The Builders And The Wreckers

Recently there has been some furore over a review of Dave Freer’s Dog and Dragon.  After Patrick Richardson posted his excellent and quite accurate review, not only did a gentleman (note I use the term loosely) feel the need to throw a big hairy hissy fit over the fact that no good fantasy has been written in the last twenty years and that since his writing idols wrote all possible plots twenty years ago no new ideas could be written BUT another gentleman (again a very loose term) felt the need to write an entire article on the grammar and typos in an UNCORRECTED ADVANCE READING COPY.

This is not designed to highlight the fact that some gentle– oh, heck – some cranks didn’t like Dave’s book.  The first didn’t read it, and the second read it looking for things to throw snitt-fits about.  Also, since the first took the time to comment on how wretched that Pratchett creature is, I think Dave should be rather proud of hanging with the good people.

No, this is designed to illuminate a type of person all of us, published, unpublished, wanna bes and serious workers at the word-vine will come up against, whether we want to or not.

Reading the screaming hissy fits above, what struck me was the pointlessness of it all, and it reminded me of an incident back when my husband and I were very young (a condition that’s often covalent with stupid, but in this case it was a good-stupid.)  After about six years of infertility treatments, when we were twenty eight we decided to take the option that had been suggested by everyone: take a long vacation.  Dan took a month unpaid break and we went to Portugal to get away from our normal environment for a while.  (This didn’t quite work as we didn’t conceive then, but we conceived shortly thereafter, so perhaps it was delayed effects?) A lot of this time was spent at the beach and one day in a fit of silliness, we decided to build a sand castle.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that an excess of geekness made this a whole day project and therefore caused us to build turrets and ramparts and an artesian fountain in the courtyard.

Towards the end of the afternoon, as we were finishing, we noticed a group of kids glaring at us – by which I mean glaring.  I wondered if it was a cultural thing since adults in Portugal rarely play in public or do anything that seems less than dignified.  But I was wrong.  As soon as we packed and turned our backs – and I mean, before we had gone three steps – the group attacked the little castle screaming and gleefully destroying it.

To this day I’m baffled by this behavior.  Yes, I know tearing down the castle is part of the fun when you made it for that purpose, but this wasn’t it.  They acted as if the castle were evil and had offended them in some way.  Besides, the castle wasn’t that type.  It was the type that I’m always delighted to come across, usually as the waves are starting to take it, and examine what people did and how.

I didn’t understand their anger or their impulse until years later, when I was trying to write for publication and we had a writers’ group.
There was a gentl– oh, heck, a crank – in the very first formation of our writers group who started every critique with “To begin with, this didn’t work for me.”

Now, I will be the first to note that when that group started, almost nineteen years ago, we were all green as leeks and twice as wet.  Sometimes, by blind groping, one or the other of us would produce a fully functional short story, but most of our poor efforts were truncated, deformed and went lurching into the night of unpublishable.

That said, none of us deserved the critiques this critter gave.  After that hopeful start, he would go page by page noting every time we’d misplace a comma (yes, dears, it IS a wonder he ever got through critiquing my stories.)  Then he’d open with something sweet like “Your grammar is a mess too” after which he would give us every single typo that might be misinterpreted as a grammatical mistake.  (What, you never left an apostrophe before the s in a plural?  Then you’re lucky.)  From this he would proceed to tearing down your character’s motives.  One of my characters, who was confused and rather paralyzed by a situation got classed as “supine”, doubts were cast on the character’s masculinity and, oh, yeah, do not dare in any circumstances to have a character who is anything but heterosexual because then the critique would include YOUR moral shortcomings.  This, by the way, even if the character was an alien from a species with three genders.

By the end of this spittle-flecked tear down, most of us would feel like never writing again.

Curiously, this person rarely brought anything in.  When he did it was usually a short short of such a startling lack of originality as to sound like the slush at any hundred magazines.  While competently written for the most part, the stories would provide plenty of fodder for those of us who wanted to go after commas or typos and, oh, yeah, by the way, the moral implications of some of these just-so stories, if you wanted to explore them, were … uh.

Fortunately he was so in-your-face poisonous that the rest of the group – fumbling and inexpert though we were – got together and decided we could not take it anymore.  As such, we tried to gently give him hints.  When that didn’t work, we changed the meeting time and day and place and told him the group had dissolved.  After which the group continued with what he had stigmatized as a “love in” – amazingly, we didn’t want to tear each other or even each other’s stories to shreds.  Who knew? – and shortly thereafter (two, three years) we all started getting published in turn.

Since then I have met variants of this gentleman everywhere, from local writing groups to reviewers.  They are not all as openly poisonous as this person or even the commenter and “reviewer” mentioned above.  Those are openly wreckers and though their motives might puzzle those of us on the creative side of the equation, their aggression and poison is as obvious as that of those kids on the beach.

Some commenters and reviewers are semi-reasonable and will be taken seriously at least for a while.  Take the “published author” who joined our group five years after this incident (she had a book published ten years before and had written nothing else.  We failed to take in the implications of this, because, duh, young and stupid.)  She was not so nakedly transparent in her tear downs, but she would say things that we felt we should understand, and which paralyzed us just as effectively, such as “Your story has no engine” or “your grammar is a mess” or… all of it with no specific examples.

I can honestly say she delayed our learning a good three years, until she left the group, after which we started writing more and getting published more again.  And it wasn’t until I had sold my first novel and told her about it that I realized she’d been just like Mr. “To Begin With This Doesn’t Work For Me.”

I realized it at that point because it was obvious.  First, she couldn’t process that the book had SOLD, even though I told her that first thing, and it was WHY she’d asked me to send her the manuscript.  Second, she simply didn’t GET it.  Third, she tried to tear it down as she had things in the workshop.  Her note back started with “You’ll never sell this book” and then told me that the story had no engine and that it read like a romance (a withering criticism coming from her) because of all the interior dialogue and the feelings.

Later on, through gossip (this field gossips) I found out the reason her career was benched was that, having been selected for a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey, she’d told Anne that her plot was all wrong and that she couldn’t plot.  Even Anne, who had a reputation as a gentle mentor, couldn’t take that.

BUT that in a way is almost endearing because it shows you how strong the compulsion is, to the point of being self-destructive, and how little it has to do with a wish to advance one’s career or even to help one’s fellow writer.

And that is where we must start to understand the wreckers.  I never knew those kids on the beach, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find any number of them are now hardened vandals – though frankly that wouldn’t make them much different from their age group in Portugal, the whole thing having to do with lack of jobs and possibly lack of supervision – but every other …  Let’s call them “Wrecker” I know is an unhappy, bitter person whose problems extend to far more areas of life than writing.  They’re also, almost to the last one, startlingly unproductive in terms of creativity, though claiming that they are “artists” or “creative.”  Oh, and when they do “create” the stuff tends to be pap and so generic as to need a white wrapping and a bar code.

That is part of the problem, I think.  These are people who were brought up thinking they were creative geniuses.  They have tried to be creative, have fallen short of their own ideals and want to – no, need to – tear down anything else anyone else builds, to salve the gaping wound in their ego and self esteem.  Unfortunately, they feel drawn to environments like writers’ groups where they’re forever reminded of how short they fell of their own expectations, and that frustration fuels their anger at anyone else who dares create and PARTICULARLY at any work that is particularly good.

Because these people infest the creative professions and often take over writers groups, and because in the new age of self-publishing they are gravitating to “reviews” I will give you a way to recognize them, deal with them and counter them.  Like vampires they can be relatively harmless if you know how to deal with them.  Like vampires too, they seem to be incurable.  At least I never heard of a single one who reformed and started creating.  It seems like once the wrecking urge sets in the pleasure of destruction feeds upon itself, and creation becomes impossible.

I will however also give you a way to combat your wrecker tendencies, in case you feel yourself going that way.

How To Recognize A Wrecker

1 – minute critiques of a story, even if you asked explicitly for an overall feel.  (You are excused if it’s your first time betaing, you’re overwhelmed and try, desperately, to do something useful.  We’ve all been there.)  If you asked for plot coherence and you’re getting typos, you’re either in the presence of a wrecker or your critiquer couldn’t find his/her own *ss with two hands and a seeing eye dog.  The later is curable, the first isn’t.

2 – Critiques that go beyond the manuscript to your personal traits, sometimes descending to over-the-counter Freudian.  This can range from “you know, I could never write a character that cowardly.” which subtly implies you can do that because you lack moral fiber to the fist-in-face blunt “I see you have another dumb character, just like you.” to the implication they know you better than you know yourself “Ah! Another species with three genders.  I wonder what that means about your sex life.”

3- Pointless nitpicking and sweeping generalizations.  You’ll get for instance that “your character lacks consistency” which turns out to be that at one point in your manuscript you wrote down he was blond instead of saying his hair was brown.  (Possibly because you heard “blond” off the corner of the room as you were typing.)  The critiquer will open with something like “your character kept changing and I had no idea who he was” and you think “Oh, I messed his personality” and it turns out to be something totally irrelevant that you can fix by changing a word.  Or “Your grammar is attrocious in this manuscript” and it turns out you have a dozen misplaced commas. *(Commas are a favorite nitpicking thing for wreckers, partly because they’re so easy to get “wrong” that each House has a different comma manual.  More on that at the end in footnote.)

4 – Stunning failure to produce, or really trite output, while, at the same time being deeply involved (often increasingly involved) in critiquing and reviewing and seeking out every opportunity to do so.

5 – Failure to be pleased with or admire anything they read since late adolescence or anything that is not universally considered a classic.  Even a few of those will bring out the sneers.  These are the people who sneer at Agatha Christie or well, tell Anne McCaffrey she can’t plot.  Yeah, I know my opinion of Dan Brown doesn’t bear repeating, but I’m willing to admit he must have done SOMETHING right.  (Just don’t pretend it was historical research, mkay?)  And I don’t care enough that people love his stuff to devote TIME to tearing him down.  There are many, many books I don’t like in the world.  I’m too busy writing MY OWN books to give much of a hang, frankly.

6- A new but consistent trait is the call for gatekeepers in publishing.  These people, as reviewers, rant, moan and bitch about the need for someone to keep the “sludge” out of the sacred halls of publishing.  This is particularly puzzling since by their own admission, publishing hasn’t produced anything worth reading for twenty years.

Yes, critique is important, but if you find the critique is both sweeping and detailed and always negative, you are in wrecker territory.

If someone’s critiques routinely shut you down, take a look at what you’re actually getting: is it important stuff you couldn’t get otherwise?  Some insight or detail that you’d never have seen (like in A Few Good Men Sanford noticed inconsistencies relating to clothing which I’d never noticed and were actually important.  Or Patrick went out of his way to research the behavior of a punctured oxygen tank.  While these are detail-oriented they are USEFUL.  And neither of them opened the critique with “First of all, what universe do you come from?” or “You have some serious inconsistencies” or… you get the point.)  Or is it an accumulation of nitpicky details and inconsistencies, some of them not real (a contest judge kindly informed me, for instance, that my vocabulary wasn’t up to par because when I used stolid, I meant solid – i.e. the judge didn’t KNOW stolid, so she assumed…) all presented in a way to make you feel dumb and incompetent and to elevate the critiquer to authority?

If the second be aware that this is a person who NEEDS to believe him/herself an authority.  The things to understand are the following:

1- this person can’t create.  Either he or she started out that way, or he or she has become that way, but in either case, he or she can’t create.  When in the presence of something that they feel is better than what they could do (which in terminal stages of the disease is EVERYTHING) they are driven to assuage their wounded ego by showing they’re better than the creator and giving themselves justification.

2- if his/her fury is particularly fierce, your work must be particularly good.

3- You MUST cut them out of your writing process.  Leave the group, or if the entire group complains, have him/her leave; stop giving them beta copies; stop reading their reviews.  Even totally misguided critique can cause the type of self-doubt that makes writing grind to a halt.  And if you become frustrated enough you could turn into a wrecker yourself.

This is another way in which wreckers are like vampires. Stay in a group full of them long enough and you will turn into one.

Part of this is learned.  You learn to see “flaws” because you’ve heard them pointed out so often, and, of course, in group critique sessions you want to prove you’re competent, even if you have all those “issues” they keep seeing in your writing.

Part of it is psychological.  By tearing down your confidence (however small.  Most writers have a hole where their confidence should be) they destroy your ability to create or to show what you create.  And then you have to salve your self-esteem by tearing down others and showing that really, it’s not just you…

IF you find yourself having wrecker- behavior: you find that a story is making you pick at flaws and point out everything the person did wrong.  Or you find yourself incensed at a story…  Walk away from that story.

Look, there are stories that will p*ss you off.  Some even written by friends.  There are published, award winning stories that make me froth at the mouth.  This usually has more to do with their theme or plot than their execution.

It is better to excuse yourself in those cases, than to vent your misguided fury on little things.  Because the wrecker behavior is an habit.

There is another thing – particularly with those you mentor – sometimes someone will write a story so startlingly and wonderfully perfect that you want to find a flaw in it SOMEWHERE.  It is a form of envy too, and a form of assuaging your wounded pride.  Don’t let it.  It is common, but it is wrong.  Just keep in mind that writing ability/careers criss cross.  The mentor today might be the pupil next time.  Compete only with yourself (unless you’re competing to produce MORE which is valid.) And rejoice when your friends make a big leap in craft.  Or, if you can’t rejoice, keep it to yourself and go and practice your own craft.

While I don’t advise staking wreckers, they are exactly like vampires.  They can no longer walk in the light and the sun, and they’re trying to drag you down to their own bitter state.  Let them go their own way, and you go on creating.

* Commas are a favorite target of wreckers.  Most of us – except me, and there are reasons for that – think we know how to place commas.  Most of us can advise people to diagram sentences or some other solution.  The thing is that, except for extremes, commas are highly individual.  We can safely say my mother – who uses them in lieu of periods, which she reserves for the end of the letter or essay, I suppose to signal the missive is over and you should avoid continuing to read what’s not there (and yes, we all tease her about this.  She ignores us.) – is wrong.  We can also say I tend to overuse commas.  (The reason I do so is that my first instruction in punctuation was in romance languages.  The way you separate clauses and parentethicals and emphasize bits of the sentence that English language doesn’t.  And even though I know the rules for commas in English, the instinct to use them is older than that.  I can “glue on” comma sense by doing grammar exercises obsessively in my free time.  And I would if I didn’t have so much else to do.)
But even for native speakers, commas can be QUITE individual.  If they weren’t then each house wouldn’t change them in different ways (Baen tends to add commas to my writing, while Berkley takes them out to the point that some sentences are incomprehensible in my opinion.)

Being subjective, commas of course attract wreckers like honey attracts flies.  In fact an obsession with critiquing your commas), (unless you’re Amanda, to whom I’ve given control over mine because I KNOW I need a minder and she’s generally sensible on those 😛   And note, though she teases me as I do my mother, it’s NEVER a tear down) is a sign of a wrecker.  Particularly if that’s all they find, or almost all they find, and if they make a big deal out of it.

56 thoughts on “The Builders And The Wreckers

  1. Speaking as an editor, the comma Nazis drive me insane. The rule on commas? Throw the rule book out the window. There really isn’t one in English. You put them where they make sense and help the sentence flow. If you got too many, split the sentence or use emdashes or semi colons. (although I despise the semi colon and colon as they are usually used completely improperly, ditto the ellipsis which too many people use to denote a pregnant pause when it’s supposed to be for indicating something left out and am I now being run on sentence enough and punctuation Nazi enough?)

    1. LOL. Ellipses ARE used for a long pause in dialogue that doesn’t indicate the end of the sentence. I KNOW it’s incorrect in English, but it’s used in romance languages that way, and it has bled over to supply a deficiency in English.

      1. *chuckle*
        It’s one of those editor pet peeves like the overuse of the word “that.” All us editorial demons (can you tell I just finished reading ConVent?) have our pet peeves. We use them to drive writers insane.

        1. Doh. I just added almost a thousand that’s to my latest work while attempting to edit it.

      2. I thought an ellipse in a romance novel meant somebody was getting their ashes hauled, their rocks off, their euphem ized? Geeze, maybe the ones I read weren’t as naughty as I thought them to be? Certainly it would explain the peculiar places and times characters chose for their …

  2. I was struck by this example of a Wrecker indicator: “you know, I could never write a character that cowardly.”

    I can actually see myself saying something like that; however, I would state it as a complement. I’ve got nothing but admiration for writers who can create believable characters wildly different from what I could imagine or develop; it’s an Act of Creation I am always impressed by.

    1. oh, yeah, well — you have to assume this was said with a sneer. A lot of the wrecker behavior is in the BEHAVIOR. Ie the way it’s said. I know that sounds like a beg, but it’s not. It’s usually fairly clear if it’s a put-down.

      1. MAD Magazine used to (probably still does, for all I know) have a feature called “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions.” I could easily see an array of snappy comebacks to stupid criticism:

        0 Don’t be so hard on yourself; I’m sure you will SOMEDAY learn to write characters who aren’t merely aspects of your self.

        0 I am certain you will eventually acquire sufficient honesty to recognize the trait — after all, you display it so frequently.

        0 Well, if you lack the courage to understand cowardice you’re probably right: you never will write a character that cowardly.

        0 It’s called Art; practice it.

  3. Oh and as an aside, the second crank has yet to approve my comment on his piece about Dave’s book.

    So he’s welcome to tear me and Dave both up in his review, but is too cowardly to allow return criticism.

    1. Pat, I don’t think he approves any comments. I didn’t see any on his blog…gee, wonder why? (and yes, I misused the ellipses. Bwahahahahaha)

  4. Thank you.

    Not for the essay, though I thank you for that as well; but thank you for the footnote.

    That is almost precisely the conclusion I’ve come to with commas: no matter where I put them (or don’t put them), no two people will agree on them. So I put them where I hear a pause in my head, and I’m right often enough. The editor will change them around, because that’s what editors do; but as you say, two different editors will make two different corrections to the same manuscript. It’s amazing how much this has lowered my stress level when I’m writing — and also when I’m reading critiques!

  5. I don’t know what it says about me, but I immediately began searching my conscience after reading this.

    None of my writing groups ever hid from me, though. I think.

  6. This was a fantastic analysis of a type that’s found everywhere, not just in the book world. And I think you hit the nail on its cliched little head when you said it’s a compulsion. That’s why wreckers never change, even when what they’re doing proves as damaging to themselves as to their targets.

  7. I can’t imagine telling an author who’s published several books that they can’t plot. [Sad Smile]

    Mind you, I can understand the “it doesn’t work for me” *but* I’m very aware that somebody else could enjoy what I dislike and there’s nothing wrong about them enjoying it.

    On the other hand, if I’m talking to an author (especially one who’s published several books), I’m not likely to say “it doesn’t work for me” without commenting on “his” books that did work for me.

  8. I know the breed well. They are not restricted to the arts unless you include things like programming as art. They always have 23 reasons why this proposal won’t work but nothing about how to make it work and no counterproposal. Timewasters, the lot of ’em.
    Where are the nasty remarks posted? I can’t find them anywhere.

    1. Pat? Are you still out there? Or someone else who knows the links to the nasty comments AND to the stoooopid blog post — I’m really pressed trying to catch up on editing and mentoring today, as well as dealing with re-start of school AND a doctor’s appointment, so I don’t want to go forage for them — though I will if no one else has the info at tip of fingers. (And I needed another three weeks of vacation, I swear.)

  9. Sounds rather a bit like the “Writing Fiction” teacher I had in college once.

    I do have a compulsion in regards to certain commas, though! (“I have an idea.” He said. *beth twitches*) Comma-splices just get me, too; this is probably where my inordinate love of semi-colons comes from! And dashes! And parentheticals! And, yes, ellipses! *drool* (Ellipses are totally proper for times when you’re trailing off mid-thought… Where was I? 😉 ) Which has served me well in the editing side of things, actually — in particular, when editing stuff that contains RPG rules, punctuation can be vital to making a sentence clear enough that people will not ask, years later, “So, about Rule X… Does that apply to situation Z, situation Q, or both? I read it as only applying to situation Z, but my player says it should apply to Q, and our group’s rules-laywer thinks it could work with both.”

    1. As a fellow lover of ellipses, dashes, and semi-colons, I’m here to tell you that other people don’t like it. BTW on Darkship Renegades, going over it, I realized I had ALL of those, plus three different kinds of fonts and two types of underlining. My publisher is a VERY patient woman, since I’m still alive. 🙂

      1. Bah, humbug. I’m sure there’s a niche market for the Lovers of Exotic Punctuation. And I bet they throw delightfully scandalous parties, too. 😉

      1. Thank you both Patrick and Sarah. I must admit the description of the in-di-vid-juls’ comments is accurate but I didn’t understand until I read them just how boring they were. I mean, jeezzee, if you are going to be that negative at least include some good zingers that I can steal. Let’s forget about those folks and get back to something interesting like “Witchfinder”, “The Next Chapter”.

  10. We had a Wrecker in one of my crit groups, years ago. For all I know, he’s still there. Some of his comments were meant well, but a funny thing happened once he’d opened his mouth: small group process began to kick in. Suddenly a writer who’d been okay with, or actively liked, Character A then began agreeing with the Wrecker. Some of us tried, like salmon, to swim against the current, but once the Wrecker had spoken, the position of the group about any factor in the excerpt had been established.

    It drove me crazy. I’d had enough when I read a first chapter for a friend who was scheduled to read that night and couldn’t attend. The Wrecker called her main character a “slutty ditz”. That was too much for me…all the character had been doing was ogling a tall-good-looking-hunky type from across the street. I left, and I haven’t been back. Small group behavior can really deteriorate into herd mentality at times.

  11. It’s so nice to see that I’m not the only one continually who gets ripped apart by an “author” who once sold a short story to a defunct magazine 10 years ago…

    Thanks for the article Sarah. As always, insightful and helpful.

  12. As an intellectual abstraction, I can sort of understand people who constantly try to tear other people down, but on another level, I just don’t get it. Fortunately, none of the people who’ve critiqued my writing have been that way.

    As a scientist by training, I tend to be detail oriented and critical, so I try to be aware of that tendency when reviewing someone else’s work. When I’m reading a book for possible review on one of my blogs, I have a policy that if I can’t say more positive things about a book than negative ones, then I don’t review the book.

  13. Lengthy, but right on, Sarah. Imho, LitCrit should find and capitalize on the good, gently identify what could be done better, and help the writer realize the potential of the work. Crit must also back up with specifics every point made. No place for vague crit like “need more,” or that wonderful example of yours — “Your story has no engine.” Oy!

    1. “Suddenly, a train ran through the living room, the engine blasting its horn while the cats scurried out of the way! Everyone stopped and stared for a moment, then went back to the discussion at hand.”

      There. Lack of engine solved. 😉

  14. Punctuation or word choice crits don’t bother me – I’m kind of “oh, that’s an easy fix” if I agree, and I’m able to blow it off if I don’t. I’m always more concerned with story and character.

    I haven’t run into a true wrecker. I have run into a more forgivable type, though they can be just as damaging. I’ve noticed that talented newer writers, early in their careers – they’ve had a novel sale or sold some short stories, but they’re still trying to find their own voice and figure their own writing out – these are the ones that can really hijack a beginner’s story or nitpick the heck out of it because they’re doing this to their own stories. I’ve seen workshops where, while the old pro found a few key points but was happy overall, the new pro worked the piece over and tried to change it into something else.

    I’ve seen this happen in art classes, too – the old pro teacher knows the stages that beginning artists go through and knows what they should work on, while the student is going to teach everyone what they’ve just learned whether the others are ready for it or not.

    Thanks for this one. ^_^

  15. My comma twitch is the result of playing flute in high school. See, when we got a new piece the flute section would all get together and decide when to stagger the breathing, so we weren’t all drawing in breath at the same time. Traditional mark for “take a breath” was a comma. If I don’t watch myself, I put commas in as breath marks as if I were reading the piece out loud (sometimes i *do* mark it up like that on purpose, for readings.)

    I’ve been fortunate in avoiding Wreckers in my writing life — or maybe it’s just that I have all the delicate sensibilities of a rhinoceros. I certainly try not to be one.

  16. Great article. I actually gasped at the part about Anne McCaffrey. That’s just insane to mess us a chance like that and sabotage the rest of her career. And shows that the behaviour must be compulsive, since most sane people would realise how foolish they were being.

    1. I suspect it was an act of subconscious self-destruction. If you secretly are convinced you will never succeed as a writer, some minds will decide it is better to “be denied a fair try” than to have tried and failed.

  17. Such a great article. Since I am grammar blind does that mean I cannot become the critique nazi? Dang, and I had such high hopes for an exciting career.

    This post reminded me of something John Scalzi wrote a while back:

    John’s pretty famous for enjoying his one-star reviews on Amazon, and talking about not taking negative criticism personally. He also, as you can see, believes in combating assholes with creativity. Using their worst skill against them I guess. Come to think about, that might be a great way to counter such fools: If you’re going to respond to them (never a great idea) then at least up the ante by out creating them. Sure its entering a kick-fight a one-legged man, but they brought it on themselves.

  18. One of the things you have to watch out for with bullies (of which “wreckers” is a subset) is giving them their payoff. Every behavior looks for a reward, and if it comes the behavior is reinforced and will be repeated. This is as true of human beings as it is for flatworms; the only difference is the complexity of the behavior.

    It’s all about power. The ability to create is a form of power, and serves as a challenge to power-seekers. Their response to it is to destroy, which neatly cancels the power of creation and thus confirms the wrecker/bully’s power.

    What they are looking for is an emotional reaction in the victim that confirms that relationship. If you provide a strong reaction, whether it’s tears or defiance, the bully’s power is confirmed — and the gratification resulting from that results in further incidents of wrecking.

    What you have to do is very hard for most people, and my anecdotal observation is that it’s harder for the median woman than the median man: don’t react. Be calm. Be bland.

    This can be dangerous. I once got fired by a boss who intended originally only to discipline me. Since I regarded what he saw as an offense as being of no consequence, I simply stood there in a comfortable posture with a neutral expression (tending toward a small smile) on my face and responded noncommittally, and his need to exercise power led him to escalate the matter until it reached the point of “hand me your key and get out!” Which I did, still without a visible reaction. That was a power trip for me — his purple face and clenched fists told me I’d tricked him into a strong — and inappropriate! — emotional reaction. (That story has a happy ending. The guy realized what he’d done once he’d calmed down, and called me back after a decent interval. We’re good friends now. People can be tricked by their own emotions into bullying behavior; good people realize that and make amends afterward.)

    Nevertheless, by giving the bully or wrecker a strong emotional reaction you are providing gratification for that behavior. If you reward the behavior you will get more of it. People who advise appeasement and people who advise fighting back both fail to get the point. The bully doesn’t want the lunch money, although he finds it useful; he wants the power to extract it. The wrecker doesn’t want you to change your story, although that’s a nice secondary reward; she wants the power to force you to do it, or to otherwise frustrate the creativity that challenges her abilities. In either case, bland nonacknowledgement (with, if possible, slight amusement) defeats and frustrates the power grab.

    Anyone who wants to damage or frustrate you is an asshole. Don’t let assholes define your mental state, hmm?

    As a bonus, sometimes the asshole is right — the criticism is useful, even though phrased with intent to damage. If you can avoid the fight-or-flight response to the attack, you can divide the observations into “useful” and “not useful” and respond accordingly, which can be valuable.


    1. Such a good point. I had a similar discovery last night after going to sleep. As often happens I was thinking about this thread and writing a story in my head about it. It was the small new girl that enters the writers group, notices the Bully, and in the final scene calmly and tactfully flays him alive. I kept thinking of a final scene with all these wonderful feal-good gristly gut-punch lines she would deliver over the whimpering Bully. But there was something about this that kept feeling wrong to me, so finally I starting asking myself, okay what is it about this person that makes them act this way?

      As what often happens to me when facing a person I am trying to “get” I run smack into psychology, which is rapidly becoming a small area of expertise for me it seems. Anyway, ever hear of Aspergers Syndrome? One of its descriptions/symptoms is “Demonstrated limited empathy with their peers.” Someone with a high functioning Autism would likely also display this same trait. (ditto for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish) I would guess on a hunch this is what drives such Bullies; an inability to connect their actions to the emotional outcomes of others. Now this is not offered as an excuse for such poor behavior, nor does in mean every power struggle (like the one you mentioned) is caused by this, BUT it does give us a clear idea why their stories are so plain jane vanilla. A lack of emotional understanding of others would clearly hamper one’s ability to write stories with any zest in them. Worst still, someone with such an inflection would be for all practical purposes blind to their inability. If they cannot see how they emotionally effect others, then they cannot see how they emotionally effect their characters. Such stories I suspect would be rather dull to read. Not knowing anyone like this I cannot say this is true, but it does seem to fit the mold, and moreover provides a better solution set for dealing with such Bullies. Getting emotional does not work for someone like this. They do not understand the emotional connection between their words and your reaction. They will simply assume you are flying off the handle for no reason. Only calm non-emotive strictly logical language will work with them. And even then they probably will not see anything they do as “wrong.”

      Anyway, just my late night ideas.

      1. Asperger’s (which is currently thought to be high-functioning autism in many circles; both are “on the autistic spectrum”) is a lot more complicated than that, though. The Asperger’s fellow I married and our kid with Asperger’s are actually quite creative — though this is considered to be rare — and from what I can tell, many people on the spectrum are less likely to be interested in controlling the creativity of others. The ones who are, are more likely to be obvious and bitter about it. But in general, people on the spectrum are more likely to be honestly compassionate to the best of their abilities; the most affected may have the emotional control of a toddler, leading to tantrums and anger, but that also tends to give the strong expressions of affection that a toddler may display, too. So to have someone be bitter and cruel… Not impossible, but I highly doubt that Wreckers are commonly on the spectrum.

        It’s true, someone with Asperger’s tendencies will be more likely to complain about parts of a story that “break the rules,” because Asperger’s wires the brain, generally, to desire clear rules that are enforced consistently. (My kid won’t let me even joke about eating dessert first. Dessert comes after Real Food! It is THE RULE!)

        Where Asperger’s people are most handicapped — at least, the ones I know best — is interpreting other people’s emotions/emotional motives in real-time, and in controlling their own emotions in real-time. (The elder is much better at both than the younger, of course.) In books? In tabletop roleplaying games and similar? Works fine. In situations with real people doing things that are unfair and mean? There’s where it can get bad.

        1. How We Got to Dessert
          By DAWN DRZAL
          Published: December 2, 2011

          Eel in marzipan and goose-liver macaroons may sound like outtakes from Monty Python’s “Crunchy Frog” skit, but in SWEET INVENTION: A History of Dessert (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), Michael Krondl tells us that the eel was offered at a 16th-century Italian banquet while the cookies, known more elegantly as foie gras macaroons, are the creation of a 21st-century Parisian pastry chef. These two dishes show how the relationship between sweet and savory has come full circle — from medieval and Renaissance Europe, when there was no division between them, to their segregation during the 20th century and back again to the current era, in which cutting-edge chefs delight in toying with our expectations.
          “The French noun dessert/,” Krondl explains, “originates with the verb desservir, or un-serve, that is, to remove what has been served. In other words, le dessert was set out once the table had been cleared of the dishes that made up the main part of the meal.” Although the term appears a couple of times in the late 14th century, it would not attain its current meaning until roughly 1900.

          Medieval European cooks added a lot of sugar to their savory dishes, and at that Italian meal in 1529 featuring the eel in marzipan, Krondl reports, “anchovy salad was served alongside ­sugar-dusted cream pies.” By the mid-17th century, however, when La Varenne wrote “Le Cuisinier François,” a weak “Maginot line” had been established between sweet and savory. Sugar was banned from salty dishes, but sweet foods were still served concurrently with meats and fish. Yet the breach had been opened and would be widened further by the gradual replacement, 150 years later, of “service à la française, the custom of serving numerous dishes simultaneously, . . . by service à la russe, where one dish followed another.” A century of Russian service ultimately resulted in dessert as we know it.

          [ ]

  19. tolladay, the problem with your analysis is that it overgeneralizes and also ignores one of the traits of serious wreckers. There’s a difference between plodding nitpickers who are determined to highlight every one of your errors, and those who attack, whether it’s with personal insults or vague criticisms of the “no engine” variety. People who write dull, unimaginative books may or may not be vicious wreckers. They may or may not have Aspergers. They may simply be perfectly ordinary people without any imagination. The wreckers may have psychological issues that have nothing to do with a lack of creativity or perceived failure as a writer. Finally, contrary to the stereotypes, many people with Aspergers are not only extremely imaginative, they are highly empathic and oversensitive to other’s feelings. Unfortunately for your analysis, the autism spectrum is much more complex and varied than your single quote would indicate.

    1. Cantana, you are so correct that there are likely flaws with my analysis. It was simply a way for me to try and understand better why someone would behave in a consistently nasty way. I was not trying to suggest that people with Aspergers do not have creativity, only that they do not have “normal” (whatever that means) emotional connections, and likely this might show up in their writing. By doing this I could be just as guilty as they are; using a story as a way to analyze the writer.

      You know I don’t see where I indicated my analysis was in anyway complete. It focused on one trait, which can be accounted for in a large variety of mental illnesses, and was done so without having ever met such a person. So of course there is a hell of a lot more going on than just my simple analysis could ever provide.

      But I think it is valid in the sense that approaching such a person with empathy, rather than anger, will probably bring about a more positive result.

      1. I think you should read today’s post by Kate Paulk. This is a deficiency as a writer, tolladay, the tendency to excuse evil with either illness or misguided attempts at good. I think most wreckers — at least the ones I know — derive PLEASURE from tearing another down. It elevates them in the process. Do they know they’re doing evil? The most morally aware, probably do. They also sure as hell know they’re inflicting pain. But it gives them PLEASURE. This is quite obvious.

        On your side of “attempting to explain” it lie all the fantasies where a perfectly nice character suddenly goes crazy and becomes evil. I prefer real pain/pleasure mechanisms and the fact that human beings pick even unclean (nothing to do with sex, but with treating others as things for one’s pleasure/power) pleasure over no pleasure.

        Empathy actually feeds the Wrecker. What someone described as small groups dynamic almost always works, and people side with the wrecker in hope of escaping pain. This feeds his pleasure and power and only makes him worse.

        1. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I don’t excuse poor behavior. EVER. Not to me, or my friends. in addition, I don’t think having mental illness gives one carte blanch to be an ass. I know. I have a mental illness. At the same time I don’t buy the “that person is just an asshole” approach either. Perhaps this works well for you (if so, then awesome for you), but when I do it, I feels like I’m being lazy with my thinking.

          I will happily admit I don’t know shit about writing. I am so wet behind the ears I can fill my water bottle from the runoff. I also don’t know how the rest of you go about banging together your characters. All I know is what works for me. And what I cannot do is have a character in a story be evil just for the sake that I need an evil character. For me, he has to have a reason why he is evil. The same holds for nobel characters, good characters etc. I need to know what kind of inner script they are using so they can justify their behavior. Not so anyone else can justify their behavior, just so they can justify their behavior to themselves. This is my way of dealing with the old saw about the villain needs to be the hero of his own story.

          I sometimes use mental illness as a key to help me understand how such a person thinks. That key is the map to their actions. That doesn’t mean they are not evil, or don’t do evil things, just that I now understand “why” they are evil. That is enough for me.

          1. I’d suggest reading — it’s a site for the victims of emotional abuse. Wreckers, I believe, are likely to be a subset of emotional abusers, and emotional abuse is something that can be learned. Just as people who grow up in an emotionally and/or physically abusive household will tend to resort to cutting words and/or violence to get their way… So is it likely that people absorb creativity-abuse. They want to be “winners.” They don’t want to be targeted by the abuser. (See cliques/gangs that form around bullies.) They want to be strong, not weak. Weak is something dangerous to be. Weak will get them (b)eaten. And the only way to be strong is to stand on the backs of others.

            Expressions of sympathy, to a true emotional abuser, are expressions that you are offering your back to be stood upon. How kind of you. How benevolent the abuser will be, to stand there and tell you that you aren’t quite level, and no one else would put up with what a lousy job of doormat you’re doing.

    2. One of my friends, Charles Quinn is definitely Aspergers — Hi Charles! — and his writing is perfectly good. Check it out if you don’t believe me: Amazon. Also, though he can make comments that drive me up the wall because he tends to think of CRITICISM as black and white and a bunch of comparisons, he’s never malicious.

  20. Tolladay, patience and empathy can go a long way, but as Sarah said, wreckers enjoy what they’re doing. If someone with autism or Aspergers offers excessive or unwanted criticism, it’s done from a desire to get things right. I understand what you were attempting, and it’s maybe a first step toward trying to understand the motives that drive wreckers, but you inadvertently confused the issues and resorted to stereotypes. I don’t want to come across as defensive, but I have mild Aspergers myself, so I’ve done a great deal of research on the subject. I need to note that there is an implication in your comment which I’m sure wasn’t intended, and probably will be overlooked by most people, but Aspergers and autism are not mental illnesses, any more than are a lot of conditions detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

    But my intention isn’t to nitpick or be overly critical. I just hope that your study of psychology will eventually result in more depth, and an avoidance of stereotypes, which is something that’s important to all of us, as writers.

    1. No. Aspergers is a condition like my younger son’s sensory issues. It’s just how he was born (though he’s lucky and it seems to be normalizing with age.) But yes, the implication of “and then he went insane” seemed to be in the comment, so I went with it. BTW there are also simply not enough people with Aspergers to account for a wrecker per writers’ group which — unless effort is made — seems to be THE rate. And aspergers doesn’t account for wrecking being contagious.

      1. I attribute it to demonic possession. That covers it as fully as any other explanation without giving the illusion of knowledge. Because the fact is that none of us knows what motivates wreckers — and I doubt wreckers know, either.

    2. I suspect you are reading a bit to much into what I am saying. I know several people with Aspergers, some of them family members. I have also had first hand experiences with several forms of depression (including my own), schizophrenia (god I can never spell that name right), and other forms of mental illness. Not only personally, but professionally since I used to be a special ed teacher.

      My point was never to say Aspergers was the sole problem, or to even suggest people with Aspergers will act this way. Heck I know 3 people with Aspergers personally, and none of them act like each other let alone like this.

      To me, mental illness is like being born without a body part. A simple handicap. Maybe for you its just a finger, but for someone else it might be their whole leg. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with someone because they have a mental illness. It is how they deal with their mental illness (or all to often, don’t deal with it) that causes the problems.

      All of us are handicapped in some what or another. That’s just the luck of the genetic draw. Its how we deal with it that counts.

  21. Really enjoyed your “possessed grill” piece. Are you more geared toward adolescent audiences or all ages? Asking because your writing has that way about it that would appeal to all audiences, which I would think is very good.

    1. I write for general audiences. Inferno Grill is a little lighter than my other stuff, because it was written for and published in a humorous fantasy anthology called Witch Way To The Mall, edited by Esther Friesner.

  22. As you can tell, I’m once again behind on my email. Kind of makes me glad I’ve never been part of a writers group. At one time that sort of thing would have totally killed any interest in writing.

    I wonder how many people those evil b******* have driven from the craft?


Comments are closed.