana, you are already an inspiration to many. Me too.

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