Sunday, March 16, 2014

Taking It On The Chin

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.


  1. Sweet F A. Hmm, I wonder if that's where "effin' A" came from? In the days of my youth it replaced "damn straight," to be later overtaken by "right on." But no matter, the meaning was the same: "Dude, you abide."

    And that, Ms. Sharp, sums up my take on your thoughts on the delightful process of composing fiction. Should we tear out the nails on our worthless fingertips for their role in the worthless drivel concocted that day, or shall we wait until the morning to search out the pliers, on the off chance we may then see our work as masterful? Decisions, decisions.

    In answer (sort of) to your question, when I believe I've finished a new book and made it as good as I can (though at the moment I must start a new one so "finished" is a word banished from vocabulary until the Fall), I always show it to the same person. Invariably he tells me he loves it, then presents me with a ream of single spaced "suggestions" which I promptly toss against a wall and stomp all over, cursing all the while. Then, grudgingly, I pick them up, read them, and thank my lucky stars for having such a good, honest, perceptive friend.

    Speaking of friends, you can keep Kujo-cat and the Crab that ate Detroit, but those brussels sprout folk look pretty cool.

    1. Thank, Jeff. They reckon you should approach all criticism with the Rule of Thirds:

      One third of it you follow to the letter
      One third of it you consider
      And one third of it you ignore completely

      Of course, working out which third is which, is quite another matter ...

      Brussels sprouts? Those are supposed to be grapes, my friend. Sour ones, at that. Although maybe they are wrathful instead?


    2. You're right, of course, they are grapes, which is embarrassing to this fellow literally raised in the produce business. That will teach me to take a glance at a photo on a mobile device as all revealing. Though rather than sour or Putinesque, perhaps because of Annamaria, Cara, Lisa,Tim, and I journeying off in a few days to Steinbeck-land for Left Coast Crime, I tend to see them as grapes of wrath.

    3. These days, wrath and Putinesque seem synonymous. Then there is puttanesca--meaning--in the language of my forebears--in the style of the whorehouse.

    4. Thoughts of words such as that would never cross my mind in an establishment of the likes of this high-end operation.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Ooh, LCC. Now I'm jealous. Another year I miss out on this wonderful convention. Raise a glass for me, folks.

    7. I'd rather think of it as being from a 'house of negotiable affection', Annamaria.

    8. 'High-end operation'?
      Erm, are you sure you're in the right place, Jeff?

    9. LOL. Better than, "Do you want fries with that?"

  2. Zoe, this subject fascinates me. You are so right about it.

    I once belonged to a writers group that met at my house, whose feedback was never unmitigated praise and that I found extremely helpful. But then one of the members decided, in discussing my work, to quiz me as I were a member of a psychotherapy group, about why I wanted to bother writing fiction, since I already had such a nice life. I tried for months, when it was my turn to be critiqued, to get them to go back to helping me write better. When they wouldn't, I dropped out. I took a course afterwards that included feedback from a group, but with a teacher who guided the discussion. I was learning a lot, I thought. But then the teacher told me she couldn't help me anymore than she already had. I thought she might have meant I was hopeless. But I could not stop myself from trying.

    I pressed on alone. Now, unlike Mr. Lucky Siger, I have no one to I can turn for regular feedback.

    I screwed up my courage on my forthcoming African book and turned to Stan,and encouraged by his kindness, to Michael. They were generous enough to read the draft, helpful and encouraging. I am very, very grateful to them.

    Writing does not terrify me. I never expect what I right to be at all good at first. I fall in love with the characters at some point and let them tell me their story. It can be an awful jumble until I work it over and over. I like working. And you'd have to kill me to stop me telling stories.

    That said, I recognized the sour grapes and wondered if it was just me or do they all look like Vladimir Putin?

    1. Hmm, for me it's not so much during the writing as the plotting where I really miss having a sounding-board of some kind. I need to talk my way up and down blind alleys and cul-de-sacs before the thing straightens itself out.

      Sad that your writing group went so off course. Mind you, it's surprising how many people assume everything one writes is autobiographical ...

      And now you come to mention it, those grapes do look amazingly like Vlad. Hmm, maybe I better not plan any trips to Moscow until the memory fades.

  3. When the woman who chaired my local writers group heard the opening of Absolution, she told me to send it to Jane Gregory.
    The rest is history.
    That writers group had its funding (ie paid tutor) cut due to the credit crunch so I now take it in the quiet corner of a local pub. Zoe’s blog has given me the idea for my next blog… the trials and tribulations of chairing a writers group. Let’s just say I have developed the same diplomatic skills as a hostage negotiator

    1. History indeed, Caro!

      I would have thought reading out sections of some of your books would chill the patrons of the local pub to their bones. And I can just imagine the peacekeeping skills you've needed to chair your group. Have you thought of applying for a job with the UN? You'd be brilliant!