Tag Archives: criticism

It ain’t all fun

If anyone ever tells you that writing a novel is easy then:

a) they have a very good ghost writer; or
b) they have a rubbish publisher and therefore poor editors; or
c) they’re a prodigy; or
d) they’re a liar.

A), B) and D) are far more likely than C). The truth is, it isn’t easy.

It is a solitary occupation, which rules many folks out. Personally, I kind of like the quiet.

It requires determination and discipline. Distractions are plentiful, as Catherine Deveny recently noted. If you work from home and tend towards a neat freak personality, you’re really going to have a battle on your hands. “Do I sweep down the cobwebs above the TV cabinet or try and write that intro I’ve been procrastinating on for a month… OK, so the cobwebs are down now but the dishwasher still needs emptying…” By the time you crank up the laptop and re-read what you last wrote, it’s time to cook dinner or collect the kids or both.

Being a novelist requires a resilient ego. You need to be bold enough to risk putting your work into the public domain, yet malleable enough to deal with rigorous editing, meagre sales figures and critical flagellation. While you’ll have times when you revel in a sentence that sings, I guarantee there’ll be periods when you despair whether you can write at all. And that’s without picking up book written by someone else and collapsing into an inferiority funk. Comparing your work/career with another author’s – and caring how you measure up – is a recipe for insanity.

You’ll need an eye for detail. If you write using the same phrases, descriptions, adjectives and verbs over and over, you’ll get panned. If you overuse adverbs, the same applies (although commercial success is still possible). There are websites that delight in dissecting books to reveal such failings. Poor research is another minefield.

A good editor will assist with these issues but you can help yourself. Read your work aloud. Listen for words that pop up too often, unrealistic dialogue and sentences that tie your tongue in knots.

Read and re-read. Write and re-write.

Chances are, you’re unlikely to ever feel your work is finished and perfect.

Indeed, you can’t be smitten with your own work. In all probability the passage you are fondest of will be first to fall under the editor’s scalpel. If you’re trying to be funny, you may be in for a shock. What’s funny to one set of eyes isn’t necessarily to another.

I’ve worked as a newspaper journalist so I’m somewhat hardened to being edited. I work as a website editor so I’m accustomed to rewriting contributors’ copy. But when it’s your own work you’re editing it’s much harder.

I’m working on what I consider the 8th version of my current novel and there will be further redrafting required. It took me four days to read it aloud and note changes required, and several more days to take in my own edits. I still managed to miss bits or mess them up and introduce new errors. Writing really can be Sisyphean in the demands it makes of you.

So why do we do it? Because it can be intoxicating and seductive. And if you get the stone to the top of the mountain, there’s a chance that someone will read it and like what you do.

Here’s YA phenomenon Maureen Johnson, courtesy of the vlogbrothers, sharing some other home truths on writing as a profession:

Chunky critiques

An editor friend was asked a favour – to review a critical essay that an acquaintance was preparing for a tertiary course. The editor did so and was underwhelmed.

Ed to me: “It was absolute vomit… there were unmasticated chunks of information from text books that (sigh) just proved he didn’t understand them and the rest was … slop.”

I’m sort of hoping the editor was a little more muted when talking to the writer.

Rejection letters and friendly fire

If you’re going to be a writer, you can take it as read that you will receive rejection letters. Not everything you do will be deemed worthy of publication. Sometimes the worthiness of your work will not be determined by the quality of your writing or ideas. Commercial considerations will generally carry the day. In the current economic climate, this is even more likely.

Truth is, you’re going to need to develop thick skin. Negative feedback is inevitable. (Hopefully it will be buried beneath a mountain of plaudits though.)

When I sought publishers for Game as Ned, I found myself with a couple of offers to print it. This enabled me to obtain representation from a literary agent. My agent then passed the manuscript on to other publishers to gauge the level of interest.

The final scorecard was two interested publishers, one direct rejection letter and four “no thank yous” sent to my agent.

One of the advantages to having an agent is that the rejection letters often contain useful appraisals of your work – things that you can address in a rewrite. If you submit a manuscript direct to a publisher, the “thanks but no thanks” is likely to be an impersonal form letter.

Feedback from family, friends and readers is an entirely different kettle of fish. It can make you smile or sting like hell. You need to accept that all readers have different tastes. I’ll wager you don’t enjoy everything you read, either.

So while you’re still developing that armadillo-esque hide, you might want to choose carefully who you show your labour of love to. Constructive, considered criticism is worth copping. Thoughtless feedback is potentially damaging and best binned as soon as possible. Think on it only as long as the unhelpful people who vomited it out did.

Writing reviews

I’ve just finished a stint as a guest reviewer of children’s books for the Sunday Age. I enjoyed the gig, although I think it took me a week or so to find the right voice for the reviews.

Being a reviewer raises some interesting ethical questions. If I hate a book do I say so? I don’t think so.

For starters, my opinion on a book is exactly that. A personal opinion. It carries no more weight than an opinion from anyone else. (In the case of children’s books it probably carries less weight than a child reviewer.)

I subscribe to the approach of Julian Burnside QC, who said (and I paraphrase) that if someone is brave enough to tackle an artistic endeavour, it isn’t his place to criticise their efforts. They deserve credit for having a go.

So I tried to bring that philosophy to my reviews. What do people want to know about a book? They want to know what it’s about. They’ll make their own mind up whether it’s any good.

For example, one of the books I was given to read (I don’t get to choose) was Part Three of a sci-fi series. Without reading the first two, it didn’t make much sense to me. Anyone who had read the preceding titles might have had a very different reading experience.

So how did I review it in the 150 words available? I stuck to the synopsis and the author’s successful track record. Hopefully that was fair.

On the other hand, if I loved a book, I tried to show this without going over the top.

At the end of the day, does the review really matter anyway? Most publicists would argue a bad review is better than no review because it’s the exposure that matters. I don’t know about that.

Depending on your authorly confidence, negative reviews can cut you to the bone. You just have to remember it’s one person’s opinion and hope that other people see things differently.

I can remember one sizzling, scathing review of a book from a very high profile Australian author. The review was so bad and so unprecedented for that author it made me want to read the book to see for myself whether it was so terrible. I did and it wasn’t.

So perhaps reviews aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. On the other hand, anything that encourages people to read has to be good, right? Any thoughts out there? Do you take reviews as gospel – or with a grain of salt?