Category Archives: Punctuation

Learning the Lessons

Footprints Ardnave 1I have to admit to being a bit nervous about posting again.  Which is silly, really.  But last week’s battering has really knocked my confidence, and the events of the intervening days have been a rough ride.

But just when you think you can’t cope anymore, the Universe hands you a rose.  This time in the shape of Pola’s loving and kind comment on my last post:

“The reason I’m writing is to let you know that I really appreciate your talent in writing. I appreciate your devotion to your craft and your desire to help others in developing their own style and creativity. So whatever you decide, I just wanted you to know that I think you’re an important voice in the world of writing and that I hope you never give up in your endeavor to have your voice heard. This world would be less without it.”

Thank you so much, dear, dear Pola.  I cannot tell you how much this meant to me.

With your words ringing in my ears, I got back on the horse last night, and wrote a new story, 2207 words of trying something new with ‘Lewis’.  It was somehow important to start again with ‘Lewis’ given that it was a ‘Lewis’ story that caused all the trouble in the first place.  I don’t know where the story came from, it just popped into my head.  I don’t know if I’m ready to publish anything yet either, but it feels so good to be back in the saddle.

I was made to write.  I don’t know how not to.

Somehow, I’m going to have to learn to deal with criticism better, from the sort that is justified to the sort that is completely out of order.  Its very hard to do that when you are already in a tough place.

I realised that I posted the story because I wanted a confidence boost.  I wanted some good reviews to cheer me up.  And when I didn’t get them, got the reverse in fact, it knocked me over completely.

Important Lesson #1:  Do not post your fanfics just to get applause.

I posted ‘Not So Innocent’ on a whim.  I don’t have a beta, so it hadn’t had a second reader look at it.  There was no one to tell me that it had dodgey elements in it.  I had doubts about it, I have to admit, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were.  If I’d had backup, maybe I would have seen its faults.

Important Lesson #2: Get a beta reader.

Preferably someone who knows the fandoms I write in, has excellent capacity for spotting my hidden prejudices, and my inability to cope with apostrophes.  I read last night’s creation to Husband (a stickler for apostrophes), which was a very useful exercise (reading your work aloud is always enlightening), but he doesn’t have the time to be a proper beta, and he’s got enough stress on his plate as it is.

I’ve always fought shy of having a beta because I don’t like the idea of the delay it involves.  I’m probably too protective of my work anyway, so having an editor would be good practise in stepping back, and would probably help me handle criticism better.  Plus I’ve had bad experiences with supposedly ‘helpful’ readers in the past.  And I know what a lousy beta I am in terms of getting around to reading other people’s work I’ve offered to read.

If anyone is interested in being a beta for me, and can offer a fast turn-around time, dedication to grammar and a fine eye for possible offending material, please let me know.

Its hard not to feel over-sensitive at this point.  I confess I am still very wobbly.  Things in RL are on shaky ground.  I’m trying to support Husband and his family members as best I can, while dealing with my own illness, and the onset of the most difficult time of the year for me in terms of mental health.  Taking it slow and looking after myself, so that I can look after him, is the best I can do.

Important Lesson #3:  Look after yourself.

And of course:

Important Lesson #4:  DON’T GIVE UP.

So thank you for your continued support.  One way or another, we’ll all get there.

Happy Creating,

EF

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How to Give Good Criticism, or ‘Do as you would be done by’

This post follows on from my earlier one, about how to take criticism.

Now, before you get defensive, criticism is a good thing.  It can help you develop as an artist in whatever field you choose to pursue.  It can open your mind, make you a bigger, better human being.

BUT

It has to be CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM.

Constructive criticism is given from a place of concern and interest.  It is offered by someone who cares about your work and wants you to be the best you can possibly be.

Most people don’t know how to do this, which means criticism gets a bad rap.  It is seen as something damaging and negative, something that can potentially destroy you as an artist, and believe me, it is, if you do it wrong.

This is a guide on how to do it right.

 THE ONLY RULE IN GIVING CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM IS EMPATHY

Everything comes from this.

Put yourself in the place of the person whose work you are reviewing.  Think about what you want to say about it.  How would you feel if someone said something like that to you about your work?  Would you feel hopeful, buoyed up, enthused, or would you be utterly crushed?

Take the time to think before you type or speak.  This is especially important if you are reviewing someone’s fanfiction or online work.  It’s so easy to plonk a few keys and fire off a comment before you have thought about it, before you have considered the impact on the person receiving it.

Don’t say what you would have done instead.  So many readers think that helpful comments should be about ‘well, I would have written it this way.’  No.  Criticism is about pointing out what doesn’t work for you as a reader.  It is down to the writer/creator to decide what to do about that.  (However, helpful suggestions are often very well received.)  Remember that this work comes from someone’s unique perspective, and that they have made many artistic decisions for specific reasons.  Those are reasons that you may not share, understand or even perceive.    Give the writer/creator your respect.

Gauge the level of criticism the writer/creator may be ready to receive.  This can sometimes be quite hard, especially if there is seems a lot wrong with a piece.  Is the writer in need of help at the most basic level, i.e. the nuts and bolts of language and grammar?  This may, of course, be because the language used is not their native language, so they are learning.  If that is so, they may be very grateful for your help.  Perhaps the comments you need to make are at a higher level, in terms of plot, pace, character, structure or dialogue.  Again, this may be a problem with linguistic mastery.  Try to choose one area to comment on at a time.  Don’t deluge someone with criticism of all major aspects of their work, or they will go to pieces.

Knowing the writer’s other work helps.  This way you can refer back to it, and they feel known and appreciated.  If someone is commenting with knowledge of your back-catalogue, they can comment in context.  They know where you are coming from, and how your work has changed over time. It’s not necessary to read everything a writer has written before you comment, but if you have read one or two of their other works, and you think they are relevant, it can be a great boost, a recognition of the progress they have made and what they do right.

Practise constructive criticism in a writers group.  You can join them online or face to face.  Watch notice boards in your local library or bookshop, or scan the pages of literary and writers magazines like Mslexia to find a good group.  Alternatively, form your own, and workshop your work together.  Make the rule that all comments must be caring and constructive.  Always ask the recipient how they feel about what was said at the end of their workshop session, so that they have a chance to talk about any comments they found difficult to handle – trust is crucial.  (I’ll write more soon about writers groups and how useful they can be.)

Always point out and praise what does work, and be positive.  The writer/creator has put a lot of time and effort into producing something for your consumption and enjoyment, and that in itself is a great achievement.

Don’t EVER get personal.  This is about the work, not the person.

If you react in a strongly negative way to a piece, ask yourself whether this is because the content is touching on your own issues and triggers?  If it is, DO NOT comment.  I suggest you spend some time writing your rant out in your journal, rather than firing it off to some innocent writer who doesn’t know about your ‘stuff’.

Some examples of constructive criticism:

(These are all actual examples of constructive criticism I have received on my work, and are offered as illustrationss of general points.)

“I’m not really sure I understand the character’s motivation at this point.  Maybe I need to see them in a scene that shows them being attacked about this issue so I know why they are reacting so defensively later on, or maybe point to some backstory that suggests this?”

“And then he said it.  The thing he wasn’t supposed to say.  The one thing I never expected from him.”  – (section of text from my story)  This feels like overwriting to me.  If it was the one thing he wasn’t supposed to say, surely it is unnecessary to add that it was unexpected from him.  You are repeating the sense here.  Just take the second sentence out, and its perfect as it is.”

“The word xxxxxx stands out as awkward here for me.  Would they really use that kind of language?  It sounds more like modern slang than a Victorian expression, and it kind of bumped me out of the flow of reading.  Could you substitute something similar but gentler?”

“(Example given)  This sentence is really long.  It has so many commas that I got a bit confused as to what you were trying to say.  It would make much more sense for me if you made shorter sentences, so that I don’t have to consciously keep track of where you are going.”

 A final note:

Remember, it takes a lot of guts to put your creative work out into the public arena.  For many creative people it feels like sticking one’s head into the lion’s mouth.  Respect that fear and the bravery that outweighs it.  Always respect and have empathy for the creator of the work on which you comment, and it will be hard to go wrong.  If we support one another’s work lovingly, we can all learn together.

Incidentally, I would love to know if you have more tips on how to receive or make constructive criticism – if you do, please comment/reply!

Happy creating,

EF

How to Take Criticism

The idea for this post came to me last week when I got a pretty starchy comment on one of my stories.  It happens sometimes.  Actually, I have to say I can think of only two previous occasions when comments have upset me in three years of online publishing, so I suppose I am doing pretty well.  My pals were very supportive, as was my husband.  No sweat, right?

Hmmm.

It got me thinking about how as artists we approach taking criticism.  Art of whatever form is a subjective thing.  Whether we like it or not is a personal matter.  You can’t please all of the people all of the time, as they say.  It is just a fact of artistic life, and we can learn a great deal from it.

The problem with art in general, and writing in particular, is that it is the product of our soul.  That makes it very close to us, an expression of our feelings, of everything we believe in.  And that, in turn, makes it hard not to take criticism personally.  Which is why a negative review can feel like being emotionally disembowelled.  It can be crippling.  It can block us completely, so that we never creatively express ourselves again.  That is why it is so important to know how to deal with it.

It strikes me that there are two types of criticism.

  1. Constructive Criticism.  This is the kind that comes from readers who support your work, who appreciate what an emotional risk it is to put your work out there, and who want to help you to improve.  They give honest, caring feedback.
  2. Rants.  You know this kind of comment.  It is usually about content, not plot, pace, language or technique.  It is usually angry, often vindictive, and actually has nothing to do with your work, and everything to do with the commenter’s personal ‘stuff’.

Constructive criticism comes from a place of empathy and support.  Its aim is to help you along the road to expressing yourself better.  It may seem niggly (you missed a comma out, for instance, or left a typo in) but it is there with positive intent.

Rants are to do with issues that the critic has in their own life.  The first nasty experience I had with this was with my story, ‘Property Of:’.  A reviewer wrote a vicious snarl about how I had depicted the armed forces as being shagging frantically in trenches at every opportunity, and that it was disgusting that I should suggest this, or that Dr Watson could have been involved with a married person.  My (possibly misguided) response was to email the person in question and ask her to expand on her comments.  What I got back was a three page diatribe on the fact that Watson should be whiter-than-white and how dare I criticise the army.

Clearly she had issues surrounding infidelity and the armed forces.

I don’t write for Disney.  I deal with the real shit. Real life.   Real people.  And real people make mistakes and get scared and do weird, unexpected things under pressure.  She had her own reasons for not liking my story.  Fine.  I triggered them.  Okay.  But I am not going to change the whole tenor of what I write to please one person, however hurt they have been.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love criticsm.  When it is constructive.

In the course of publishing daily episodes of ‘The Case of the Cuddle’, for example, I realised from comments being made that I had left out a whole area of the story between Lestrade and Mycroft.  Without it, their responses to later events made no sense.  If it had not been for those reviewers who were unafraid to ask awkward questions in a supportive way, I would not have noticed the gaping hole in my narrative.  I hacked together an extra two chapters to insert into the story, and fixed the problem.  Bravo critics.  I learnt something.  Thank you.

That is the point of contructive critisicm.  You learn something.  The way to approach any kind of criticism is to ask this question:

What can I learn from this?

So, how do you deal with criticism, nasty or kind?  Here are a few tips:

  • Take a deep breath.  Walk away.  Give yourself some space.  DO NOT immediately fire back a stroppy reply that will only provoke further attack.
  • Work out which kind of criticism is being offered.  Calmly.
  • If this person has been triggered by some issue in your work, accept their right to their emotions, however wrong they are in venting them on you.  Something horrible has clearly happened to them to provoke such an outburst.
  • You don’t necessarily have to email them, or reply at all.  If you are really upset, do not engage.
  • If you write about difficult stuff, things that are likely to trigger strong reactions in your readers, them you should expect rants a bit more often than if you only write fluff.  Be prepared, but DO NOT back off from writing about the tough stuff.  It is only if we talk about these things that we can address them in society and heal the suffering they cause.  You are doing good work.  Keep doing it.
  • If you find yourself reacting strongly to a challenging, or ranting comment, it is worth thinking about why.  Perhaps this review has triggered something for you?  My commenter from last week challenged me about a prejudice I had been kidding myself I didn’t have.  On reflection, I realised not that she had a point, because I stand by the artistic decision I made, but that there was an element of truth in her accusation.  From now on, I will think more carefully about my responses to certain situations and where they come from.  I have learnt from her, and not just in terms of my writing.
  • You do not have to rewrite your work just because someone negatively criticises it, nor should anyone expect you to do so.
  • Think about the reasons why you made the artistic or aesthetic choice you did.  If your choice is rationally defensible, ie there is a better argument than ‘because thats the way I want to do it!’ (accompanied with a stamping of the foot), then let it stand.  If, on reflection, you decide that it could have been done better had you made a different choice, then you can take the criticism on board, and maybe do it different next time.  Make the decision to learn from it.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.  I find myself getting very gnarly when someone is kind enough to point out where I left a typo in.  Gggggrrrrrrr!  But actually, they are doing me a favour.  Not only are they acting as a free proof reader, they are also helping tackle my Perfectionism, and giving Nigel a good kick in the teeth at the same time!
  • Allow yourself to absorb the helpful comments at your own pace.  Sometimes it can be very challenging to be told your sentence structure is a bit dense, or that your character’s motivation is shaky.  Are you ready, at this point in your development as a writer, to accept this criticism?  If you are, take it on board.  If not, put it aside, and keep doing your best.
  • Don’t trust your first defensive denial.  If the comment is offered sympathetically, with the earnest desire to help, then examine it.
  • As with all criticism, take what feels truthful to you, and leave the rest.  Just let it go.
  • NO ONE has the right to browbeat you, attack you, abuse you, or verbally savage you to the point where you give up writing.  Constructive comments on the work are helpful, personal attacks are not.  Report vicious repeat flamers where necessary.  Bullying is NOT ACCEPTABLE.
  • The internet gives you the opportunity to get free comments on your work in a way that never would have been possible twenty years ago.  It is a huge resource.  People take a great deal of time and effort to read your work.  Thank them for the time they take to respond to it, and choose to learn from what they say, as far as you can.
  • Relax.  No, really.  This is not personal.  Rejoice in the feedback you get.  Why?  because it means you are OUT THERE, being seen, and that, my friend is a HUGE blessing.

No doubt there is a great deal more that I could add.  Taking criticism constructively is something you learn by doing.  It really helps to join a writers group, where you can trust your fellows to offer you helpful feedback on a regular basis, so that you get used to it, and build up your ‘resistance’. (More on writers groups in a future post) In the meantime, I return to the following, which is the best advice I can offer:

Take what feels truthful to you, and leave the rest.

Next Wednesday, I will be writing another article about how to give constructive criticism, so stay tuned!

Happy writing,

EF

Flow, or How To get Out Of Your Readers’ Way

flow at Ardnave

Ardnave Beach, Islay – I didn’t have an illuminating photo of a stream, so rocks will have to do!

You’ve probably heard of Flow.  It is that psychological state of perfect concentration that we fall into when our attention is completely absorbed in something, whether it is running, painting, reading, crafting or anything else that involves us completely.

As a writer, Flow is what you are after in your reader.  You have probably felt it yourself.  Remember those books that were so engrossing that you could lose hours at a time between the pages, and not notice?

The trouble is that when you are reading, the tiniest thing can jolt you out of it – from the cat meowing for its tea, to your baby crying to be picked up, or even something as small as the rain tapping against the window.  As a writer you are up against this too-human tendency, and your job is to make sure that you do not add to the distractions.

This is why getting the nuts and bolts right is so important.

For example, have you ever come across a typographical error in a printed novel?  It seems to be happening more and more these days, and I find I notice at least one in every novel I read.  It is irksome.  It makes you suddenly aware that you are in the act of reading a book, rather being so caught up in the action that you are in it with the characters, a part of the crowd.

I have judged a number of short story competitions in my time, and I never fail to be amazed at how writers fail to take account of this. Being aware of your readers’ flow can improve your writing immeasurably, and can make the difference between a prize and publication, or languishing at the bottom of the reject pile.

Its not just about presentation – lets face it, in this digital age, your work could be presented in any number of ways, so even if you make sure you conform to the industry standard of 12 point, double spaced text, (which I would always advise) your reader may not ultimately be consuming it that way.  You can make the difference, and keep your reader in the moment, by observing a few simple rules:

1. Pay attention to punctuation.  It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference.  Read your work aloud, and notice where you take a breath, or pause.  That’s where a comma should go.  Read a good book about it.  You can’t do better than this one.

2.  Don’t trust the spell checker.  It can’t tell the difference between ‘passed’ and ‘past’, and that little difference could be enough to annoy your reader out of their flow, and maybe give up completely.

3. Get to grips with language.  Knowing the meaning of words is really important, so don’t just take it for granted – Fanfiction writers, I am looking at you!  Just because someone else uses the word ‘ravage’ instead of ‘ravish’, doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistake! (And ‘leisurely’ is not an adverb. Grrr!)  When in doubt, look it up!

4.  Don’t use overlong sentences.  You aren’t Henry James.  Thank God.  Keep it to one or two clauses at most.  Don’t ramble.  Short sentences may increase the pace of your scene, but you can slow things down in other ways if thats what you want, through description and reflection.

5.  Don’t repeat yourself.  This is a private bugbear of mine, I have to confess.  You don’t need to use the same word three times in a three line paragraph.  You’ve got vocabulary – use it!  If you want to understand how the breadth of language can be used to write a whole book about just one thing, avoiding  repetition, read Patrick Süskind’s dazzling novel,  ‘Perfume’.  It proves you really don’t have to repeat yourself.

6. Proof read.  And then do it again.  And then get someone else to proof read for you.  Seriously.  There are so many typos and spelling mistakes (commonly referred to as ‘smelling mistakes’ in our house) that you often can’t see without help.  (And now I am having a mini-nervous breakdown that there will be typos in this article that I haven’t seen – you see, we all do it, so beware!)

These are just a few simple things you can do to give your reader a smooth ride.  If you do that, not only will they keep reading to the end, but they are far more likely to come back for more.  And thats what you want!

Happy writing!