Sharks: Who, Where, and How to Get Rid of Them

by Kathy Waller

This is a shark:

This shark does not live in the ocean. It lurks in bookstores, coffee shops, libraries:

Disguised as an aspiring writer, it invades critique groups and, fueled by ego, envy, jealousy, and just plain mean-spiritedness, can do untold harm.

Writer, instructor, and “genre-hopper” Maralys Wills describes its pernicious effect:

“Nothing will stifle creativity faster than the critiquer who’s ‘out to get’ other writers. Subtly, or not so subtly, a shark is so impossible to please that other authors become frustrated, then discouraged, and finally defeated.”

Wills speaks from experience. She was once in a critique group with a writer who wrote “golden prose” that Wills could only praise. But she was the only one who saw flawless writing.

“Sure enough, each week,  the others ripped and tore and nit-picked to death the work I found so perfect. . .  and all the time I was thinking, You guys must be desperate to flaunt your hatchets. None of you are as good as she is.”

Wills has a rule covering toxic critique groups: “Any group dominated by a shark should be disbanded. Preferably, you should kill the shark on your way out.”

In critique groups, intentions matter. Relationships matter.

In the most productive groups, members behave like professionals. They look for the positive and address the negative in language designed to help their colleagues improve. In the best groups, they behave like friends. Sometimes, members even morph from friends into buddies. And in a buddy-style relationship, anything can happen.

For example, in a chapter I submitted to a short-lived two-person group—we called ourselves the Just for the Hell of It Critique Group, for a reason I won’t go into here—a  contentious old lady says to another character, “And you and that Claudia person can just go right back where you came from.”

Gale, my partner, objected to the word person; she said the old woman knew Claudia and so would say, “You and Claudia can just go right back where you came from.” I didn’t argue (a rule: no arguing),  but I knew the character, and I could hear her say, “that Claudia person.” Because writers are free to reject advice if they wish, I left the word where it was.

Some time later, commenting on  a revision of that page, Gale again said I should remove person. But I still liked person—it was one of my darlings—so I quietly declined to do so.

By the third go-around, Gale had  had enough: “That Claudia person thing is driving me crazy.”

She wouldn’t have said that to just anyone. We’d worked together and learned to trust each other. We spoke the same language. We were buddies.

She knew I would laugh. I laughed. She laughed. I removed the offending person.

So here is my love song, not fancy or fine, but most sincere, to the Austin Mystery Writers, the Just for the Hell of It Writers, and all those groups that give aspiring writers the knowledge, support, and  courage to keep aspiring, to publication and beyond.

By the way, the toxic critique group Maralys Wills wrote about—she and the writer of “golden prose” left the group. I don’t know what happened to the sharks. Wills and the other writer might have killed them on the way out. Or they might still be out there, destroying other writers’ creativity.

Maralys Wills, however, became an award-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction.

And the writer of “golden prose” that the sharks trashed at every meeting? She became the author of the best-selling Inspector Lynley mysteries—Elizabeth George.

***

These are not sharks:

For your reading pleasure, I recommend Maralys Wills’ Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead: The Bumpy Road to Getting Published. 

***

Kathy Waller’s stories appear in the Austin Mystery Writers crime fiction anthologies, Murder on Wheels (Wildside, 2015) and Lone Star Lawless (Wildside, 2017), and at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly and has a novella coming out this fall.  She lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.

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