Constructive criticism: where honesty meets kindness

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All writers and artists who share their work will face criticism. It’s not only inevitable, but essential for helping us learn our craft. But there’s a world of difference between constructive criticism that builds on the foundations of the early draft, and destructive criticism that tears the thing apart.

As a published author, you have no control over spiteful or negative reviews (though you can choose not to read them). When you’re a new writer or in the first stages of a new book, you get to decide who sees your draft. So unless you’re exceptionally thick-skinned, the best thing you can do for your writing career is to find someone supportive and truthful to help you, and avoid those who leave you feeling dejected and hopeless.

In my experience, some writing groups have a macho approach to critiquing, and members may pride themselves on their ‘brutal’ honesty. Well, I’ll be honest with them: it doesn’t impress me at all that they’re able to say what they think without regard for people’s feelings. What takes real skill, in my opinion, is to tell a writer their work needs improvement while leaving them feeling supported and hopeful they can make it better.

Kindness and honesty don’t have to be polar opposites. Kindness without honesty is not true kindness to an artist, because it denies them the opportunity for growth.  And while honesty without kindness may contain some useful truths, it can also cost the artist their confidence and motivation to carry on.

It may sound obvious that a critique should include positive comments, but it’s amazing how many people forget this. They assume if an aspect of the writing is already working, it doesn’t need to be pointed out.  But positive feedback isn’t just about ego. It’s extremely useful to know when your words are having their desired impact, and what your overall writing strengths are.

The difference between a constructive and a destructive critique is as much about word choice as content. When I receive a page of criticism, initially I skim through it, and certain words and phrases leap out at me. These are the words that contain a strongly positive or negative emotional charge.

Imagine if a critique of your first ever story contained the following:

Plot clichéd and predictable, pacing slow and boring, couldn’t care less what happens next, characters whiny and unlikeable, descriptions generic, bland and repetitive, spelling and grammar is very poor.

You’d need a hide like a rhinoceros not to feel a bit crushed by that. But what if the critiquer had chosen to turn those phrases into positive suggestions for improvement?

Needs new plot twist or angle, faster pace, more emotional intensity to hook the reader, use more concise and specific description, increase our empathy for the characters, sentences need a thorough edit.

You still might not like it. It probably wasn’t what you were hoping to hear. But there’s a different energy about it. It makes you feel like those changes are possible and within your power to achieve.

As writers, we do have to learn to deal with criticism, but we don’t have to subject ourselves unnecessarily to cruelty or insensitivity that is hurtful and damaging to us and our art. Because ultimately we’re responsible for the influences we allow into our lives.

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Celebrating first-time authors over 40

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Assuming all goes to plan, I will be 42 when I self-publish my debut novel next year. I’m lucky that my vocation has no real age limits: you can write a good book at 19 or at 90. Creativity follows no predictable schedule – some artists reach their peak early on, but many are late bloomers, producing their greatest works in the latter stages of their lives.

Nevertheless, we live in a culture obsessed by youth and glamour and marketability. We’re also very impressed by precociousness. Publishing may be less influenced by this trend than some creative industries are, but a talented young author with a stunning photograph on the back cover of their book still has an improved chance of becoming a media sensation.

I can never be that young writer now. That ship has sailed. Since there’s no point in regretting the fact I wasn’t able to write an amazing bestseller in my twenties, I had a think instead about the positive aspects of publishing later in life.

Mature novelists are said to have a wider range of life experiences to draw on in their fiction. I’m not convinced that’s always true. There are people half my age who have suffered hardships or embarked on adventures such as parenthood which have given them insights I will never acquire firsthand.

What we older writers have had is the luxury of time to reflect on the events of our lives, whatever they might be. We’ve simply had more years available to us in which to develop our understanding of ourselves and the world, and to learn from our mistakes, should we choose to do so.

Being over 40 and undiscovered has increased my empathy for others who reach midlife with their aspirations unfulfilled. I use this theme in my writing all the time to explore the frustrations of my middle-aged characters and the societal expectations which drive them.

Coming face-to-face with failure has also lessened my fear of it. I know I can deal with chronic disappointment and still appreciate the good things in my life. (This is what I tell myself on the bad days anyway). Seriously though, I’ve learned the value of perseverance, and that some things are worth fighting for.

My extra years of practice have helped me to hone my writing voice, to think more independently, and to be certain of what I stand for. Some writers will have achieved this at a much younger age, and that’s great too. We were never meant to be all the same.

I refuse to read those articles listing ten things you should know, or should own, or should do in your 20s or 30s or beyond. One effect of ageing is that I can’t be bothered with rigid conventional thinking any more. I don’t believe anyone else can set our pace for us or tell us where we ought to be in our lives.

In the time I’ve been writing the self-publishing revolution has arrived, which means I no longer have to wait to be chosen (unless I want to). If I’d been traditionally published a decade ago, I might not have experienced the thrill of gaining the confidence to choose myself. And that in itself is surely worthy of celebration.

Is fiction an escape from reality?

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When events take a dark and depressing turn and the political landscape looks bleak, many of us turn to a good novel for comfort and distraction. Undoubtedly it can benefit our wellbeing to switch off the news for a while and lose ourselves in stories about elves or magic or comedy or romance instead.

Stories with happy endings where good triumphs over evil. Where the villain is cast into a fiery hell pit for eternity, instead of becoming… well, you know.

At the same time, reading is so much more than a means of avoiding the outside world.

A long time ago, when I was living with undiagnosed clinical depression, I used creative writing as an escape. I was drawn to themes that were fantastical or magical: ancient myths and legends, heroic tales and adventures. Anything that didn’t remind me of how lost and uncomfortable I felt in everyday life.

On the whole, they were traditional narratives with traditional morals, written uncritically, despite the fact I’ve always been progressive in my thinking. But it wasn’t about me or my beliefs back then. I was telling a story in the way I thought a story ought to be told.

I don’t regret anything I wrote. It was a learning process and at times a lifeline. But I only found my writing voice (and the route to recovery) when I stopped hiding from reality and turned to face it.

Our ‘voice’ isn’t style or technique or subject matter, although these play a part. It’s how we convey our perspectives, our passions and our values. The craft of writing can be taught, but I don’t believe we can truly fulfil our creative potential until we know who we are and what we stand for.

When we’re ashamed or afraid to reflect our emotions and our beliefs and our truth in our work, we end up with a borrowed truth instead. And while imitating others is part of our writing education, if we want to grow and change, we can’t hide from ourselves or each other forever.

To become good writers we have to confront life, however painful that may be.

The book I’m writing now is set in contemporary Britain. Several of the characters are unemployed or disabled and experiencing the nightmare of sanctions and the benefits system. It explores mental health problems and their impact on jobs and relationships. The characters may have different attitudes and viewpoints from me, but the story itself is imbued with everything I believe.

Although realistic contemporary fiction is the path I’ve chosen, this isn’t an attempt to favour it over other genres. The best sci-fi, fantasy and horror authors don’t shrink from reality either; they hold a mirror up to it. They use imaginative settings and alien characters as an alternative lens to explore psychology, politics and the possible future of our species.

We don’t have to compose intellectual or philosophical diatribes for our values to shine through on every page. Almost any story can have a moral or political dimension. If we’re writing a romance, do we give our female characters the same status and complexity as the men? In our fantasy world, how do the rich treat the poor, and what are the consequences? When our imaginary characters get in trouble, do we hold them to blame, or do we address the societal factors contributing to their problems?

Whenever we write a book or a blog, we should question ourselves. Is this what I think? Is it what I feel? Is it what I believe? And if not, why not?  Because I’m avoiding the truth of my experience through fear of criticism or self-revelation? Because someone told me this is what people want to hear?

To see fiction purely as escapism is to miss out on its infinitely greater possibilities. Sharing our authentic stories is not only a powerful means of communication and self-expression, but also of increasing empathy and understanding, and we’ve never been more in need of that than we are today.

We may not see ourselves as political activists, destined for the debating chamber or the campaign trail. But when we have the privilege of being able to tell a story and to access the technology to share it, then we have a voice, and it’s up to us to use it.

Because now is the time to stop burying our heads in the sand.

You weren’t to know

_mg_7776A post for anyone who ever felt different or struggled to accept themselves. I had this in mind as a performance piece.

YOU WEREN’T TO KNOW

You weren’t to know that there was no shame in having ginger hair or glasses or dyslexia or parents too poor to buy you trendy shoes. How could you have known, when the playground bullies singled out kids like you and called you names?

You weren’t to know that it was cool that you were interested in engines and robots and beetles and the stars. How could you have known that your scientific curiosity would help shape the future, when even your teachers regarded you as an anti-social nerd?

You weren’t to know that you hated sitting exams in stuffy classrooms because your passion was for rock music or performance art, and that it would be your unique gift to the world. How could you have known, when everyone judged you on the grades you achieved?

You weren’t to know that you could be bad at sports and love poetry and roses and cry when you were sad and still be a strong and courageous man. How could you have known, when the other boys hit you and called you a wimp?

You weren’t to know that you were worthy of respect regardless of your weight or the width of your hips or the thickness of your thighs. How could you have known, when the fashion magazines and the girls in the changing rooms told you otherwise?

You weren’t to know that hating yourself so much that you couldn’t say your own name out loud was a sign that your mental health was suffering. How could you have known, when no one told you your mind could get sick as well as your body?

You weren’t to know that the reason you did drugs or drank so much when you got to college was mainly to hide your insecurity and numb your pain. How could you have known, when it was considered a normal part of the student experience?

You weren’t to know that one day you’d stop struggling to be someone else and ask for help instead. How could you have known, when our culture still treats therapy as something shameful?

You weren’t to know that with support, you could learn to accept yourself for who you are. You weren’t to know, but now you do, perhaps you could let someone else know too.

The mysterious origins of fictional characters

_mg_7743For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the concept of fictional characters. People who exist in the form of ideas, transmitted from the minds of creators to readers across continents and centuries. Despite having no physical presence, they’re recognisable and knowable, as well as the subjects of endless dispute and reinterpretation.

Having studied literature and been a member of book clubs, it strikes me just how intense and heated the discussion can get when readers love or despise a particular character. Fiction seems to give us an outlet to express strong feelings or beliefs about others that we’d hesitate to reveal in a real-world context.

We all have our favourite characters, but where do they come from? Are they inspired by real people? Are they invented from scratch and assigned a set of predefined characteristics? Or do they emerge fully formed from somewhere deep in the swirling chaos of the subconscious?

Obviously the answer depends on the author and their subject matter. I can only speak for myself. I’m not a memoir writer or an autobiographical novelist, and I don’t base my characters on real people (as my friends reading this may or may not be relieved to know…)

I do, however, use some elements of my life, as well as aspects of personalities I’ve encountered in the past. All authors to an extent ‘write what they know.’ Whether our story is about medieval pirates or a satire on the modern workplace, we use our emotional experiences as a basis for exploring those of others.

I began my current novel in 2015 with two characters and a setting. That was all I had to go on.  I had a vague sense of where I wanted these two people to end up, but no real plan for how I’d get them there.

For me, the characters emerge as blurry figures, which slowly come into focus. Sometimes I start with a name. I have a thing about names. They have such strong associations for me that I’d more willingly change my character’s age and appearance than what they’re called.

Gradually, more details are revealed. The outline of a face, an accent, a profession. Very soon I know all sorts of things about them: their troubled past, their taste in art or music, their secret fears and desires.

This is the point where I feel them to be ‘alive’.

Writers talk about ‘the characters controlling the story,’ which sounds mystical, but what it means is we’ve achieved a deep-level, intuitive understanding of that person in all their complexity. After that, they do take charge, because we can no longer make them say or do things they wouldn’t, in order to further the plot. We can try to force it, but it won’t feel right, and we or our readers will sense a lack of credibility.

Secondary or minor characters are slightly different for me. Sometimes, like the main players, they appear seemingly out of nowhere. Other times I consciously create them, because I feel the story needs someone extra to lend it humour or a different perspective.

These characters may start off as one-dimensional or stereotypes. I find it takes a little longer for them to come fully alive when they occupy less space in the narrative. It may not be until the second draft that I get to know them as individuals, which is when they start behaving outside of the narrow expectations I’ve set for them.

As any avid reader knows, it’s possible to become completely and utterly obsessed with fictional characters. This is even more true when we’re creating our own. Since we have full access to their minds, we can get to know them more deeply than a partner, perhaps even ourselves.

I think it’s a good thing that we fall in love with our characters, weird as it may seem to some. Most writing is more effective when the author’s emotions are engaged, and readers are more likely to adore our made-up people if we do.

Characters in stories aren’t a substitute for human connection. Our fictional love can never hold our hand or visit us in hospital or help us bring up our children. But they can be a compassionate presence in our lives, a solace in difficult times, an inspirational hero or heroine, and a route to self-knowledge and empathy.

 Such is the power of our imaginations.

Holding onto the faith that your audience is out there

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I’ve been thinking recently about my people-pleasing tendencies when it comes to writing. I find that social media, much as I love it and useful as it is, exacerbates these. It’s easy to absorb too much advice, to alter our work to conform to popular trends, and to compare ourselves to others. To measure our worth in clicks, likes and shares.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek feedback or community online. It’s natural to want validation and approval. To know people enjoy what we do. And constructive criticism is important for helping us learn our craft and improve.

But when we know we’re already technically competent, when we know in our hearts that we’ve found our voice or style, we need to maintain an inner belief in ourselves and our vision, even if we’re not getting the recognition we desire.

The best artists give us the gift of their true selves. They write the stories they want to tell. They portray a landscape the way they experience it, not how they believe everyone else thinks it should look.

Naturally, they also want people to love their art.

If we’re authentic and passionate and we present ourselves well, I believe eventually others will respond. There will be an audience for us, however small. We’re unique, but we’re not so special that no one else can understand or relate to us.

Sometimes we look for attention in the wrong places. We submit to agents who hate our genre. We don’t learn enough about marketing. We turn to those close to us for support, but although they may have our best interests at heart, they’re not the right people to appreciate what we do.

It’s possible too that our sense of isolation is partly an illusion. Someone does care, but for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to let us know. Statistics aside, we can never truly measure the impact of our message, or know who else we’re inspiring along the way.

We don’t know yet what we’re capable of achieving, which is why we have to keep putting ourselves out in the field. Even on the days when it’s tough as hell. When it feels like we’re the only one who values our work.

But valuing it ourselves is always the best place to start.

Preparing to become an author

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My love of writing stories began a very long time ago. I’m not sure exactly when the photo of me above was taken, but I’d guess around 1981. Since then, I’ve written well over half a million words, as well as working as a copywriter and in communications. However, I haven’t yet managed to publish any of my fiction. I’ve decided this is going to change next year.

A few people have asked me when my novel will be available (thank you!) The short answer is before the end of 2017. I can’t yet commit to a specific month for a launch, as I’m not sure how long the editing will take.

I started writing my latest book in October 2015. What I have now is a mess of a 120,000-word draft. The scenes are in no particular order. Like many authors, I can’t write in a linear way from beginning to end. (I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me.) Some of the secondary characters are still sketches, and overall the writing needs a lot more work.

However, the basic elements of the story are in place, the charity shop setting feels authentic and the two main characters are fully alive. I know how they look, speak, think, move and act. They’re utterly real to me and I could spend hours daydreaming about their lives.

I’m now onto the second draft, which involves structuring, rewriting, and cutting the manuscript down to around 100,000 words or less. If I’m honest, this seems quite daunting right now, but I’ve written novels before, so I know the fear is just part of the process.

I don’t generally show anyone a work-in-progress. Some writers like to collaborate in order to shape their raw first drafts, but I prefer to have it as polished as possible before anyone gets to see it. (Just as I’d never leave the house without make up on…)

Once the manuscript is ready, I’ll ask my writing coach if she can give me some initial feedback. She has amazing insight into what makes good fiction, and she’s so lovely and positive, I look forward to receiving her comments.

After that, I’ll open it up to several more views from friends and other writers. This stage is likely to scare me, but it should give me an indication of the strength of the book’s appeal to readers.

When I’ve made changes based on feedback, I’ll hire a copy-editor to go through line by line, pointing out any grammar errors, inconsistencies, and style issues. People with this level of attention to detail are truly amazing.

I’m really looking forward to the cover design. An attractive and professional cover is crucial for selling any book, and I definitely don’t have the skills to do this myself. I’ll be looking for a striking image that reflects the tone and themes of the novel and a designer to create some beautiful artwork.

The next job is to get the text formatted for Amazon and work out how to set it all up. Then comes the marketing phase. I’ve started on that already with this blog and social media.

I love the idea of self-publishing. It’s time-consuming, risky, and not for everyone. But it removes many of the barriers to getting our work in front of an audience, and puts us in control of our writing, finances, marketing, and long-term careers.

People complain that the removal of the ‘gatekeepers’ allows a flood of mediocre books onto the market. That may be so, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Freelancers can provide all the editing, design and marketing services offered by a traditional publishing house. There are so many brilliant creative people out there to help us. If we’re prepared to invest time and money in our self-published books, there’s no reason why they can’t be as well produced as any we see on the shelves.

For indie authors, there’s no one to grant or deny us permission to publish. That means we get to decide for ourselves when it’s time, which is wonderful, and at the same time, kind of terrifying.

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, but becoming an author will be a new experience. I suspect when it comes to it, I’ll need someone to talk me into pressing the publish button.