When I was in the second form (what is now year 8 in English schools), my English master, Mr Doubleday*, asked us to start writing a book. That was the gist of his challenge though how he set it up is lost in the last 50 something years of misty memory.
I had this brilliant idea. I would use my detailed knowledge of English cricket (I read avidly all the cricket books I could find) to set the book during a tour of the West Indies where one of the English cricket team would be murdered and my hero, the English opening batsman John Edrich, would uncover the villain while scoring tons of runs to ensure England won.
It was perfect, flawless. Fame was sure to follow.
Doubleday hated it. He told me so; worse he told the class. Something about it being boring. He even had the gall to prefer Tricky Rillo’s** idea. I have no idea what that was or why it was so special. Tricky may well have come up with something utterly stunning and he hardly chose himself, but I blamed him. Displacement anger or something. When he accidentally emptied a pipette of acid onto this leg in Chemistry a while later (my resentment was of the slow simmering kind), I have to admit to experiencing what I now know to be Schadenfreude. I’m not proud that I stood by and watched as his mixed nylon/raylene trousers melted.
(*name not changed, the sod deserves to be shamed; ** name fudged but he knows who he is.).
I can’t say for certain that it was this criticism that stopped my creative writing career in its tracks. Maybe, as others have posited, my father’s skills as a poet inhibited me. It is coincidence (at least to me) that I tried no meaningful creative writing until the summer after he died – 2006. It is too easy an answer, after all, to see Dad’s death as some sort of release. And I do not want that as his epitaph.
More to the point this is an example at how thoughtless criticism can stifle the creative spirit.
However, for those of us who have been writing for some while, we all know that criticism is the life blood of improvement. Perhaps, because I came to creative writing in later life (after a career as a commercial lawyer where being criticised was almost a badge of honour – it probably meant you were getting under the skin of your opposite number) I’ve not found accepting criticism as difficult as some. But it is not easy. Often you hear writers talk about having their baby murdered or something equally hyperbolic and inappropriate. You spend hundreds of hours crafting your story, reading and re-reading it dozens of times and someone comes along and trashes it (or that is how it feels). How do you cope? How does criticism help the writer and what is good criticism and what isn’t?
Let’s start with something a little counter-intuitive. For me praise is a form of criticism and is probably the most unhelpful commentary you can receive. To me criticism is any comment on my writing. And in the same way that someone saying: ‘This book is rubbish’ helps no one, someone saying ‘ This book is brilliant’ is worse.
There are two basic reactions to ‘This is rubbish’: bin the book; or go back and rework it. Binning it is bad, while reworking it is almost certainly good. The criticism doesn’t help point out where you might need to rework it but I have yet to find a perfect book that couldn’t be improved somewhat so it may just help.
Praise, however, doesn’t encourage reworking. It encourages complacency, (and an early submission to an agent which is almost certainly a hopeless waste of time, or a self published work that will be rightly ridiculed).
“I suspect that most authors don’t really want criticism, not even constructive criticism. They want straight-out, unabashed, unashamed, fulsome, informed, naked praise, arriving by the shipload every fifteen minutes or so.” Neil Gaiman
Of course, what I have just described is not genuine criticism but a platitude and that’s the problem when your critic has the same surname.
Ok, so you’ve found someone who is prepared to read your masterpiece and offer their insights to you. They highlight some typos and some grammatical errors and you thank them profusely. Marvellous and useful, after a fashion but actually only a little more helpful than ‘it’s brilliant’. Because, let’s face it, unless said kind reader is a copy editor they ain’t going to pick up all the gremlins that lie within and if you are daft enough to let your work out into the public domain with such itty-bitty errors you will be rightly trashed. You need professional help to squeeze out those little typographical blackheads.
Then said reading friend tentatively points out that charater A isn’t really credible. And the plot twist is revealed too soon. And there’s no clear setting so they can’t understand where character B is. And the dialogue on pages 17 to 27 is a trifle stilted. And the long descriptive passages on pages 29 to 54 and again 57 to 102 are a little overdone.
That is what they want to tell you, but they never get beyond their point about character A. Or maybe the early reveal. Because you have to explain to them why character A is the way she is and how the plot reveal is in fact a clever double bluff. And they nod and agree with you because, of course, you know your book and must be right and you’ve given it so much time and effort that they don’t want to be seen to be undermining it.
And that’s just it. You know your book but once you give it to another person it isn’t yours anymore. It’s theirs. They have it to understand it in their own way; they will read it once and not have the chance (or the energy) to pick the minutiae out of the belly fluff as well as you can.
Of course, they are wrong. Often. And they may well have misunderstood character A and the plot reveal. But they may be spot on about the overdone description or character B. And you never find out because you crushed them. You defended your child and in so doing you told the reader, in no uncertain terms, to back off. You have to learn to let your children go, as any parent knows and secretly hates (ok, ok I’m stretching my metaphor like over-chewed Wriggles but you get the point).
They know how important this book is to you. If they are a fellow writer they know what it takes; if they are someone who has never tried and can’t conceive of ever trying, they marvel at your patience and dedication and stamina. As a non marathon runner does of a marathon runner. So if you try and explain or justify you might just put them off as much as someone who describes their training regime does to me.
It doesn’t matter how right or wrong they are, does it? If they hit the sweet spot with only one criticism it’s pay-dirt.
So you must give them the space to let you have everything they’ve got and as comprehensively as possible. And in my experience that means sitting back and nodding and agreeing with them, making them feel like they are really onto something. Often you have to explain a context, to help them find the point they are trying to make. But never defend your work. NEVER DEFEND YOUR WORK. That is critical (pardon the pun).
“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Perhaps only thirty percent of what they have to offer is helpful but so what? Get every drop you can from them. One thing I’ve found is that someone reading a book will fumble about to explain their concern and it takes a while to get there. And they’re wrong. And right. At the same time. They are right that there is a problem; they are wrong as to the solution. They think the problem is with character A; in fact it’s the plot twist that is wrong. Only you will know that, but you might never have realised it without the deliberations around character A.
So listen and don’t debate. Ask for clarification, for sure but that’s all. And that way you will milk your readers for all the little nuggets they have dug out and your book will be all the better for it.
So now you’ve taken the criticism, what next? Well, now you must be ruthless with yourself. If you tend to think you’re right, you’re not. And if you tend to think they’re right, they’re not. You must exercise a lot of judgement and discretion before excising any section, or rewriting a scene. It helps, with criticism, as much as the first draft, to leave it for a few days. Or longer. Let it permeate your subconscious. And after all it is human nature to tend to take some of it personally. ‘This character didn’t work for me’ = (subtext) ‘you suck’. Let time draw the sting so you can look at what has been said dispassionately.
When I submitted my first part of my novel for marking on my MA course I received a close written seven pages of criticism. About 50 percent made sense and helped; 30 percent was confusing but eventually led to some changes, and 20 percent was mean-spirited hogwash. Had I tried to analyse it immediately I would have focused on the 20 percent.
So be patient with those who help you and love them as much as your work; treat them like your daughter’s first boy friend and… (no, scrub that; that’s just me – there’s no reason at all why a father should like the first boyfriend – that is a rite of passage for every father of daughters and something no one prepares you for).
Good luck; I hope this helps and let me know how you deal with criticism and sort out the wheat from the chaff.
“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
And if you want to see how that first book turned out, click on the cover below.