The critic’s black heart

litcrit

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.

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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.

State of the nation

I don’t know about you but I’m getting confused. After a long year working on one single project, I’m now all-of-a-multitask. I figure that this might make this blog a little twisty-turny, so I thought I’d best lay out just what I’m doing and where I am.

First off: Oneiromancer. This is my urban fantasy and main line of creation right now. It’s what I’ve been blogging about for the last year, so I won’t bore you too much here. The second draft is currently with the beta-readers; I have a date set in early May for feedback, beers and tears.

After this review I’ll get back to a new draft (about which I will no doubt tell you at length as I swear and twitch uncontrollably at my keyboard) to iron out all the many and varied problems that were drilled painfully into my skull by The Crusher, The Smiling Assassin, The Highbrow Heckler and the rest of the team. Then I’ll begin to think about contemplating the possibility of going back into the submissions process.

Then there’s Night Shift. I introduced all my work in this post, which is worth a look if you’re totally flummoxed with all these titles. Night Shift is complete – the only work that I’m happy to describe as ‘finished’; that’s after it was critiqued (twice) by an agent. This is the one I’m currently working on self-publishing, having exhausted traditional lines of enquiry.

I’m – that is to say my wife, the Photoshop Queen, is – currently working on a cover. I’m hoping to be able to bring you preview images for your criticism at some point, and so I may well bring my focus to bear periodically over the coming months. But there’s little to say about it right now. I had hoped that self-publishing would provide new bounteous inspiration to share with you here, but so far I am somewhat becalmed. We shall see.

And finally we have Australis. The problem child. Night Shift’s back-to-back-written sequel, over three years ago now. This is the one that’s been giving me considerable pain in the unmentionables ever since. The middle part of a trilogy always turns out to be the most difficult, probably due to ‘psychology’ or some such nonsense.

Around 18 months ago I did a heavy rewrite of Australis, adding in new characters, softening some elements and transforming the story into more of an adventure. I’ve not looked at the damn thing since, but now I’m wading back into the great sea of editation to try and form something vaguely watertight.

So I am doing three things at once: Oneiromancer is my main project. Night Shift is bubbling under, words sorted but all the publish-y details to be arranged. And Australis is my betweentime endeavour; the one I’ll be working on when the others aren’t occupying my tiny mind. My last action was to amputate the first chapter and a half; I’ll shortly be back to try and fill in the gaps I’ve left.

And whilst I’m doing all this I’m rubbing my two remaining braincells together to devise a completely new project: on my mind is an Asterix-inspired sequel to Oneiromancer and a stand-alone YA (possibly) steampunk (possibly) inspired adventure.

Because I’m a writer. This is what I do.

Boredom? Sorry, son, no time for that round here.

Revenge of the Betas

Oneiromancer Draft 2 is finished. It is now with my reading team; in a month or so we will convene and I’ll learn of all the ways in which I have failed. Then it’ll be back to the Editorium with me to fix all my myriad mistakes.

Some months ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to a theoretical beta-reader: now it’s time again for me to think about what I actually want to gain from the experience and how to go about asking for it. Because there is good criticism and there’s bad criticism and it’s possible for you, the author, to make sure you get the one you’re after.

These are the questions I’m asking myself. Unfortunately the human brain (mine, at least) isn’t designed to see these things in one’s own work. So I’m relying on others to filter these things for me. I’m not planning on sending this list out to my chums ahead of review/evisceration because I don’t want to lead their thoughts. But I will be taking this list with me, as a reminder to myself of what I’m trying to learn.

So:

  • Structure:
    • Does the novel start in the right place/in the right way?
    • Are there any areas where the story drags? Do any scenes seem too slow, or would any benefit from being drawn further out?
    • Does the work take too long to get going?
    • Should any scenes be cut?
    • Should any scenes be added?
    • Are the characters introduced coherently?
    • Does the ending satisfy?
  • Mythos:
    • This is a fantasy and so a certain amount of world-building is involved. Is there too much? Or too little?
    • Is it communicated in the right way? Too fast, too slow, too obscure or too spoon-fed?
    • Is my mythos cohesive and believable?
    • Is there anything that you didn’t understand/makes no sense?
    • Have I contradicted myself at any point?
  • Character:
    • Backstory: too much? Too little?
    • Do the characters act out of character at all? Are their motives clear?
    • Are the characters sufficiently distinct? Do they have clear – and not too annoying – voices?
  • Plot:
    • Are there any points where you wondered why my cast acted as they did?
    • Were there any moments where you were screaming ‘No! No, that’s dumb! Why not just…?”
    • Were all actions clearly caused by previous events and not introduced by our old friend Ms Deus Ex?
    • Was there, in fact, a coherent plot?
    • Were all the threads resolved?

It’s especially important to get this sort of feedback because I was essentially making things up as I went along. You come up with one idea and then, a dozen chapters later, you realised the consequences are much greater than you thought. “Well if she can create a sword out of thick air, why can’t she just sever this Gordian knot with a thought?” It’s amazing what you can miss.

I’m not (that) interested in typos, grammatical errors, dialogue and even basic quality of writing. Not at this stage. I’m going to have to rework this piece enough times: each draft will improve the actual writing. At this stage I’m much more concerned with whether the world I’ve built actually works.

It’s always worth asking yourself what you want to find through criticism. Secretly I think we all want to be told that we’re wonderful, that we’ve written something unique for the ages. But even secretly-er we all have anxieties about what we’ve done. The only way to come out with a quality product is to face these fears head on, admit your uncertainties and Get Help. That’s what I’m trying to do here. Some of the points above are generic: we’re all worried about character; any of us might have let a plot-thread hang loose.

Some, however, are specific to this particular work. For me it’s the particular rules of the world – the laws of magic, if you’ll permit me such an odious phrase. So when the group meets and I’m confronted with my shortcomings I’ll know to prick up my ears whenever someone mentions what to me are the underlying fundamentals of my world’s backstory. And so on.

That, at least is the plan. But, as we all know, no plans ever survive contact with the enemy.

On discouragement

Writing is in large part dealing with discouragement. And uncertainty. The two things that we must face are discouragement and uncertainty. And poverty. The three things – hang on, I’ll come in again.

Last night I took a recent batch of words to my wonderful critique group (of which, for my sins, I am Chair) and I got them critiqued. And it was a discouraging experience. Nary a positive thing was said. And on my way home I was considering all my excuses, of which a sample I shall here present for you:

  • I didn’t set the scene properly
  • I chose the wrong scenes to present
  • There are many characters and not enough time (with a 1,500 word cap) to draw distinctions between them
  • The scene is fragmentary and involves multiple points of view – and, indeed, is part of a very complex novel
  • It’s in a genre that few others in the group are familiar with
  • They know I’m a decent writer and so they don’t feel they have to bolster me with praise
  • It was a linking section and so not much actually happened

Excuses. All excuses. And I’ve no idea how much merit any of them have. Almost as soon as I thought these things I was countering with:

  • These people are good writers, wordsmiths I respect; if they say something doesn’t work then it doesn’t work
  • A good piece of writing should stand on its own without context
  • Gaiman’s quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

So: discouragement. For just about the first time I came away from a meeting wondering what the point of it all was: why am I struggling to produce something that’s just not working? If I can’t create tension in quiet scenes then I’ve got nothing worthwhile at all. Quiet, building scenes are the most common in my novels and it’s a skill that needs to be mastered.

But my heart, my instincts are telling me that these scenes will work. When they’re placed in context, when we’ve had the full build-up of the novel to develop the characters and their voices, then this will come alive. I have to believe that. Sure, the writing needs improvement. I can sharpen the dialogue and the action and bring the characterisation alive. This is a first draft. Of course it’s not going to be perfect. I’ve written before (at least once) about the unimportance of words in this context, and I still believe that I’m right.

So I am upon the horns of a dilemma. I can’t allow myself to ignore criticism as that way lies arrogance and a failure to grow as a writer. But, frankly, I think that my group is wrong. My novel will work. This will work.

As a writer you need to be able to accept criticism and rejection and sometimes you’re going to hear things that hurt and sometimes you’re going to be left thinking ‘this person just doesn’t get it.’ But if you’re hearing the same thing over and over – the same specific suggestions, the same problems highlighted – then you really do need to look hard at your work and your skills. But you need at the same time to have a little faith in yourself.

As for me, I’m going to ignore this discouragement for now and crack on. There’s plenty of time for agonising in the second draft. But in order to have a second draft you must complete the first. And that’s what I’m off to work on now.