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Taking Criticism.

Apr 21, 2019

A published book has seen many interventions post the author's first draft. Better to get these under your belt sooner rather than later and go out looking dandy when you show your work to the big guns - the agents, publishers and readers. For that reason, all insults, slurs and calumnies should be most gratefully received at any point between second draft and twenty-second.

Order of merit.

  1. You crit. (The Editing Course, after resting that first draft for a month to become a reader.)
  2. Peer crit.
  3. Prof crit.
  4. Publisher crit.
  5. Publish  - and don't look back!

Choose your moment. You should never show your work to any other living soul at first draft. It is horrible. You don't want funny looks at best or those you respect to foreswear ever reading your work again. Show it when the second draft is complete. (I only fully understood my story and nailed my title at the end of second draft this time, fifth novel.)

Choose your first readers wisely. After the second draft is done, show your work to peers who are not friends. Ideally, writers, since their remarks will be inherently constructive, they will know the stumbling blocks inside out, be avid colleague/collaborators. Thet will see the splinter in their own eye while examining yours. (When we cringe and grimace, we sneakily turn to our own manuscript and hit delete too.) These readers are the best kind at this early stage. They will not look down on you. 

Don't choose your first reader for covert reasons. For instance, if you choose someone who doesn't read fiction, who doesn't write etc, it will be all too easy for you to dismiss their critique - well what does Auntie Maureen know anyway, daft old so-and-so . A pointless exercise and now Auntie Maureen suspects your story about a small boy with one leg looking for a magic stone is a cry for help...

As a general remark, anyone who looks down on your work in progress and pisses on it is someone who has not created and completed an entire novel from scratch. Why ask people who haven't to comment? Do not share your work in progress with non-professionals, and by that I mean people who have seen the commitment through. You need feedback that shows you where the magic of the novel slips and the hem shows.

Peer review is golden. Say 'thank you'. I'd like a kicking at home rather than in the street, so I'd prefer my comrades at The Novelry to give me a boot up the backside, than an agent or publisher or worse a reader. Our rules of engagement ask for kindness and a constructive approach to critique, and our workshop forum and playground is patrolled by this old schoolma'am. Rarely do I intervene, since working writers know the pain and play fair. At The Novelry Lodge, our writers engage with each other, ask for clarification and are often given examples and ideas to improve their work fast. They give to get the same treatment from their peers.

  1. Respect your reader's time. Submit your best work, minimum of second draft and ensure you have run it through proofreading via Grammarly or ProWritingAid. Make sure the work is laid out beautifully. (All covered in our Editing Your Novel course and at our Members' Library.)
  2. Go less, not more. Build trust. Submit a smaller amount than a longer. Play fair. 1500 words is fair enough. One chapter, the first chapter. Submit in order of the story so as not to baffle your poor reader. Once you have feedback you can submit more with confidence, slowly. Give your readers a week or two between submissions.
  3. Every criticism is valid. Tell yourself that and you'll reap the rewards. Sure you may not use every criticism but bear it in mind. Your main task as a writer is to communicate. If someone's not getting it, you want to know why.
  4. Ask questions. 
  5. Consider your writing at this stage a product or artefact. Don't consider it your child. Have I made this right? Does it communicate? Does the reader want to read more? Those are the questions you're concerned with. So respond on that basis to investigate how to improve it. Feel free to propose an amendment and ask your reader if that works better. (A paragraph tops, don't ask them to re-read the entire thing, it's not fair.) Our readers should not rewrite for you; it's intimidating. They will be ticked off if they do so. You are the author. Once you see the problems, you can resolve them. So don't pay attention to their rewrites.

Any critique is gold dust. The reader giving it is saving your backside from a kicking elsewhere, remember that. Remember too, they'd rather be writing, so this is a gift.

Professional feedback. When a writer comes to me for feedback on a professional basis via the Pitch Pack or Feedback calls, they will get tough love. I'm exacting. I want to push my beloved writers up the ladder fast so I give a line by line forensic critique of how the story is working or not working for me. Everything can be fixed if you know what's causing the problem. Honestly, I don't like it when I have to use a red pen a lot. It makes my heart sink for the writer as I know how hurtful it is, but I say to myself, I can let this go and do them no favours, they will be rejected. I can show them and they can either take it or leave it. I know from experience it's hard to take critical feedback, you feel winded, and a day or two must pass before you can see that what you've got you can use to move onwards and upwards.

Generally, a writer will hear the single negative and fail to hear the many positives. So I ensure the positives are communicated loud and proud and repeated! Anything is fixable when you know the problem. It's all simple there on out. If you've taken our Ninety Day Novel course you've got everything you need in place. In the course, we make sure the story is good and holy from the get-go, so thereafter anything can be fixed, you've not got a massive dud, you've got a cracking story with issues to tweak and tweeze.

Writers take feedback glumly or bravely, peevishly or in good humour. I've found it's in no way correlated to their writing, interestingly. I make sure they're settled and happy by checking back in on them, as I simply cannot bear my beloved writers to suffer from the idea they're not wonderful and the story's not wonderful because by the time we're nit-picking over the glory details, it is.

With agents, remember their critique is a 50:50 thing. Half you, half them. Always. So when an agent doesn't like the finished work and rejects you, it's half to do with what they like to read. But if more than a handful reject the work, and you've covered off your fit with the agents with your research into their preferences quite well, the problem with your work is pretty simple. An agent won't take the time to tell you. They dread getting into a conversation by email with you. But here are some reasons why if it's not them, it's you:

  1. Your storytelling and prose do not fit your authorial intentions. Mind the gap! The gap widens as you write and the idea changes. Close the gap in subsequent drafts. About draft 2-3 you should have a steely eye on your story expressed in one sentence (the hook) and be swinging that hook with a steady aim. If the story and prose are wobbling all over the place, it's because you have not firmly closed the gap which means ridding the manuscript of all redundancies and digressions inherited from former drafts.
  2. Overwriting. See the recent blog on this. There's really no excuse for this after the first draft.
  3. Your story is weak, the stakes are too low and nothing happens, develops, gets worse or better. Please take the Classic Course or our Ninety Day Novel course to understand how stories work. Many writers can write, not all can tell a story. Rarely will a great story be rejected because the prose stinks. Prose can be fixed with the delete button, the story can't.
  4. The main character is unlikeable. He or she can be a good person or a bad person or many shades between, but if they're self-pitying for no good reason or even a fairly good reason, we're not going to want to spend time with them. This is because we all know self-pity is the root of all evil and we don't want to grow that stuff inside of us. It's abhorrent. No tears please, not yet. Save them until we can cry them with you. No tears on a first page. So he or she has lost his leg, dog, mother, what's he going to do regardless?
  5. Mistakes. Lazy, vague writing. You deserve to be rejected right royally if you have historical inaccuracies or typos or grammatical issues in your work. You're failing to respect another human being's most precious asset - time. They can't trust you not to waste it, you've blown it. And no, they should not be expected to guess at your genius. 

What you should not be expected to take or accept?

Lazy vague remarks which seem to have a personal edge to them and come with no examples or evidence given. "I just don't like your writing." (Yes, I have had that one.) 

I defend my writers from this sort of stuff by submitting work to agents I know and trust. If that trust goes, I will not submit on behalf of my writers again, but in any case my beloved writers will not be exposed to this guff. Feel free to ignore this one and apportion the rejection to the 50:50 rule which belongs to the reader's bad day/bad life. Move on. Do not respond. There's nothing you can do or say to understand or counter such a miserable high-handed attitude.

Contrary to what you might expect, a writer gets more spiteful responses as they get further into the game and after publishing a few books it can be a cold old world. There's a cycle and when you're not new, you're old hat. But luckily your skin's thicker too or should be. You have to raise your game every time with a novel and make sure you're true to your authorial intentions. As I mentioned in a recent blog, when you send it out you can know it's not bad, even if you're unsure whether the first reader will love it or find it good.

That's a comfort in itself, to be able to say - this is not bad.

So, I treasure criticism from my co-writers at The Novelry, and the appointed agent or publisher, because they're saving your skin. What you really don't want are awful reviews in the press. However, publishers favour sales figures over reviews...

Press reviews. I do read professional reviews in the press, and have not had a bad one thus far having been under the radar somewhat. The Wall Street Journal has described me as one of their five most under-rated novelists. (Hari Kunzru was named as another of the five and tweeted about it or I would never have known.) 

No doubt they will happen. I consider myself bulletproof at my age. I am no spokesperson for any group or kind and my own life and persona is meaningless to me and it's writing that has given me the magic cloak of being able to disappear, and age and parenting that has taught me worse things happen at sea.

"A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia." Iris Murdoch.

"Who review the books? People who never wrote one." Mark Twain.

I don't read reviews on the web, Amazon or Goodreads because the 50:50 rule applies and those are odds I don't like. I have better things to be doing with my time and emotions, like creating the next novel.

Get perspective. In 20 years of writing that which has caused most damage to my writing has been unrelated to the work. Personal relationships, domestic crises, sorrows and sadnesses close to home. In comparison to the havoc wrought by those, even the most curmudgeonly feedback is a tame thing. You learn how to shield the writing part of you from real life, but that has been the thing I have struggled with most. A carapace, sooner rather than later, is a fine thing and this is why a modest practice - an hour a day for yourself -  stands the test of time and tribulation. It's this method which is at the heart of what I teach my writers on the Ninety Day Course at The Novelry. We shall overcome; quietly, diligently.

How not to take criticism.

I met the historian Orlando Figes in St Petersburg when I was researching for a novel and we had a jolly time ending up in Club JetSet in the early hours of one morning with a friend of mine.

His book 'Natasha's Dance' is a wonder. But he tarnished his standing when he responded to reviews on Amazon and posted some under a false name. Comments under the alias "orlando-birkbeck" and "Historian" called Rachel Polonsky's book Molotov's Magic Lantern "hard to follow" and Service's Comrades "awful", while praising Figes's study of Soviet family life, The Whisperers:

"A fascinating book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians … it tells us more about the Soviet system than any other book I know. Beautifully written, it is a rich and deeply moving history, which leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted … Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever."

When challenged about the reviews, Figes's lawyer initially denied Figes was the author and threatened legal action. In a later statement, Figes blamed them on his wife, the barrister Stephanie Palmer.

Figes, a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, admitted "full responsibility" for the posts, saying he had been under "intense pressure". He added: "I have made some foolish errors and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned."

When you can dish it out but you can't take it.

Personally, if I don't like a book I won't review it. I'd only review a book I loved.

Alice Hoffman reviewed Richard Ford's 'The Sportswriter' rather tartly. 

Ford took one of Hoffman’s books out into the back yard, shot it, and then mailed the pieces to her. “Well my wife shot it first,” Ford told the Guardian, “rather proudly.” “She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it—shooting a book—it’s not like I shot her.”

Alice Hoffman's novel 'The Story Sisters' was reviewed tartly too, by Roberta Silman and Mis Hoffman fired off a series of angry Twitter posts which included Silman’s phone number, email address, and an invitation for fans to “Tell her what u think of snarky critics” and “Roberta Silman in The Boston Globe is a moron …"

But my favourite example of a splenetic response to a review was from Martin Amis, writing here at his best, about the critic Tibor Fischer.

“Tibor Fischer is a creep and a wretch. Oh yeah: and a fat-arse.”

As for gentility?

You know, there is such a thing.

Faulkner and Hemingway went at each other as peers and rivals. When asked to review Hemingway, Faulkner refused more than once but finally relented and had this rather lovely paragraph for 'The Old Man and the Sea.'

'His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.'

I'd suggest you keep your eyes high. Don't diss other writers. God knows it's hard to enough to convey your intentions and no one means to write drivel or set out to upset, bore or offend. Quite the opposite.

Content yourself with reading those you esteem and re-read them. Look up, not down.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Take a kicking and be grateful if it's not in public once published and remains to haunt you, but don't give a kicking. Only bad writers or burnt out writers or never-been writers kick other writers.

"A great many writers have had their effect on me. The serious ones, I guess, were Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Henry James. He was my idol, but to say he influenced me is a bit absurd -- like saying a mountain influenced a mouse." Graham Greene.


From one of our members:

Dave Eastwood on 'Receiving Critique.'

'Putting work up for peer review is frightening. I have submitted a few things to the lodge now, and it gets easier to do as you realise that people are considerate in their critiques.

It was when I got a real, professional, critique from Louise that I began to see the cracks. I was, in no way, prepared for what I got. The feedback was professional, thorough, and fair. It just wasn't what I wanted to hear! I panicked. I rushed to the Lodge and pulled all my work. How could I have been so stupid? Obviously, all the reviewers could also see what a mess my writing was, and were just humouring me.

It took a few hours to calm down. I looked again at Louise's comments and began to apply them to the chapter, cutting words, explanations and adverbs. I looked at it, then sent it back to Louise. That was a mistake. I'd merely applied the principles that I'd been given without question. 

Louise was great, nursing me through the process. 

With hindsight, I should have let it sit for a while. A couple of days would have been good. Then re-written it bearing in mind the feedback I was given coupled with my own knowledge of the story; what was important, what was a clue to future developments.

I am immensely grateful to Louise, not only for her comments but for her kindness when she realised how fragile the male ego is. Now I know what real criticism is like, I'll be prepared, and I'll try to be a better writer before I submit my work too.'

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