Somebody once told me that writers have to take more criticism in a year than most people have to deal with in a lifetime.
The advent of the internet has turned everyone into a critic. Not just that, but an anonymous critic. In some ways this is good, if it allows somebody to speak their mind when they would feel constrained not to do so otherwise—for whatever reason.
Of course, in other ways it’s terrible, because it allows people to be snide and nastier than is called for, secure in the knowledge that there won’t be any comebacks should they happen ever to bump into the author they’ve slated.
Getting honest, critical feedback on your work is always going to be tough. I’ve found that writing fiction is far more personal than the non-fiction article work I did previously. That was easy—I was telling someone else’s story and somehow the ultimate responsibility for it also lay elsewhere. All I had to do was make my words convey the meaning without getting in the way of the story itself.
Although most of the time I approach fiction in much the same way, there’s no doubt it is very different. It is the collective jottings and jumblings from inside your head, which you are spilling onto the page for anyone to pick apart with a sneer for your apparent lack of nuance or narrative voice.
There is nothing more terrifying than being given a blank piece of paper and told to let your imagination soar.
OK, perhaps there are slightly more terrifying things. This pic of a giant coconut crab, for instance, still makes me nervous about going to put out the garbage, although apparently they’re bought as pets in Japan.
Very cuddly, I’m sure. But I digress.
Before I left Cumbria last year, I’d found a great writing group who met regularly in Kendal. We would email work around the group beforehand, which gave everyone a chance to read it and make notes. On the night, a sample of the piece was read out—either by the author or by someone else, so the author could hear it for themselves—and everyone threw in their two-pennyworth.
I liked the group because of its honesty. I may not always have agreed with their comments—in fact, sometimes they didn’t always agree with their comments—but they gave definite food for thought without animosity.
After all, the last thing anyone wants is to be given encouragement to continue down the wrong path with something. Ultimately, being given false hope will lead to greater disappointment.
The problem I suffer from—and I think every writer suffers from this at some point or another—is that by the time I’ve finished a piece of work, I have lost all judgement about it. I can’t tell if it’s the best or the worst thing I’ve ever written, and sending it away for anyone’s opinion is agony. You hope for the best but expect the worst, and any delays seem to confirm your darkest fears—that the work is so poor it’s failed to hold their attention. The fact that the person to whom you are sending it may have been too busy to do more than download the file or open the envelope before putting it to one side, has no relevance here.
Hope makes us dream of being contacted within days—hours—and told that this is the best thing the person has EVER read, EVER, and they want to publish/submit it just as it stands, with no alterations. You are not to touch a word of your deathless prose, not even to move one comma.
Experience tells us that when they do eventually get back to us, their praise will be cautious and there will be many points they don’t like/understand/ believe work in the context of the rest of the story.
And because I have a warped sense of self, even if by some miracle the Hope scenario worked out, I’d be worrying that they didn’t want anything changing because they simply didn’t know where to start trying to make something worthwhile out of such a morass.
But, realistically, what do you expect when you send a piece of writing out for critique by anyone? And at what stage should you send it? First draft? Twenty-first draft?
I like to send out the opening of a new book. Finding the right jumping-off point for a story is so important, and a first-time reader may only give you a certain number of pages to come to a decision on whether or not to continue, so for me it feels vital to get this right. I’m looking for as much doubt and criticism as possible at this stage. It’s the foundation for the story—if it’s not solid, the rest of the construction may come tumbling down.
Then I also like to send out something when it’s in its first completed draft form. I self-edit as I go along, so that by the time I’ve reached the end I hope I’ve produced a reasonably clean typescript.
I always make sure I send something out when I know there is still an opportunity—and probably several—to make changes based on the opinions I receive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had stuff sent to me for my input, only to be told by the author that it’s already gone out on submission. Are these authors looking for critique, or simply affirmation?
I came across some people who used to bring pieces of work to other writers’ group meetings I used to attend (not the Kendal ones, I hasten to add) that was not only already as finished as they were prepared to make it, but which had already been submitted and possibly awarded prizes in competition. I’m not sure what they hoped to gain from this exercise other than admiration. Even if I did happen to spot something that I would change, it was pointless to suggest it, because the time for minor alterations was past. Mostly, I am at a loss to know what to say other than, “Erm, yeah … very nice.”
And that’s the kind of approval you can get from your mum.
Although, now I come to think of it, my mother has never said much in the way of admiration for my work. It was only when I was about six books into the Charlie Fox series that she told me she didn’t care much for Sean …
So, if you’re a writer, what do you hope for when you put a piece of work up for critique? How much does that expectation differ from what you actually get? And if you’re not a writer, do you have any examples of tasks you’ve performed at home or work and looked for feedback? Did you get it? What makes you feel good about criticism? What makes you feel bad?
This week’s Phrase of the Week is Sweet FA, meaning anything boring, monotonous and not worth describing. Although this has come to mean Sweet Fuck All, it actually stands for Sweet Fanny Adams. Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old girl from Hampshire who was found murdered and dismembered in the eighteen-sixties. At about the same time as this crime, the British Navy changed their rations from salted tack to tins of low-grade chopped-up sweet mutton. The new ration was tasteless and unpopular, so sailors suggested with macabre humour that the new meat was the remains of the murdered girl, christening the ration Sweet Fanny Adams.