Caveat Scriptor

For about six years I faithfully attended a writing workshop in a city and state I won’t name.  This group’s high turnover rate gave me a chance to observe a variety of workshop participants—about 50 of them, give or take.  Here are descriptions of a few of the most disruptive types, with advice on how to tame or release them (W.i.T., incidentally, has been very fortunate: we’ve only had one disruptive personality, and he only attended two meetings):

The Sage: This person is the senior member of the group in publication credits.  He’ll often seem modest, but don’t be deceived: he expects other members of the group to defer to him and will bristle if they don’t.  Be warned that this person has been deeply disappointed by his failure to plant his flag at the summit of literature; he might loom high above us unpublished peons, but he feels acutely that he’s never achieved the fame and fortune he set out for in his youth.  His disappointment will manifest as pessimism: he’ll tell you how much he likes your work, and then he’ll tell you you have no chance of getting it published, “not with the way the industry is right now.”  The world is hostile to writers, he thinks—otherwise he wouldn’t have to associate with novices.  Deal with this species by accepting his praise, giving serious consideration to his advice, and ignoring his pessimism about your prospects.

The Person Who Doesn’t Like Anything: Almost every workshop has one.  For her, nothing’s ever good enough; in fact, nothing’s ever even good.  You’ll go around the table, each person praising a piece, saying that with a little work it might be good enough to publish—then this person will say, “I don’t know what everyone is talking about.  This didn’t work for me at all.”  Her criticisms are invariably useless, nitpicky, and borderline malicious.  Deal with this species by remembering that the enjoyment of fiction requires a voluntary suspension of disbelief: your reader has to be willing to let you guide her dream.  If your reader is hyper-vigilant or reflexively incredulous, you might as well be showing a painting to a blind man.  Usually there’s a measure of poetic justice in these cases, though: this person will be as captious toward her own work as she is toward yours.

The Madonna and Child: No one else has ever read her writing.  She’s spent the last two years lovingly licking her novel into shape and she’s just about ready to seek publication—she’s only workshopping the book because she’s afraid she might have used too many adverbs.  You open her submission with the highest hopes…and it’s an illiterate mess.  At the next meeting you constructively criticize her work, telling her how the opening chapter might be improved…and then the next member echoes your points, and the next, and the next…and by the time you’ve gone around the table this person is blinking away tears: you and the rest of your group have become a pack of ravening wolves, snapping their jaws at her baby.  She won’t be back.

The Crank: This person will be easy to spot.  Three days before the workshop meets, he’ll send out a 20,000-word submission.  It will be a “story” in which a character who is very obviously the author’s idealized vision of himself incoherently counsels world leaders on how to deal with everything from the coming Armageddon to our dependence on fossil fuels to the proliferation of cockroaches simply by expressing unconditional love.  This person is usually harmless, but he’s also a major distraction, so you’ll want to gently but firmly push him out of the group (be careful, though: when our group did this, the person in question brought a spurious criminal charge against our facilitator).

The Visionary: His work makes no sense, but it makes sense to him.  He’ll write about his dreams and his acid trips with sophomoric symbolism and the kind of seriousness-bordering-on-piety that makes you itch to burst his bubble.  He’ll critique your work as if he’s just stepped away from a tête-à-tête with God Himself in which the precepts of great writing were carved on stone tablets for his eyes alone.  When you inquire into the meaning of his work, he’ll deliver rambling explanations that will make you reach for your copy of the DSM-5.  He’s a living illustration of a verse from 1 Corinthians: “Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the congregation.”  He only speaks in a tongue.  But this type is rarely a problem—after a meeting or three, he’ll get tired of your incomprehension and quit on his own.

The Martinet: This person is a retired high-school English teacher who knows the principles of grammar and very little else.  Her work will usually concern the vexed relationship between a retired high-school English teacher and her sassy, purebred lapdog.  She’ll return your work to you with dozens of little red marks—she doesn’t like your use of commas or of the pluperfect tense, etc.  Just nod and smile.

The Mouse: This person is so timid that she’ll over-praise everything anyone else submits, and she’ll preemptively deprecate her own work by including a cover-email full of excuses like, “I wrote this in three minutes last night while I was undergoing brain surgery.  I know it’s terrible.  Do you recommend seppuku?”  Trying to raise her self-esteem is like trying to inflate a popped balloon, but attempt it anyway: it’s a good deed.

The Jihadist: He’s memorized Stephen King’s On Writing (or some other, similar book) and bases his critiques on its advice in the ferocious manner of a fundamentalist quoting scripture.  Literary writing is a heathen religion to him, but he does his best to bring other genre writers into his fold by painstakingly rewriting their submissions in accordance with the Word of King (or whoever).  He’s not a hypocrite—he’ll entreat your group to comb his submissions for lapses.  But King help you if you offer a criticism of his work that isn’t based on the gospel, or if you yourself transgress against that holy book: this person will bite off your head.  Unless you’re a coreligionist, you’ll want to cast him out.

The Auto-Therapist: This person has some sort of hang-up, and all of her fiction is thinly veiled autobiography in which her psychic fixation is revolved and examined.  She might be a woman with daddy issues; her novel will be about a woman’s quest for a romantic partner who can take daddy’s place.  Or this person might be a man with doubts about his masculinity.  In his stories, nameless paragons of manliness will smirkingly manipulate the women who pant after them.  In all other respects, these monomaniacs are sane, productive workshop participants.  But when you read their work you’ll feel as if you’ve walked in on a naked stranger.  You can either pretend you’re unaware of the autobiographical nature of this person’s work, or you can encourage him to try writing actual fiction, depending on how bad his dirty laundry smells.

The Know-It-All Moron: She knows everything about everything, and she’s wrong about it all.  Your character had his aorta severed by a knife to the chest?  She’ll explain in her pedantic way that no one is going to take your story seriously because everyone knows your aorta is in your leg.  Your story takes place in Timbuktu?  Well, her neighbor’s dog-sitter read a book about Timbuktu in college, so she (the know-it-all moron) happens to be an authority on the subject, and Timbuktu is nowhere near the Sahara—everyone knows it’s on the northern shore of Lake Mojave.  She’ll submit her manual on conflict resolution to your fiction workshop and tell you she needs everyone to read it this month because she’s self-publishing it in six weeks—she’s making it required reading in a course she teaches (this person is often a community college professor).  But don’t despair: prove her wrong a few times, e.g. by presenting her with the source of your correct information, and she’ll become so incensed at your impertinence that she’ll leave your group in peace.

4 comments for “Caveat Scriptor

  1. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    August 10, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Also, I encountered a situation which brought “The Crank” to whole new levels of awkward: It was a friend who had a thinly veiled version of themselves, and other friends…. which included me. It’s very strange reading about yourself as a fictional person in someone else’s story.

  2. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    August 10, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    Interesting post. I’ve definitely seen some of these in writers groups too!

    I think there could be another category for people similar to The Mouse, who fine with sharing their writing but are extremely uncomfortable and shy about critiquing others. They’ve never critiqued before, they aren’t sure how, and telling them that they can just share their opinions about it just seems to result in confusion. If given a “Guide on how to critique” they can follow for the first sessions, and encouragement that their suggestions are valued and respected, they can get past this fear and flourish in the writer’s group.

  3. Nieves
    July 8, 2014 at 10:58 am

    Your blog made me laugh. So much true, yet I painfully see a touch of some of these “characters” in me. O well, we all need to learn. I wonder if you could post something about the most positive workshop team mates as well? Not so much to counter-balance your awesome post here, but because I think (wrongly or not) that learning comes from studying both sides of any discussion. At least, I do learn that way. — nieves

    • Ian
      July 8, 2014 at 11:13 am

      Great idea for another post – but I don’t see a touch of any of these characters in you!

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