Criticizing the Critique Group

I’ve just read two interviews/articles with authors who were negative or detrimental about writers or critique groups. Neither would have fazed me, but having read both at one sitting, well, it irked.

I have facilitated the Berkeley Writer’s Group for more than five years now. There is a core group and a larger transitional crowd who join for a period of time. It is a working group – if you are looking for a social meeting, this is not for you.

Usually, 8-10 individuals will read, receiving 15 minutes to share about 1,200 words (if fiction), or a few poems, article etc. Before they read, they can ask for feedback on a specific aspect and we also write comments on the manuscript copies that they distribute. When they finish reading they shut up and listen unless asked a question (this is the hardest part!). We try to be constructive but honest and there are occasionally bruised egos.

For the past 6 months, I have been reading my YA epic fantasy: Wycaan Master / At the Walls of Galbrieth (I still can’t decide between the two). No one in the group (until a woman recently joined us) were fans of fantasy and, given that they had helped me with two social-justice themed novels, were not happy with my change of direction.

As I near the end of the manuscript, I feel a great appreciation for the group. Certainly, it has not been easy and there are times that I would love to be sharing with people who understand the genre, but there is something incredibly refreshing in their comments, as readers who can look down from 10,000 feet, with perspective.

I recently mentioned that I have changed the teacher figure. He was very much a hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Brom and Gandalf and my group found him formal and predictable. The agent who is coaching me also commented on this and urged me to turn the character on his head.

He transformed and became a funny and unpredictable woman. She aged, but still had the strength and energy necessary; it just didn’t always come easy. I feel this has had a fundamental impact on my novel, particularly where there is often a middle sag, and added a richer layer, while also distinguishing the book from comparable novels in the genre.

This, and much more, came from people who, while not experts, care about their craft and also about mine. They are not a replacement for the professional editor, but s/he will receive a cleaner manuscript and I will have a richer story.

I often hear from people who speak derogatory about writer’s groups. Usually, they have had a bad experience or two, and so their attitude is understandable. But a good writer’s group is about mutual support, not fluffing or shattering someone’s ego, but it is above all a group communicating in a very honest and artistic way.

And we do it all face-to-face, with no screen in between. A last bastion of a dying culture?


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Awkward Sex Change

Last week I shared feedback I had received to add stronger female characters in my YA novels to distinguish them from traditional epic fantasy. I have to admit to feeling motivated to do this just from a desire to contribute to breaking from the sexist images that I feel pervade in millennial culture (another topic in itself).

Heeding this advice, I have begun to convert a powerful and wise (male) teacher into a female. It has been an interesting and revealing process.  At first, it seems just a matter of changing he to she, him to her, and man to woman.

But as I make the conversion there seem to be a number of questions arising and a sharp look at his/her behavior. Firstly, I realized that the teacher does almost all the cooking. When it was a guy I never noticed: now I do and feel a need for her to teach our hero some cookery lessons.

There are other scenes that need to modified. Imagining the shock when my young teenage son reads that they cast off their clothes and jump into the lake, one would assume naked, made sense when it was two guys, but now an elderly  woman and teenage boy… hmmm.

The fighting aspect doesn’t faze me. I am happy that she is a fearsome warrior and that she teaches to try and solve conflicts in a peaceful way first. Ironically, as the reluctant teacher spends more time with the protagonist, he becomes more paternal to the young elf.  While I enjoyed this when the teacher was a man, as a woman it seems almost…stereotypical.

Changing the gender of a character, I discovered, is far more intricate than just converting he to she. But in doing so, I feel I am strengthening my novel and the epic fantasy genre. More importantly, I hope that I am making a statement that will resonate with my two sons and their friends.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Fantasy and Females

I realize that a title like this might give the wrong idea. This blog is about epic (or high) fantasy fiction – imagine Lord of the Rings. If you want to leave this post right now, I will understand.

I have mentioned that I am working with an agent preparing Wycaan Master/At the Walls of Galbrieth (I know I haven’t settled on a title). He sees his role as helping me differentiate my work from the other 499 epic fantasy submissions sitting on the acquisition’ editor’s desk.

With more than two-thirds of the publishing world of the female persuasion and given that so much of literature (and music, and movies, and business, and politics…) is focused on men, there is an understandable desire to see more female-focused stories and stronger female characters.

I baulked at the idea of changing my protagonist’s gender and have gone through the manuscript strengthening the secondary character who is female. She was never a doormat character, swooning after the hero, but a strong, independent individual with an attitude and a high level of skill at fighting.

Now I am considering changing one of the other main characters into a female, someone with authority and power. There are examples out there. I am currently listening to the audio book of Terry Brook’s Voyage of the Jerle Shannara. The first book has our antagonist being a woman  (the Ilse Witch).

Why have authors of epic fantasy created main characters who are male? Given that it is not a new phenomenon that women are the vast majority of readers, I feel that I am missing something.

Any ideas?


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first will enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at on Twitter (@elfwriter).