Friday, March 11, 2016

When Does a Harsh Critique Become Verbal Abuse?

Readers often ask writers "where do you get your ideas?" and we sometimes find it hard to answer, because ideas are, of course, all around us at any given moment.

Critique groups can be great...or not
But I remember the exact moment when I was inspired to write Ghostwriters in the Sky. I was at a prestigious California writers conference and I'd listened to a young man read a compelling story in a late-night workshop.

The critiques that followed started out negative and got harsher as each speaker piled on. Most of them criticized him for breaking "rules" I'd never heard of. It was as if they belonged to some strange cult and everybody had read its scripture but me.

I was something of a newbie at fiction writing, but I had two Ivy League degrees and my mother taught creative writing at the university level, so it wasn't as if I was a total ignoramus on the rules of writing.

Nobody who spoke had anything to say about the young man's strong storytelling skills and fascinating characters. I raised my hand, but was not called on, apparently because I wasn't a member of the "writing rules" cult. (For more on this, I wrote a post on these "writing rules police" on my writing blog last month.)

What's worse, the bullies were egged on by the workshop leader—who seemed more interested in wielding power than in improving anybody's prose. He was obviously an empathy-challenged power-tripper who needed the whole workshop to be about him.

Being a newbie, I didn't know if what happened was a normal part of workshopping, but I felt as if I'd witnessed some pretty nasty verbal abuse. 

I tried to speak to the young writer afterward—to say how much I disagreed with what had been said—but he dismissed me with a few angry words and took off running. I realized he was close to tears. He could only see me as a member of the gang who had bullied him. 

That night I tried to write about that awful scene. In my story, the critiqued writer was so damaged by
The Santa Ynez Valley, the setting of Ghostwriters in the Sky
the bullying that he tried to kill himself. Of course my story was way too melodramatic, so I later changed it to a murder with the appearance of suicide. Then I added a few more murders (I had to kill off that workshop leader!) plus some romantic sizzle, a couple of ghosts, a crossdressing dominatrix, and a lot of laughs.

For me, the best way to deal with something that upsets me is to find a way to laugh at it. I suppose that's true of all humorists.

My final result became the first book in the Camilla Randall Mysteries series. Ghostwriters in the Sky introduces us to a thirty-something Camilla Randall a.k.a. syndicated columnist "The Manners Doctor." Camilla is caught in a downwardly mobile spiral after her nasty divorce from newsman Jonathan Kahn has caused a lot of papers to drop her column. She's also estranged from her best friend, Plantagenet Smith, and is fearful of losing her Manhattan apartment. 

An unexpected invitation to teach at a California writers conference sets off a series of events that lead to the mysterious death of a talented writer who has been savaged in a critique group run by a bullying teacher who is himself a failed writer. (He now only publishes as a ghostwriter--hence the title.)

The novel, which is set in the wine-and-cowboy country north of Santa Barbara was originally going to be published by my first UK publisher as a sequel to The Best Revenge. We thought it had a great shot at finding an audience amongst the international writing community, because at the time I was a columnist for a popular Canadian writers' magazine, and this was a story I thought most writers would relate to.
The Maverick Saloon, setting of several scenes in the book
But my publisher went belly-up and I slowly discovered that nobody in New York would go near a story about the publishing industry. "We live with this stuff every day," wrote one agent. "We don’t find it entertaining in a novel." That gave me a sense of the myopia of the industry at the time.

After a few hundred rejections, I put the book in the file of "not a snowball's chance in Hades" and wrote a couple more books. But I was sad to lose the story. It’s got some of my favorite characters and Marva, the cross-dressing dominatrix is one of my all-time favorites.

So I was thrilled when an international publisher, MWiDP (now Kotu Beach Press) offered to publish it in 2011. The editor had some great suggestions to make the convoluted plot less confusing. His suggestion to start the story in New York rather than California gave me an "ah-ha moment", and I jumped into some major revisions.

The book has proved to be popular and is part of the boxed set of Camilla mysteries that was on Amazon's humor bestseller list for most of 2013. 

I don't know what ever happened to the abused writer from the workshop. The writers' conference is still going, but under different management. I hope they reined in the guy who inspired my bully-boy leader. 

I often wonder if I could have done more for that young writer and why nobody spoke up. I suppose anybody who did got savaged, so everybody had learned to keep quiet. I must say I didn't go back to a writer's conference for some time after the experience. 

I usually recommend that new writers workshop a book in a class or a critique group. Most critique groups are helpful and very few are run by people with the mental health issues of "the Cowboy." But I do warn people to look for red flags before they settle into a a group. I've written a number of posts on my writing blog about the benefits and dangers of critique groups. One is Beware Groupthink: 10 Red Flags to Look for When Choosing a Critique Group.   Another is Why You Should Ignore the Advice from your Critique Group but they can Help you Anyway.

Have you ever witnessed a behavior in a group or workshop that seemed inappropriate or abusive? Was more than one person involved? Were you able to stop it, or was the "Groupthink" too strong? Have you ever been abused in a group or workshop? What did you do? 


After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her "kinky sex habits" is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall's life unravels in bad late night TV jokes.

Nearly broke and down to her last Hermes scarf, she accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers Conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California, where, unfortunately, a cross-dressing dominatrix named Marva plies her trade by impersonating Camilla.

When a ghostwriter's plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with Marva to stop the killer from striking again.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is only 99c in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesGooglePlay  KoboInkteraScribd and NOOK.
It is available in paper at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

It is FREE at iTunesInktera, and Kobo

"Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years.... This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets"...Sandy Nathan, award-winning author of The Bloodsong Series


  1. A critique session with no advance warning about graphic child abuse in a reading is the worst experience I ever had in a writing group. In retrospect, I should have run from the room before horrors were read aloud in a chapter. During the critique session later, when it was my turn to speak, in no uncertain old GI terms, I said there was no, repeat no reason to include such terrible depictions in the work. No soon after I began venting my spleen, another member of the group ran out of the room, sobbing. Later, I was the bad person for reacting so negatively to the work. I wonder if I was so in the wrong if mine wasn't the only negative reaction. I'm guessing people who have been abused or have loved ones who have been abused, or list "child abuse" on the list of hills worth figuratively dying on, would have reacted similarily.

    1. Anon--You bring up something I didn't think of when I wrote the post, but it's important. I agree that readers should warn the group about graphic violence, torture, explicit sex and other things that might upset members of the group so they can leave the room.

      I used to simply pass on critiquing violence, saying I'm not qualified to critique a genre I don't read, but I would rather have been warned. Thanks for pointing out this is an issue that needs to be addressed

  2. I cannot imagine hearing such searing feedback from a shark-circle like that and not laughing in their faces. It's not any great confidence in my own writing, but my long, skin-thickening experience of that dreaded chamber of vice... community theater. Where, as a good friend put it eloquently, "the passions run so high because the stakes are so small". Like writing, we put our heart and soul into acting; nothing's easier than someone too old or slow or lazy to play the part you have coming along to rip it to shreds. You look around and realize EVERYONE writes fantasy, not just us guys who put dragons on the covers.
    It would be a dream come true to find that young writer and see how it's going today, I agree. If nothing else, he was part of giving you a fabulous story. I had heard parts of your tale before, Anne, but never realized how many rejections you got. Incredible. That tale's a hoot and a half.

    1. Will--I should have known you're a veteran of community theater, too. Ha! I was in theater for many years, both professional and amateur and stuff in between like dinner theater. You're so right about the small stakes. Hilarious.

      There's no more vicious critic than the bad actor who didn't get the part.

      I think this workshop experience was different for the young man because it's a very expensive conference and he was a poor-kid scholarship student. Getting to the conference was a huge deal for him. I hope he's wildly successful now. I don't think I ever got his name. All I know is he was Hispanic and wrote about a culture most of those rich-bitch ladies had never heard of. And yes, I will always be grateful to the real-life inspiration for Ernesto Hernandez.

  3. Anne, I regularly had to police people in a writing circle I agreed to lead for a local library. After three years, I found the situation so stressful that I had to beg out. The bullies were always men (I'm sorry to say) and they could say the cruelest things.
    In a classroom, it's different. I have authority and can come down hard on people who push boundaries.
    I warn all my students to be very careful who they allow to read their work. Trust is essential.

    1. Melodie--Thanks so much for stopping by and contributing this. It's very interesting to hear that even a college professor can't keep the bullies in check when it's a critique circle rather than classroom situation. I would have found it horribly stressful too.

      I have to say that men have been the biggest bullies in my own writing life. I remember when all the men in a group I attended ridiculed me because I had a policeman character use the word "gun". They said a policeman would never say that word. They would always call it by its name, like "Glock" or "Smith and Wesson". And to this day, every time a cop says the word "gun" on TV I want to send a clip to those guys. Another one could not stand when somebody said "in a few minutes". It had to be the exact number of minutes or he'd have a fit. No reason. Just his own quirky rules. No. He never got published.

      You're very wise with that advice. People who seem normal otherwise can turn into sadistic monsters in a critique setting. Usually, as Will pointed out, they are people who are wildly ungifted themselves.

  4. >>Plantagenet Smith<<< OMG--LOL...just for that, I must read this. You are hilarious. As for critiques people behaving badly, agree with everyone: need it NOT!

  5. Tarra--I'm so glad you like Plantagenet Smith. Scroll down through the last few posts and you'll find a lot more about him. I stole his name from an obscure 19th century operetta.

    Bad critiques usually come from bad writers--and are to be ignored. :-)

  6. Anne, it sounds like what you're describing is mob behavior. That explains why the dissenters don't speak up. Mobs are terrifying and people will do things as part of a mob that they wouldn't even consider under more normal circumstance.

    1. Ruth--I think you're right. It was a mob. But instead of screaming and pitchfork-wielding, they were kind of cold and detached, as if it were some kind of ritual sacrifice.

  7. Ay, I've been there, Anne. 'Group think' can invade any community. It was at its most hilarious in a postgrad committee meeting I once attended, while finishing my PhD. All were bright, educated mature people, allegedly dedicated to independent thought. Yet the hive mind ruled. Female students had been harassed by local youths in lanes outside the college. The police were indifferent. So I suggested, seriously, that members of the college judo club might patrol those lanes. Or the girls could carry pepper cans. I was shouted down (yes, shouted) for my 'fascist and sexist' attitudes. (Duh?) The committee 'chair', fascism incarnate, said: 'We're not living in South Africa under apartheid!' (Duh?) Everyone below the age of 25 glowered at me. It was eventually agreed - ie. the 'chair' ruled - that any girl who had been assaulted should file an official complaint with the Dean. That'll show 'em...

    1. Dr. John--I am so glad I don't work in academia! What a nightmare mix of fascism and infantile whining and entitlement has taken over college campuses. Women shouldn't defend themselves. Instead, perpetrators need to be told not to perpetrate. They can stop rape by banning all books that mention it it. Nothing is allowed but books about gender-neutral fuzzy bunnies with no problems. Students are delicate flowers who can't be exposed to reality. Just let them get raped and shut up about it. That's what rugs are for.

    2. Ho, that debate is raging in UK academia right now, Anne. Students everywhere are demanding 'safe spaces' where nothing might offend their fragile minds. Away with Jewish speakers, down with apologists for blood sports! A black student, a Rhodes scholar, has just aggressively demanded that the statue of Cecil Rhodes be pulled down from Oriel College, Oxford, because Rhodes had been a racist. His money had come from colonial exploitation! True. But by that logic, the gentleman should have returned his Rhodes scholarship. It was tainted money, wasn't it? He didn't return it. Oh, mes enfants...

    3. John--Professors are in terror of those crazies over here, too. People lose their jobs for assigning "offensive" authors like Ovid or Vergil whose books contain "trigger" scenes.

      That guy with the Rhodes scholarship was a bit unclear on the concept. :-)

      But even if he gave up the scholarship, where do you draw the line? Erase history because it's full of a**holes? Are we going to tear down everything built by Henry VIII because he murdered 1000s of Catholics? Tear down all those Norman churches because William the Conqueror suppressed the English language and discriminated against Anglo-Saxons?

      They want a "college education" but they don't want to have to learn anything about the world.

    4. They could pillory me as well, Anne! My grandfather killed Boers in Africa circa 1902. What does that make me? (Of course, the Zulus killed a lot of white people too. What does that make them?) Every long-standing institution, and dynasty, was founded in blood and horror. No wonder students - wrested, dewy-eyed, from their family homes - crave a 'safe space'. Yes, Jessica, the world is nasty. Now go away, dear, and play...