As my novel is currently undergoing edits with my agent *waits with both trepidation and eagerness* it’s got me thinking about the process of critique and editing of my work by other people.
It’s always a slightly daunting prospect to submit a new piece of writing for the first time, especially if you are asking people to pull it to bits and hold each morsel up to the light to be thoroughly examined. Still, that’s one of the best ways to improve your writing, and when all the dust has settled you will be left with a much-improved piece of writing. But you do need to develop a thicker skin. It may be your darling mind-baby but it’s not personal critique, it’s professional. The harshest critic is likely be your finest friend when it comes to writing.
There’s an important word – Professional. More on that later.
When I joined the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle back in 2010 (Has it really been so long??) I poked my poor little prose head right into the word-lion’s den and asked it to bite down hard. I sat in on one critique session to see what it was like and then went along next time to add my feeble and probably not very helpful comments into the mix. Then, since there was a gap in the story schedule, I gingerly put my own short story up for people to read and critique. I thought the piece was OK, not great but not terrible. Oh how wrong I was! To put it bluntly, it was (nicely and constructively) ripped to pieces on every level: plot, character, science behind it, prose and punctuation... It hurt, but they were totally right. Looking back I’m like, ‘Urgh, what was I doing?’ (Hurrah for proof of my own improvement as a writer!) But the point is, I took that all on board and came back for more. It helped me just as much, if not more, to read other people’s stories and apply that same criticism to their works. Gradually I learned and improved my craft of writing.
Gradually, there’s another important word. Let’s add that in the pool with Professional shall we?
Over the years of attending the GSFWC, people have come and gone, and for those that stayed I have enjoyed seeing their writing Gradually improve, whereas other people turn up for one or two sessions and then they are never seen or heard from again. (What? No, we didn’t kill them! They just didn’t come back to the group.) There are probably a few different reasons for that, but I think the main one is the level of detail we go into, a Professional critique of their story. Some people just can’t handle their writing taken apart and the guts exposed like that. I totally get that fear, and acknowledge it’s an especially hard thing to do for newer writers. We are not the right group for very sensitive souls only wanting reassurance or for wanting to be told how amazing they are - if it’s good we will say why, if it’s not, we’ll say what didn’t work for us and how you might improve it.
Writing for us is not about instant gratification or back-patting crap, it’s a long, slow, Gradual burn towards improving your craft to a Professional level. And to do that you need to develop a thick skin, or otherwise erect a fence between personal and professional criticism. Otherwise you will likely succumb to the snarl of self-doubt most of us have and those stories will remain unread and locked away in a dusty file on your computer, probably lost when you get a new one and forget to transfer the data over...then one day many years from now you will think about all those stories that were knocking around your head and wonder what might have been. And if you do still have those old stories, often you will find them not as bad as you had once thought. It’s bound to make you ponder how much time has been lost, but it’s never too late to take up the pen and keyboard again my fine word-warriors.
Some of my friends are trade-published novelists and it’s sometimes been said that you are not really a proper author until you’ve had your first 1-star review. And you will, because you can’t please everybody. It sucks baws, but if you put your work out there somebody will hate it. But others will love it. When this novel of mine gets picked up and published (It totally will, right? Right?), gah...I’m going to hate that 1-star review with a passion. But you can’t give up because some random twit gives you a bad review.
Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to seeing all these edits and suggestions from my agent. I imagine my stomach will sink when I behold the sea of red, but I do know they will help improve my novel, and ultimately it will be a leaner and meaner piece of fiction. And that will be awesome to see, and hopefully something people will find awesome to read.