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Off a Duck’s Back

October 20th, 2014

Ducks-blogHow are you with criticism? Must admit, my skin gets pretty thin sometimes. It’s silly, I know. I should be more mature. It’s just … when I’ve been working on something for days, or weeks, going over and over it, all I really want to hear is ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ But how often does that happen?

Back in the day, trying to work out whether my stuff was any good, I used to show bits off to friends and family. They were generally delighted to be asked, and tried to help. But though they could all write, none of them were actually writers, so all I really learned was bits about their personal tastes and hang-ups with grammar. Occasionally, one of them would say they didn’t like a piece and … well, that just made me cross. They didn’t understand, or they were pulling rank, putting me in my place. It was all quite unpleasant.

My first ‘positive’ experience of criticism was here at the Writers Bureau. Back in the early Norties I put Volume 1 of my fantasy trilogy in for review, and I’m still reeling from the experience. My reviewer was Philip Emery, a published fantasy author and creative writing teacher who went through my work with a fine-toothed comb and, in the best possible way, pulled it to bits.

Reading his notes, I remember the first thing that struck me was the fact that he hadn’t skimmed over my manuscript, he’d really read it. His comments were detailed and specific. He knew the names of all my characters and how they related to each other, and he was very clear about the different styles I’d used for narratives running in different worlds. At the same time, it was plain that he knew fantasy – he was a fan, like me. So, taking all that into account, when he said the characters in my dream world were two dimensional and unconvincing, it didn’t feel personal. He wasn’t having a dig. He was just telling it like it is.

Of course, as a result, I was left thinking – ‘You either put this on a shelf now and forget about it, or you go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing.’ After a couple of weeks deliberation I went for the latter – and a mighty big job it’s been too! Well worth it though. Taking on board Philip’s comments has taught me more about writing, and myself as a writer, than any other single event. This, in a nutshell, is what it comes down to: 1. Be honest with yourself and your readers. 2. Stop showing off. 3. Always triple check your spelling and grammar. 4. Believe in what you write – if you don’t, nobody else will.

These days, if any of my work needs a once-over before publication, there are just two people I show it to. They’re both writers. Whatever they tell me, I listen without getting cross. We don’t always agree, and I don’t always follow their advice (though most of the time I do). My friends and family? They’re still my friends and family. And my fantasy trilogy? Well … it’s way better than it used to be. Once I actually get round to finishing the thing it’ll blow your socks off.

Keep on writing!

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