Recently I had a short story accepted largely because one of my critique group members pointed out that I had not clarified the monetary value of an amount of a bill for services expressed in the monetary system used at the time of the events; pounds and shillings. I know that. I knew it when I wrote the story but, like many good critics, she pointed out something so obvious that it was little short of amazing I had not seen it on my own. Adding a few words in the revision made the point I was after — the point of the entire story.
In another short story I failed to give the historical time frame. My readers assumed that the hero, who was a World War II veteran, was in his eighties. They wanted to know why the old man was bouncing around on rooftops, fighting gangsters and saving a geriatric damsel in distress. I had not intended to write geezer noir. I just forgot to mention the date of the story, which resulted in a strange and unintentionally humorous adventure.
In fifth grade English I noticed that every time a student story was read that had characters with the same first name as one of my classmates everyone perked up and looked interested. I thought I had discovered the secret of writing popular fiction. I wrote a “story” using the names of the most popular kids in class. My mother read my “story” and tried to warn me. But I had to learn on my own that it’s also a good thing to include a plot. The teacher and students made that abundantly clear. I have never forgotten it. It was good training for a writer.
Feedback about what doesn’t work in my writing is especially helpful. On occasion in my desire to be helpful in critique groups I have been known to share things I believe could be improved in, um, colorful language. I don’t mean I curse. I mean I say things like a writer. One group member started her novel’s first chapter with a cute and well-written description of a woman coming home and playing with her cat. Person after person around the table in the bookstore commented on the high quality of her writing in the scene. Then came my turn.
I suppose my word choice could have been more tactful. I said it was, “boring” and likely to appeal to “all ten people in the English-speaking world fascinated by the idea that woman might play with a cat.”
I pointed out that later in the same chapter the woman locked her weapon in a gun safe and then noticed an unexpected man’s shadow on the wall. I suggested that those events might make an opening for a mystery novel that would interest many more readers than a woman playing with a cat. Just in case you’re wondering she forgave me and we are still friends. I fact she still gives me great advice about writing.
What have critics saved you from?