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Ask the Agony Editor: Writing circles can be helpful, but they also can suck the life force out of you

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Dear Agony Editor,

Brian Francis

(Illustration: Evan Munday)

I’m in a writing group, but I often find the feedback I get to be frustrating. I’ll be told things like: “The writing was good, the characters, setting, and dialogue were good. But since I don’t normally read this genre, I didn’t like it.” Is this an issue with my writing – that it needs to be better explained – or do my readers need to read more objectively? Or is it a bit of both?

Signed,
Genre Gentleman
Dear Genre Gentleman,

Writing groups often provide structure, support, and feedback. But they can also suck the life force out of you. Other writers will often tell you how they’d write the story rather than helping you write the story: “You know the part when the synthetic life form escapes the exploding space ship? I’d change that to a female spy living in 17th-century Europe, fleeing her executioners. That would make your story a lot better.” It seems to me like this might be the core of your issue. Your group has people in it who don’t “like” the genre you’re writing in, which muddies their feedback. But if these people aren’t the audience you’re writing for, weigh how much their opinion matters. On one hand, feedback from people who don’t normally read your genre might actually help you cross over to a larger audience. It can also illuminate the ways readers feel excluded from certain books.
When I write, I ask, “Where are the open doors?” It’s important for me to provide as many entry points into the work as possible. That doesn’t mean that someone will walk through the door – or want to walk through. Sometimes, people are content to stick to the room of their liking. If your writing group leaves you feeling more deflated than inspired, consider finding a new group – one more suited to your genre. If you decide to stay, pay close attention to what people are saying. That’s how you’ll learn to sort subjective opinions from genuine critique so you can find those open doors.
Brian Francis is the author of Natural Order and Fruit. He teaches creative writing­ as part of the International Festival of Authors.

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