The Journal: Be True to the Story

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: Be True to the Story
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.” Ray Bradbury

“Symbolism? Symbolism is what critics search for and readers sometimes believe they discover. But it has nothing to do with me. I just write the stories.” Gervasio Arrancado, writer of magic realism, on symbolism in fiction

“Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.” Norman Mailer

“Symbol-hunting is absurd.” Saul Bellow

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Topic: Be True to the Story

“One of the most damaging things a new writer can do is try to please everybody who beta-reads or critiques their WIP.” Anne R. Allen in “10 Dangerous Critiques: Beware Misguided Writing Advice”

Wow, do I ever agree with that. Well, except that the quote should read “any writer” instead of “a new writer.” And some of that “misguided writing advice” is implied by Ms. Allen’s post: namely, that you should actively seek a critique of your characters’ story in the first place.

But why do I agree that “one of the most damaging things” a writer can do is “try to please everybody”? It certainly has nothing to do with whether a critique is “valid.”

Every critique is valid from the critiquer’s poing of view and, for that matter, it should be valid from the writer’s point of view as well. After all, everyone has an opinion, and any honest opinion is as worthy of respect as any other honest opinion.

But that’s exactly the point. Whether or not you agree with any critique, it remains only one opinion, and with any luck you’ll have more than one reader of your work. So others’ opinions shouldn’t matter to the writer. At all.

Say your critique group has five members and each of them offers a “good, valid” critique of your novel. Once you’ve made the recommended revisions, you’ve pleased exactly five readers. That’s five out of what you hope will be tens or even hundreds of thousands.

And I might add, none of those you pleased by making the revisions are your characters. Chances are, your characters crossed their arms and went silent the instant you started inviting others to tell them how to live their story. The instant you broke their trust.

But you know best and you’ve chosen your path. So maybe more is better. Say you show the revised novel to five MORE critiquers in another critique group. Each of them also will come up with a critique. And this time when you’ve done the revisions, you will have pleased exactly TEN readers total. Woohoo!

Um, are you seeing a pattern here? Go ahead, tell me it isn’t true. And while we’re considering that pattern, what effect do you suppose those recommended changes and the resulting revisions will have on your eventual readers? After all, it isn’t the readers’ opinions you took into account.

Even if you see a critique as having merit, that doesn’t mean your readers will like the story as much after the revision. Again, different opinions. There’s much to be said for maintaining your unique voice, but more on that tomorrow.

Now, I understand that you don’t have to agree-with or apply the critiques, but then why ask for them in the first place? Do you really believe any critiquer might know better how your characters should live their story? Puh-lease. Even you don’t know better how your characters should live their story.

If you’re willing to change your characters’ story by applying the advice of a critiquer, why not also invite criques from readers? If anything, their opinions should matter more. After all, they actually paid money for your book. Of course, what one reader likes another will detest, so….

But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? If you invited critiques from those who really matter, your readers, things would get unwieldy pretty quickly. Might as well not write in the first place. Or you know—not invite critiques.

And as it has always been, that is my advice: Don’t invite critiques of your work in the first place. Be true to your characters and be true to your role as the recorder of their story. In fact, I recommend you be proud of your work and defend it, stringently, against all comers. I’ll leave you with this:

Lee Child’s editor met with him over lunch in New York one day and mentioned a particular scene in Child’s latest Reacher novel. He thought the scene might fit better at a different place in the novel.

Child looked at him and nodded. “Yes, I agree. But that isn’t how it happened.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best response ever to any critique.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “GoFundMe and the Nag’s Head Light…” at

See “In Person and Study Along Classes” at

See “Craft Lessons: @HarlanCoben STAY CLOSE #Netflix” at

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

4 thoughts on “The Journal: Be True to the Story”

  1. Couldn’t agree more re critiques: don’t ask for them. The people you ask them of can’t possibly know the story or the characters as well as you do, so anything they can say is part of a different story and for different characters – which they should go write themselves if they want to read.

    I have enough trouble listening to my characters and getting them right.

    • Thanks, Alicia. Millions of others (but no long-term professionals that I know of) participate in critique groups, etc. under the banner of “whatever works for me.” Which is fine. Shrug. Fear of failure runs hand in hand with the fruitless pursuit of perfection.

    • Hi Nan! Sure will. I miss him too. Last I heard, he was hanging out in the main cantina in Agua Perlado along the Pacific coast in Mexico.

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