The Art of Receiving Criticism

A couple of weeks ago my writing buddy, Helen Yendall, wrote a blog post about The Art of Giving Feedback. Today, I’m going to come at it from the other side and talk about the The Art of Receiving Criticism.

I am working on a novel, in fact I thought I’d done a reasonable job on it. But I know how hard it can be to look at one’s own writing objectively so I decided to seek the opinion of an expert. I chose published romantic novelist Patricia Fawcett. I have met her a couple of times at writing events and she is also a reader for the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme. Also, Patricia’s critiques are great value for money.

I received a comprehensive report on my novel suggesting several ways that it could be improved, starting with the first chapter where the pace is a ‘domestic crawl’. On the positive side, Patricia said that she liked my female main character who is ‘vulnerable and interesting’ but, on the negative side, my male main character comes across badly and I need to put in more of his back story so the reader gets to know him. Patricia also pointed out that part of the plot depends on a couple of unlikely coincidences that would ‘get up an editor’s nose’ – so they need taking out and/or re-working. She also suggested a different ending to the novel, which I think will probably be more plausible than the one I had in mind. There was much more in the report but I won’t bore you with it all.

So I’ve still got a lot more work ahead of me.

If I’d received this report a few years ago I would probably have stuffed it in a drawer and given up all hope of ever being able to write anything longer than a 1200 word short story. But as the years go by (and I get older and wiser) I realise that very few people get it right first time and there’s no reason why I should be any different. So it’s time to submerge myself in the plot again and learn from everything that Patricia has highlighted.

Patricia ended her report positively, she said, “If I have gauged you right, you will dust yourself down, shake this one up, and carry on to prove to me and to yourself that you can do it.”

Fingers crossed that I can!

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  1. #1 by susanjanejones on November 11, 2014 - 8:45 pm

    I like how you pick the positives out of the critique Sally, which is what we have to do of course. I see Patricia has stories on Alfie dog, and what a lot of books she’s published, so she does know what she’s on about. Any criticism is hard to take though, when you’ve spent so much time. It’s all about genre’s I think…… I’ve got one all of my own:))))

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on November 11, 2014 - 8:46 pm

      Probably good to have a genre all of your own, Suasan. At least you’ll always be at the top of it!

      • #3 by susanjanejones on November 11, 2014 - 8:50 pm

        Ha ha… that’s true. I’m happy in my writing world:))

  2. #4 by Nicola on November 11, 2014 - 9:08 pm

    I had to learn to accept constructive criticism extremely quickly or wallow in the depths of a life sucking abyss for eternity. I am eager to get on so sent off 4 pieces to be critiqued at the same time. Oh boy, that was a bit of a bold move – receiving excellent but honest feedback on pieces I thought were genius 🙂 gave me a rather aggressive headache which turned to head banging which turned to tears. But after about an hour, I laughed at myself and re-wrote each piece with a very positive approach. I got what I asked for, afterall. I actually love the critique process now and although I have an initial tantrum and swear a lot, very loudly, it spurs me on to become a better writer. The phrase ‘It’s not personal, it’s business’ is so very true. Well done Sally for going for it. All the best with the re-writes. That’s the fun part 🙂 And the bruises heal quickly!

    • #5 by Sally Jenkins on November 12, 2014 - 7:00 pm

      Good to hear you’ve benefitted from critiques, Nicola. And there’s no point asking for one if you don’t act on the advice given. I love your ‘it’s not personal it’s business’ attitude, it hits the nail on the head!

  3. #6 by liz young on November 11, 2014 - 10:23 pm

    The novel I’m trying to place with an agent was actually taken up by one a few years back – she said she loved it – but no publisher! Since then I’ve had another agent who liked it but suggested some changes, which I made because I agreed they’d improve the book, I re-subbed it, and heard no more from her, but my proof-reader said she thought it was wonderful.
    So the question is – whose opinion should I trust?
    This critique business is yet another minefield for the poor writer!

    • #7 by Sally Jenkins on November 12, 2014 - 7:03 pm

      Oh dear, Liz. As we’re always saying, whether you like a book or a story is subjective. So, I’ve no idea who’s opinion we can trust! Perhaps go with the person who can give proper reasons why something doesn’t work in a novel rather than an opinion which isn’t properly backed up.

  4. #8 by Tracy Fells on November 12, 2014 - 2:44 pm

    Well done on being brave and seeking feedback for the novel, Sally. It can be terrifying but sometimes the only way to improve/develop your writing is to seek out feedback … from those you trust & admire. Particularly helps when you start in a new genre such as moving from short stories to longer fiction. Good luck with the novel and re-writes – they will be worth it!

    • #9 by Sally Jenkins on November 12, 2014 - 7:04 pm

      Thanks for the positive words, Tracy. I agree feedback is essential to improving as a writer – it’s just not always easy to take!

  5. #10 by juliathorley on November 12, 2014 - 4:41 pm

    It is very open-hearted of you to share these points. Criticism stings, even well it’s been sought and even (especially?) when we know it’s accurate. It’s all part of the process.

    • #11 by Sally Jenkins on November 12, 2014 - 7:06 pm

      Well Julia, now you all know that I’m not the perfect writer I try to sell myself as – watch those Amazon book sales plummet!

  6. #12 by Linda on November 12, 2014 - 6:11 pm

    No, don’t give up, Sally. Writing fiction is the easy, fun part, editing is the hard, serious business – but it has to be done. I paid for a professional critique of my still-to-be-completed novel and although I was disappointed not to be told, ‘Wow! This is brilliant!’ I had to agree with most of the suggestions for how it could be improved.

    • #13 by Sally Jenkins on November 12, 2014 - 7:08 pm

      Glad I’m not the only one, Linda. I agree getting the initial draft done is the easy part – pulling it apart and re-modelling it afterwards is the hard bit.

  7. #14 by Teresa on November 13, 2014 - 7:19 pm

    A professional critique sounds well worth getting. Thank you for sharing your experience and good luck with the rewriting 🙂 x

    • #15 by Sally Jenkins on November 14, 2014 - 7:48 am

      Thanks, Teresa. I think it’s going to be a hard slog!

  8. #16 by Patsy on November 14, 2014 - 8:52 am

    Feedback and criticism is really important – but we do need to make sure we’re prepared for it before we ask. Clearly you were and will be able to benefit from it.

    • #17 by Sally Jenkins on November 14, 2014 - 12:53 pm

      That’s a very good point, Patsy. No point asking for criticism if we’re not prepared to take it.

  9. #18 by hilarycustancegreen on November 15, 2014 - 10:00 am

    My first novel was, in draft, a great hit with friends. Imagine my hurt when the first agent rejections came in, even including a handwritten note from one, scrawled across the standard typed letter, saying something like, ‘This is unpublishable’. I finally took the advice of my only friend in the trade and spent the money on a Literary Consultant. I received a 17 page report. There really wasn’t any aspect of my writing that didn’t need attention. However, the report was very cleverly written, endlessly highlighting what had worked and what was worthwhile and how good it could be. It gave me enormous energy. The result was miraculous, including a request from a really high end agent for the whole MS (though they didn’t take it). Ever since then I have begged for criticism as it energises me (though I love praise too), there’s never an end to learning (I am on a course at the moment) and my third novel is released on December 5th. Best of luck, Sally.

    • #19 by Sally Jenkins on November 15, 2014 - 7:22 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Hilary. It’s great to know that following the advice of your consultant the book went from ‘unpublishable’ to almost getting an agent. The only way to improve is to take advice from those better than us! And all the best for December 5th!

  10. #20 by charliebritten on November 17, 2014 - 10:09 pm

    Thank you, Sally, for sharing that. I find receiving criticism very difficult, especially with my writing. The funny thing is you come into this writing thing believing that your stories/novel is exciting and amazing, but, as your writing improves through the comments of others, you become more acutely aware of all the things that might be wrong with it.

    • #21 by Sally Jenkins on November 18, 2014 - 5:31 pm

      I totally agree, Charlie. I think with our own writing we often read what we meant to put on the page, not what we actually did. So it comes a shock if someone tells us that a bit doesn’t make sense or they don’t understand why a character is acting as they are. A pair of fresh eyes is always good!

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