Critiques – a survival guide

June 17, 2012

In a WordWatchers’ critique, the group usually reads an entire book and discusses it in detail. The process has been likened (by the wonderfully witty Mel) to being ‘mauled with velvet paws’. Criticism is honest, occasionally tough, but also tactful and delivered with understanding and sympathy for the time and effort invested.

Just to chuck my own image in, I reckon critiques are about as easy to take as someone calling your baby ugly. (I say this as a non-parent, so really I have no idea, but don’t you dare call my imaginary baby ugly!)

I recently ran the gauntlet of a WordWatchers’ critique by submitting the first draft of my YA novel, Speechless. Here are my top tips for accepting criticism:

1. Don’t be precious.

  • If good old-fashioned publication is your goal, or if you self-publish and do it properly, at the very least an editor and proofreader will get their mucky paws on your manuscript. Once your work begins its journey to publication, you’ll realise that writing a novel is a collaborative effort, and that it’s not just yours and yours alone any more.

2. Think about who you would rather hear it from.

  • Trusted friends who can review your manuscript pre-publication and will (hopefully) be diplomatic, caring and understanding, or anonymous reviewers who will, in blissful ignorance of how difficult it was to write the damn thing, tear your published book apart when it’s too late to change anything.

3. You don’t have to accept all the comments.

  • If you take everyone’s advice, your book can start to become something that’s not yours any more.
  • Bear in mind that, if your critiquers write for a variety of audiences, it’s possible that not everyone will understand the rules of your genre as well as you do.
  • If one person makes a point, it’s just an opinion. If two people make the same point, you might want to look at it. If three people agree on the same point, you have a problem. (Advice from published author Sara Grant at a recent revision workshop.)

4. Choose your critiquers wisely.

  • Don’t listen to anyone who gushes about your work, tells you it’s a masterpiece and is absolutely perfect. Nice to hear, but they’re wrong, and this kind of critiquing just isn’t helpful.

5. Don’t take it personally.

  • As much as it can feel like an attack on you/your baby/your dog, it’s not. Unless your character is strongly based on you/your baby/your dog and your critiquers hate them. (Yes, this has happened to me – sob!)

6. Ignore your knee-jerk reaction.

  • I’m guessing this will be something along the lines of, ‘Oh my God they loathe it. I’m a useless writer and should just give up now.’ It’s so, so easy to ignore the praise and focus on/obsess over the criticism, but resist that urge. It’s not productive.
  • Don’t even think about touching your manuscript until you’ve let all the feedback sink in. I mean it! Don’t. Give yourself time and space to filter through the comments and decide which to take in and which to discard. Enjoy thinking up new ideas and getting excited about the next draft.
  • Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed by the extent of the changes. It’s natural. 

7. Remember why your book is being critiqued.

  • Because you wanted it to be. You asked for feedback. Try not to be defensive. People have invested time and energy that they could’ve spent on their own writing. They’re not out to get you or put you down. They’re trying to help.

8. Understand that critiquing is often subjective.

  • What works for some won’t work for others. Expect people to disagree. Respect others’ opinions, but remember that the most important one is your own. It’s your decision. You’re the one who has to answer for it once it’s released into the wide world.

9. Enjoy the attention.

  • Strange advice for your typical shy-away-from-the-limelight writer, but actually it’s a perfect excuse to bang on about your book without feeling guilty that you’re boring your other half/kids/dog to death.

10. Get stuck in!

  • Try not to obsess over everything that’s wrong with it, and focus on how to make it better. Don’t sink into a spiral of despair and simply give up. If you do, you’re not respecting the time that others have given to try and help you.

So that’s it. My words of wisdom on the tricky subject of accepting criticism.* Now go forth and edit. Be ruthless. Have fun!

*Disclaimer: author reserves the right to completely disregard her own advice.


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Potter’s month in writing – May 2012

June 11, 2012

Potter, John

I have been giving some consideration to whether planet earth might be spinning a little faster these last few months. It seems 2012 is flying by. It’s June, the jubilee is over and summer is upon us, at least in name. Before we know it the Olympics will be history, Netherlands will be Euro 2012 champions, the nights will be drawing in and Santa Claus’s smug red face will be staring at us from shop windows. So lets take a deep breath, slow it all down and revel in the month that was May 2012, from a Potter perspective.

The month started with the hiring of my very own writing assistant, who I’m pleased to say spends a lot of time sprawled across my lap. Bella the little black kitten has shown an amazing capacity for knowledge and technology despite weighing less than a kilo. She started her own blog here a couple of weeks ago. I understand more posts are being prepared.

In April Wordwatchers member Abbie Todd finished the first draft of her second book, so the Wordwatchers collective proof read it during May. This YA novel was wonderfully imaginative with a mesmerising first person narrative of a young girl negotiating adolescence, loss, love, a young mother and a troubled past.

Kate Linton #2

Fellow indie author Jo Price’s second Kate Linton mystery was published by Aston Bay Press at the end of May, with the Kindle version created by yours truly. Recreating the look and feel of a paperback printed book on a Kindle is something I enjoy immensely and find the process very cathartic. Of course I also got to read Eeeny Meeny Miny Moe before everyone else. It’s entertaining and complex, mixing classic whodunnit themes with the modern detective genre. I’d love to hear what you think of the story and my kindle formatting if you do get to read it.

As an Indie author I’m always looking to share information and collaborate. It was to this end I signed up to the Alliance of Independent Authors (Alli) back in April. Alli launched its website during May and I wrote for them a post on writing craft, which detailed the critical difference between writing the book you want and writing for yourself. This should appear on the website sometime during June.

In trying to add interesting and entertaining content to my blog I wrote about my experiences this year of the much discussed Kindle pricing. This became the most read post ever on my blog in under 24 hours. I additionally plundered the questions from several Guardian interviews of commercial authors. I arranged these into a pseudo interview with me, that I hope was informative and amusing. I got a lot of positive feedback from the interview which I was very pleased about. It was great fun to do.

Wordwatchers as a writing group hold two short story competitions a year, with the first one due in July. As I want to spend all of June making headway with my current book, I decided to write the short story in May. I did and I love it. The theme was to base the story on a song title or lyric. As I didn’t want to take my mindset outside of my current book I made the short story a possible epilogue for the book, in an event that may or may not appear in it. Once the short story event is done I’ll post it here and make it available for download in ebook formats and as a podcast.

Almost an award winner

Back in April I entered Chasing Innocence into three International Independent Publishing competitions. These cover the whole scope of non-fiction and fiction genres. The first – the Indie Excellence Awards, is very heavily subscribed and judges books on overall quality, not just the page to page. Chasing Innocence was entered to three categories of the Excellence Awards and I’m very proud to say it made the final five in both New Fiction and Thriller fiction. I was hugely thrilled that my UK based book did so well in a US based competition. It gives me the confidence it might compete at the Indie Book of the Year awards which announces its finalists July 1. Gulp

So we come to the tricksy topic of the next book. The truth is I’m currently working hard planning Hunting Demons: the second in the Sarah Sawacki series, while writing TMWWRWs: the first of a new three part series. If you can figure the title of TMWWRWs you get my forever admiration. I have struggled mightily writing TMWWRWs for a million different reasons, mostly documented on my Creative Crow blog. Largely it’s because my head hasn’t been in the right place. Marketing Chasing Innocence has been a steep learning curve, exhausting and time consuming. In reality I have been unproductive because I haven’t been focusing. TMWWRWs is a action thriller with a sprinkling of paranormal and romance with a dash of gritty erotica. It’s an idea that steadily grew as I closed off the first draft of Chasing Innocence (2009). It has been growing ever since, has some incredible themes if I can make it work, but getting  it written has been like getting proper Heinz ketchup onto a plate. However, something wonderful multiplied by three happened this month.

  • The first multiplier was realising that the soundtrack for TMWWRWs most certainly is the sound of the book. It has me endlessly daydreaming scenes. It’s not however the creative catalyst for writing the book. Any music by Moby is and was my almost constant companion during CI. Hearing the voices of characters in my head is what allows me to progress story. I have been listening to Moby a LOT this last week and I hear the voices.
  • The second multiplier was writing the short story I mentioned earlier, which features Marcus Hangiman, the main character of TMWWRWs. It allowed me to see him in this moment at the very end of the book and really centred how I see him now, approaching the half way point of the book.
  • The third and final  multiplier came from the fact I haven’t read a lot of commercial fiction this year, mostly because I’ve been checking out my Indie rivals. As I aim to write novels that are at least commercially contemporary, I decided I need to start reading more commercial fiction. Someone at work mentioned Neil Gaiman after I explained the plot of TMWWRWs. Then John Hoggard – possibly the biggest Gaiman fan on this earth – recommended I start with American Gods. I did. Incredible. It, along with audio supplied by Moby has really kick-started all those neurons that had been either dormant or focused on everything other than creative writing. Importantly, what needs to happen in TMWWRWs now sits in my mind as a multi-layered, interconnected latticework of ideas and threads. I produced five thousand words in just the last week. Importantly the characters are busy chattering away in my head, it frenetic. It’s fantastic.

Finally. I received some great reviews this month for Chasing Innocence in both the UK and US, including one from indie author James Viser and another from the all seeing eye of Wordwatcher’s own Abbie Todd. My absolute favourite though was by Stauroylla Papadopou, who read a book that isn’t written in her first language and then took the time to write a review in English as well. What she thought comes across so strongly. That someone should invest the time and effort means so much.

That’s it for now folks. See you here this time next month. In the meantime I can be found on Twitter @johnpottercc and am always scheming on content for my Creative Crow blog. If you haven’t already read my almost award winning book, you can download and read a PDF sample or choose your preferred Amazon outlet here.

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