I run a writers’ buddying programme for a group and sometimes get paired up with a writer myself. I love this, it’s always interesting and just occasionally you hear some war stories.
Or you tell them.
I was relaxed away in a buddying chat this week when something we talked about reminded me of the absolute worst criticism I have ever had from any writers or about anything I’ve written.
It’s got to be five years ago now and I’m going to change the names to protect the fact that I didn’t register all of them at the time, I’ve forgotten some since, and I’ve completely blanked on the main one.
You’re starting to understand why people criticise me.
But they do all the time, or rather they do my writing and, sure, sometimes it’s painful. Usually it’s neither here nor there and overall it’s great because it’s useful.
The reason I want to tell you about this one is that I mean it was the worst in more than one sense. Yes, no question, everyone in this group I met loathed my writing. “Are you published?” was the first thing I was asked when I arrived and their eye-widened surprise at the answer was the first clue I wasn’t going to enjoy this day-long event.
Except I hadn’t thought I would. I’d thought I might be savaged and – yes, I remember now, the line I was told beforehand was that this group will tear the skin off your arms, they are that vicious with their criticism. I’d spent years in BBC News, this sounded like home to me.
But I’ll tell you now. There were some nasty people in BBC News, just as there are everywhere, but when you got criticised, you’d earned it. The aim was not to destroy, it was to make a better piece of writing.
So for me, vicious criticism can equal valuable lesson.
The reason this was the worst criticism I’ve ever had, though, is that as well as the moderate vehemence it was delivered in, it was utter rubbish.
Stop that. You’re very nice but you have got to be thinking now that I was wrong, that I must really mean that the criticism given strongly was overwhelming and I’m saying it’s rubbish only as some male defence mechanism.
You’ve got to be thinking that, got to, so I’ve got to give you an example. I was told that I should change my novel to magical realism – specifically because the person who told me this happens to like magical realism.
“I like chocolate,” I told her, “but, you know, thanks.”
Someone else, I think it was someone else, had the sole useful comment in the session. My character apparently could not do what my plot required, not in the room she did it in. She would have to go to this other room and do some other thing first.
“Thank you very much,” I said. “I’ll fix that right now.”
I had the writing on my iPad and I changed that scene there in front of them. So I got something valuable and I put it into the book immediately. On-the-spot editing, improving my writing even as I was being told how to improve it. I turned the iPad around to show them and enthused about how much I was grateful and look, you’ve changed the book.
And yet it still took fifteen fucking minutes for them to shut up about how I must make this change. I wafted the iPad around from time to time. I think I read my own book to pass the time.
They also had some rule that the writer wasn’t allowed to defend or explain their writing until it had been thoroughly discussed by everyone else. So I had another zoned-out few minutes as they decided how I should proceed with one particular character in the opening chapter that they were reading. How I should develop her for the rest of the book.
“You mean the one we come to realise died on the second page?” I asked them. The sole thing I can still see from that day is the shock on all their faces.
No skin was removed my arms during this very long session, but I did occasionally lose the will to live. Again, though, you’re nice, so as good as you’re being to me listening to all of this, you are aware that there are at least two sides to everything and that this group would tell a very different story.
They did. They phoned me up the next day.
And told me that I’d misunderstood, it wasn’t that I’d been invited to join the group, it was that they had been auditioning me.
Plus they knew it would be a big disappointment, but they’d decided to go with someone else. Good luck with your writing, William.
It didn’t quite end there. I can’t remember now how long afterwards it was, but some weeks or months later, they contacted me again and said I could have another go. Of course I didn’t and of course I never will, but unfortunately in another sense, it did end there.
The real reason this was the worst ever criticism is that I’ve never written one single word more of that story. I’d say it’s a bit melodramatic of me to blame the group for that, except that I’ve also never read a single word of that story
Right now I can’t remember which piece it was and I certainly can’t find it. Maybe if I could and maybe if I read it now I might agree with this group’s dislike.
But criticism that I thought was worthless was still enough to puncture me. I went in eager to be eviscerated if it meant improving my writing yet a group that didn’t do that and which had no value for me still managed to stall a book forever.
I blame me but, still, this is really why it was the worst.