Sunday, 22 December 2013

In Which I Learn 7 Tip for Writing Faster and Read The Casual Vacancy

Thanks to
Well, I think we’re all agreed that life is way too busy as Christmas approaches, so I will keep this short. No news from the Mslexia novel competition, which means either 1) I haven’t been long-listed or 2) they have been overwhelmed with entries and haven’t finished the long-listing process, which I am assured is what happened last time. If it turns out to be 1), I need to rethink, because I have been pinning a lot of hopes on the competition and putting off working on a good query letter while I wait to see if the eggs in my Mslexia basket are going to hatch.

Thanks to

In the meantime, I have been working on a short story in the hope of getting it published and gaining some writing credits for that query letter I am putting off writing. I was really struggling to get down to the task. It seems much harder to feel motivated when you are starting afresh on a short story as opposed to sitting down to a novel you are deeply engaged with.

 Then I found something that has really helped, a post by Emily Benet giving 7 Tips for Writing Faster:
Have a look, not only if you want to write faster, but if you are struggling to find the motivation to write at all. Emily advises deciding on a writing goal for the week, whether it is a word count, a number of chapters or just finishing a section. Then she says to set a realistic work count: ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s only 100 words, what matters is that it’s achievable so you won’t be put off, and you will feel happy when you’ve completed them each day.’ This is the tip that has really worked for me. I decided on 250 words because that really isn’t many, but it can feel like real progress in a short story. Emily also advised to write ‘draft’ at the top of the page, because then ‘it’s okay if your writing is terrible; at this point you just want to get the story down. Don’t worry about editing until later.’

This new strategy has made all the difference; it seems less daunting to sit down to write as I am not aiming to spend major time or make huge progress in each session. I worry less about the quality of the writing, since the point is to make progress through the story and get the 250 words down. I now find I am much more motivated, the story is coming along nicely and I am around 3,000 words in.

In common with other writers, when struggling to write, I often turn to reading since it seems like a constructive thing to do to get the creative juices flowing. I raced through J K Rowling’s novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, and cannot recommend it enough. The characters are brilliantly written, provoking pangs of recognition in the reader as very British ‘types’ in what has been called a ‘state of Britain’ story, but also achieving depth, with convincing backstories and well developed motivation. The quaint, self-important town of Pagford is a brilliant invention and I found myself increasingly compelled to delve into the goings on there, as you are when you are hooked on watching soaps. The bitchy power struggle for a place on the council after the death of much-loved do-gooder Barry Fairbrother provokes a sequence of events that is darkly comical, but as you read on, you begin to feel that it is bristling with the potential for disaster. From the pompous burghers who run Pagford to the drug-addicted underclass who keep social services busy, every character convinced and fascinated me, the teenagers perhaps most of all. Most are so self-involved that by the end when darkness takes over events, the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title becomes an apt description for the place in a human heart where care for and interest in the plight of others should be.

My reaction to seeing the Harry Potter books on film was that the characters and scenes seemed to be almost exactly as I had imagined them from the printed page. Reading this adult novel, it struck me that J K Rowling’s genius is to create characters and scenes that spring to life in our imagination, and this works as well for the residents of a small town in up-to-the-minute Britain as it did for wizards in a half-magical world. I can just see the obese, self-satisfied Howard, the drug-addicted Terri and Fats, the Nietzsche-loving schoolboy.

You sometimes imagine that J K Rowling has taken her money and run away to the very remote, cloistered ivory tower of the successful writer, but The Casual Vacancy suggests that she hasn’t; from this evidence, she inhabits the same Britain as the rest of us, and she’s taking it all in.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Crushing Criticism or Rave Reviews – Who Should You Listen To?

I have read some great blog posts lately about how writers need to learn to cope with bad reviews after publication, and before that, discouraging comments from people who have read their work. The stories told both in the posts and the comments that followed revealed the barrage of criticism that writers endure, from the thoughtless to the downright malicious.
Thanks to

Of course, as writers we are hoping to find and please an audience, so to resist any criticism at all would be pig-headed and self-defeating. However, as one blogger pointed out, we need to be able to discern what motivates the criticism we receive. Is it honest and constructive, designed to inform us and improve our work, or does it come from a darker place altogether?

Thanks to

My day job is editing art and craft books, and as publishers, we occasionally have an author contact us, upset by a bad review. In a competitive market, we cannot afford to assume that all criticism is unfounded, so we always read the review carefully, get the book out and have a good look, to see if the reviewer's comments are justified. Sometimes we conclude that we could have done something better and that other readers might have the same issue with the book, and we resolve to put it right next time. At times, though, the comments are so unfounded as to be completely baffling, and it is possible to conclude that the review really is malicious. There isn’t much we can tell an author other than that we don’t feel the comments are justified, and it is best to put it down to experience and move on. In a world where a bad review from Tripadvisor or Amazon can scupper a business or book, it is also a good idea to encourage someone with more favourable views to go online and make themselves heard – but those early reviews can do a lot of damage.

All this reminded me of a bruising experience I had when trying to get an agent for an earlier version of my work in progress, Unspeakable Things. I had heard that it might be useful to get an endorsement from someone with writing credentials. I thought of an old family friend who has had many novels published for the teenage market. I played with his daughters from babyhood and we all grew up together, sharing Christmases and summer outings. He now lives near my parents, so I asked if he would be willing to read my work and write a few lines of endorsement, and he agreed. A while later, my Dad contacted me, sounding uncomfortable. The friend had written me something but, now that my Dad had read and reread it, he was concerned that it wasn’t very favourable in tone. My heart sank a little, but I asked to see it anyway.

What I read could only be described as an extremely hostile review. It was written in the tone of someone exasperated by an annoyingly poor piece of work. There was nothing constructive in any of the remarks, and I could not find even two lines in it that I could have taken out and used as an endorsement, and yet I had made it completely clear that this was what I required. I have searched through my filing cabinet for the review so that I could quote from it (honestly!) but something must have made me throw it away.

I struggled to think what could have motivated an old family friend to write something so unkind. I hadn’t even asked for a critique, but for an endorsement. If he didn’t like the work, he could have returned it with a few encouraging lines – perhaps, ‘I don’t feel I can endorse it in its current state, as it needs some work, but it shows promise, good luck with it.’ I did remember though that, as a teacher, this man had been notorious for his harsh criticism of students’ work, and as a father, I recalled his little daughter going to show him a drawing that we children all thought was good, and coming back completely crestfallen, saying that her father had said it was rubbish. Now, I’m not saying for a minute that my novel didn’t need work – clearly it did. But the moral of this story is that I asked the wrong man for a review. In retrospect, encouragement is not his forte.

My family were outraged on my behalf, and it turned out that my sister knew a novelist who was willing to read my work and give his opinion. He is in fact much better known than the family friend in question; he has had a novel turned into a cult film. 

Thanks to

He wrote me a lovely review, from which I extracted the following:

‘Couldn’t put it down… Had to read it in one hit… Really excellent in every way – pace, involvement with the characters, description, atmosphere, story… And always unease, fear and horror just that one half-step from safe normality… It has of course to end also as a film, which will be gripping classic drama.’

Now, of course, this man’s encouragement was heart-warming, just as the other review was stinging, but this does not mean that I believe all criticism is bad and all praise is true. The bad review reveals a lack tact, let alone of awareness of the terms of friendship(!!) but the lovely endorsement may say more about the writer’s kindness and wish to encourage other writers than it does about my writing.

My next move, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants a dispassionate critique of their writing, was to pay for one. I sent my work for a professional consultant working through a literary agency, and received an 18-page assessment of every aspect of my work, that then formed the basis for a comprehensive rewrite. The criticism was thorough and extensive, but the tone was sensitive, constructive and encouraging. In case you are wondering, none of the criticisms were the same as the exasperated comments I received from that first non-endorsement.

Thanks to

The writer of that hostile review is still a family friend. I send him a Christmas card every year. But I will not be asking him to critique my work again. And when I fantasise about getting my novel published, I sneak in a little imagining of the look on his face. George Orwell wrote that success meant getting his revenge on people who slighted him when he was younger. I’m no George Orwell, but you have to allow me to hope I’ll have that pleasure one day.