Reflections on feedback

I braved the feedback of my peers the other night. I took a chapter of Our Kind of Bastard, which sadly appears like it may be some kind of problem child, to my writers’ group for evaluation.

No matter how many times I do it – and this is hardly my first rodeo – reading before peers is never easy. I can’t help but compare myself; I see how slick my comrades are, how they have wonderful turns of phrase and a skill with similes that I simply don’t have. I see depths in them that I know I lack.

I know that it’s not fair to myself to perform this sort of comparison. I have strengths that others don’t, for sure; it’s just sometimes hard to see them, especially when my strengths lie in mood and story rather than in the wit of words. Still I feel like the one who drags down all the others. The bar-lowerer, if you will, which I’m sure is a useful person to be. I’m the one who makes everyone else feel better about themselves.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of self-flagellation piece; I’m not writing this in a mood for self-castigation. Rather I’m coming from a place of reflection about my writing.

One of the criticisms that I find most interesting is that I lost the character’s voice in the later half of the scene. It’s not that I drifted into another point-of-view, but that my POV character stopped adding her own commentary. This I’m struck by for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the criticism is correct. Looking back, I did absent myself (herself) a little from the latter part of the scene. This is probably (or at least in part) because the scene was extended to give more description, to provide more context and texture. This dialogue that comes at the scene’s end is now less attached to the previous emotions than it was in a more concertina-ed version.

Secondly, this is something I tend to do, I think, and I’ve never noticed it before. I have a tendency to set up a scene, loaded in personalities and explanation, then step back and (try and) let the characters talk for themselves, without too much intrusion. This reached the point – and I’m thinking about in Oneiromancer here – where I had scenes that consisted almost totally with dialogue and I was barely aware of who the POV character was for that scene.

To say that this is/was a deliberate thing is probably to overstate the case a little. It just happened, and I let it happen. Problem is that now I’m not sure whether it’s a strength or a weakness. Some little ‘neutral’, factual scenes devoid of personal baggage… I like the idea of that. But it can’t be done too much. It risks shallowness and alienation. Readers like a personality to hold on to.

I think that the OKoB scene in question needs changing. I need my character’s voice, and I’m grateful to the critic for pointing the flaws out to me. Previous criticism is that my characters in this novel aren’t especially deeply drawn, and this is another opportunity to reinforce how my protagonist feels.

Beyond that, it’s something else for me to watch out for. Am I missing other opportunities, or is the odd ‘alien’ scene actually a strength? I don’t know. I’ll have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

I am still learning. I am still learning not only how to write, but how I write. Every writer has their foibles and knowing your own can only help, right?

Get feedback on your work. The mirror the reader holds up to you will not always show the prettiest image, but it will be an interesting one. One from which to learn.

Onwards (again)

Our Kind of Bastard has had its beta readings (or possibly alpha readings; the terminology is beyond me) and the feedback is in. There is much work to be done. There are flaws with just about every single aspect of the novel: its characters, plot, dialogue, setting – all need work.

But it’s not all bad. There is a good story hiding in there. It just needs more. More backstory, more development, more atmosphere, more time spent on characters. Just more.

Aside from the bits that need less, of course. Fewer distracting digressions and parenthesised asides.

Writing is a tricky business, and this is perhaps the hardest thing to drag yourself to: to take a work out of the ‘completed’ siding of the mind and disassemble the train, adding in new coaches, new trucks, repainting and getting it ready to run the Submissions Express.

Visual representation of my brain

Except that, as a sequel, this train is going nowhere for some time yet, even should it be made all gleaming-squeaky clean.

The work must still be done, however.

Getting feedback is perhaps the hardest – and most necessary part of writing a novel. The mental adjustment involved in hacking off the first two chapters, for example, or removing a character, or simply adding in a scene, is out of proportion to the actual work involved. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it can be a whole lot of chopping, of typing, of tying together. But the mental effort involved – not in simply coming up with new ideas but with cracking open a ‘perfect’ capsule of a novel and rearranging the innards – far outweighs that. To me at least.

So I gird my loins and put the kettle on, select the writing music of choice, and get down to it. This thing ain’t gonna write itself.

Accentuate the positive

It was the best of writing groups, it was the worst of writing groups…

Yup, it’s another post where I lament my own inadequacies and generally pour angst upon you, dear reader. See, I have been in my new group for about six weeks and I am struggling not to drown in brilliance.

It’s becoming patently obvious to me that I am not the writer I thought I was. The signs have been there for years, now I stop to examine them, but now they are unignorable. I am getting criticised for things I thought I was beyond – dialogue choices, narrative focus and the like – and I can’t riposte on my detractors because their writing is so damn good. So not only am I not the quality writer, I’m not the critic either.

Ego-bashing is not necessarily a bad thing, and it is always better to look up than to look down. I just wonder how much more I can take before I become too afraid to take my own work to read. I need to have belief in myself, or at least have the right attitude of supplication, before I can advance.

And of course it’s never easy to join a group as a stranger, especially in these strange times when Zoom is your only friend and the human touch is too often missed. I am quieter online because I don’t think I have anything that worthy to contribute; but I would speak up in person, and thus the cycle of not-getting-to-know-anyone-ness is deepened.

There are positive things to take from this. My work is, to all intents and purposes, being almost professionally assessed. I’m getting real solid feedback and learning where I need to improve as a writer. That’s the flip side of all my moaning. I am getting what I need.

Plus the people all seem nice – first impressions and all that – which is a bonus.

It just feels a little overwhelming. I am not without jealousy, and to see other first-time readers getting praise… well, I’ve never claimed to be a good person. And whilst I wish everyone the very best, and I wish to hear top-flight writing, I just wish I could have some of what they’re having, please.

All this says more about me than I’m entirely comfortable with. I like being good at things, that’s the real takeaway here. I need to really get over myself and accentuate the positives, because there are many. I must get my head down, stick at it, and learn.

On beginnings

Sometimes you need to hear something out loud to know what you were thinking all along.

Such is the case in my latest editing project: Our Kind of Bastard (and I still can’t tell if this is a good title or not). Despite this going out to beta-readers I still took the first chapter to my new writing group last week. There it got a very gentle, kindly-meant kicking, for which I am grateful.

The truth which I had not allowed myself to say out loud is that I struggled to start this novel. I have four beginnings, in fact, none of which run entirely sequentially and thus are a confusion for the reader.

The difficulty is that there is merit in all of them. But I know I have to lose at least two of those scenes in order to get a little flow going. It just took someone else saying it out loud for me to accept what at least a part of me knew all along.

This is, of course, another benefit of being in a writers’ group, manuscript exchange circle or the like. You are not always aware of what’s going on in your own subconscious and you need an outside force to bring it home to you.

Doesn’t help that OKOB is a sequel: I need to introduce all the characters and the world I’ve built in book one to remind veteran readers and at the same time give enough to newbies. And I need to crack on with the actual story that makes up book two.

So I have a problem – but then I always did have; the only difference is that now I’m aware of it. And now I know what I have to do: expand one scene to allow it to breathe, cut two others, and see if one of those, at least, can’t be worked back into the text further down the line. And, of course, I have to work out what information I haven’t now given and make sure anything essential gets fed back in somewhere.

This is writing. It’s a bloody difficult gig – don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s easy ‘cause it ain’t.

And this is only the opening scene.

When writing groups go bad

I have taken a big step and decided to leave my writing group.

I can write this because I know that nobody from said group follows me in any way, shape or form; and, indeed, that’s a small part of the issue. I simply feel like nobody in this (small) group likes me or my writing.

That sounds very self-absorbed but it’s hard to shy from. I don’t feel supported or encouraged in my writing and, no matter how ‘big’ or experienced you get, an atmosphere of encouragement is important to help produce.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you might remember that I’ve mentioned some issues with this group before. So a fair question would be to ask why I’ve stuck at it so long. Well, this group contains at least two first-rate, better-than-me writers that I’ve wanted to learn from and to gain their advice and criticism. Plus there’s a great deal to say for stability. I’ve had a relationship with these people that I’ve always hoped might develop into familiarity, if not friendship.

That hasn’t happened and I’m left feeling alienated and, to some extent, bullied. Now I know, I know – I’m big enough and ugly enough to take some slings and arrows and not to take every little thing to heart. But I also suffer from depression, and when I’m reduced to tears after a particularly bruising session, it’s time for me to bow out and put my own well-being – and that of my family, who have to put up with me in that state – first.

I also have issues with the quality of criticism. Now I believe that all criticism should be weighted by the needs, level and personality of the recipient. I take heavy criticism; maybe that’s a reflection that the rest of the group feels confident enough in my ability to take it and use it constructively.

And I believe it’s fair that one of the weaker writers in the group should take lesser, more broad critiquing. What I don’t like is for that to become outright misdirection; telling her, for example, that a dream sequence works when I felt clearly that it didn’t. That sort of feedback isn’t gradation – it’s simply wrong and unhelpful.

There is an art to good critiquing. It’s not always easy to judge feedback-level. It’s a skill that can be learnt with experience and practice – and I don’t think my group has that down.

So it’s time for me to move on. I’ve had an offer to join another group – non-local, but in this Zoom-fuelled world, what is local? – and I’m minded to accept it. I owe it to my family – and my craft, and my sanity – to try something new.

Slings and arrows

It’s not quite imposter syndrome but it is close. I’m having a crisis of confidence because I fear that I’m the worst writer in my writing group (five people) and I don’t like it. Not one bit.

It doesn’t reflect well on me. I should be grateful for being shown how much I have to improve. I should be proud to have room to grow – and I am, I promise. And that’s good, and humbling, for I am not without ego and it does me no harm to be shown the emptiness of my rhetoric.

But I’m the published author. I should be better than I am; I shouldn’t be an over-writer. I shouldn’t be struggling with quiet scenes. I should be better than what I’m showing.

I should also be better at giving criticism. Lord knows I’ve had enough practice at that, what with being an editor to boot.

It doesn’t help that I’m finding it hard to mesh on a personal level with the other members of the group. Not that there’s any animosity or unpleasantness, but remote meetings make it harder to express empathy or to communicate in any ways other than through direct speech. In such a small group these things seem magnified.

So what do I do? I don’t want to leave because these people are, as I said, damn good writers and I should be learning from them. I’m determined to be as good as I can possibly be.

I guess I just suck it up, grit my teeth and take the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

The quiet bits

It seems that I struggle with the quiet bits.

The loud sections – action and combat and chaos – I don’t do too bad on, though I do say so myself. But for too long I’ve ignored the mumbles of discontent; the one critic (writing group buddy) who always seems to say that I handle the in-between bits less effectively.

Now, however, I have to face up to my flaws. I have third-party criticism that backs up the complainant, that holds the guilty verdict. I don’t handle quiet scenes as well.

This strikes me as a little bewildering as the reflective scenes I enjoy. I don’t think I rush them. I value their presence. I’ve gone on Twitter, no less, to say how important they are for me. So why the disconnect?

Quiet scenes – the reflection, the description, the background noise – matter greatly. They give emotional resonance, they give the characters time to breath, to be, to come alive.

To quantify the issue a little, I’m really talking about the third novel of my Antarctic trilogy here and that’s a kind of unique situation. There’s a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the worldbuilding. There’s a character who’s got mental issues (he’s described as a borderline sociopath, but really it’s childhood trauma that’s at the root of his problems). And, though I should be selling him from a reader’s perspective – so that doesn’t excuse my authorial failings – I’ve consequently written him as a cold, difficult person. I didn’t do this deliberately; it just happened that I inhabited him in that way.

So that’s the context, but not the solution. The solution is to listen to my complainants and see what can be done about it. For it’s not too late for me; I can still improve the novel and fill in the gaps; feed the scenes a nutrient-rich prose that well help bring alive both my characters and the world. I can also see if this criticism follows me other to other projects or if it’s specific to this trilogy.

I want to be good at what I do. I want to play the quiet notes as well as I play the loud.

It’s also a lesson in listening. As I said, I had a critic for ages, but it’s easy to think of a single voice as somehow aberrant. When you get more than one person chiming up, however, it’s time to go back to school.

I’m lucky I have intelligent people around me to help me make these changes.

How to save a novel

editing

Arrogance alert: I am about to lecture you on ways to make a bad novel better. This is done based on the feedback received from one person (albeit a fairly important person; to whit, my editor) about one novel. He was very positive about the work I’ve previously referred to in these pages as my problem child (see also here).

Based on this slimmest of evidence I therefore feel it appropriate to share a few of the techniques I’ve used to lick my red-headed stepchild into shape. All of the below are things that I’ve done in the chasm between first and finished drafts.

  • Take your time. I was working on the Problem Child for over six years before it was signed off with the editor. Of course it always feels like you’re in a rush but, unless you have specific deadlines, you have the rest of your life to get it right
  • Believe in it. Yes, there are times when it’s right to give up on a project but often you have to believe in your baby, and…
  • Be stubborn. You took the time to write a whole draft; something inside you is telling you it’s worth getting right, so you might as well…
  • Do the work. Editing is hard but it can also be hugely rewarding. You have to be prepared to sit in that chair and frown at your work until it comes into focus
  • Get criticism. Whether on individual scenes or on the story as a whole – preferably both – it pays – hell, it’s essential – to get feedback. Find beta-readers. Find a writing group. Don’t go solo
  • Listen to criticism. If someone, or preferably someones, are telling you something doesn’t work then it probably won’t work for any agents or commissioning editors either
  • Act on criticism. It’s a lot easier to tinker with grammar and character than it is to get to the root of a problem. Remember, though, you don’t have to rush to action. Take your time. But you will have to tackle the issues raised

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  • Edit someone else’s work… and keep reading. Thinking about a novel in a different way can help you frame just what’s wrong with your own work – and can give you a fresh perspective on how to fix it. You never know when the answers might strike you
  • Be humble… but believe in yourself. You can do it. Go you!
  • Draft, redraft, redraft again. I’ve lost track of the number of rewrites I’ve done for Human Resources, partly because of my idiosyncratic numbering system and partly because it received a new name, and thus a new folder, towards the end of its pre-acceptance life. But I know it took at least nine drafts. Some were major rewrites, others mere tinkerings around the edges. Every one went to make it better. I say again: do the work
  • Add characters. My early drafts always seem to be underwritten (with the exception of those that aren’t and need characters removed, which I have also done) and need added layers of complexity. Specifically, I seem to omit a vital level of antagonism which can only be solved by redrafting with a new character woven throughout
  • Re-write the opening. Because the opening is disproportionately important, and it’s not as easy as it should be to find the right moment to come in. I set the opening at three different points before settling on a fourth, changing my mind, then changing my mind back
  • Arrange a panicky second beta-reading. Because self-belief is fragile
  • Worry endlessly whether it’s good enough. Ego never survives contact with the enemy, which in this case are your readers

What have you done to reinvigorate your work? Please do add your comments below. And remember, kids, that whilst this may look like advice, it is coming from an idiot. Caveat scriptor, y’all. Caveat all the way.

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One-star

1-star

The only sane way to deal with reviews is to ignore them.

Sadly, that’s not always possible. I, for example, was checking mine out in the hopes of being able to boast about my scores to a prospective agent. That’s when I came across my first one-star review.

Hurts? Well, I skimmed it pretty quickly; I don’t see much point in analysing it blow-by-blow. (Except I really want to. I came across this a few weeks ago and I’m not forgotten it and moved on, which must tell you something.) I’m actually more hurt because the reviewer, I realised, is someone I follow on Twitter.

Someone I respect hates my work. This is pretty tough.

But it is absolutely their right. Books are subjective things; some things I love will be detested by others. It’s just the nature of words. They can hate something I’m intensely proud of – and it will hurt, that’s for sure, but what can you do about it?

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It helps that I’m fairly secure about Night Shift. I wrote it long enough ago, and I know I can write better now; I don’t have all my ego in one basket. Praise surprises me a lot more than criticism, and I’m constantly trying to remind myself that there is actually some damn good writing in it. And there is. I believe that.

I’m much more nervous about the response to book two, when it finally comes out. I worked so hard on that and my ego is much more exposed. Hopefully it’ll have had time to crust over before it’s finally released in 2020.

And, if the worst comes to the worst, I must try and remember my own advice.

Never try and argue with the reviewer. It doesn’t end well.

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Upon further review

bookburning.jpeg

Book burning at Wartburgfest 1817; illustration of 1883 (artist unknown)

So: reviews are coming in for Night Shift. This is, by and large, a good thing; It shows that copies are getting out to people – well, book-bloggers – and that, through them, the novel is getting a little attention.

Possibly the only thing I’ve remembered from my A-Level General Studies course is that you need to have heard of something (a band, a book, any sort of brand) at least five times before you think of checking it out for yourself. I’ve never been quite sure it’s true but if it’s not it’s still a good-enough lie.

So any mention of my work is welcomed. It doesn’t mean much if the only voice is my own constant nagging monologue; but multiple sources recommending a book makes a real difference.

Of course, not all mentions will be positive. The greater your fame spreads the more likely you are to hear dissenting voices. You’re going to have to learn how to take a negative review.

Last time I looked – I’m not going on too often – Goodreads reviews had been mostly positive. But one person had given me 2-star rating and another a fairly unimpressed 3. So here’s my ‘I’ll probably end up being a hypocrite over this’ guide to dealing with less-than-stellar reviews:

  • Remember that they’re not criticising you as a person. Yes, we all put a lot of ourselves into our work but saying that someone doesn’t like your work is not saying that they think any less of you as a person. Yes, there may be exceptions – if, say, your book is about something very important to you (transgender rights, for example) and someone disagrees fundamentally then it’s hard not to take it personally. Try and keep that distance, though: you are not your work.
  • They are not reviewing your best work. Your best hasn’t been written yet. And on that subject…
  • Publishing takes time. I’m not going to say ‘you should have been writing something else whilst the process was ongoing’ because life isn’t always straightforward. But you’re not the same person you were when you wrote that first draft. What you do now will be better because you’ve grown. (This might be less true of self-publishers, though the idea stands)
  • Try and take lessons. If your critics are consistent about over-simple plots, say, or wooden dialogue, try and take it on the chin. Learn.
  • Allow yourself time to recover. Words hurt. Allow yourself to feel that – cry if you need to, deny it if it helps – and don’t rush to a change until you’re ready…
  • …And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t respond to bad reviews. It’s okay to thank reviewers for a good one (via social media; don’t add to their blogs, it’s terribly gauche. And be careful about emailing as it might look a bit like stalking) but DO NOT complain about their poor taste, their personalities, or anything similar. It never ends well.
  • Write something else. Write better.

I’m sure you can find more ideas. Check this article for starters (and for another classic example of what not to do).

People will disagree with you. People will be unfair – they’ll review it as if you were trying to write a Mills & Book and not the star-killer grimdark space opera you were aiming for.  They’ll miss the point. And, of course, what one person sees as fussy, fiddly, over-perfumed prose will be another’s superlative imagery.

You can’t control this. Just remember that you’re in fine company. Every writer you’ve ever heard of has been shaken down at least once. Here’s the classic on Terry Pratchett:

…a complete amateur – doesn’t even write in chapters – hasn’t a clue.

–Tom Paulin on BBC2’s Late Review

And on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

The book as a whole is disappointing, and not merely because it is a reworking of a theme that one begins to suspect must obsess the author. Holden Caulfield, the main character who tells his own story, is an extraordinary portrait, but there is too much of him. …

In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [his] explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself. And this reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was.

–Anne L. Goodwin, The New Republic, 1951

Reviews matter, and bad ones hurt. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. You will be okay. And even a bad review is better than no review.

At least one person has read your book.