This one’s a tough one: and if you don’t get it, you can just f**k off.
Offended by that directional suggestion? You’re in the right place…
The first bout of indignant outrage I remember feeling about criticism of my writing probably dates back to being about 11. (You can see already I don’t handle criticism well and that it sticks with me, can’t you?)
I submitted a short story in English at school. I was one of the only kids in class who actually enjoyed that stuff – while everyone else was writing the bare minimum to avoid getting a crappy mark, or even worse, a letter home saying they weren’t doing their homework, I took that stuff seriously. On this particular occasion, I wrote a first-person journal style story where a kid was convinced someone was after him and he was scribbling this detail down even as he feared that person was closing in on him. The kicker of the story was the climax where he explained he thought that the hunter was closing in on him in this house, and if he had time, he’d hide this journal so that hopefully someone would find it and understand what happened to him. The last line went something like…’ What was that? I can hear something outside the door, I’m going to…’
Not a particularly original idea, and I’m pretty sure I was ‘influenced’ by something I’d read recently of a similar nature: most of my work at that time was. But in my 11-year-old mind I was pleased with the effort. So when the piece came back with a red written note from the teacher. “This isn’t finished, why was it handed in?” I was pretty outraged. I waited behind in class and confronted my teacher, and explained the story: that it was intended to end that way. (I didn’t mention that it was intended as ‘a challenging take on the expectations of a rounded narrative and confounding the reader’s expectation of a satisfying conclusion’…) The teacher, who’d no doubt skim read 30+ scrawled efforts and was concentrating on spelling mistakes, cleaned the blackboard, as the next class waited to come in, and said something along the lines of “Oh. Right.” took out his big red pen and added a ‘B’ to the piece, handing the wallpaper-clad jotter back to me. (I have no idea why we used to cover our books in wallpaper, but we all did it). I could write further about how I returned the next day, and asked him to re-read it, as I felt he hadn’t really grasped the nuance of the piece…but that might make me sound like an obnoxious little git. But you get the point: I realised early on I have a problem with criticism…I’d like to say that has changed completely, but when I got asked recently whether one of my stories was ‘missing a final couple of pages, to ‘finish it’.’ I did have a ‘Nam style flashback to those school days…
I also get criticised for going on a bit…which, at least I DO admit to, if not address, as you can tell.
Criticism is going to come in lots of ways for anyone writing.
It might be the rejection of a short story or novel submitted to magazine/ agent/ publisher. Stephen King writes at length about the process in his book ‘On Writing’ and how much of a boost he got from the first rejection slip that came back with a personal comment rather than just the standard form response. JK Rowling has been very honest about how many times the Harry Potter books were rejected before finding a home. There are many articles out there about the great literary pieces which received ferocious rejections.
It helps…to a degree.
It can also foster false ideas of worthiness – that it’s not you, it’s them. And undoubtedly it sometimes is. The question is how do you use it in a positive manner.
There are, of course, many kinds of criticism in writing.
There’s the flat-out rejection: as stated, this is, more often than not due to the volume that your recipient is probably receiving. Form letter/ email response. After a while, you may just get immune to them, sigh, and move on.
There’s the personalised rejection: take some solace in the fact that it at least (hopefully) did something enough to warrant a comment. I had one story which was rejected by six different publications: each of them came back with a ‘we really liked the story, it’s just not for us, good luck placing it elsewhere.’ – I love that story, but I understand why the magazines I sent it to, most of whom had published my stuff before, didn’t publish it. It’s a weird little genre-defying piece. I didn’t think it even needed a rewrite or a polish – it just wasn’t right. (As a side note, it’s finally found a home and is due for publication on a well-read site next month: I’ll be sure to let you know when it comes out…)
There’s the ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ – not even a rejection: just a ‘circumstances beyond our control’. There was one period when I had four different stories in play to be published within a six month period and each magazine went bust before publication. My initial thought was ‘poor me’, which turned quickly to ‘I really liked those magazines, it sucks that they’ve gone under’. There are lots of variations on this theme: changes in personnel who don’t like your work as much as their predecessor did/ we do like it, but in the meantime, we’ve had a new story come in from (insert famous author here) and we’re going to go with that.
There’s the ‘we like it, but it needs a lot of work’: this can take at least two forms: ‘go away and work hard on it, and we’ll think about it’ or ‘our editors are going to pull this to bits and we may then consider it’. Depending on your ego/ passion these can be easier to take: and in the second case at least, it might mean it is going to see the light of day, even if it’s not exactly the way you intended it. It’s a bit like leaving your kid with grandparents and coming back to see they’ve dressed them in ‘nicer clothes’. Sometimes it works, sometimes they’ve put your five-year-old son in that lederhosen outfit they thought was so funny to put you in forty years ago…sorry, I digressed a moment there. Personally, I’ve had good and bad experiences: a good editor (see earlier post: Writing Resource 5/100: An Editor ) and a lot of the time, if you can take it on the chin, you’ll see they’re right.
There’s the critique: there are a lot of real-life and online workshops out there. The vast majority of them will promise that they offer a ‘safe place’. The best of them will provide guidelines on etiquette. Here’s one from Critters, an online workshop I used to take part in and found really helpful and made some good and lasting friends through. You may find yourself appreciating some critiques more than others: you may find you want to exact revenge on a particular critic through commenting on their own work…it’s not healthy.
There’s the review: and we’re back to school days. Whether it’s on Amazon or other web presence, or a more formal beat down. We love the good ones: those people are smart, but the bad ones – they just didn’t get it. They’re jealous or stupid or both. You may even find you click through to see what else they’ve reviewed and see that they gave that crappy (insert best selling title here) a 5-star review. You may even use the ‘reply’ function to correct/ berate/ justify to them. That’s easier to do when there are only a handful of reviews, rather than a couple of hundred – but I have seen relatively well known and successful authors unable to resist jumping in there to respond. I haven’t seen it make much difference in the original poster’s opinion.
The web has made a huge difference to writers: in many ways it’s made things easier – to get your stories out there, to find new homes for them, to promote your own stuff. In other ways, it’s made it easier for keyboard warriors to have a pop at you. I recently received criticism on a book cover of mine – a cover which had received a lot of nice things said about it. I don’t remember those so much, but the person who had a pop at it in a personal, and disparaging way, stuck in my mind. Well, it did more than that – it made me respond: partly because the cover wasn’t my own work, but someone else’s and a) I, and many others, really like it and b) the critic was a moron. (See – I HAVE matured since middle school…). I should have left it. I should have ignored it. I didn’t. And now, every so often I’ll find another comment popping up on that thread from, possibly, one of the acquaintances of the original poster responding to my knee-jerk reaction. I get that: I’ve jumped in on my white horse to defend/ back up writer friends when I’ve seen some idiot criticise them. But really? I should just let it go.
Try this: pick a book you like…I’ll go first: and as I was talking about Stephen King earlier, let’s say, ‘The Stand’. It’s currently got 603 reviews on UK Amazon with an average score of 4.5 But there are 5% 1 star reviews. Some of those reviews go like this:
“I struggled to more (sic) than half way through only because the book has some excellent reviews and thought that it must get better. I am left questioning the validity of some of the reviews.”
“Let me be clear – I am a fan of King’s – but this 1000 page long yawn of a novel starts nowhere and goes nowhere.”
“Lots of USA vernacular and USA culture and retail references so impossible for this UK person to identify with it”
And there are more…Now, whether you like ‘The Stand’ or even King in general, it should be clear: someone somewhere isn’t going to like your stuff.
And then there’s one last type of thick skin needed: not even the critique. But the waiting. I wrote earlier that the web makes things easier in lots of ways for writers. In theory, it also cuts down the wait time – those of us of an age will remember the hassle of having to print out your story, post it off (normally with an SAE if you expected a response) and wait…and if you were submitting to a US publication…wait. And wait. It was expensive and took an age (and particularly frustrating when it came back with a note saying ‘please reformat for consideration’.) Today – we can send out multiple submissions and it takes us seconds to do it. So, it should only take seconds to get a response, right? Because no one else is doing it, and that publisher is waiting just for you…you only.
As the late, great Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
And I, of course, has developed an armadillo levelled thick skin in my patience, in fact, I…
(This article was not finished – why was it posted? Mr Adams.)
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