Thoughts on Criticism

Writers compose in a vacuum. The voices they hear are in their heads. Imagination has benefits, both for mental health and creative purposes. According to neuroscientists, people have “default networks” in their brains that become active (and are exercised) when they drift into the realm of imagination. In addition, the act of storytelling allows an exploration of compelling new adventures without risk.

The risk comes later—when others read what you’ve written.

If you accept the premise that your work is imperfect and can be improved, you will accomplish that goal by facing criticism—”the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work” (thank you, Mr. Google).

“The dread of criticism is the death of genius.” ~William Gilmore Simms

Wondering how to accept and, in turn, offer that kind of analysis? I’ll first point out the obvious:

  • Critics give opinions. Opinions can be wrong. Criticism is not a final verdict.
  • Your rough draft always needs work. By letting others spot possible flaws, you are crafting a better piece.
  • You can choose to incorporate (or ignore) criticism according to your judgement.

Sounds like a win-win, right? If you think a suggestion is good, your manuscript will benefit. If you don’t, you can ignore it. Why, then, are people afraid to show their work?

  • Your work is a window into your soul. Criticism may feel like a personal attack.
  • If you have a good grasp of craft, and you worked hard on something, a casual dismissal or misreading can waste your time.
  • You might have imagined your own brilliance. Criticism can dampen such lofty expectations.

Psychologists offer the most compelling reason for the fear of criticism. Research shows that it takes five positive events to make up for the psychological effect of just one negative event. Simply put, even well-intentioned criticism can sting and weigh you down.

Enter, now, the abattoir of the literary soul—the critique group. (Tongue in cheek here, people!)

I belong to two such groups. You might ask why I submit to twice the normal amount of slicing and dicing, and the answer is simple. I want to improve my stories, each of which go past twelve or more sets of eyes on their way to a working draft.

“Don’t let compliments get to your head and don’t let criticism get to your heart.” ~Lysa TerKeurst

Here are some of the tangible benefits of critique groups:

  • Writers (who are also, presumably, readers) know a lot about story and craft. Their suggestions will help your manuscript.
  • Writers write. They share your writer’s journey. Something as solitary as writing deserves a support group.
  • Critique groups are an excellent way to recharge with your fellow human beings.

But what about the potentially negative aspects of criticism? How do you armor yourself before showing your writing to others? Here are some suggestions you can apply:

  • Focus on improving your manuscript (not on gathering accolades). With that focused goal, you can remind yourself why you’re taking those slings and arrows.
  • Be careful who gets to criticize you. Not everyone is worth listening to. If there’s a member of the group that is more intent on “hot takes” than your benefit, you can safely ignore them.
  • Embrace a split decision. On occasion, a debate will break out over something that happens in my story. The critique group members argue about my characters as if they were real people. (That, in case you don’t recognize it, is a win.)

“There’s only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” ~Aristotle

I hope I’ve convinced you about the need for criticism on the way to improving your manuscript. I want to leave you with some ideas on how to “give and get” within a critique group:

  • When you’re being critiqued, don’t talk. Listen. You’ll learn more. That stance will work later on, when you’re published (unless you plan to contact each of your readers and argue with them).
  • When critiquing another writer’s work, begin with something positive, something you liked. Every piece has something good to mention. Then, mention a thing or two to improve. Be specific and offer possible solutions. The goal is to improve a writer’s work.
  • Attend to the writer’s needs by taking each piece on its needs and merits. Beginners and more experienced writers need different things. Different genres have distinct expectations. Just as every manuscript is different, every critique should be unique.
  • If bad mechanics detract from a piece, it’s worth mentioning. Quickly.
  • Be brief. The critique is about improving the writer’s work. It’s not about creative critiquing. Wear a watch and time yourself.
  • Strive to be kind and honest.

I’ve made slaughterhouse jokes. There is, of course, the other kind of critique group, where unicorns poop gumdrops and everything you write is brilliant. Don’t bother. They won’t help you make your writing better. Your mean writer friends? They might.

[Note: This blog was adapted from my blog post for Writing Heights Writers Association (WHWA) from June of 2022.]

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It’s Alive!

A PERSISTENT ECHO is now available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and selected bookstores. The book comes in hardcover, softcover, Kindle, and audiobook versions. No more pre-order…it’s alive!

August Simms-explorer, soldier, world traveler-returns to Rhome, Texas in 1897 to chase one last adventure. Hundreds of UFO sightings have been reported, seven years before the Wright brother’s initial flight, and August intends to solve the airship mystery. Instead, the past comes calling. A murder, a lynching, and the death of his wife fifteen years earlier are inextricably tied to the present, and the adventure August finds will not be the one he expects.

“. . . a powerfully rendered novel that holds the rare ability to traverse genres to attract a wider audience of reader than the ‘historical fiction’ label portends.” ~D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer for Midwest Book Review

“Kaufman writes beautifully, with spare prose, well-paced surprises, period-appropriate language, and a sense of foreboding.” ~Historical Novel Society

“Truly original and touching…A remarkable feat.” ~The Prairies Book Review

“Kaufman is a fantastic writer with a distinctive poetic touch…It will be the rare reader who will not be moved by this soulful, poignant novel. A remarkable, virtuosic performance that will certainly leave persistent echoes in the reader’s mind.” ~Kirkus Reviews

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The Aurora UFO Crash

Some call the event the “Texas Roswell.” According to a newspaper account, a UFO crashed and burned on Judge Proctor’s farm near Aurora, Texas on April 17th, 1897. Experts claimed that the pilot, who died in the crash, was not of earthly origin. A quick burial was held in the Aurora cemetery.

The Dallas Morning News account was written by S.E. Haydon. According to the journalist, the airship was clearly distressed and drifting “nearer the earth”—enough so that it struck the “tower” of Judge Proctor’s windmill. A local astronomy expert, T.J. Weems, assured Haydon that the pilot was a “native of the planet Mars.”[i]

Some of the wreckage was sold as scrap. (Mr. T.J. Weems was also associated with the local blacksmith shop.) Metal remnants were dumped into Proctor’s well. Some scrap was, according to reports, buried with the pilot.

And that’s where the story ended, until Time magazine did a follow-up article in 1979. Haydon’s article was deemed a joke. The regional railroad had passed Aurora by, and the town was dying. Haydon was supposedly trying to drum up publicity for local businesses. One old resident, still alive at the publication of the Time article, claimed that Judge Proctor never had a windmill. UFO enthusiasts disagreed with Time’s evaluation—more than eighty years had passed. How could the magazinedismiss the event so casually?

The issue of the windmill may have been a matter of turn-of-the-century journalistic sloppiness. The resident was correct—Proctor had a windlass to pump sump water, not a windmill. The quick burial of the airship’s pilot, derided by skeptics, wasn’t unusual for Texas—bodies could decay quickly in the spring heat. A quick burial was a sensible solution.

A sandstone marker in the Aurora cemetery that supposedly marked the alien’s grave was stolen before any further investigation could proceed, leaving the exact location of the remains in question. Requests by UFO investigators to exhume the grave were denied. Without an exact location to explore, how many graves would need to be disturbed in search of the truth?

In A Persistent Echo, August Simms investigates the alleged crash site, interviews the “astronomer” Weems, and comes to an interesting conclusion. I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that the airships make an interesting and whimsical subplot to an otherwise serious novel.

Note: The illustration is the work of Wade Dillon (

[i] The Dallas Morning News, April 19, 1897, p. 5.

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Seven years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, more than 400 UFO sightings were reported across Texas. Regarded as a smoking gun by UFO enthusiasts (and a hoax by others), the airship sightings remain a subject of contention more than 120 years later.

Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash

Eyewitness accounts did not always agree. The airships were described as fast-moving and anywhere from 50 to 200 feet in length. Many reported wings, buzzing or flapping sounds, and bright searchlights. Most described the shape as being like a “Mexican cigar”—wider in the middle and tapered at the ends.

The airships  were sighted in other midwestern states first, but not with the kind of frequency that occurred in Texas. The first Texian encounter occurred on April 12th, 1897. For more than a week, newspapers were filled with first-hand accounts. Many were sober and considered, sourced by pillars of the community. Others (including close encounter tales) bordered on silliness. Nevertheless, the reading public was fascinated.

Theories about the source of the airships abounded. The United States was poised for war with Spain, and some believed the airships were part of Spain’s efforts to evaluate seaports for an eventual invasion. Others believed the airships were being used by a gang of safecrackers, using X-ray machines to find easy pickings. Most believed that the sightings were a prank, perpetrated by railroad employees.

By the middle of May, the furor had died. Newspapers focused instead on the sinking of the Maine and the coming war with Spain.

In my novel, A Persistent Echo (Black Rose Writing, August 2023), my protagonist investigates the mystery. August Simms—explorer, soldier, world traveler—returns to Texas to chase one last adventure. What does he find?

After all my research, I came to an opinion that informs some of the novel’s plot. Elements of hoax were certainly in play. Pranksters were found out on multiple occasions. The newspapers also played a part in the hype—the airships sold copy. Other accounts are harder to dismiss. The novel itself is about much more than mystery airships—on the balance, this is an end-of-life story. But the airships constitute a perplexing, even confounding subtext.

“. . . a powerfully rendered novel that holds the rare ability to traverse genres to attract a wider audience of reader than the ‘historical fiction’ label portends.”

~D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer for Midwest Book Review

[What I did not mention was the crash of a UFO on April 17th, in Aurora, Texas. I’ll save that for my next blogpost.]

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It should come as no surprise that authors can be snarky. (Mr. Google defines the word as, “critical or mocking in an indirect or sarcastic way.”) Creative minds yield creative snark. Some of the quotes that follow concern the craft, some concern authors or critics. All of them make me laugh—a condemnation of sorts. See if you can resist the temptation to join in the laughter:

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” ~Truman Capote

“I’m realizing that everything has been too easy for my characters so far. I think I need to maim one of them.” ~Ross Willard

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” ~Flannery O’Connor

“Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ~Kurt Vonnegut

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ~W. Somerset Maugham

“I wrote a few children’s books. Not on purpose.” ~Steven Wright

“The first draft of everything is shit.” ~Ernest Hemingway

“A great cow full of ink.” ~Gustave Flaubert on author George Sand

“There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.” ~Oscar Wilde on poet Alexander Pope

“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” ~Mark Twain on novelist Jane Austen

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Coming Attractions

I’m excited to give everyone a glimpse of my next novel. A PERSISTENT ECHO will be published late this summer. The cover, designed by David King of Black Rose Writing, is pitch-perfect.

1897. August Simms—explorer, soldier, world traveler—returns to Rhome, Texas to chase one last adventure. Hundreds of UFO sightings have been reported, seven years before the Wright brother’s flight, and August intends to solve the mystery. Instead, the past comes calling. A murder, a lynching, and the death of his wife fifteen years earlier are inextricably tied to the present.

The adventure August finds will not be the one he expects…

The reviews have been outstanding – the best I’ve ever received:

“. . . a powerfully rendered novel that holds the rare ability to traverse genres to attract a wider audience of reader than the ‘historical fiction’ label portends…highly recommended for readers who look for can’t-put-it-down adventure and life reflections alike…especially notable for libraries that look for original, refreshingly intriguing reads that book clubs will find of special interest.” ~D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer for Midwest Book Review

“Kaufman is a fantastic writer with a distinctive poetic touch…It will be the rare reader who will not be moved by this soulful, poignant novel. A remarkable, virtuosic performance that will certainly leave persistent echoes in the reader’s mind.” ~Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The book will be published in hardcover, softcover, and Kindle editions in August, with an audio version shortly thereafter. Stay tuned for details!

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Child with Four Parents

A Shadow Melody, available January 5th, 2023, is a child with four parents. That is, I wrote the book with four distinct genre influences in mind. Rather than a mashup, I think the four separate genres reinforce each other.

The cover only tells part of the story…

First, the novel is a historical, depicting rural Ohio in 1920. Set in the town of New Concord, home of Muskingum College, the small town flavor of small town life is an important element. Life in the cities changed fast back then, but small towns resisted change. In particular, I aimed at the 19th century novel for flavor. I love the writing of the Bronte sisters, and though my prose is different, you might catch elements of Wuthering Heights in the story.

The second parent is the romance novel. My characters are virtuous, so you may wish for some disruptive force to whirl through the literary landscape, smashing things. Your patience will be rewarded.

The third parent is Steampunk. This subgenre of science fiction endeavors to reverse engineer elements of the subsequent century and insert them into the Victorian era (the era of steam). My New Concord is post-Victorian (barely). The actual timeframe in the story is important, because the protagonist – Harry Browning – is a contemporary of Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla.

The fourth and final parent is horror. There is a supernatural element (how could there not be in a story about building a machine to speak to the dead?). There’s no gore to speak of, but the ending is genuinely creepy.

A Shadow Melody is a fascinating blend of historical fiction and speculative fiction that explores one man’s quest to lift the veil of death and learn what lies beyond. One of the most original novels that I have read in years, A Shadow Melody reinforces Kaufman’s status as a gifted storyteller. Highly recommended.” ~Kenneth W. Harmon, author of In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow

Available on the fifth of January, 2023.

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Coming Attractions

2023 is shaping up to be a really good year. I wanted to share the news with you. First, I have a book coming out on January 5th. A Shadow Melody is a historical novel with a paranormal twist.

In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Harry Browning each researched devices to contact the dead through scientific means. Only one of them succeeded.

Part historical romance, part horror (with a touch of steampunk-style reverse engineering). Available from Black Rose Writing.

A Shadow Melody by Brian Kaufman is an extraordinary book…I loved the romance and the tragedy equally.” ~Reader’s Favorite

“Filled with scientific and artistic allusions that spice a compelling story of a series of radical departures from tradition, A Shadow Melody will appeal to a wide audience.” ~D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer at Midwest Book Review

But that’s not all the news. Coming in August, another Black Rose release. A Persistent Echo is a historical novel set in 1897 Texas (Aurora – the site of a purported UFO crash).

“. . . a page-turner with a captivating storyline. (4 out of 4 stars!)” ~Online Book Club

More news to come on that one! Check back. We’ll have details on various book giveaways!

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Publishing Links

A few years back, I did a blogpost with links to writer’s sources for Indy press, hybrid press, and self-published authors. The links are meant to serve as a starting point for authors looking for publishing options, or simply wanting advice about writing in general.

I’m revisiting these links because I got an email from a Girl Scout troop that recently worked on their Novelist Badges. While exploring the links, they came up with their own link (a guide to writing basics), and I’m going to pass it along here:

A tip of the hat to the senior scouts—great resource. And now, for other links:

If you are looking for traditional publishing venues and want to go beyond the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, I recommend the pay service ($5 a month subscription).

Crowd-funded hybrid companies include Inkshares and Unbound:

Other hybrid links:

Want to publish an eBook with Kindle Direct Publishing? Start here:

Or Smashwords?

Publish that eBook on Kobo?

Kindle Direct Publishing will print books for you, with or without your company imprint (depending on whether you buy an ISBN or use Amazon’s ISBN).

Barnes & Noble Press will print books or format eBooks for you:

Here’s the eBook formatter I use.

Starting a company? In Colorado, you’ll search for a trademark.

Have a company name? You’ll need to apply for a business license.

You’ll have to pay sales taxes, of course:

Colorado Department of Revenue

Purchasing ISBNs?

Lightning Source and Ingram Spark:

Finally, for young writers, here’s an excellent overview of writing as a career, along with some excellent, straight-forward advice.

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Dread Tribunal – A Review by Mark James Miller

Mark James Miller is an educator, columnist, and author of The White Cockade: A Novel of the American Revolution, available for pre-order at Amazon.

The Civil War was America’s greatest agony, and almost all of the characters in Brian Kaufman’s Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort feel that pain, one way or another.  “All dead. They’re all dead. The war killed them all,” Decker Brown, Kaufman’s protagonist, sadly muses as he ponders the loss in lives the war has brought about. Even those who survived are scarred either by the death of a family member, the loss of a limb, or the psychological damage of war. Even Paula, whom Brown loves and intends to marry, suffers not only the mental anguish the war brings but also from starvation, when, near the end of the war, another suitor, a rival with Decker for her hand, notices her “skeletal arm.”

Brown in many ways represents the division of the country. A Virginian, he loves the “Republic” and does not want to see the South triumph and tear the country apart. But he also feels a loyalty to the state he was raised in, and does not want to see it invaded and laid waste. He reflects the feelings of many on both the north and the south, put most famously by Robert E. Lee when he wrote to his son:

“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives…” “Lee,” Bruce Catton wrote, “was tidewater Virginia…he saw himself in relation to his own region.”

Near the end of the novel, Brown strikes a prescient chord when he says,

“But the fight is over, and the outcome is murky.” Even though the Civil War ended 156 years ago, many of the issues for which the war was fought—the status of African-Americans, states’ rights, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacy—are still very much with us today. “I fear my efforts were wasted,” Decker opines.

Kaufman’s excellent novel makes us the reader feel that pain. Kaufman is an accomplished writer, author of novels such as Sins In Blue and Dead Beyond the Fence. We take a tour of the young, growing country, from Boston to Virginia to Utah, and see the changes sweeping over the land. A gripping read, Dread Tribunal reminds us not only of the agony of the Civil War but the torment it inflicted on those who had to fight it. The pain lives on.     

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