The worst criticism I ever received

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.

I laughed.

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.

Why the Apple Watch means you should keep writing

wg_Apple Watch-og_apple_watch-580This is going to take a time to get to its point, sorry. But Apple released details of its new Watch this week and a certain segment of the world has fallen apart.

It’s a pretty small segment yet it’s a loud one. And it’s saying Apple is bad, very bad. The watch does this or it doesn’t do that, it costs this or it doesn’t cost that, every bit of it is being criticised in volume. Mind you, what it does is also being praised in volume.

I was just disappointed – not surprised, to be fair – but disappointed at some of the reactions. I’ve nothing to do with Apple, they didn’t ask my advice on anything, but still I was disappointed because in many ways and at many times I’ve been a professional reactor. I’ve been a critic, I am now again writing software reviews. So I can’t help looking at critics with one eye on what they’re doing and one eye on whether I’m doing it too.

Here’s a criticism of Apple: one version of the Apple Watch costs £8,000 ($10,000). To me that’s one fact with an implicit second one – that I will never be able to afford that version – and this is all. Nothing else. I can’t extrapolate from that anything but that it’s a lot of money that I neither can or want to spend on a watch.

But to some critics this is ostensibly the end of Apple’s ambition to be “for the rest of us”. That’s it, Apple is cashing in, Apple is just out to make money, it is the end of days.

There is that word ‘ostensibly”, though. It is a fact that articles slamming Apple get more readers than ones praising it. Most people wouldn’t bother reading either, but if you’re an Apple hater then you enjoy the criticism. If you’re an Apple fan, you rather enjoy riffing on how pathetic the criticism is.

So I look at these criticism and I can’t tell whether they are genuine or just after getting some more readers. If it’s the latter then what can you do, haters gotta type.

But that does niggle at me. Professionally, I’m twitching at the thought of writing something whose sole purpose and existence is to get people to read it. Personally, I’ve realised that these criticisms have an impact.

Follow. I was on the MacNN podcast this week when Malcolm Owen talked about various Android phones that have been announced. He was quite dismissive of them and I asked about one Android feature that I think sounds really good: the way that if you put your phone face down on a desk, it mutes. Goes into Airplane Mode. Whatever the Android term is for not interrupting you while you’re working. I like that and, okay, I accept that a feature touted as being on Android first usually means it’s on one Android phone somewhere in the world first.

It’s on Malcolm’s phone and he says nope, he only ever got it to work once.

The hype of an Android feature had convinced me this was useful and I unthinkingly, certainly naively, assumed that it worked. Silly me.

So doubtlessly there are people out in the world reading and hearing criticisms of the Apple Watch and consciously or unconsciously making a decision about it. If all you hear is that it costs £8,000, you’re not going to consider buying one even though the real price is £299. That’s 26 times lower, by the way.

Now, someone buying or not buying an Apple Watch isn’t significant. They might love it if only they’d bought it; they might buy it and hate it. It’s just that seeing everything through the lens of perhaps self-serving criticism and being quick to diss before hearing anything substantial is so familiar to a writer. We have to be hard as writers and we are, it’s just that the thickness of our skin only protects us, it does not protect the work.

A piece of mine got a lot of criticism last year, criticism that – hand on heart – was in part so asinine that I had to bury a laugh. (“It should be a supernatural novel, I like supernatural novels.”) I went in to that session ready for a promised skin-tearing time and didn’t get it. Yet I haven’t written one word more of that book since. The criticism didn’t affect me, the critics didn’t affect me, but something affected that novel.

Nobody is ever going to get more readers because they’re criticising me but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other issues at play. The need to be heard, an inability to not say anything because you’ve got nothing to say. The expression of your own issues instead of anything to do with the book, the presumptions that one’s own preoccupations are correct and vital and important.

In that group, there was someone who’s set a novel in some particular area of London I’d never heard of. We weren’t in London, I’m not from the city and it’s not like the area was Westminster. I got the most deeply pitying look for asking where it was. The look was: you should know this, you aren’t a real writer, are you?

I’m just minded of this by a Facebook status I read this week about the Apple Watch. This is someone on Facebook, there’s no issue of getting more readers or not. It’s their real opinion. And their opinion is that the Apple Watch is of no interest because it doesn’t have X or Y, I can’t remember what. It wasn’t that the Apple Watch was of no interest to that Facebook writer, that would’ve been fine and normal, it was a dismissing dissing of the watch.

Whatever it is in us that makes us judge things before we see them ourselves, whatever it is that makes us slot ideas into categories and then judge those categories, let’s give it a rest.

Apple will keep on making that Watch unless the real thing, the actual physical product in people’s hands, proves to be a failure. It won’t stop because someone thinks it should run UNIX or needs to be set in a particularly obscure part of London.

Whatever you’re writing, write the damn thing and bollocks to anyone else. Get it done.