Tag Archives: dealing with criticism

Today’s Post is Brought to you…

…by Old Age, Increasing Decrepitude and the Depths of Despair.

Why, you may ask, and the answer is simple. Today – lo! – is my birthday.

Image: mashable.com

Image: mashable.com

However, instead of dwelling on the relentless march of time, and the fact that I now have knees that crack in weird ways and hairs in strange places and the tendency to prefer a nice evening in by the fire watching ‘Antiques Roadshow’ to a night down the pub, I am going to list five things about myself that I didn’t know this time last year, and which – on the whole – are positive, self-affirming and causes for hopefulness in the face of my rapidly advancing age.

Ready? Okay. Here we go.

1. I make the best cup of tea out of anyone I know.

This has only come to light in recent months because I now make a lot more tea, from actual scratch, than I used to. In my previous life, I used to stand in line in a cafeteria and press a shiny little button, and my cup would magically overflow with tepid, tasteless brown liquid pretending to be tea (or coffee, and sometimes a barely potable mixture of the two.) Now that I no longer do that, I have learned that I make a darn fine cup of tea, whether it’s with loose leaves or teabags, and that it’s not a skill to make light of. Having the ability to make a good cuppa will take you places, I always say. Having said that, it hasn’t taken me anywhere yet, but I live in hope.

2. I have an almost unlimited ability to amuse myself.

As a child who read from an early age, I have never (to my knowledge) been truly, properly bored. The idea that a person could possibly have nothing to do while there are books to read or stories to write has always been alien to me. However, over the last year I have truly realised that if one is satisfied to live inside one’s own head, one can never properly be unhappy, and that my favourite place to be is – as you might have expected – inside my own head. Over the past year I’ve often been stressed, and I’ve often been frustrated, and at least fourteen times a week I’ve been convinced I’m an idiot who’s taken one step too far into the wide blue yonder, but I have never once been bored.

3. ‘Twenty thousand words’ sounds a lot longer than it really is.

So, this time last year I was deep in the throes of ‘Tider: Mark I’, which is now languishing in a box file, never to see the light of day again. Since then I have written ‘Tider: Mark II’, ‘Eldritch’ and am currently well over halfway finished with ‘Emmeline…’, and I have learned that no words are wasted, all ideas are good for something and that the idea of writing thousands of words is more daunting than actually writing them. Honestly. I would never have believed I’d be well on my way to knocking out three novels in one year unless I’d just put aside the little doubting voice that whispered ‘Poppycock! It can’t be done!’ and decided to go for it anyway.

It can be done. Words add up pretty quickly. Twenty thousand words is not a lot of words – it just sounds like it is.

4. Asking for, and receiving, criticism and feedback is not as bad as I thought.

All the publications I now have to my credit have happened in the last year. My work is now out there in the world, forevermore, eternally.

*Mweee! Mweeemweeemweee!* (translation: I'm Freaking Out!) Image: threadbombing.com

*Mweee! Mweeemweeemweee!* (translation: I’m Freaking Out!)
Image: threadbombing.com

This time last year, the very idea of anyone casting their eyes over my work would’ve brought me out in hives. Now, a year later, I’ve been privileged enough to have received feedback from all over the world, from other writers and from several agents, and I’ve realised that receiving feedback on my work is not the world-ending, mind-bending thing I thought it was. Of course, I’ve had to overcome one of my greatest fears and actually put some of my work out there, on the chopping block (so to speak), in order to reach this happy situation; once upon a time, I would’ve believed submitting my work was beyond my capabilities. It isn’t. I’ve done it, and I fully intend to do it again, quite possibly repeatedly, and I’m going to keep doing it until I get tired of it – which, I suspect, will be ‘never.’

5. It’s possible to be rejected, and not die.

I’ve been rejected a lot over the last year. Take it from me when I tell you that I have entered literally millions* of competitions in which I have not been successful, and I have submitted work for publication which has come back with a polite ‘No thank you, but best of luck with your future career, &c.’, or which has received no reply at all. The important thing is: I have lived to tell the tale. It has taken me a long time to realise that every rejection is a learning experience, and I have learned a lot about my own resilience over the last year.

Being rejected isn’t nice – but it’s not fatal, either.

To be honest, I had hoped I’d be further down the road to success by now, but – realistically – I am happy with my progress. Writing is a game of patience, determination and constant focus, which I now know I can bring to the table. I have also learned, over the past year, that deciding to chase the shiny, ephemeral bubble which is my dream of a writing life was the right thing to do, despite the near-hourly jitter attacks it gives me. The most important thing I’ve learned this year, however, is that I have the best friends and family in the world, who have cheered me on every step of the way, and without whom I could do none of it.

Image: stelzlfamily.com

Image: stelzlfamily.com

So, it’s happy birthday to me. I hope I’ll keep learning, and keep writing, over the year to come – and, with any luck, I’ll have even more to report this time next year.

(But I don’t want to think about this time next year, because by then I’ll be another year older, and that’s too depressing to think about. )

Have a great day, and always remember – as long as you’re learning, you’re living.

Image: cakedvintage.com

Image: cakedvintage.com

*Okay, so not literally millions. I’ve also learned I can be guilty of gross hyperbole, for which I apologise.

To Beta, or Not to Beta?

I follow a lot of writing blogs, as is to be expected from a person in my position. I regularly find nuggets of wisdom on these blogs, ranging from tips and tricks to make my writing better to book recommendations, support for the writing process, encouragement and hints on how to best present work to agents, and so on. One of the things I come across most often is the idea that every author, everywhere, needs a team of CPs (Crit Partners) or, as they’re sometimes called, ‘Beta Readers’.

Frighteningly enough, I don’t really have these.

Nope. Not even in here. Image: drbristol.wordpress.com

Nope. Not even in here.
Image: drbristol.wordpress.com

Very kind people have offered to read bits of things I’m working on (or, have agreed to read these bits after I’ve asked them to), but nobody has ever read a whole manuscript of mine. Is this a bad thing? Well, I don’t know.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of beta readers over the past few days, and about how such a system would work. Clearly, it’s no good asking someone who is not a writer to be your beta reader, because then the system of favours would only benefit one person – you. A beta reader relationship, like all relationships, needs reciprocity, equality and generosity – so, there’s no point in asking your best friend (who works as a hairdresser/architect/toothbrush inspector) to read your book for you. Well, that is unless you have expertise in the fields of tonsuring, house design or dental hygiene, and can offer your services to your friend in exchange. I’m also wondering about how it works when you write a draft of a book, have your beta reader expend energy and time critiquing it for you, and then redraft your book – do you expect your beta reader to spend more of his or her time on the same book, reading and critiquing this next draft?

I don’t think I could ask anyone to do all this for me. It sounds like a massively time-consuming thing, and I don’t know if it’s altogether fair.

The benefits of having beta readers are clear, however. Having another pair of eyes look over your work can only be a good thing; a second reader can see mistakes, inconsistencies, flubbed phrasing, wrongly placed dialogue tags, and more. If they fall asleep as they read or start skimming through certain sections, it’s a reasonable indication that you’ve wandered off the point a bit too much and your work needs tightening up. They can also tell you what’s good – what works, what grabbed their attention, what brought the tears to their eyes, what made them care. Then, hopefully, you can revisit your work and dial down the boring bits while turning up the volume on the interesting parts. But what happens if you and your beta partner disagree? What if you feel your digression about man-eating Venus flytraps in the middle third of your Great Novel about uranium mining on a distant planet against a backdrop of inter-stellar war is not only beautiful, but necessary, and that your beta reader’s assessment of it as being ‘flabby, pointless and snore-inducing’ is overly harsh?

What do you mean, you don't see the point of the last four hundred pages? It's *art*, dammit! That's the point! Our friendship is over! Image: nitratediva.wordpress.com

What do you mean, you don’t see the point of the last four hundred pages? It’s *art*, dammit! That’s the point!
Image: nitratediva.wordpress.com

You might think, then, that engaging the services of several beta readers is the way to go. If they all come back with the same report – ‘kill the man-eating Venus flytraps’ – then perhaps it’s a clear indication that the world is not quite ready for your vision. But what do you do, then, if they don’t agree? What if they all come back with different reports? Perhaps one will love your opening scene – a huge explosion cruelly disfiguring your brave and noble hero – and another will think it’s a clichéd mess. Maybe one reader will adore your conclusion, thinking your decision to have the inter-stellar war end on a note of universal harmony as the spaceships, once mortal enemies, fly off together into the sunset, is a work of genius; another reader may (probably rightfully) hate it. What, in a case like that, can you do?

It can be difficult to take criticism of something you’ve created; I know this. It’s a common failing among anyone who writes, or paints, or spends their time making things. I’m sure it makes it even more difficult when a person whose opinion you trust and who knows their stuff tells you, as gently as they can, that the work you’ve done isn’t very good. Not only that, but they can tell you exactly where you’ve gone wrong, and why. This is immensely helpful, but also immensely hard. I’m sure, too, that there’s nothing a beta reader hates more than having to tell a friend they don’t like something they’ve created. The last thing anyone wants is to cause pain, but that is an inevitability.

So, one must weigh up the benefit of having another (very kind, and very generous) person read their work before they do something crazy with it, like submit it to an agent or a competition. Is it worth the pressure put on your relationship with this other person? Is it worth the suffering? Is it easier to receive criticism from a person you do not know?

In a funny twist of fate, yesterday a friend of mine offered to read some chapters of ‘Tider’ in exchange for my reading of some of her work. I was already planning this blog post when her offer came through, and it made me smile. If I was the kind of person who believed in the numinous nature of all things and the benevolent interconnectedness of the universe, perhaps I could’ve taken it as an indication that I am desperately in need of a beta reader; perhaps I should just take it as an example of good timing, and the kindness of a friend.

So. If you write, do you also beta? Is it a good system? How do you get it to work for you? Let me know. I’m taking notes.

Image: kids.usa.gov

Image: kids.usa.gov

 

Quelle Horreur!

So, today’s post is about that dreadful question, the one which haunts my nightmares and causes me to break out in hives, the one question I fear more than anything else.

No, it’s not ‘how old are you, exactly?’, before you ask.

It’s ‘So! Wow, you wrote a book. Man. That’s cool. What’s it about?

Image: lostandtired.com

Image: lostandtired.com

What’s it about, indeed. Well.

Does anyone else experience a total loss of verbal and physical coordination when someone puts this question to them? When it happens to me, it’s like someone has just asked me to find the square root of the thirty-first prime number multiplied by the total number of moons in our solar system, and then divide it by the amount of miles that separate Earth from the Oort cloud. In other words, my only answer is ‘Um. Well, it’s sort of… yeah, I mean, it’s kind of like…’ before I trail off into silence beneath their withering gaze.

It’s a really hard question. But why is it so difficult?

You write a book. It doesn’t happen overnight, after all. You spend months working on it, getting the idea and nesting it, hatching it out and growing it, nurturing it until it’s strong enough to stand on its own short spindly legs, and then you write it and rewrite it and rewrite it until you can bear to read it without cringing. If anyone in the world knows what it’s about, you do. But time after time it happens to me that I get asked what my book is about and my tongue turns to sawdust and my throat to jelly. I can’t answer. My brain goes blank. People think I’m weird(er).

When I was doing my PhD, I was advised from an early stage to have a snappy answer to the question ‘what’s your thesis about, then?’ It didn’t have to be a truthful or accurate answer, but at least it was something you could trot out when someone cornered you at a party or in the staffroom, demanding to know what you were spending your funding money on (not, of course, that it was any of their business, but that’s a different story). I did develop a one-sentence answer to that question – as time went on the sentence grew longer and longer, of course, and eventually it had so many clauses and commas and semi-colons that I had to turn it into a paragraph, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is this: it’s hard to know how to answer a question like ‘what’s your book about?’ when you know it so intimately that it’s like asking someone to describe, in detail, their spouse’s face, or something like that. So much information floods into your brain that the whole thing just clanks to a halt.

Or, is it more than that?

Image: blogs.lawyers.com

Image: blogs.lawyers.com

Sometimes, I feel like I can’t answer a question like ‘what is your book about?’ because I’m terrified to even talk about it. I’m also petrified that if I gather up the guts to start talking about it a look of pure boredom will creep across the face of the person who asked me the question, and they’ll get that unmistakable look in their eye – the look which says ‘Oh, my God, get me away from this nutter.’

Now that I think about it, that happens to me a lot. Anyway.

I’m afraid, I guess, of the judgement of other people. I’m afraid to take my little story-gem out of its protective wrappings and hold it out in front of someone else’s face and go ‘here! Look! Isn’t it pretty? Don’t you just love it as much as I do?’ in case they say ‘No, actually. It’s a bit weird-looking, don’t you think? I’m bored just looking at it.’ I fear, every time I start to talk about my book, that my voice sounds silly and the idea sounds ridiculous and I stumble over plot points and get confused and explain the whole thing backwards so that it seems like I’ve written the biggest mess in the history of literature. What I should do, actually, is print out a one-sentence synopsis, and have it laminated, and carry it in my purse so that I can take it out and show it to people when they ask me what I’ve been working on lately. At least then I can watch their face as they read my answer, and I can just turn and run away if they look confused or derisory or unimpressed. I may be able to save myself some of the hassle of interacting verbally with people who might hate what I’ve done, and I’ll know not to engage them in literary conversations ever again…

But that’s silly, of course. Naturally enough, there are going to be people who won’t like what you write. Not everyone in the world is going to love, or even like, your book. Avoiding people, and thereby avoiding the question, is impossible; the best I can do is prepare an answer I can be proud of, and practice it until I can recite it by heart without stopping or skipping or messing up or saying something out of sequence, and then learn how to happily take it on the chin when someone raises a skeptical eyebrow at me and says ‘Really? But that sounds boring/trite/stupid/doomed,’ or whatever the case may be. Someone, somewhere, is bound to be interested, and to react with enthusiasm when I start off my answer with ‘Well. My book is about a boy named Jeff who receives three really strange presents for his thirteenth birthday…’

Do you have any tips on how you cope with people asking you what your book’s about, and how you deal with your nerves surrounding The Question?

Hope you’re having a fantabulous Friday, and that a sparkling weekend awaits you!