Everyone’s a Critic: How to Take and Apply Useful Criticism

I believe in two things: that Sour Cream and Onion is the best flavour of Pringles and that constructive criticism is the most useful thing a writer can receive. I will go to the barricades for both of these opinions but for now, let’s put the crisps aside.

tenor crisps
Haha I’m NEVER letting go of those bad boys (image: tenor.com)

There comes a point in every writer’s trajectory where you want to start sharing your work with other people. People reach this point in a variety of different ways – you might have some nagging doubts, or you might be considering sending something out on submission, or you might just want an objective opinion – but sooner or later everyone ends up getting there. But when it’s time to start asking other people what they think of your work, you’re opening yourself up to criticism. Let’s face it, it’s not usually a nice experience to send something out into the world and have a bunch of people tell you that it’s not working. It can be a real blow to a fledgling writer’s confidence. But there’s nothing like good criticism for improving your technical skills as a writer – it all depends on how you apply it.

GOOD THING I’M HERE TO TELL YOU HOW TO DO THAT, RIGHT GUYS???

The first thing to clarify is what counts as good (i.e. helpful) criticism and what doesn’t. Not all types of criticism are helpful, and it’s important to learn which criticism you should pay attention to and which criticism you can ignore. Everybody is going to have an opinion about the things you write, but you won’t be able to turn everybody’s opinion into a teachable moment.

giphy teacher
Just look at how much energy that takes. (image: giphy.com)

The basic rule of thumb I use is that the more detail, the better. Look at it like this: if somebody tells you that they thought your story was great, what has that actually told you about the way that you write? They enjoyed it, and maybe it’s boosted your confidence, but could you identify your strengths as a writer from that comment alone? No. Whereas if somebody told you that they were really invested in the relationship between two characters, or they really thought your final confrontation scene was really exciting, that tells you a lot more – you’ve identified two different parts of your writing that other people think you’re good at.

This is really important for negative criticism, too. Anyone who says “yeah, this was rubbish” isn’t going to be able to help you grow as a writer. However, people who take the time to break down the parts of your writing that aren’t working – even if it’s just identifying them by name and not going into further detail – are going to be much more useful. Basically, if you can find a critiquing partner who is willing to use the PEE method (that’s Point, Evidence, Explanation, what did you think it was) then they’re gold dust and you should treasure them forever.

Even more important is getting yourself into the right frame of mind to receive criticism. The first thing you have to accept is that if you put stuff out into the real world – whether that’s asking your friends to read through a manuscript, putting your fanfiction online, or actually starting the process of getting your book published – then you have to confront the possibility that not everyone is going to like it. People have a right to share their opinions, after all – it’s a big part of the literary tradition.

There’s two things you need to do here. The first: brace yourself. I’ve never met a writer who has only ever received positive feedback and I work in publishing, so I talk to writers pretty much every day. You’re going to hear some stuff which might knock your confidence, and even if it’s the helpful criticism I discussed above it still might hurt to hear it. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that good criticism is not an attack – and interestingly, this can apply to some really hilarious literary reviews as well. Scathing put-downs are meant for the reader, not the writer, so try not to take these to heart. Even with your loins successfully girded, it can still be pretty disheartening, so just remember that it’s completely OK to put off reading criticism of your stuff if you feel you aren’t in the right frame of mind to hear it. You’ll have to pay attention to it eventually, so don’t put it off forever, but if you’ve had a bad day it’s completely fine to just mooch about with a cup of tea instead of listening to someone list all the ways you’re doing it wrong. If you feel you don’t have the energy to stop yourself getting resentful, maybe just have a quick nap instead.

giphy dont wanna
It’s the modern way. (image: giphy.com)

The second thing you need to accept is this: you can’t please everybody. It is quite literally impossible to write a book that everyone and their mother is going to love. People have different tastes, different expectations, and what will work for one audience will not work for another. That’s completely fine. Most audiences – whether they’re readers, moviegoers or telly-watchers – can usually pick up on pandering, and you don’t want people to come away from your book feeling like it’s been designed by committee. Keep an open mind to what people are saying, sure, but you have to accept that you can’t please everyone. It’d be exhausting.

So. You have successfully sorted the helpful criticism from the kinds you can ignore. Your mind is open, your loins are girded, and you have listened to the criticism you have received. How, then, do you apply it?

The first thing I always do is to go over the criticism again and try and see where it’s come from. Are there any points in the story that I can think of (just off the top of my head) where I could see this criticism applying? Most of the time, the answer’s yes. Then, I go through the whole story again, bearing the criticism in mind, and see if I can identify a few more places where the criticism is justified. The important thing is to look at your work with an objective eye – you’ve got to see what’s actually there, rather than what you hoped you’d written down. If you can put some time between finishing your first draft and your critical read-through, this will really help.

DGEoPl3
OK not that long. (image: imgur.com)

The next step is to consider the type of criticism you’ve received. Different problems require different solutions, and writing advice is no exception. There’s a few broad areas that keep popping up in most writing advice, and they all need to be fixed in different ways:

  • Setting: If your critiquing partner is telling you your setting isn’t working there’s two things you can do: background research and working it into the story. It’s important to bear in mind that setting isn’t just a description of the scenery – it’s food, it’s clothing, it’s speech patterns, it’s jobs. It’s everywhere. For example, if your characters are having a scene in a mine, you should know what is being mined, who did the mining, whether it’s still being used, how many people are working there. How many details you work into the story is up to you, but you need to know the answers to these questions even if you don’t spell it out for the reader.
  • Plot holes: Every editor’s nightmare. If your critiquing partner has found a plot hole then you need to patch it up. Depending on the size and seriousness of the plot hole you may want to rewrite sections completely, but I’d only recommend this if you’ve got a plot hole that completely wrecks the internal logic of your story. If you don’t agree that it is a plot hole, that’s fine, but you need to make sure that comes across to the reader. Even if you have an airtight justification and it makes total sense to you, you have to make sure that’s clear.
  • Characters: If your critiquing partner is telling you that your characters aren’t believable you’ve got a serious problem. Most readers will accept outlandish situations if characters react to them in believable ways, but if they don’t, then suspension of disbelief goes right out the window. There’s two broad-strokes ways to fix this: background information (that, like with settings, doesn’t always need to be conveyed to the reader) and keeping them consistent. Always bear their motivations in mind and make sure they match up to their actions, and you’ll be on the right track.
  • Pacing: This is making sure that your story moves along at the right speed at the right moments. Make sure background information is being delivered at the right time – you shouldn’t be giving your reader a bunch of basic background information about a character right before the big climax, for example. Look at sentence length and structure, keep an eye on what information is being conveyed, and you’ll soon be able to spot the parts where you’re going wrong.
  • Beginnings and endings: The alpha and omega of writing criticism – literally, because I make great They’re some of the most important parts of a story: your beginning draws the reader in, and your ending sends them on their way. Both should be memorable in different ways. There’s a few different things to bear in mind here, such as genre conventions, pacing, and character arcs, so it can be quite tricky to get these right.

Fortunately, there’s loads of very detailed online resources to help you get the tools you need to fix any issues with your writing. I’ve even done a few blog posts on some of these myself, but even though my writing advice is obviously the bestest and most attractive writing advice, I’d recommend casting your net a little wider and looking at a wide range of resources. Here’s a few I’ve used in the past:

Online resources aren’t going to cut it on their own, though. I’ve very rarely found a blog post that I can read that will magically turn me into a better writer (and I definitely haven’t written one). This is where writing exercises come in. If your critiquing partner has identified a few consistent weak spots, such as setting or character, then try a couple of short writing exercises that focus on these. It can be helpful to try working on something completely new  when you’re trying to work on your weaknesses as a writer. It’s like warming up before a big sports thing – you need to make sure all the right muscles have been loosened up before you really go for it.

A much more fun way of working on your weak spots is to read stuff by writers who make them their strengths, and see if you can spot them in action. If you have trouble with believable worldbuilding, why not read some Tolkien? If you have trouble with providing a satisfying end to your detective story, why not read some Conan Doyle or Christie? As you read, try and identify the parts where your chosen writer is showing off their skills – there’s nothing like a masterclass to show you how it’s done.

It’s a lot of stuff. Brushing up on your weaknesses as a writer can be very time-consuming, but it’s time well spent. When you’ve done all your writing exercises, read around your weaknesses and used all the resources you can shake a stick at, you’ll have a much stronger grasp of what you need to do to make your writing work. Come back to your original project when you feel like you have a stronger grasp on what you need to improve on, and you’ll smash it.

Criticism can be very hard to hear. But sometimes the most difficult writing advice is the one you need to hear the most. If you have a critiquing partner whose advice you trust and you keep an open mind, it can be one of the best things you can receive as a writer. With a little time and effort spent working on your weaknesses, good criticism can completely transform the way you work as a writer. You’ll never be able to please everyone, of course, but you’ll have improved your skills – and that in itself is valuable.

giphy pup
And with the Learning Puppy’s blessing, you may go forth into the world and write. (image: giphy.com)
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And They All Lived Happily Ever After: The Art of a Good Ending

There’s nothing quite like a good ending. It can be one of the most satisfying parts of a story, but it’s also one of the most difficult things to get right. It can make or break a story. I’ve lost count of the amount of books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen where I’ve come away thinking ‘it was all fine, up until the ending’.

So how do you get it right?

giphy shrug house
I mean, I could just end this blog post here. (image: giphy.com)

First, I think it’s important to consider the kind of things people expect from an ending. There’s a handful of things that keep popping up regardless of the type of story they’re in: the resolution of character arcs, the final confrontation, the big reveal. They don’t always have to be big, world-changing things, but the events of the story have to come to a head in some way. A good ending will have been building up naturally through the course of the story, thereby building anticipation for the climax throughout the plot. This can be obvious – for example, everybody knew that the Harry Potter series would end with Harry fighting Voldemort – or more subtle, like in murder mysteries where the clues are spread throughout the story but only brought together at the end.

Of course, some types of stories lend themselves to certain kinds of endings. This largely comes down to genre or structure. In a romance story, for example, people will expect the couple to get together at the end, whereas in a murder mystery, people will expect the case to be solved. Equally, if you use any kind of numerical structuring device to tell your story – for example, getting three wishes, spending seven years at a magical boarding school, or having to complete a task in a certain time limit – then people are going to expect the story to end when the last wish is made, or in the final five minutes of your deadline.

giphy typing
Just like writing my essays. (image: giphy.com)

Having these kinds of expectations can be really helpful as a writer. It’s a good framework to build your story around, and can help with both the pacing and plotting of the story as a whole as well as the ending. If your story ends with the couple getting together, then that dictates the shape of the rest of your story – as readers, we have to see them reach that point. A ‘ticking clock’ is also a really useful structural device: as well as providing a race-against-time ending, it also helps you build tension throughout the whole story. These two types of expectations tend to merge in crime novels. The conventions of the genre dictate that the murderer must be revealed at the end, and this affects the structure of the book. A good crime author will have planted the clues as to who the real murderer is throughout the book, but will have mixed them in with so many red herrings that the reveal is still a surprise.

It goes without saying that this is hella difficult.

Having these kinds of expectations about the way a story is going to end is something of a double-edged sword. It makes it easier for the writer to know where their story needs to go in order to reach that point, but readers are also aware of those expectations. It’s extremely hard to hit all the points you need without making a story seem formulaic. In some genres, readers are so aware of the conventions that it affects the way they view the story. The most obvious example of this is in murder-mystery novels. The first law of mystery novels is that it’s never the official suspect. Even if you build a strong case for that character being the murderer as a writer, the reader will discount them automatically because everyone is so aware of the genre.

butler
I did a blog post about this and everything. (image: rainybayart.com)

Of course, this can lead to a lot of fun too. Subverting readers’ expectations can be really fun, both as a writer and a reader. But it’s extremely difficult to pull this off and still have a satisfying ending. If you wrote a murder mystery where the murderer was never caught or discovered by anyone, you’d have a very tough time making sure that this was presented in a way that left the reader feeling satisfied when they turned the final page. The proof is in the pudding – if you can pull it off, it’ll work, but if you can’t, then you’re going to have some really irritated readers on your hands.

But what do you do when you’re writing something that doesn’t have an easy ending? While there are some stories that lend themselves to ending in a certain way, there are plenty of others that don’t. Your protagonist might have defeated their nemesis and completed their quest, but is that really the end of their story? Where do you draw the line?

For me, it’s just as important for a writer to know when to end a story as to know how to end a story. There’s been a real case of sequel-itis in the stories we tell each other lately, and it’s really driving me nuts. You’ll read a book or watch a movie with a really satisfying ending, and six months later a sequel is announced.

giphy restraint
I am trying so hard not to throw some very specific shade. (image: giphy.com)

I get the appeal of this from an authorial standpoint, but I have to say I can’t really think many times where this has actually worked. If an author has put a lot of time and effort into creating a world that they really love, of course they’d want to come back to it. A lot of writers will leave ‘back doors’ into their work – little plot threads that haven’t quite been resolved, just in case they want to come back to them in a fresh book. Sometimes, this can work really well, but it’s sad to say that most of the time it doesn’t. Continuing a story after you’ve properly written an ending is difficult, and sometimes it can undermine what has already gone before. If you story originally ended with your characters saving the world, anything they do after that is going to seem like a bit of an anti-climax. If you make them save the world again, it cheapens their efforts in the original story – an apocalypse should only come around the once if you want it to retain its dramatic effect. It can be really difficult to set something aside, but it’s far better to do that and write a really good ending than to just keep going until people lose interest.

Endings are hard. They’re something that a writer needs to consider in multiple different ways. Long before you pick up your pen, you should know how the story is going to end. You should also consider how people are going to expect the story to end, and decide whether you want to play up to those expectations or not. But the most important thing is that once you’ve decided on your ending, stick to it. Commit. A good ending will be building up all the way through a story, and carrying on after it’s finished will only cheapen it. It’s far better to go out with a bang than a whimper.

giphy explosion
Heh heh heh. (image: giphy.com)

And that’s it for 2018! No more blog posts until the New Year. I’ll be back in January with a bunch more opinions – see you then!

November is Coming: How to Survive NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us. Forget Halloween, this is what autumn is really all about: finding an excuse to sit indoors under layers and layers of blankets.

giphy blanket
I cannot create unless I am cosy. (image: giphy.com)

But let’s be real. NaNoWriMo can be a pretty daunting task. The goal is to write a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days. Fifty thousand. That totals out at roughly one thousand six hundred words per day, and the worst part is that you’ve got to make sure that they’re actually good rather than just stringing lists of adjectives together. It’s pretty intimidating, especially if you know one of those people who insists on comparing word counts.

Fortunately for you guys, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before and have picked up a few tips that might make things easier:

 

  1. Plan beforehand, and only beforehand

Trying to write roughly 1,600 words a day is going to be difficult. It’s a lot of words to get down in one go, particularly if you’ve only got one time window to do it in. But if you don’t know what you’re going to write it’s going to be twice as hard to actually get it on paper because you’ll be working out what you want to say as well as how you want to say it.

This is where your plan comes in. I’d recommend starting this a week or so before NaNoWriMo, assuming you’ve already had the vague idea of what you want your story to be about. Start plotting things out in more detail, including character and setting. If you do it every day, this can also help you get into the rhythm of regular writing. But when you start writing, stop planning. It’s easy to wind up with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot of your novel and no actual text, so don’t rely on this too much.

 

  1. Start your research in October

November is for writing. If you’re writing something which is going to require any kind of research, start it a couple of weeks before you’re going to write. Read as much as you can and get comfortable with the details before you launch into your novel. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been plodding along with a paragraph when suddenly, I’ll go “Wait, when were pyjamas invented?” and it’s off down the rabbit hole I go. If you’re writing anything historical, I’d recommend starting even earlier, but this blog post is going up with less than two weeks until November so NEVER MIND YOU’LL BE FINE.

 

  1. Writing nine to five

WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVIN’

No, seriously. It’d be great. But unfortunately it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have all that time just for writing. Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean the world will stop and wait for you to finish it. Realistically, you’re going to have to look at your schedule and try and work out when you’re actually going to have time to write. I’d recommend trying to find an hour each day, either in one go or in short chunks. Be a little flexible – if weekends are always really busy for you, try and find some time on weekday evenings. If you commute on public transport, consider taking a notebook with you and working there. See what works for you!

 

  1. Just do it

When it comes to November the first, just start. There’s nothing more intimidating for a writer than a blank page. It can take hours to come up with a first line (mainly due to all those writing advice blogs which tell you to make sure you have a good first line). But you don’t have time to dither – you’ve got a fifty-thousand-word mountain to climb. Just start, and worry about whether it’s any good later. That’s what the second draft is for.

 

  1. Get on with it

Sometimes, inspiration does strike. Sometimes your synapses are flashing, your neurons are firing and an idea comes into your head like a beautiful sunrise. You seize your pen, your notebook, your laptop and don’t look up for hours – for you, dear author, are inspired.

Ninety percent of the time, that won’t happen.

There are going to be days when you just don’t wanna. You’ll be tired. You’ll get home late. You’ll have a bad day and want to spend your writing time curled around a hot water bottle in front of the telly. But when you’re writing to targets and deadlines, sometimes you’re just going to have to make yourself do it. You have to –

– yes, exactly.

 

  1. Just keep swimming

Resist the temptation to go back and rewrite what you’ve already done. Focus instead on progressing through the narrative and get your key plot points down. This is where your plan can really come in handy (although hopefully having a plan will have helped you thrash out any potential plot holes). If you’re having some doubts about something you’ve already written, make a notes section in your plan and add them to that. That way you’ve kept a record of your ideas and you can keep going without needing to slow down. You can always go back and redraft when NaNoWriMo is over.

 

  1. Keep an eye on your daily totals, but don’t stick to them

There are special NaNoWriMo calendars you can find where the ideal word count for each day is written on them. They measure out the month in chunks of 1,667 words and some people find them really helpful.

nanowrimo_calendar_by_reapthebeauty-d31npzj
Such as this one. (image: deviantart.com)

Personally, I don’t. Some days are going to be better than others, and some days I’m going to come home too tired to do a sentence, let alone like, 160 of them. On those days I write what I can and try and make up the total another day, and I find that works much better than keeping to very strict limits.

 

  1. Details, details

Don’t be afraid to fudge some of the finer points to avoid getting bogged down. Obviously the really important details (i.e., the plot) should be in your plan, but it’s perfectly fine to put in placeholder names for minor characters and places. Just remember to replace these with real names when you’re done and you’ll be fine.

 

  1. More like guidelines

Some people are real sticklers for the rules of NaNoWriMo. I’m not. I once extended my NaNoWriMo project until the New Year because November isn’t over UNTIL I SAY IT’S OVER. I always found I got a lot less stressed about NaNoWriMo when I didn’t take it quite as seriously and that way, it was easier to balance writing with everything else going on in my life.

 

  1. It’s not for everyone

I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times now and on balance, I’ve decided it’s not for me. I could do it fairly easily when I was a student, but that was because I was on a course where I only had ten hours of class time per week.

giphy nap
It was blissful. (Image: giphy.com)

Now I have a full-time job, I find it way too stressful. NaNoWriMo has taught me a lot about the discipline required to finish a novel, and writing every day has helped me get into some really good habits, but I find the obsession with word counts kind of counter-productive. The structure was really helpful, but now that I’ve taken that framework and made it work for me I don’t find the old model quite so useful any more. I learned a lot, but it stopped being something I did every year a long time ago.

 

 

And that’s it! My advice for surviving NaNoWriMo. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It’s very easy to get swept up in NaNo Fever – it can be really fun, and it taught me some good writing habits which I still use. But I don’t think anyone should take it too seriously. It’s a good way to get into writing longer projects, but it doesn’t have to be the only way you write.