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Pamela Fagan Hutchins | If you can’t say anything nice, would you please join my critique group?

As I mature (slowly) as a writer, the most important qualification I look for in a critiquer/reader is the courage to be honest.  And when I say honest, I mean someone who will make me cry and send me into the fetal position.


I don’t care about commas.  Periods.  Capitalization.  Spelling.  Grammar.  Spacing.  Pagination.  I taught writing in grad school.  We all make typos.  I can fix those with a painful day of spell/grammar/style check in Microsoft Word.  Find/replace is my friend.

Instead, tell me what page you were on when you shut the book, when you went for a snack, when you fell asleep.  I need information, like what irritates you about my protagonist.  Really — how bad do you want to smack her upside her red-haired head?  Hold that thought, write that page down.  Call me.  Seriously.  Call me.  And tell me straight up, like it is.

You don’t have to be an expert in writing, although that’s a huge bonus.  You need to be the one who is way past the use of “company manners.”  I’m looking for exclamation points after a capital N.O.  I want OMG YOU CANNOT.  I want PLEASE DON’T.  I want WHAT WERE YOU THINKING.

Then, after you’ve pummeled me with those, you can tell me, “Way to go kiddo.  You took it like a champ, you rode that horse until it dropped.  And you did it.  Good job.”  Then, and only then.

Now, you all know… I love Eric :-)

And he’s a fantastic person to talk to about plot twists, to logic check my scenarios for me.  But he loves everything I write.  He begs me not to delete things.  I have to prove to him I saved the old draft before he will stop hovering when I thin a manuscript out.  The morning I cut 32 pages out of Conceding Grace, I got up at 3:00 a.m. to scratch my dreamed ideas down, then at 4:00 a.m. I slashed with a machete through the pages.  By the time he was up at 6:30 a.m., I was done, without having to fight him off as I hit the delete key.  You know what he said when he read the re-write? ” Wow, this really is better.”

He also has a certain identification issue with my protagonist’s love interest.  Imagine that, huh?   Every time I make “Nick” do something that isn’t “Francois the perfect husband” behavior, Eric frets.  Will people think he treats me this way?  Um, 1) no and 2) if the book bites, no one will ever read it anyway, so what does it matter????

I’m not picking on Eric.  He’s easy to smile with, so I’m letting him exemplify the issue:  too much praise will kill a story before it’s born.  I’m shouting out to all my writer friends.  Expect me to brutalize your manuscript next time you ask me to critique, and you had better brutalize mine right back.  Whether you agree with my crit opinions or not, the days of tippytoeing around the point are over for me.  I don’t have time to write badly.  Do you?  What is more important to you as a writer: your feelings, or your writing?

A huge thanks to Nikki Loftin for critiquing me bloody on Grace.  Honorable mention goes to Nancy Clements.  And a “most improved” statue goes to Heidi Dorey.  Thanks to all of you who rallied when I said, “something sucks, tell me what it is,” and didn’t say, “oh no, it’s perfect.”  I love you guys.


p.s.  I’ve been on a 3-day break from fiction writing as of the time of this post.  I’m so caught up on housework and business-writing that I’m passing myself running in circles.  Stop the madness.

p.p.s. After this post, no one will ever want me to critique for them again, I fear.  If you’re thinking about it and are worried, ask Nancy — if she’s still upright.

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24 Responses to If you can’t say anything nice, would you please join my critique group?

  1. Irene says:

    This is why I won’t let anyone read what I’ve ever written. I know it sucks, but I don’t need someone to tell it does. So I just read it myself, change it, save it, then get out of it before I start changing it again. It’ll all get deleted some day.

    I’m not a reader. Who am I to critique someone else’s hard work? If you wrote a book and you like what you’ve written, I’d publish it. What bothers me are the people who turn your work down. Who the hell are they? The Book Police? Just because they didn’t like it doesn’t mean EVERYONE is going to dislike it. SO, send it back and make it better so they WILL like it? Maybe they don’t like that type of subject. Maybe it reminded them of a past lover. I can’t imagine what remarks could possibly be made. Too much heroism? Too many whinny scenes? You didn’t dress the character in the right clothes for her murder?

    Pam, get yourself self published! My friend Rick is getting involved in this new arena of ebooks. It’s quite easy to get yourself into self publishing. If you want I’ll give you more info on how to contact him. He has a blog, Books 2 Day. The button is on my blog.

    • Pamela says:

      I’ll tell ya, I for sure wouldn’t submit my blogs for critique — I write these for personal expression of ideas. :-) But to me, my serious fiction is a different thing altogether.

      I am on a growth journey in my fiction writing, and I am only partway there :) (And I have published nonfiction and will continue to publish more, in the meantime; this blog post is about fiction critique)

      My novels (the ones I have written, and those left to write) will be published some day, ebook, print, audio, movies, whatever. 😉 When they are ready. When I can be proud of them for the rest of my life. They’re not quite there yet. They’re getting a lot closer, partly because of my ongoing effort and partly because my critique group has taken the role of critique seriously. I’ve never met a writer who could do it alone. You lose sight of your forest because of all the damn trees. Stephen King’s book “On Writing” is one of my favorites, and he like many other successful fiction writers talks about the time and place for critique and editing. It’s an indispensable part of the process.

      I’ve gotten excellent feedback through the submission process (to agents/publishhers) about how to make my books better, advice that has improved the books. I’m happy with that. Does it break my heart how much work it takes to “become?” Sure, sometimes. There’s a lot of emotion and self esteem tied up in writing. But I am not upset about the people who have turned my work down. If they don’t believe they can make money from it, why should they publish it? That is the litmus test: do agents or publishers believe that the investment they would make into my book would be profitable? If not, they don’t take it on. I don’t take their rejection as a personal slight or a condemnation of talent. It’s a business decision.

      For me as an author, the choice not to self publish is also a business decision. Self publishing is a valid choice when you believe it satisfies your goals. I don’t want to publish my books just to get my words out there. I want my writing to become a career (money making). My personal belief is that my books are not ready for publication yet, and I don’t want to self publish something that will not sell, and sell in volume. Self publishing may satisfy my goals some day. It does not yet. And self pub v tradtl pub — I am all about choosing the one, when the time is right, that best satisfies my goals.

      And don’t worry Irene (and Terri and Sandy) :) I don’t ask people to critique who don’t have a passion for the process, a passion that has grown over time — I think most of us start in a fragile novelist space where we need praise to keep going, but eventually we move out of that. The critiquers are word sharks like me. Snap snap, gnash gnash, rip rip. I don’t expect my blog readers — my FRIENDS — to critique. Critique is a special relationship of shared commitment where too close a friendship is a detriment to the process. However, most of my critique group reads my blog from time to time. They know who they are…

      When I write my blog, I write posts for me. Whatever I feel the need to express that day. Sometimes it is a yearning for positivity. Sometimes it is a funny story. Sometimes it is news about my family. And sometimes, like today, it is about a step in the learning process of becoming a serious fiction writer. Please non-critiquer readers, don’t take this post as a condemnation of you. It’s simply my trumpeting announcement to the writing world of where I am in the process of becoming.

      I love my friends and readers, and I love your faith and encouragement. Your comment is very supportive and sweet.

      But I can’t trade a painful minute on this road. It is all a part of becoming the writer I want to be.

      When you see me in Barnes & Noble someday, the book you buy will not be the book on my hard drive right now. It will have … BECOME … :-)

      I think this comment was longer than the post!

      Love to all,

      • Pamela says:

        And it had FIVE EMOTICONS!!! Just shoot me.

        • Irene says:


          But this is what I don’t understand…..there will come a time when you revise and revise and eventually you’re going to lose something. A feeling or emotion, the meaning of a scene, even a single facial expression can change a mood.

          I love your determination! And you’re outlook! You’re definitely grounded and understand the business end of it. When the fun and commitment are gone, then it’s time to stop.

          I really look forward to the post where your novel(s) have been accepted! Going through this process with you is rewarding. I feel like a cheerleader. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO PAM!

          I don’t know, I still wonder about these publishers. They remind me of old school teachers, pointing crooked fingers at you saying “NOT GOOD ENOUGH-DO IT OVER” and making you stay after school. If you have faith in your critiquers, then well enough.

          Great post by the way. Please don’t think I was criticizing you. More not understanding what’s with publishers. I mean you’re pouring your heart and soul into something, and then having it come back with a big red “REJECTION” on it. That would piss me off. Business decision or not. They’re not the ones up at 3am lashing out on the keyboard.

          Oh, guess what I have in my pool cover? Two BILLION tadpoles. Damn toads managed to have an orgy in their somehow! I took 7 of them to the creek this season! WTH!?

          • Pamela says:

            Nah, I didn’t think you were criticizing.

            I do understand your point, and I think there are some snobs in the publishing industry, for sure, and some people that wield too much power and think too highly of themselves. I’ve run across a couple. But mostly I’ve gotten courteous feedback, open feedback in some cases, from people who are struggling to succeed in a rapidly changing industry.

            You and Eric share the same fear. It’s valid. The best advice I’ve had so far is to trust my instincts. If my instincts tell me to cut, I cut. If they don’t, I ignore the advice and stick to my words.

            I can’t wait, either. And I wish it would be sooner rather than later!!!!

            I feared after I Posted this, which was a declaration of achievement, really, from me, an “I survived the apocalypse” type of post, that I hurt readers feelings. Especially people who told me I write good. I do love hearing that. I just need something different with a manuscript to take those last few steps from wannabe to been-there-done-that.

            Love ya, Irene.


  2. Very much looking forward to reading “Conceding Grace” BUT I’m way too nice to provide concrit that would be helpful, at least at this point. I’ll toughen up some day. Or maybe not. Sounds like you have it covered with the ‘experienced and wise’ critics anyway. Just wanted to provide my support and tell you how wonderful you are. Even if you don’t want to hear it.

    • Pamela says:

      I thought about calling this post “I’m not looking for a circle jerk,” but then I remembered the profanity police that nailed you, Terri 😉

  3. Sandy says:

    In other words, you don’t want to surround yourself with “yes” people. Constructive criticism is always good, especially for those who take and use it to their advantage. I am not much of a fiction reader, but you can count on me to purchase and actually read this when you are published.

  4. Is this an opportunity to read your novel and offer some criticism? I mean, am I reading this correctly? Or are you just discussing what you want in an editor. Because, if you’re looking for a reader/tell me what you hate about it person, I volunteer!! I mean, I’m pretty new to writing. I haven’t ever had anything published. I don’t even read that much. But when I have people look at my stuff I want the same, I want them to tell me what DIDN’T work, what was missing, what is redundant, unbelievable, tired, predictable. Anyway, I’m raising my hand. And will do my very best to be heartless!

    • Pamela says:

      I’d love to put you on the list. You write beautifully, at least what I have seen in short form. I’d love to take a peak at what you’ve got going on with that memoir — is it in the works? Will it be straight-up or fictionalized?

  5. Heidi Dorey says:

    I was gonna go cut myself when I saw that basically
    I’m a useless beta reader, until I read I got an honorable mention. Whew.
    I personally DON’T want people yelling “NO!” at me in my MS
    because it’ll just make me wanna set fire to something.
    But I agree that honest (hardcore) feedback clears the road to success.

    • Pamela says:

      Eric was afraid I was going to cut myself over some of Nikki’s comments, but I was so excited to have things I could FIX instead of great unknowns.

      She didn’t actually yell NO in the MS, but it was almost that bad in a darkly humorous way. She’s a very funny lady.

  6. Thank you!! But don’t get all nice on me now:) I would LOVE to have you read what I’ve been working on. The memoir is really messy right now. I’m having an affair with my blog because right now because it has exhausted me so much, i needed a break. It’s only about 42,000 words so far. As soon as I feel like it’s a little more cleaned up, sussed out, I would be honored to have you rip it apart.
    As for now, please let me in on your group! Tee hee. That would be the coolest thing EVER!!

    • Oh, now I see the reply button. Lol. I knew it what there somewhere.

    • Pamela says:

      Learning to critique IS cool, and I’d be happy to let you cut your teeth on me. Critiquing is about structure, story, characters, motivation, pace. To a lesser extent it is about major style issues. It’s very different from proofreading, which is about grammar and typesetting, and also stylistic issuess. Editor/critiquer hat versus proofreader hat. If you want some recommendations on good books, let me know.

  7. Rhonda says:

    I have to say I was a little let down that I wasn’t on the list. I must pass out too many compliments and point out too many grammatical errors. LOL…however, I’m still dying to read the rest of the story!

    • Pamela says:

      Actually, that was inadvertent. :-(
      I didn’t have a set group.

      But I do also have groupings in my mind of readers versus hard core critiquers. Readers may fall more into the learning-to-critique, learning to write book-length, moving beyond proofreading to critiquing (see comment to Wild Child Mama, above). Hard core crtiquers are more seasoned novelists with some industry success and tons of substantive critiquing experience. I have only a few hard core critiquers I can turn to at this point. I have great readers, some of whom have tremendous instincts.

      I’ll be in touch today.


  8. Heidi Milton says:

    YOu know I’m in the midst of graduation week here so I haven’t read like I wanted to, but I’ll see how brutal I can get when the dust settles. :) This should be a good challenge for me, the proverbial “there’s always a nicer/better way to say blah blah blah.” Looking forward to unleashing the brute in me. :)

  9. Eric Hutchins says:

    The thing that stands out to me as scary and difficult about all this editing is that everyone’s taste and opinion about what is commercially viable is not the same. There is this sense of overwhelming odds against getting the book in the right version that pleases the right agent at the right time.

    I have seen widely different feedback from agents on Pamela’s queries (one time and agent even contradicted themselves between the first and second read through but that is a different story)and it worries me sometimes that a change that one agent suggests will be exactly the opposite of what the next agent queried wants. sigh.

    There is so much wonderful descriptive writing that has been cut from Pamela’s books and yet, on the whole I have to agree that they are better than they were before the cuts.

    I have found my purpose though and that is as the technical adviser and story continuity checker, beyond that I am worthless in this process. But love to see the stories develop.

  10. Pamela says:

    Yep. I have days I want to rip out my hair. I can also say with certainty, that I am better now than I was, and that I can see some of what was not right about it before. And yet still, I share the same worries you express.
    Thanks for being the technical adviser and story continuity checker. But beyond that you have a much HIGHER VALUE in this process as champion, cheerleader, remover of obstacles, and bringer of joy.

  11. […] So far so good.  I had many people tell me that my video made them cry.  That was very nice.  Y’all know how I feel about praise, though.  But the comment that cattle prodded me into typing this blog (which counts as writing, […]

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