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

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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

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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.

 

 

On tour and punch-drunk

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By the time you read this my blog-tour will be over. I will have travelled across continents to carry the message of my work to the masses. Eight blogs have read ARCs (advance review copies) of Night Shift and published their opinions. You can find the links above; check them out if you’re so motivated. More hits for them reflects better on me so I’m not going to complain.

This is my first experience of being reviewed. It’s been… well, it’s not seemed quite real. It still doesn’t. This is partly because I didn’t organise the tour myself: it was handled my publisher and via PR people – another unreality – so the first I really knew about it was in the messages I was tagged into on Twitter.

I’ve had minimal contact with the bloggers themselves. I got the links, checked out the pieces, and retweeted them. That’s it. Now I’m blinking in disbelief, especially as all of the reviews were positive. Well, all but one – I’ll get to that in a minute.

Will this translate into sales? No idea. It can’t hurt, though.

A note on sales: I’m not actually that bothered about money – it’ll be minimal – and I won’t be checking my Amazon sales rankings obsessively. But weak sales will mean I’m less likely to get my second book deal. Publishing is a business; publishers do care about sales because only a healthy bottom line will enable them to put out more books. Publishers, believe it or not, love books and want to act as midwife to as many as possible.

So how am I feeling now? Bewildered, mostly. Punch-drunk. For, though I do my best to get my name out there and have the arrogance to think that what I say is worth hearing, I am a seething cauldron of insecurities. I wrote Night Shift a long time ago; I’m a better writer now. For people to like what I did five years ago (although revisions have been made right up until a few months ago) far exceeds my sense of what I deserve.

This also gives me a sense of immunity from criticism. The one poor review I mentioned earlier: I read it with an awareness of how hard the blogger was trying to be positive – they wanted to enjoy it but couldn’t quite get there. The final judgement was ‘Quite a good story,’ which is somewhat damning.

I read that with a smile and a shrug. Because what else can I do? It’s all illusion anyway; everything is smoke and mirrors. I have no beef with the reviewer and will help promote their site because that’s the sort of person I want to be.

Now if, on the other hand, they’d said this about my most recent writing, then we might have a problem.

I joke but there’s truth in it. The problem would be entirely mine but it would be there. Even faint praise hurts. My whole self-image might shatter if shaken violently.

I’ll write more about reviews next week. For now, please let me finish with a quote and a link from each review:

Crime meets science fiction- I loved it!

https://bookslifeandeverything.blogspot.com/2018/11/night-shift-by-robin-triggs-blog-tour.html

The author did a good job with building the tension and I was kept guessing … Just as I thought I had an idea of who it was, a little doubt would creep in as something else was revealed. The who, why and how was not what I expected at all.

https://jenmedsbookreviews.com/2018/10/31/night-shift-by-robin-triggs-robintriggs-flametreepress-mgriffiths163-blogtour-review-randomthingstours/

Quite an enjoyable story.

https://broadbeansbooks.wordpress.com/2018/11/02/blogtour-night-shift-by-robintriggs-flametreepress-annecater/

I really enjoyed this book … What makes this story work and feel fresh is the writing, the very narrow perspective of only Anders’ view of everything and the ramping up of the tension and peril as the story develops.

https://bookloverwormblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/blogtour-review-night-shift-by-robin-triggs-flametreepress-robintriggs-annecater-randomthingstours/

This is a brilliant twist on the ‘who done it’ concept. Multiple murders and multiple motives and suspects kept me guessing throughout the book and just when I thought I had it figured out something would happen that would completely turn my thinking around … I hope to read more from this author in the future.

https://bucksbooksbeyond.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/night-shift-by-robin-triggs-blogtour-bookreview-robintriggs-flametreepress-annecater/

It’s speculative fiction with a whodunnit vibe and an aura of creepy suspense.

This a well-written and superbly plotted crime thriller based in the Antarctica … [h]opefully we won’t have to wait too long to read more by Triggs.

https://mmcheryl.wordpress.com/2018/11/07/blogtour-night-shift-by-robin-triggs/

There was also an extract shared on Over the Rainbow Book Blog

Punch-drunk. Yeah. That sums it up.

See you next time.

 

The Greatest

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Art by Leonid Afremov

I would have been the world’s greatest at whatever I did. If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s greatest garbage man! I’d pick up more garbage and faster than anyone has ever seen. To tell you the truth, I would have been the greatest at whatever I’d done!

I have something in me that demands I be the best at whatever I do. It’s not enough for me to struggle then ultimately fall short. It’s not even enough for me to scrape home. I must be good. I must be the best version of me I possibly can be. I feel Ali’s quote deeply.

I’ve done a lot of low-paid jobs; I’ve worked in warehouses and in the dirt. I’m the ground-floor employee. And in every role I want to be best, even if I know it really doesn’t matter what I do and that my job will be replaced by robots as soon as they can find machines prepared to perform such menial tasks.

This is not a healthy place to be. It’s beyond human to be good at everything – indeed, it’s why I’ve given up on numerous things I enjoy. It’s why I’m not playing chess anymore. It’s not a fear of losing. It’s a fear of not being as good as I think I can be.

I want to be good. I have to drive on the ragged edge because I can’t bear inefficiency: I have to be perfect, the optimum speed, the smoothest gear-change, the swiftest transition. The problem with the ragged edge is that you don’t know you’ve hit it until you’ve crossed to the far side at least once.

It’s why I crashed my car.

It’s why I put my daughter in hospital.

It’s a fine line: the desire to be best is a great motivator. It drives many top athletes. You need targets and drive and dedication; an arrogance that doesn’t allow losing as an option.

But it’s not healthy. It’s certainly not healthy in the arts, where subjectivity is everything. Criticism is hard to bear at the best of times. When you’re dumb and driven, like me, a harsh word is a piledriver.

I don’t think I’m the world’s best writer. I’m always striving to be better, and that desire is a positive thing. I want to make people happy. I want editors, reviewers and readers to enjoy what I do. If they don’t I feel like a failure.

For me it’s always about the destination, not the journey. It shouldn’t be this way.

It’s enough to enjoy what you do. You’re not in competition with anyone else. Life isn’t a zero-sum game.

It is a balancing act. You need that drive to improve; you have to be willing to work, you have to have pride in your achievements. But you have to enjoy that work. You need to be able to step back from it. You need to have some sort of off-switch; sometimes you need to remind yourself that taking the longer path is just as rewarding.

Or maybe I’m just in a funny mood and none of this really matters.

The critic’s black heart

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When you see the eyes start to glaze it’s time to back off.

I’m not proud of myself. I’m not a good person. Reducing someone to tears is not an achievement – not that it quite got that far, but still. Close is too close.

Writing is a tough, personal business. After you’ve scratched and scrapped your way to a completed work you’re attached to it; you love your characters and you’re proud of your achievements. Rightly so. Even the very worst adolescent scribblings is worth more than the “I could do better if I had the time”s in the world. So the very last thing you need is for some jackass like me come along and rip your work to shreds.

It’s worse because I’ve had it happen to me. I have no excuse.

Shall we contextualise a little? Last week I met with my fellow write-smiths to feed back on one of my colleagues’ work-in-progressese. It was a first draft. It had flaws: flaws that made me write in capital letters on my notes. Errors that frustrated me, made me rant. Which is not to say that it didn’t have merit; it most certainly did. But I find it hard to praise when the plot-holes are so large you could fit a Dostoyevsky in them.

This is my confession. I should have backed off. I should have seen the mood and picked my words more carefully. I should have spared the blade.

Criticism has to be pitched to the mood, to the recipient, to the look in the eyes. If, as I said at the beginning, you see the eyes start to glaze and your words are bouncing off like bullets from a cyborg heroine, it’s time to stop. To pause, get another drink, have a metaphorical cigarette. The last thing you want to do is make someone abandon their precious. All writers put a lot of themselves in their work. To insult their prose is to pierce their hearts.

The point of criticism is to help. That’s worth stating explicitly. It’s not a podium from which to demonstrate one’s own superiority. It’s not to highlight the ways in which you could do better; it’s not the place to show your command of words or of plot or dialogue or character. You’re there to help – either to aid the reader in finding a work that’s right for them, or, as in this case, to help the writer produce a better story.

I fear I did not do that. And for that I’m truly sorry.

Slave to the grind

Right. A weekend away has occurred. Now it’s time to recalibrate the brain for writing: to shake my senses back into the realms of the unreal and ineffable. In other words it’s time to work out what the hell I’m doing with this novel.

For those what don’t know, I got my feedback on Oneiromancer back from my betas a few weeks ago. It was the usual mix of great criticism: helpful, horrible, headscratching harumphery.  And, as usual, it leaves me temporarily lost for a plan. Or, rather, it leaves me with questions that I can easily answer but, in the answering, raises a whole phalanx of follow-on questions with no easy solution.

My problems are specifically those of the cut-and-paste variety. I’ve determined that I’ve got to move a batch of scenes, which I can do without too much difficulty. But every move not only leads to continuity errors – relatively easily solved – but also leave notes hanging that need resolving; chords missing a key tone and begging for resolution.

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A section of my scene-by-scene guide with notes detailing my rapid descent into madness

What’s exorcising me at the moment is the need to prolong a character’s life. It was widely agreed that I’d killed one particular character too soon; that she still had a purpose that I’d not fulfilled. I’m sure my betas are right. And so I’m acting on that…

Except that, because I always saw her dying here, I’m not sure what to do with her there. I don’t know what information she can provide because in my mind she’d served her function. Actually moving the crucial incident is straightforward; knowing what to do with her in the interim is a pain in the bum.

It’s one of those issues where the writer knows too much. I need to freeze my thoughts at the point at which the original story is set to change. I need to establish what the characters actually know in that moment, what their aims are and where they see themselves going. Essentially I need to forget two-thirds of the story I wrote and replan from there.

But how can that be done? I know too much; I can’t self-lobotomise – except via alcohol, which is a science too imprecise for my needs. I’ve planned the story out, and whilst I know alterations are necessary my mind isn’t the most flexible. The thoughts are burnt into my mind like great welts, throbbing and fresh and raw.

This is where writing is an effort. This is where I need to focus, to reappraise, to assess. To think.

I also have to keep in mind that I’m doing this because I want to write a good story. I want to write the best novel I possibly can. This is why I asked for people outside my mind to read it, to comment and to tell me what doesn’t work. To not act on their advice might be easier but it gets me nowhere. Ultimately the only person I’d disappoint would be myself.

So it’s back to the editorium with me. I have the masterscript all printed and ready. I have a scene-by-scene guide ready to be scribbled upon. The only thing missing is a brain that has answers, and those are in short supply.

Writing is not a glamorous pursuit. It isn’t the lone genius scribbling in his garret, churning out words of wonder with a bottle of absinthe and a few cats for company. It’s staring and scratching and swearing and always, always, working. Without any prospect of success – however defined – at the end.

It’s times like this that define you. To be a writer is to embrace the hard times, to own them and, ultimately, to enjoy them as much as you do the initial fire of creation. Only then will you be able to produce something the world will embrace.

The shattered remnants of ego

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s nothing like a good critique to squish the missteps. And, as is rapidly becoming a tradition, I got squished.

Oneiromancer was placed under the microscope on Monday night. My irregular manuscript-exchange group, AB-FAG – that’s Abingdon Fiction (Adult) Group to the uninitiated – met to deliver the verdict on my work. And, by and large, it was a hugely productive and beneficial meeting with the added bonus of beer. Now I have to gather up my notes and the shattered remnants of ego and work out where the hell to go from here.

The real benefit of such a group/meeting is to show the author things she can’t see herself. Writing is a balance: too much backstory or not enough? Too much telling or an overreliance on clumsy and flow-slowing body-language? Clarity in mythos-explanation or pages of info-dumpery? What is the novel lacking? What’s superfluous?

I don’t have all the answers; they’re not all handed to you on a plate. But there are some things upon which everyone agreed:

  • The opening is confusing and off-putting. There are too many POVs too soon
  • Likewise there are too many aliases, which make it hard to grasp character (although at least one reader likes this conceit, which is just bloody typical)
  • With one or two exceptions the characters are underdeveloped – partly a consequence of my attempt to write an ensemble piece rather than one with a single, definable protagonist. The consensus is that more backstory would help
  • The villains need to be villainouser, and their motives need to be made more explicit; that they’re not just invading/subjugating/killing etc for the sheer hell of it. Or, if they are, I need to make their wickedness wickeder
  • There is a lack of light to balance the grim darkness; the humour present takes the form of pitch black irony

I think all of these points are correct, although I can quibble a little. I don’t want none-more-evil bad guys; I want them to be the heroes in their own minds, not maniacal monsters. Humour? I don’t do that very well (although in my mind there’s more wit in this work than in any of my previous novels), but I see the need for more light to give the fears more shape. I don’t know how manage this right now but I’ll think on it.

These things I can do. They are, in the editory sense, fairly simple. It’s a case of adding or subtracting, rewriting some scenes and expanding others. Not necessarily easy but envisionable. But other suggestions provide me with more of a headache.

There is one particular scene which is horrible. It’s meant to be horrible; an ordeal for the reader which results in the death of a moderately minor character. It was intended to form the second pillar of my mid-novel climax, although the latter half of the novel just kept on rolling and so an action-scene now holds that position.

The Nasty Scene is, unsurprisingly, controversial. There are valid writerly-reasons for its inclusion. It’s part of that ‘grim irony’ thing I mentioned – the heroes’ actions directly caused it, although they don’t know that. It’s meant to be a shock and an emotional wrench. The question is whether it works. Whether it’ll put readers off. Whether killing that particular character is good or bad for the story.

Incidentally, there seemed to be a bit of a gender-divide here. The women in the group (mostly) hated it. The men had less of a problem. I’m not drawing any conclusions from the tiny sample-size – and it doesn’t actually help – but it makes me wonder.

I’m unsure what to do. A suggestion was to move it later in the story but that’ll wreck the skein of cause-and-effect. It was said that killing the character removes someone that has an important story-link that needs to be kept. I don’t know. I will mull.

Another suggestion was to move my inciting incident as far forward as possible; in essence to massively trim down the first hundred pages of the book. A good idea, but massively hard to execute. I want to get that in early too, but I wrote the story the way I did because I felt the information that came before was essential. Again, mulling is required.

So what do I do now? I think my first decision is to do nothing. I’m half-way through another edit of Australis, the second book in my Antarctica trilogy. I’m going to finish that before I move back to Oneiromancer. I will reread the notes that my betas gave me and, when Australis is back on one side I’ll print out the Oneiromancer manuscript and go over it with a metaphorical red-pen-and-hatchet and try and fix all these issues.

One thing is for sure: the novel will be better for the advice I’ve received. It’ll be richer, bolder and more devastating. The punch-in-the-gut moments will have more resonance. Explanations will flow more naturally and I’ll invite the readers deeper into my world. All because of a wise, warm and diverse team of advisors. If you’re a writer and you haven’t got this support I urge you to seek out contacts – a writing group either physical or online. It really is the best way to develop your craft.

As for me, if one day I can learn how to successfully incorporate humour I’ll be one to watch. But possibly from a great distance.

Bring forth the sacrificial lambuscript!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He's really good!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He’s really good!

Some people are better at some things than others. Yes, I know – blindingly obvious, huh? But it’s amazing how much stall you can put in a single person’s advice, no hint of a second opinion or of checking over for anything missed.

I have the very good fortune to belong to AB-FAG, my local manuscript-critique-exchange group. Last week was one of our periodic get-togethers where, over a pint or two (white wine for the ladies*), we eviscerate our sacrificial lambuscript and perform several pagan – and probably illegal – orgiastic dances with its entrails. The cleaning bill’s a bit of a bugger, but it is a guaranteed cure of all known arrogances, blockages, superverbosities and misplaced metaphors in the writing world.

The point (and there is one) is this. Some people can spot things like plot-holes or impossible travel times. Some people are quite happy to let those go but are absolutely abhorring of the misplaced apostrophe. Some are super-hot at dialogue; when it’s singing and when it’s turning into gruesome parody.

My thing is the factual error; internal contradictions; things that a character describes but can’t actually see; and a side-order of plot-nonconvincery and missing motivations. A colleague is hot on character and voice. These strengths overlap (we hope) with those of the rest of the group. We can all see these things but some emphasise some things over others. Sometimes this leads to intense debate. Example: in this last manuscript there is a character of a piratical nature. Two of the group found him shallow and lacking in logic/motivation. Two others had absolutely no problem and thought him convincingly villainous.

It is an aside that the two who thought him shallow were male and the two who liked him female. Not sure if that really means anything. Just, as I said, an aside.

It’s up to the writer whether they make any changes – on this and on anything else – or if they simply say ‘to hell with you all’. The point is that one person can mislead, can give you a bum steer. There’s no guarantee that a multitude will be any righter, but a more rounded critique – by a body of people who read both in- and outside of the (any) genre – can be nothing but useful.

Because everyone reads differently. Even professionals – agents and editors and the like – have their strengths and weaknesses. They should be all-round better than you and I because it’s their job to see things from many angles: they should have the experience to have raised their floor to a level above that of the average joe. But – and I’m sure you all know this – they’re only human. Your manuscript can fall on the wrong desk at the wrong time. Some people might have a sudden urge for a red-hot erotic fantasy just as your worldly-worthy study in Victorian prudery arrives in their inbox. Just your bad luck.

There’s nothing you can do about luck. The only thing that’ll help you is to make sure that you’ve got the best possible material out there just in case your epic tome on German cheesemaking lands on the desk of a committed subscriber of Westphalia Tilsiter at the time when she’s desperate to bring her passion to the masses. And the best way to get the best possible material is to share your drafts with as wide an audience as possible – preferably early enough in your writing process that you’ve time and energy to make the changes.

And now I’m off to prepare my own sacrificial lambuscript for the altar of public opinion. Happy writing to all.

*An Al Murray/Pub Landlord quote. Not being sexist. Honest.

Level up!

When you get told you’re not very good at something – in writing or in any field – you have two options. You can deny it and make excuses or you can turn around, take a good look at what you’ve done and make it better.

Sometimes criticism is incorrect. There are times when you should it brush aside and stand your ground. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to separate the ego from the moment and so an immediate denial is rarely helpful. More often, the criticism is minor and so you can say ‘yup, you’ve got a point there, I’ll get that changed’ and move on without any great insight being gained. But if you go around exposing yourself often enough you should eventually be able to work out ‘themes’ of error (as well as some idea of what you’re good at) and how you respond to that is how you’ll be shaped as a writer.

Once you’ve realised you’re not very good at, say, dialogue, your choices are simple. You can avoid it: no direct speech in your novels, all reported, or action, or description. Or you can go away and work on your flaws and make your whole work better from that point on.

It should be obvious which the better line is. But there are instances where avoidance is the best option – if you’re working to a deadline, for example, or you’re so deep within a project that a major rewrite would break your heart. So side-stepping the stumbling-block may be a sensible approach.

But long-term the best way to become better at anything is to work out what’s causing you a problem and spend time specifically on that. That requires an external perspective, someone who’s not afraid to tell you when you’re not doing it right, and a willingness to accept criticism.

(By the way, time is your friend. No-one expects you to like criticism at the time it’s given; you’re allowed to be hurt, to feel misunderstood. Go away, kick the metaphorical cat around the room a bit, sulk, moan how no-one gets you. Then remember that the critics aren’t judging you but your work, and if they misunderstood something then it’s your fault for not making it clear.)

I’ve had it. I’ve learnt not to overuse swear-words (to keep them effective rather than for any sense of prudery), to keep dialogue fractured and roughly-hanging, to look again at how much description I provide. Now I’m beginning to feel like I don’t know how to use backstory. I’ve got it – in spades – but just how to bring it in..?

It’s really the action of writing that makes you a better writer; constant exposure to words, both the reading and creating thereof. But when you find you’re doing something badly – sub-optimally, at least – then you have the opportunity for an instant ‘level up’, a leap forwards in your chosen craft. To turn your back on criticism is to miss the opportunity to develop. Remember that most ‘work’ consists of reading books and thinking – of being mindful. And isn’t that what you do anyway?

Pick your moment, pick your area and pick your brains and the brains of others. That’s what writers do. And never stop moving forwards because you want to be the best you possibly can. Right?