Smart Bitch Advice

I received an email message from an aspiring writer who wishes to remain anonymous, but who asked for my ever-so-stellar advice with the following problem:

Dear Smart Bitch Sarah:

You gave some damn-sharp advice the last time someone wrote to you, so I wanted to ask your help with my problem. I’m part of a critique group of four writers, and while one of them, let’s call her “Ann,” is amazing and so helpful when she reads my work, the other two are less helpful. “Beth” gives comments and critiques that are very minimal, so I’ve learned to take her with a grain of salt. But “Carrie” is my problem. She doesn’t pull her share at all. She never meets our deadlines and has some excuse every time, and she doesn’t give our work half the attention she seems to expect for her own writing. I get nothing but frustration out of dealing with her and I seem to be the only one who finds her to be a flake. But I was invited to join the group by Ann, and I’m the newest member so I don’t want to cause trouble. Plus, Ann’s critique of my work in progress has helped me so much, I’m unwilling to leave and lose her excellent advice. What would you do?

Discouraged Writer


Dear Discouraged:

There are two important and vital truths to your problem. First, the only person who you can change in this situation is you. I’m not saying you should let Carrie slide when she misses a deadline that everyone else has worked hard to meet. Missing deadlines is one of my mega huge honking behemoth pet peeves, and it’s insulting when you’ve busted your ass only to see her to hand over an excuse every time. So speak up – you have every right as a member of the group to say that you’ve set aside time to read Carrie’s work, and if she’s repeatedly late and missing deadlines, you can’t devote as much time as you’d like to your share of the process. Particularly, if she doesn’t like what you’ve said or thinks you’ve done or said too little, point out again that she’s creating the situation by not respecting the agreed-upon deadlines.

But really, the only person you can change is yourself – meaning Carrie isn’t going to change. Clearly she’s not entirely serious about her writing, and it’s not a top priority for her as it is for you. So you have to change your reaction to her if you want to stay in the group – and it sounds like you do for the sake of Ann’s contributions to your work. You’ve already learned from her errors – deadlines, clearly, are important. Now you have to manage to take Carrie’s flakiness less personally. It’s not about you – it’s probably more about Carrie getting attention. Focus less on the things that bug you about the group, and more on the things you value. Perhaps Carrie is the price you pay for working with Ann – unless Ann would like to work with you one on one. Never hurts to ask, and it could do wonders for both of you.

Which brings me to point two: that anger you get when dealing with her, rising like reflux after too much puttanesca? Inspiration, baby! Every time flake girl misses her deadline and offers some dumb excuse, channel that anger into your writing. Base a character on her, and enact your happy revenge on her sorry ass.

Flaky people drive me batshit, but they are part of life. Not everyone respects a deadline but your dedication and attention to your work will pay off. Good luck.


General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Cat Marsters says:

    I’m with you there, Sarah.  Writing is a solitary business and you have to get used to it.  I’ve met some great friends through crit groups but when the chips are down and I need an opinion fast, there’s no one to rely upon but myself.  Other people have busy lives and they don’t always have time to spend on you.

    That’s the excuse part.  The nasty realism part is this: if you start doing well, better than your crit partners, they’ll be jealous.  Writing is so competitive, and even after twenty e-books and five print books I’m still counting personal milestones among my contemporaries.  It could be that your ‘Carrie’ is jealous of your better writing.

    Or maybe she’s just a jealous cow.

    Crit groups are great up to a point.  But never rely on them.

  2. 2
    Carrie Lofty says:

    I didn’t do nuthin’!!! But I sympathize. Negotiating with other writers can be harder than getting pubbed….

  3. 3
    sartorias says:

    There are plenty of Carries out there who think everything is all about them…that their work is clearly the focus of the group, and the most fascinating.

    My own advice is, since life is so short, ask Ann if she doesn’t mind doing a twosome.

  4. 4
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I’ve soooo been where you are. I left both critique groups. I just wasn’t getting enough good stuff to put up with the bad stuff.

  5. 5
    JaneyD says:

    Excellent advice!

    You are FAR more patient than I am concerning the slackers and flakes who turn up in life.

    There’s a flake in my group with ADD, and I give her credit for fighting it.

    However, she’s a devoted fanatic of all things spewed out by LKH and another writer who is the paranormal equivalent of Cassie Edwards.  ADD girl’s goal is to write *exactly* like them.  She is deaf to all suggestions that there are better writers to learn from.

    God help us, she’s been bringing the same freakin Fey-Folk-orgy-so-the-MC-can-get-preggers scene to the group for 6 months now.  The gal running the group won’t do anything, as she thinks it would be catastrophically discouraging to ADD girl’s insecurity problem. 

    The rest of us have to suck it up and read the stuff, then critique so we can have our turn.  It’s just frustrating that ADD girl is NOT listening to a single thing we say.  She’s not getting it or she’d be published by now.  (It’s been 10 years since I met her.)

    Were I in charge the rules would be bring something new each time, unless group has no problem with a second pass.  But you only get one of those!

    But it ain’t my group, and I don’t have time to start my own.

    Just letting you know that it could be worse!

  6. 6
    Chrissy says:

    I really think the jealousy thing is rare unless it’s a two way (or multi- way) street.  That may sound like I’m taking a shot at somebody but I promise I am not.  It has become a bit of an e-urban-legend, though.  All crit partners are either perfect or jealous.

    Every instance I’ve personally seen where the jealousy thing came up, it was a massive pot-and-kettle-convention.

    Most crit groups have weak spots.  Ironically, my own just met.  THinking about it here, I realize many of us (we’ve been together for years) have gone through rough spots.  I’ve been unreliable when I was ill.  Another member was the same during her divorce.

    If “Ann” is that good she is worth suffering the other two.  How bad can it be?  Just dismiss their advice and pull your own weight… particularly if you are the newest member.


  7. 7
    Ann Bruce says:

    another writer who is the paranormal equivalent of Cassie Edwards

    Now I want to know who this is.

    As for the critique group, never joined one.  Thought about it and even approached my local RWA group about becoming a member to take advantage of the critique services, but they never replied to any of my emails (and I sent them from three different addresses in case my other ones got caught in a spam filter).  (I wonder if it’s because most of them write much different works from mine or if it’s because they’re all print and I’m with Ellora’s Cave.) *shrug*  No matter.  I’ve written them off and moved on.

    But if I had to deal with Carrie, I’d spend little to no time critiquing her work.  If she can’t be bothered to read your work, you shouldn’t be bothered to read hers.  Maybe she’ll eventually get the message.

  8. 8
    Kaitlin says:

    I admit to being a procrastinator when it comes to critiquing.  Usually it’s because “real” life has taken over and I don’t have time for it.  I always try to make sure that I let the person I’m critiquing know & I always get them their stuff on time.

    However, the whole jealousy thing is a bit ridiculous.  Everybody writes differently & some people’s style might work better for you than others.  You can think to yourself “Wow soandso writes so well!”, but jealousy?  I don’t think so.

    Just my 2 cents.  :)

  9. 9
    Wry Hag says:

    “Inspiration, baby” is right!  I’ve already based two characters in two different novels on my boyfriend’s skanky, psycho-bitch-from-hell ex…and one of those books is a holiday romantic comedy. (Couldn’t you just tell from the description of her what kind of story she’d be in?  Holiday. Romantic. Comedy. It fits, ain’a?)

    The rest of your advice is excellent, too, Sarah. Life’s too short and a writing career too elusive to piss away valuable time and energy on people like “Carrie”.

  10. 10

    Here I am reading the comments and nodding and agreeing with the first one, then get to the signature and… it’s Cat, my brainstorming and critique partner!  Gee, yet more confirmation that she knows her shit.  I’ll also cop to being totally the flake in this crit relationship, too, but she forgives me.  *mwah, Cat* 

    As we’ve both gone from unpublished to published to having books and deadlines with multiple houses, the cp relationship has evolved, too—neither of us has the time to give the in-depth, detailed crits we used to exchange.  Ebook deadlines are tight.  I think that ability to flow with the natural progression of a writing career is so incredibly valuable, and it is extremely important to me to know that I can buzz Cat on IM with some random idea that came to me and she’ll help me turn it into an actual plot.

    Good cps, bad cps, you’ve got to trust your gut.  Even when you’ve got a great friend whose writing you admire and whose advice you value, that doesn’t mean you’ve got to follow every word of his/her crit as though it were gospel.  I remember being totally convinced that one plot twist Cat had planned would absolutely not work.  I mean, I was adamant.  I believe I might’ve crossed the line to bitchy.  But Cat kept it, I read the finished project, and damned if she didn’t pull it off and make it shine. 

    I guess my advice boils down to this.  Pull your weight (casting guilty, apologetic look toward Cat), trust your gut, don’t let someone urge your story into a direction you don’t want to go, and don’t be afraid to cut a cp loose if it just isn’t working out.  Yeah, breaking up is hard to do, but if you’re serious about your writing, you have to do what it takes to nurture your gift instead of staying in a relationship that’s stifling or downright destructive. 

    Oh, and when you find a good one?  GRAB ON AND DON’T LET GO!  They’re rare as gold and far more valuable.

  11. 11
    Teddy Pig says:

    ARRRRR I say she walks the plank!

  12. 12

    Oh man, Sarah, you’re so much more mature and sensible than I would’ve been in your shoes. My advice would’ve involved darts and duct tape. But inspiration is much better. Plus, she won’t be arrested with *your* advice, whereas mine…meh.

    But then again, I tried critique groups and couldn’t deal well with them.

    Like Teddy Pig said: Ahrrr! the plank!

  13. 13
    Cat Marsters says:

    laughing my head off at the notion that I know my shit in any subject

    And now I’m trying to remember what plot point she told me just wouldn’t work.  See, ignoring your crit partners is the way to go!

  14. 14
    Lorelie says:

    If I were Anonymous, I’d either ask “Ann” to be exclusive (on my end, that is) or move on and try to find a new group.

    As for the over all discussion of our crit groups, I’ve been pretty lucky.  Anyone remember when OWW ran a romance section?  I met a half dozen women there and we cleaved off to make our own Yahoo group.  We’ve picked up a few members along the way, and lost a few too.  They’ve been awesome.  I went on hiatus twice due to hubby’s deployments, moves, etc and they’ve always welcomed me back.  And I haven’t seen even a speck of jealousy.  Deyz da shit.

  15. 15

    Been there….oh, I have been there. Crit groups usually do have weak spots. This sounds so similar to a group I was in. At this point, we are more friends that critique partners. I would send out my chapter and get one response…out of three members. So, why bother? I don’t send anything, and neither do they. I moved on into another group. I would call the other group brainstorming friends. :) They are very good at that.


  16. 16
    L Violet says:

    A crit group advice column—an idea whose time has come!

    I’ve had one tenacious critique partner for two years. She’s nice, reliable, has great ideas, and is damn near illiterate. I only stay because…huh. I don’t know why I stay. Inertia, I guess. Also a little fear.

    She can’t give me any advice about my writing because she has never read any books and, as I said, is semiliterate. Yes, she has some good ideas when my plot gets stuck. I feel that she’s learning a lot from me, and it’s nice to be able to help someone, but I have to break up with her and move on. Our meeting is this evening; I’ll tell her then.

    A dozen Cadbury Irish Cream bars could not quell this guilty feeling.

  17. 17
    Theresa says:

    It doesn’t specifically address Discouraged Writer’s question, but Samantha Graves and Lani Diane Rich talk a bit about critiques and critique partners in this podcast.

  18. 18
    veinglory says:

    Jettison the baggage!


    If being polite is required you can always say you only need one or two opinions and find more confusing.  So you will just be sending your work to the little red hens in the group and not the giant mosquito.

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