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.

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.

Scribble

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?

The importance of being critiqued

No matter how experienced you are, how much you appreciate criticism and really want to be shown all your errors, there is a part of you who wants to hear nothing but that you’ve written a good book.

My critique group are excellent. They may pull their punches in the face of your trembling lip, but that doesn’t stop them from dropping you to the canvas in a heartbeat. It’s a reciprocal arrangement so I’ve no complaints: I’m harsh too. This honesty is vital as you’ll never become a better writer unless you know where you’re going wrong. Still it leaves a mark.

On Monday I had New Gods in the ring and it got savaged. Despite the fact that I knew they were right in almost every way, it still hurts. Now I know I have to go back to the very beginning, take it apart and rebuild from scratch. Much as I enjoy writing, the last thing I ever want is more work. Because I’m lazy. And because it’s about time I got out of Antarctica and gave my tired brain a change of scenery.

More positively, this critique also proves how much I’ve learnt over the last year. I’ve not looked at New Gods for about 15 months, and it showed. In the intervening time I’ve learnt so much, have really reconsidered how I go about something as complex as a novel. Much of the criticism I got last night revolved about depth of character, the need for backstory and for better dialogue. I’ve already thought about that and am not too worried – I can do it.

I’m more concerned with problems of plot – and missed opportunities – that were pointed out to me. But I suppose all it means is that I have to think harder: sometimes you can’t just sit back and let ideas come to you; sometimes you have to put on your pith helmet, take down the old elephant gun and stalk those treacherous wee bastards.

So thank you to my group, some of whom are probably reading this. You gave me exactly what I needed. I’ll come back with a much better story as a result. Right now, though? Well, it’s a short step from criticism of one unfinished project to worry about all your output and whether you’ve got what it takes at all. Self-doubt is never that far away.

But I do this because I love it and I’ve trained myself to sit down and my desk and work. So I will get up, get back to it and produce something better than I could before. And though the self-doubt may never leave me, if I can fool others into believing I can write then maybe I can trick myself too.

Confessions of a blogoholic

I’m going to let you into a little secret. Sometimes I post things on this blog that I’m not too happy with. Sometimes, for whatever reason, I can’t think of anything interesting or insightful to share with you. I’m left with a choice of not putting up anything at all or sharing something that I feel is slightly substandard. I try to make up for this by hitting the odd height; by working on my writing and actively hunting and retaining ideas that might later make a column; and hopefully my combined output might be enough to raise this blog to a basic level of readingfulness.

The only problem is that I’m an idiot.

It’s true. I don’t quite understand it. Sometimes the entries that I sweat and slave over and write and rewrite just disappear without trace. No new followers, zero likes, no comments – nothing. Conversely the posts that I toss out in a desperate, sweat-drenched half-hour and I try to sneak out without fanfare can draw me an armful of appreciation.

The moral seems to be this: you are the worst judge of your own work. No matter how good a critic you are, no matter how everyone around you comes to you for advice on matters bibliographic, you are incapable of seeing your own work through the eyes of others. This is why the fine mesh of public opinion is essential for the sieving of your literary lumps. I will always urge prospective writers to join a writing group, or at least to link up with other writers for manuscript exchanges – and to do this before you thrust your quivering, sweat-soaked magnum opus in the direction of the publishers. Hey, you might be a stonking genius and have created a masterpiece – in which case, what does it hurt to be told this? More likely a semi-stranger will be able to see things that you’ve missed.

Learning to listen to and accept criticism is an entirely different skill, by the way. There’s a chap I write with – lovely guy, brilliant prose-ist – who, upon criticism, will say ‘Yes, but what I mean is…’ and will never realise that I don’t give a damn what you were trying to say, that’s not what you actually said! With anger and frustration.

So always listen to what other people say. They’re always right.

Except…

They’re not, are they?

If you listened to other people’s ideas you’d never have written the manuscript that’s currently in front of you. Only you could have written that story (or played that melody, or drawn that landscape) in that way. It’s your combination of ideas, your unique characters, your theme and your universe. When people tell you something’s not working they’re nearly always right. Nearly always. But sometimes you’ve just got to stand up for yourself and your world and tell them to go to hell.

Politely, of course.

But they’re probably right. It probably was just a rubbish bit of writing. I reckon you can do better. And I’d give good money to take back some of my early submissions to publishers.

Hindsight. It’s not quite 20/20, but it’s a lot more accurate than foresight.