Friday, 12 September 2014

How to take Criticism

Criticism sucks doesn't it? I mean there's nothing worse than sending off your brand new poem or story and expecting people to love it and say that it's the best thing they've ever read only for them to burst your finely-honed bubble with a few pointed barbs of criticism, or even in some extreme cases to say that it is rubbish and an outright disgrace to modern literature. But unfortunately though for the modern writer, criticism is as likely as the tide coming in - everyone gets it - even great whales like J.K Rowling, Stephen King and George R.R Martin get panned at times, never mind a few insignificant crustaceans like ourselves. But how can we deal with it, indeed should we deal with it at all? Well, the answer to that question is both yes and no, because it depends partly on the nature and validity of the criticism and on the writers themselves: as we are all individuals, with different needs, opinions, and beliefs what one writer sees as good advice maybe deemed utter nonsense by another and vice versa. But to give you writers more of an idea about what I'm talking about I have divided the criticism we receive into three distinct types:

Type One:

The first type of criticism is the kind that we can reject out of hand straight away for whatever reason. This can be because the criticism is particularly vitriolic in nature (and by implication uninformed) as has happened to me at least a couple of times in the past, or because for whatever reason their comments fail to make an impression on you in any way. Take for example, my debut novel Jack Strong and the Red Giant, which features a super-duper spaceship millions, even billions of years more advanced than anything we have today. A few months ago I showed one of the early chapters to a friend of a friend, and in his opinion the spaceship should've been less advanced, less sleek, more chunky and blocky, like many of the spaceships that have been depicted in TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and movies like District 9. I rejected his criticism straight away, not because his vision of spaceships had no validity, but because that was not the story that I wanted to tell. If my spaceships were more akin to those in Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars etc then it would've inevitably changed vital aspects of my story that I thought were important to the plot. Another good example would be when somebody (an author no less) criticised the start of Jack Strong and the Red Giant and suggested that I remove the scene where Jack has lost a pen fight and has pen marks all over his face. In her opinion she thought that I was telling too much to the reader too early. Unfortunately for her however, aside from the fact that I felt strongly about the scene in question, ALL of the people (including a professor of Children's Writing) who had read the first chapter loved that scene and thought that it grabbed the reader's attention and set up the character nicely. So of course there was no way that I could ever take their criticism on board.

Type Two:

The second kind of criticism is the exact opposite of the first type: this is the stuff that we accept straight away, nodding our heads as our critics impart good, sound, sage advice. Usually, but not always, this concerns the technique and the framework of the story and tends to centre around spelling, grammar, punctuation, repetition of words and/or plot/description, as well as the over use of adverbs, adjectives, and exclamation marks (this alone deserves a whole other blog entry). A few years ago I started upon an MA course in Creative Writing (Manchester Metropolitan University in case you're wondering). As I was in the poetry route I had to regularly attend workshops, where I had to submit one poem a week for peer review both by my fellow poets and by the esteemed Michael Symonds Roberts. Of course, with criticism a certainty, it was not without trepidation that I attended our weekly meetings. Early on in the course, Michael rather pointedly said that the poem I'd submitted was 'telling' too much and that in pretty much his exact words "poems today tend to utilise the pen like a lens. Your poems often employ widescreen, but I also want you to 'zoom in' and tell the reader what colour hair they have, what they are wearing etc". None of my poems were written like that. I was dumbfounded. Up until that moment I thought that my poems were the best thing since sliced bread and were exactly what the literary world needed. Hearing pretty much the opposite was hard to take, but I took it on board nonetheless - why? Firstly, because I knew he was right, and secondly because I knew that deep down if I followed his advice that I could write better, more publishable poems.

Type Three:

This is the hardest type of criticism to take because when we initially receive it it feels more like type one. We want to reject it straight away, to laugh at it out loud, to toss it from our minds like cheap garbage, to ignore it. Only we can't, and as days and even weeks and months pass we begin to dwell upon what was said and mull it over more thoughtfully, objectively, until at some point in the future we begin to incorporate the criticism into our work, if not wholly, then at least partly. We may hate it that the person responsible was right, but ultimately we will embrace it nonetheless. Why? Because we are ambitious writers and we want/need to get better so that one day in the indeterminate future it may be us dolling out the advice, us with our six figure publishing contracts, us with our books selling like hotcakes.  I clearly remember one of my tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University Jean Sprackland telling me that I was using far too many adjectives in my poems. I was indignant and I rejected it out of hand. I was after all writing about modern Chinese cities, with all the pollution and traffic and dirt and sludge swilling about the streets, so I felt the need to describe these often hellish scenes in my poems, often cramming in as many adjectives as possible. The problem with this - as I now realise - is that firstly sometimes less is better, such as by the simple effective use of colour or smell, and that secondly it interrupted the narrative that I was trying to tell. Eventually, at least in part (I still think that adjectives are an under-used commodity in modern poetry), I came around to her way of thinking and I now make greater effort to justify all of the adjectives that I employ. Ultimately, this has also had a lasting effect upon my novel writing too, with a lot of the over-description that was present in the first few Jack Strong chapters now residing in the reject file.

Final Word

At the end of the day, you have to decide which of these three categories applies to you and then process the criticism accordingly. But just because one person puts one piece of criticism in type one or type three doesn't mean you have to: we are all individuals and ultimately that is what makes our our stories and poems so readable, so unique. Warning sirens should however be sounding in your head if you are either rejecting 100% of the criticism you receive or accepting it blindly. If you listen and apply all of the prods, suggestions, and pushes that you receive you will likely end up twisting your novel or poem beyond all recognition and thus in the long run satisfy nobody. On the other hand if you reject every nugget of criticism that comes your way then you will in all likelihood become so entrenched in your opinions and writing methods that you will cease to view your project in the eyes of the reader. Ultimately, through a mixture of constant writing and reading we have to develop the fierce critic within ourselves, thus giving us the knowledge and vision to decide which piece of criticism belongs in which category, which in the end will ensure our novel or poem's success.

You can also check out my debut novel Jack Strong and the Red Giant about a bullied 12 year old boy's adventures in space:

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