Tag Archives: constructive criticism

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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Exhausted and Overwrought – and Deleting ‘Not So Innocent’

Following mature and thoughtful discussion in the comments section of my last post, I’ve decided to take ‘Not So Innocent’ off AO3.  The whole thing has upset me too much, especially since we are now facing a new personal crisis in RL.  Its just not worth it.

Right now, I don’t want to publish a fanfic ever again.  I just can’t face it.  I’ll get over that, I suppose.  I always do.  I certainly don’t want to spend today writing, as I had planned.

I want to say something erudite about the way women are treated by society, but I just don’t think I can.  I’ll just say this:

Jimmy Saville’s victims number in the hundreds.  More come out every day.

Accusations are now filtering out about not just sexual and physical abuse, but children being killed as part of sex parties by a ring centred in Westminster in the 70s and 80s.

Bill Cosby’s career is in freefall after accusations of rape.

Rotherham.

Birmingham.

Rochdale

Oxford

Telford

Syria and Iraq

Boko Haram

Women being executed for bringing ‘shame on their families’ by being the victim of rape.

Just about every photoshopped photograph in every glossy magazine published anywhere in the world.

Every diet company that preys on women’s poor self image.

Gala Darling’s recent revelations

Every girl who’s afraid to walk down her own street at night, but thinks the only way to be acceptible to her peers is to go out scantily dressed on a Friday night and get so drunk she can’t even stand, let alone take care of herself and keep herself safe.

Every boy who thinks that when a girl says no, she means ‘yes’ because she’s ‘playing hard to get’.

Every person who judges me because I don’t have children, or because I let my hair grow grey, because I’m not behaving like a ‘proper’ woman.

My husband’s 86 year old aunt, who weighs no more than 6 stone, telling me her thighs are fat.

And the fact that the acceptance of abuse is so ingrained in both my mind and yours that often we don’t even notice it.  Because I certainly didn’t.

EF

 

An Essay on Prammage*, or How Not to Take Your Own Advice About Adverse Criticism

*Prammage: noun, colloquial.  The act of throwing one’s toys out of the pram;  going off in a flounce or a sulk; a passive-aggressive act of self-harm or self-sabotage in response to not getting one’s own way; see also ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.

I was going to write you a lovely blog post about playing with language today, but events have taken an interesting turn, and I wanted to share them with you.

On Monday 17th November I posted a Lewis fanfic called ‘Not So Innocent’ that I’d had hanging around on my hard disk for a while.  It was written as a quickfic, and I found it again, and thought it was funny, so I decided to post it as a quickie and didn’t think much about it.  Being a Lewis fic, it didn’t get masses of attention, because the fandom is relatively small, but the person I posted it for as a gift liked it, and that seemed all that mattered.

This morning, Wednesday 19th November, I woke up to vicious criticism on both FF.net and AO3 for the story.  The reviewer basically accused me of condoning and inciting sexual harrassment and rape.

Hmm.

This didn’t go down too well with me, since I have been victim of both sexual harrassment and abuse.

I am also not in a good place at the moment, and my response to this unexpected attack was to delete the story on both AO3 and FF.net.  I have never written a dub-con or non-con story and I wouldn’t.  It disgusts me.  I have written quite aggressively dark stories that include child abuse and public humiliation sex, but which explore the psychological wounds that underly and result from them.  For anyone to accuse me of condoning sexually abusive behaviour was just too much.

I can’t be arsed.  I’ve got too much other shit going on in my life to bother with making myself a target for such oversensitive extreme-feminist bull.

As far as I was concerned, the reader had simply not identified the subtext which runs through the story, which is that all participants know exactly what is going on, and are party to it, an irony from which the humour is supposed to arise.

Obviously I didn’t make that subtext clear enough, I realised, as I stomped off to the bathroom to shower.  (I do most of my thinking and story planning in the shower.)  And then I really got to thinking:

Was my own experience of sexual harrassment at work being a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s career colouring my work?

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I have been on the receiving end of some serious acts of sexual harrassment in my younger days (before I lost my looks, haha!).  It was regarded with a shrug as something that went on.  Indeed, at some level, ‘Not So Innocent’ must draw on the experiences I had as a young academic at a number of conferences.

At one, I allowed myself to be seduced by an older man who was also the leader of a rival project.  He was charming and intelligent, and I was lonely and desperate for comfort.  It later transpired that he was only interested in me because he thought he could extract from me details of what our project was doing.

And this is where the question of consent comes in.  We had fully consensual sex that night, but it turned out that we were consenting to two different things.  I thought I was consenting to beginning an intimate relationship with long term prospects.  He thought I was consenting to being exploited for information.  The question of consent between two people having sex turns out to be a lot more complicated than just ‘do you want to, or not’.

My own experience of conference ‘pursuits’ is not something I have examined much before, except to realise that its pretty exploitative, but I can see that in writing ‘No So Innocent’, I’ve displayed some attitudes that I had internalised without thinking.  Instead of thinking: ‘this is what happens’, maybe I should have realised: ‘this isn’t something that should happen.’

I began to reflect on ‘Not So Innocent’ in a different way, by considering what both James and Lewis are consenting to, and what Innocent is implying.  Would she really go through with her threat?  I think not. I think she’d sit James down on the end of her bed and give him a good talking-to about how much he loves Lewis, and how much Lewis clearly loves him.  I think I knew that when I was writing it.  I think James knows it too.

And even if they did have sex because he chickened out with Lewis, I think it would be lovely, passionate, and above all, uncoerced.

There was intended to be a sexual frisson between James and Jean.  I wanted him to be torn to a certain extent, attracted by the prospect of Innocent’s considerable charms.  I happen to think she’s a very sexy woman, and I think James sees that, just as she finds him attractive.  I realised I underwrote the irony because while I was writing, I wasn’t sure how the thing was going to end – and I secretly wanted James and Innocent to end up in bed together.  That is the danger of publishing an unpolished quickfic.

As for the scene where James gets into bed with Robbie, I honestly don’t think there is a consent issue there.  Robbie is clearly consenting, and if he wasn’t, he’s quite capable, both in terms of physical strength, and authority, of ejecting James.  In my opinion, it is clear that they are also both consenting to the same thing, and they both know it:  the start of a loving relationship, and the end of their unrequited yearning for each other.

And yes, it would be different if it were a man getting into a woman’s bed uninvited, or a man threatening a woman with seduction, but that isn’t what is happening.  These are two people who are in love, finally being pushed through their inhibitions by a fond friend.  The fact that they happen to be co-workers, with the ensuing power-politics, becomes irrelevant in the face of love.

I wish I hadn’t deleted the story, because I have deleted the comments of the readers as a result.  I wish I had left it so that people can make up their own minds.  Because, if nothing else, this story might make people rethink attitudes at work that they have previously taken for granted as normal, as I have.

I also think its a work I have clearly under-written in terms of subtext, and all the participants’ complicity, but I’m not going to rewrite it, or change it in any way.  I want it to stand as a testament to the fact that I will no longer throw my toys out of the pram because someone doesn’t like my work.

I have never censored myself because of a review, and I won’t start now.

So I’ve decided to republish ‘Not So Innocent’ on AO3, so that you can make up your own mind.  I’d love to have a discussion with you on the subjects raised, either in the comments here, or on AO3.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you,

love EF

The Folly of Trying

My counsellor told me a story:

A man was asked at a conference to come up onto the stage, where the speaker had set a single chair in the centre.

‘Try to pick up the chair ,’ the speaker said.

The man picked up the chair.

‘No, you’re not getting it,’ the speaker said.  ‘Try to pick up the chair.’

The man picked up the chair again.

‘No, you’re still not getting it.  TRY to pick up the chair.’

The man put his hands on the chair and then, in a flash of inspiration, he understood.

Because TRYING to pick up the chair is not the same as picking up the chair.

If you TRY, you never actually achieve the action.  You just TRY.

Or, as the venerable Yoda said, in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’:

Try not.  Do.  Do or do not.  There is no try.

(I had that on my door at college.  I don’t think I understood it then.  Now I do, I really, really do.)

This wisdom has really been banging on my door today, as I struggle with a cold, coming on the back of a bad spell of IBS and ME/CFS.  I am busy TRYING.  Trying to get better.  Trying to feel well. Trying to cope with the housework. Trying to write.

Sometimes you have to recognise the wisdom of ‘Do or Do Not.’

Lately, I worry that this blog has become more about illness and less about creativity.  More about my TRYING experience.  But I think it really is an important lesson to learn for creative people.  We push ourselves and push ourselves, driven by expectations and perfectionism and Gods-know what demons we have inside us, deftly planted there, no doubt, by our loving parents. We dance the dance of the OUGHT-hogs.  The SHOULDS.  We are so busy forcing meaning into our lives as creatives, as Eric Maisel ill-advised (IMHO), that we pulverise our souls and our bodies into gibbering wrecks, terrorised by all the goals we fail to achieve and the standards we are incapable to meeting.  Books about how to write invariably advise the student that they have to write every day, no matter what.  I don’t think thats healthy or, frankly, practical.  Of course, it helps if you can.  A lot.  But seriously, who can write when their child has been up all night vomiting, or they have just received a redundancy notice?

Sometimes you have to treat yourself with loving kindness.  Sometimes you have to lower your expectations, and maybe even give in to the avalanche that Life has dumped on your head.  I have been talking to several friends who are all struggling with ill health this week, recovering from cancer treatment or at the end of a difficult pregnancy, or even in bereavement, and I truly believe that this is something all of us needed to hear.

Sometimes you are allowed to stop trying.

Sometimes its good to stop trying.

And then, when you have given yourself a break, a rest, a time of wound-licking, you can get up and go and do what it is you need to do.

MInd you, I have probably just proved myself wrong by writing this blog post, because I’ve spent the last six hours lying in bed groaning, absolutely convinced that I couldn’t write anything today.  So there you go.  Take from that what you will.  Just promise me something?

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

Happy Creating,

EF

 

The Writing Life: Writers Groups

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I belong to a writers group.  And it’s great!

It all began years ago, when I started the Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.  It was the first writing course I ever went on.  I walked into the room and found myself surrounded by people like me.  It was the first time I ever felt like I wasn’t different and strange.  I had found my tribe.

Writing is a solitary occupation, so it is crucial for both your mental health and your work to socialise.  And what better way to do that than with other writers who are going through the same trials and tribulations as you are?

As part of our diploma course, we went on a weekend retreat, involving taught sessions, visiting speakers, workshopping and private writing time.  It was a huge success and we bonded.  Many of us went on to study for the Advanced Diploma in Prose Fiction, which was primarily a workshop-based course, and that further cemented the group.

Since then we have continued to meet, once a month, to share our work, our experiences, problems and interests.  And an awful lot of tea and flap-jacks!  Members have come and gone, buts okay.  There is a core group who have stuck together for over a decade now, sharing life experiences, supporting one another through MA courses and publication.  We go on annual retreats together, about which more in future.  We meet at each other’s houses, planning dates ahead and each offering to the host nights most convenient.  Hot and cold drinks, nibbles and cakes are provided to lubricate the conversation.

Based on the old course model, each member brings a piece of new writing that they have done, and we try to keep it to around 1,000 to 2,000 words in length – any longer and it takes up too much time.  You can read your own piece, or ask someone else to read it.  (It is sometimes really helpful to hear another person read it in order to pick out the parts where the writing is less fluid.)  Then people comment.  Helpful and empathic criticism is offered.  We always make sure we start by pointing out what we like about the piece.  Often, if it is part of a larger work, people will ask questions about plot or backstory.  Because we know one another’s work so well, we can refer back to earlier stories, or earlier parts of the work, and kick around ideas to find out what might be a useful improvement for any problems.  At the end of every participant’s session, they are asked how they feel about what was said, which gives them the chance to say anything that has been missed in the discussion.  We usually manage to workshop about three pieces of prose in a 2.5 hour meeting.

Not everyone may have something they want to read, or will have had time to write that month, and that’s okay too.  They contribute by commenting on and supporting the work of others.  We have prose writers and poets.  We share news of any courses or day schools that may have been attended, and often discuss what books everyone is reading too.

And of course, we do a lot of nattering and gossiping too.

Outside the regular meetings, we have been known to circulate work and meet informally for writing sessions.  We even do writing sessions over the phone.

I encourage you to find your own tribe.  You can do it online or in person.  Libraries and publications such as Mslexia and the Writers Digest often have small ads for writers groups.  Or start one yourself, as we did.  Make sure you are happy with the atmosphere and ethos of the group you join, however.  There is no point in sharing your work and then having it brutally cut to pieces.  Gaining confidence in dealing with confidence is one thing.  Bullying is quite another.  There are pitfalls with joining any group, but the advantages with a good one will outweigh any glitches.

My pals in the group have stuck by me through thick and thin and seven novels, and I am eternally grateful to them for their kind support and criticism.  And for banning me from using the word ‘massive’.  Sometimes you need that kind of pal.

Dear Bridget, Clare, Heidi, Nina, and Sally, I love you.

And now I had better get myself together and go and put some flap-jacks in the oven, because they’ll be round tonight and I haven’t written anything yet!

Happy creating,

EF

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