“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.
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.