Tag Archives: Arts

Responding To Criticism

Oh, this is one of the ‘fun’ bits of writing that should come with a warning. How do you deal with criticism?

Firstly to use an apt cliché, writing is a school of hard knocks. It’s true. You’ve written something, you’re sure you’ve perfected it, and then some person comes and insensitively points out all the things you’ve done wrong. It’s not nice, and there is no softening it. The first time you receive criticism like this, you might cry. You’re very likely to discount it, to push it out of your mind.

So how do you cope with it? We all know that criticism is ultimately good for us as it helps us improve in the long-term, but that doesn’t make you feel any better at the time.

I think the first thing to set straight is your mental attitude. Realise that the reason criticism affects you so is because you care about what you do. You take pride in it, and you’ve worked hard. You haven’t produced some half-baked attempt and tried to wing it. Once you’ve seen the feedback, don’t dwell on it. Try to take your mind off it, go and unwind. It never helps to undertake something when you’re upset. So recognise how you are feeling and don’t do anything until your emotions are in check. Only then will you be able to respond positively and logically.

When reading through criticism, you need to determine what stance the person has taken. Is it feedback, or is it criticism? I was misleading you with the last sentence, because feedback and criticism are the same thing, except we interpret criticism as negative.

Feedback, criticism or critique should mean to you anything that is measured, positive or constructive. It might point out your mistakes, but it should do so in a way that is not a personal attack on you, or treats your work in a derogatory fashion. It should give advice and point out flaws, but don’t mistake honesty as an attack on you. It never helps to read sugar-coated feedback, and sometimes things just have to be said as they are.

But what about the negative, the feedback that clearly is written with no intention to help you? I’ve got a word for that. Rubbish. You laugh, and you leave it. Why? Sometimes it’s clear that the person has no idea what they’re talking about. Other times, it’s blindingly obvious that they’re just trying to hurt and insult you. It’s perfectly legitimate to write some people off – don’t feel obliged to take into consideration everything everyone says.

Now, what do you do with the feedback that you haven’t thrown in the bin? Read it carefully, read it slowly. Be logical and objective. Remember, if this person has taken time to point out the problems in your writing, they want to help you. But what if they aren’t using the critique sandwich? Start with the good points, then move into the problems, and then finish with what was liked. What if it’s just all about the problems?

Well, I’m that type of critic. It’s not because I want to belittle the writer, make them feel bad, imply that there is nothing they did well or even try to impose my own authority upon them. It’s simply because when I read critically, I spend my time writing on what can be done better, not what is already done well. If you’re strapped for time, you probably will do this.

This is a small tangent, but it’s something I think both writers and critics should understand. Sometimes  when you’re giving feedback, you just don’t have anything negative to say. Stop the presses, that’s something a good critic should never do right? Wrong. There is no shame in standing up and saying to someone “you know I’m sitting here reading through your work and I can’t find anything wrong“. In fact, I was asked to beta-read a story for a friend this summer, and while I had a slight pick at the first chapter, I’m waiting until he is online again before I tell him that he doesn’t need me to critique it. It’s good. It doesn’t make you a bad critic. It doesn’t mean you weren’t being critical enough. I believe it makes you more legitimate in your feedback by saying this, instead of proceeding to talk about non-existent problems.

Let’s get back to the main point then. How do you cope with feedback? To summarise, you leave it, you get yourself in order. You then read it carefully. You decide whether the feedback is legitimate or not. Then you act on it.

You should never, never, respond to feedback when you first receive it. You’ll be emotional, you won’t think straight. You’ll misinterpret, and you could go to the nuclear option. That is, you could delete your entire work and say you’ll start again.

Never delete anything you write – that is the cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. You have the ability to re-draft as many times as you want. So don’t got and delete your work – because all you’re doing is reinforcing negative emotions about your writing and destroying any progress you’ve made.

Deleting an re-writing is not progress. It is not re-drafting. It is undoing the progress you’ve made. It is quite literally, trying to write something perfect from scratch. I need not tell you how silly that is.

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Turning My Back on Writing as a Career – Does This Make Me Less of a Writer?

I wonder, does it make me any less of a writer now that I don’t pursue writing as a career? It’s been at the back of my mind. Does it make me a lesser one, because I’m not saying I want to solely make money out of writing? Or do other writers, published or aiming to be, consider it to be giving up?

I used to say I wanted to become a published author, and make a career out of my writing. The first statement is true still, but the latter has been removed. The reasoning isn’t that I’ve become disillusioned in my work. I’m more confident about that than I ever was. I decided against writing as a career for practical reasons.

I never entertained the idea that I’d be able to make a living out of writing. Not out of any pessimistic thought, but just realism. A career in writing for me would be writing books; anything other form of writing, say journalism, isn’t what writing means to me. Of course, if you do that you don’t have much security at all. If you self-publish, you’ve got to be the one promoting your book, demanding that you both sink more money into your book while promising anything but a return, let alone one that is consistent. If you aim down the road of traditional publishing, you’ve first got to be accepted, and then hopefully get a decent advance. It’s just a lump sum, and if you want more money, you’ve either got to sell more than they first calculated for you advance, or write a new book and get that accepted too. Then you’ve got to write more. Lots more.

Talk about having a secure income; you’ve got anything but that. Practical reasons aside and before you start accusing me of selling out, the main issue is my own idea of being a writer. I don’t want to end up having to churn out books in order to sell. It makes a mockery of writing in the first place. What could be more soul-destroying than feeling you are devaluing your writing by having to write so many books out of financial necessity. I must say, I don’t know whether that would cause the quality to suffer. There’s nothing like pressure to spring up some new ideas, but I don’t want to try. I feel like I’d be goading myself, that eventually during it I’d just stop one day, realising I’ve come to hate writing because of it. Where would I go from there?

I think these are the questions you’ve really got to ask yourself about writing. I’m not cutting the career idea because I don’t think I’d make it, or that I’m discouraged by how difficult it is.

I just thought, this isn’t for me. This isn’t how I want to be a writer.

So what does that mean? The plan isn’t one I hate. I’ll get a job. Do something during the day that pays a wage, then I’ll write. You can always find time for the things you enjoy doing. Yet to come back to the question I started with, does this make me less of a writer? Go on, let me know what you think!

Sitting on a Story – What Frustrates You Most About Writing?

The question is, what is the single most frustrating thing about writing? Is it writer’s block? Motivation? Staying positive? What is the the absolute thing that makes you gnash your teeth or your stomach turn?

For me, it’s sitting on a story. And I hate it.

By default, I’ve always thought myself as a novelist. My very first forays into writing were not short stories or pieces of poetry, but attempts to flesh out entire novels from the start. I just leapt into doing it, and it feels right for me. I’m a sucker for character driven narratives, so when it comes to developing characters I’m straight out there using the longest format that allows me to develop them. In fact, the very first novel I finished (just in terms of writing the first draft) was a first person present narrative that took over 140,000 words to get to the final word. Writing that was tough, it had its issues, but what irritates me most is now having to sit on a completed work, either editing it or just leaving it to gather virtual dust on my computer.

Part of the reason I write is because I enjoy telling people stories. I quite simply like it when people like what I write. Sometimes I have an idea that I’m really buzzing about, but I’ve got to sit on the story for various reasons. I want to hear what people think. It’s what makes writing rewarding for me.

The solution should be simple. Post it online. Publish. Self-publish. I should have no excuse to sit on it. But there’s a number of reasons why I’m not. I’ll be brief, but my head tells me to wait. I want to finish my course and university without having publishing ventures worry me. I also want to wait for all the issues going on within the publishing industry to work out.

So in the mean time, I’m here writing novels that no-one else can read.

It Belongs In A Museum, Not A Bin – The Problem With Literary Canon

It’s no lie. I would without hesitation throw away many literary classics for being dull, contrived and boring. I can imagine that will upset some people reading this, but I have reasoning.

For instance, let’s ask why some books are ‘classics’ in the first place, and not others. With all artistic endeavour, it is impossible to give a concise measurement of a book, and thus you cannot say what criteria makes something a classic. Like all works of art, they only gain status when people are willing to go out and say why they think such a piece is a classic.

But there’s a problem I think we as readers, and certainly as writers, have a duty to address. As far as I’m concerned, ‘literature’ is a stagnant entity. Stuck in a time-warp more likely. Our definition of literature that belongs in the cannon seems to be stuck around the necessity that it must either be old, or deal with deep spiritual and philosophical points. Of course, any selective criteria creates a picture that does not represent the whole. As such, the canon does not represent the entire summary of writing out there. I wouldn’t even say it’s the best. I think we can all list a few literary classics that we’d never want to touch again.

Literature has lost something in becoming so conceited. It has lost its primary function, the thing that made all writers start in the first place. That is telling a good story. Sadly, along the way, storytelling became sidelined, cast into the realm of sensationalist fiction, and therefore not literary. Hence, anything that is popular cannot be literary. Why do we not see science fiction or fantasy included in the canon? We know the answer.

This is what I think must change in order for literature to maintain its credibility. It must not linger in the past alone, but actively engage with present works, rather than exclude them because the author isn’t dead, or because it’s set in a fantasy world.

In light of this, what would you put in your own literary canon? What would you champion, and what would you leave out? Would you put Shakespeare in the bin, or would you keep things as they are?

The Point of Words

I’m quite a cynic when it comes to popular ideas about literature and being a writer. Such ideas are mainly ones that tend to write an unrealistic cheque about the importance of writing and other such topics. In essence, if it paints a picture of writing that casts it as some important activity, I’ll question that.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – Percy Bysshe Shelley.

For me, this exemplifies the over-zealous and grandiose claims writers can make about their own importance. I don’t think it requires much explanation.

However there is an importance to writing that should be acknowledged and it’s not so straightforward. It has nothing to do with writers having some vital importance in society or the stories they tell, but simply their ability to be perceptive to the intricacies of words and how they interact with each other. In short, the main skill of the ‘writer’ is being able to select, arrange and order words in order to as accurately as possible to convey a message or rouse a desired response. It sounds rather banal, but it’s actually more important than you might think. Recently I’ve been involved with working on a film project at university with bioscience students, and it’s been my job to use my skills with language to convey what they want to say as accurately as possible. Sometimes it was small things like cutting down words and refining scripts, to more subtle things like choosing the correct verbs, arranging the syntax and grammar in the way that will best emphasise what they want to convey. In essence, it is editing – but it takes language and brings it into a state that is smooth but concise enough to emphasise a message.

This is a skill that I think is under-acknowledged. Having a good command of language is one thing, but an understanding of how to manipulate it to accomplish varying goals is quite another. Communicating well is not using a lot of long words and using lots of commas, but having short, sweet sentences that can be the equivalent of large swathes of text.

Therefore as writers, we should not just limit the well known ‘show not tell’ mantra to writing stories, but apply its essence to less creative pursuits. When should we try to show in language and when should we tell? When you are told to use ‘strong writing’ this doesn’t just apply to your novel. It also comes into all other applications of language. What we learn at first for creative endeavours are then skills we can then apply to other situations that demand language use.

 

Writing 101

Approaching Writing – A short guide to constructing ideas and dealing with writer’s block.

A tutorial on how to write – we’ve seen it all before. Why then, should you even bother to read any further into this one? I’m not just going to tell you how to write, but what I’ve learnt through experience. I’m also going to break a few moulds, and show you how some of the well known advice doesn’t exactly work in the simple way others make you believe. As a side note, this is a repost of I guide I previously wrote which got quite a bit of interest from people, and more importantly it seemed to help them. If you read this and find nothing here helps you, that would make me happy actually, as it means you’re beyond whatever help I can offer. Also, if there’s something you’d like to add, please share your tips!

1.The Idea

So, how shall we start? Let’s begin by examining what gets you writing in the first place. That of course is the idea.

It’s obvious, but often neglected when trying to provide advice on how to write better.  Your ideas are the single most important thing that will make your writing great. Being able to write grammatically perfect English doesn’t guarantee a good, thrilling read. Strong, technically flawless writing can’t make that promise either. People read because they love stories, not brilliant writing. I will admit though, the two go hand in hand. A good story is better when written well, and visa versa. However, my personal belief is that ideas have to come first over writing, simply because your writing can be improved by instruction and practice. Ideas however, don’t work in such a logical way. No one can teach you how to come up with a great idea.

Understanding this concept is all well and good, but it doesn’t help you actually come up with that story. Coming up with ideas is an illogical, haphazard process. A story rarely leaps into your head fully formed, and anyone claiming that they have is lying.  Unfortunately, you have to spend time thinking out your story. I’m one of those people who get ideas as they write, but every so often I get stuck too, and I end up needing to plan as well. This means I need to sit and brainstorm ideas down on paper. You can never rely on inspiration striking, because it’s a random and fickle thing. As tempting as it is, waiting until you feel inspired is a sure way to make yourself frustrated about your writing. Why? Because you’ll be staring at a blank document, wanting to write, but unable to because you have no idea where you’re going. It is a horrible cycle that is hard to break out of. The more frustrated you feel, the less you feel like writing. I’ll talk about this later.

Planning will give you the ideas and structure you need to continue writing. To plan out your story, I find it helpful to write down a few short statements that outline what you want to achieve in your book. It is best to have a number of these that differ from each other. Try to write down themes you want to tackle within your book, and any messages you want to convey. To give you some ideas, here are some potential statements.

1. I want to write a fantasy book.
2. I want to create my own fantasy races, not the usual elves, dwarves and orc races.
3. I want to write battle scenes as well as adventure ones.
4. The natural world is important to me, so I will write scenes that deal with nature vs. industry, or machines.

So, those seem to be fairly obvious, formulaic statements. The point of these it to serve as starting points for you to branch out from with increasingly complex ideas and statements. It’s obvious, but you must always deal with what seems glaringly simple, even if it feels stupid. It works as a focal point from which you can better elaborate and expand upon. This means that when it comes to writing you have an idea of what you want to write, and therefore will spend less time agonising over what to write in the first place. Hopefully then, the words will come much easier.

A crucial thing to understand about the planning stage is that it takes a while for ideas to come. Just keep brainstorming, keep writing notes. If you want to be more detailed, write notes for specific chapters, scenes and characters to help you get a better idea of your story. You must be patient and disciplined. Ideas develop over time, and you must be willing to invest time before you get them.

2.When to Write

I briefly touched on this in the previous section, but there is in fact a time to write. For a lot of writers I’ve come across, most say they only write when they feel inspired. This is what I feel distinguishes serious writers from casual ones, but crucially writers who’ll never finish that book and those who will.

I used to subscribe to this style of doing things, but now I don’t. Unfortunately, writing when you feel inspired is a bit of a self-destructive cycle. I’m not being dramatic either. Most of the time, you won’t feel inspired to write. Let’s be honest, we’ve all told ourselves we’ll do it some other time. This means you will struggle to make any meaningful progress on your stories. This in turn, will make you frustrated, which will increasingly leave you feeling even less inspired than before. It’s an unpleasant cycle that doesn’t leave you with good feelings about your writing ability.

In my case, I spent two years writing when I felt like it, and I only came up with 40,000 words on my book. At first, that feels like a sizable amount, but when you break the years down, you realise how little that actually is. With some simple maths, it means that in 730 days, I would have written on average 55 words. Of course, you can’t write every day, but I did waste a lot of time doing nothing simply because I didn’t feel like writing, and then telling myself that any lack of progress was fine because I didn’t feel inspired or even in the mood.

The hard truth is, if I hadn’t gotten my act together, I doubt I would have finished it at all. I certainly didn’t feel good about it either. To me, the amount of time you spend working on a story is only justified when you finish it. If you quit before you do, then you’ve just wasted all the time you spent on it. Besides, if you want to be a published author, you can’t write 55 words a day.

The key to feeling motivated when it comes to writing is all about setting goals for yourself. You’ve got to be disciplined in order for this to work. Motivation is key. I work by writing a thousand words a day, for five days a week. This means I can have the weekend off as a break so I don’t get fed up with writing the same story all the time. It allows me some time where I won’t feel guilty about not writing. Furthermore, it will take on average around forty-five to an hour and fifteen minutes to write a thousand words. What this system means is that in two weeks, I can have ten thousand words written down. What would have taken me two years, takes only two months. So I neither get fed up with writing, nor frustrated with a lack of progress.

However, such a system should be tailored to what works for you. Find a balance between words written and time. For me, I put aside an hour in my day so I can write my thousand words, without having to worry about other obligations. It will probably be a different story for you. Just remember to make a target system that you are happy with, and most importantly, provides progress without making you feel like a slave to your keyboard.

In this part, I’ll also deal with writer’s block. I’m sorry to say, but it’s a case of tough love right now. Firstly, there is no such things as writer’s block. If you are disciplined and prepared, you will have no problems writing. In such, writer’s block really speaks of laziness on the part of the writer, because it is used as a way of justifying a lack of progress to themselves.

Yes, I realise I’m challenging the orthodoxy.

Why do I say this? Because I speak from experience. If I couldn’t be bothered to get writing, I’d just cite writer’s block to myself and hop off to play a computer game. It was an easy excuse, and one that I could use to not make me feel bad about writing. What made it worse was that I felt that I could only write when I felt inspired, because I thought that forcing myself to write would mean I would write badly.

I pretty much impaled myself on a double-edged sword.

Fortunately, I was wrong. As I said, with planning and self-discipline, I could write just as well as when I felt inspired. Sure, there were days when it felt like I was wading through waist high mud, but when I stopped, looked at my notes, I could get going a lot faster. Even if I wasn’t happy with it, I just kept going until the work I had to do was done. When I came back to read it, I realised that it was just me. There was no marked difference between pieces when I felt inspired and when I didn’t. Besides, you’ll always go back and make edits later, so you don’t need to worry about writing brilliantly first time.

That’s the hard truth of it, and it’s something not many people say. I only snapped out of such methods recently. I’d just watched an entire summer holiday slide by with no progress whatsoever. The truth was, I was disgusted with myself. I spent an entire summer doing nothing but lying around, being lazy and playing computer games but I still would call myself a writer. At the end of it, I had nothing to show for it, and that’s what made me feel bad. That in turn, provided me with the kick to actually get something meaningful done. Finding the time to write just becomes harder as you grow up, and life in general will test your commitment to writing. Sometimes, you’ll have to write while half asleep on the train back from work, or just before you go to bed. You might even have to understand that writing will have to fit around other more important duties, and this will test your motivation to do so in the first place.

Literature and Science

One of the strange things about being a writer is that you become sucked into having a stance upon scientific endeavour, and its relationship with literature. As far back as primary school, you’d become aware of the tension between these two schools of thought and be forced to pick a side. Yes, it’s the typical Literature versus Science debate. What I find amusing, frankly, about this argument is that firstly there is no need for there to be an argument, and secondly, that scientific endeavour has a great habit of exposing people’s insecurities about their own paths. This whole topic I’ve found is brought up more by writers, English Literature students and other affiliated parties than those with a grounding in or an actual career in scientific fields. That tells you something in itself.

As a writer, I’ve got the worst history I think you could possibly get. Instead of starting writing early and being fascinated with stories, I actually spent most of my childhood interested solely in science. In school my best marks where always in the sciences, I always enjoyed doing science, and I hated doing English and creative writing. Ironically, I simply couldn’t write creatively and at that point I was convinced I wanted to do something in the sciences for a job. Now things are totally the flip side – I’m studying English Literature at university and I spend my time writing. I fit the mould for being a writer better now yet the thing is, I’ve sat on both sides of the camp for this topic. Quite honestly, this whole issue is a laugh for me because it’s not an issue at all.

In several of my lectures so far, I’ve been bombarded with a bit of literature propaganda as I’d like to coin it. I’ve had Shelly’s quote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” repeated more times than I care for (even though that number is one – its such a vain quote) and lectures dealing with the issues of scientific enquiry, each with the veiled implication that literature isn’t pointless. What strikes me about the tone of these lectures is the implicit self-justification, the underlying tone that seeks to reassure both the speaker and the vested interested of the students listening. The message varies, but the overall trend is the same, that literature has a point in the face of science.

What’s interesting is how the perception for such arguments is that science is hostile to all other modes of thought, that it is trying to prove all other schools of thought wrong. That’s an entirely unjust categorisation. The goal of science is to learn the truth about things (a huge generalisation), but the crucial distinction to make is that it seeks to understand and arrive at what can be proved as truth. Thus, it only deals in the physical and the material. Issues of belief and thought are not it’s concern, because no test can be determined to prove a thought true. Therefore, it is not out to prove other modes of thought wrong. Ironically, those knowing in the operation of language should be savy to this distinction. In scientific enquiry, it is determined that a theory can be tested and by confirmation of test results, proved to be correct beyond reasonable doubt. It therefore operates in the psychical world, not the world of ideas. A great example would be that science is not out to prove religion is false, because there is no test that can be devised to prove the existence of deities. The conclusion is that science is a way of determining the properties of the physical world, but it is not in the same realm as philosophy, art or literature. Philosophy deals with thoughts, mostly questions of why. Art and literature cross into philosophy, but they’re also about aesthetic pleasure. Studying English is simply learning a mode of analysis and thinking – just with a different subject matter.

In the end, it becomes clear that Literature and Science are on two obviously different paths, aims and fields. They could not be more different, and thus more separate. One cannot transgress and try to disprove the other because they have no overlapping currencies. This means that yes, arguing that one field is more important than the other is irrelevant. What it only reveals, as I said in the introduction, are the insecurities of individuals. Science can determine what cake is, while language explains what cake is. One is about what it is, the other is about what it means. Both however at first deal with what it is, and it’s the small distinction in what “is” or “being” can mean that you must remember.