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.

Critically important

I’m a weekly guest on an American podcast and during the latest recording, I was told off. A listener had written in to say that I shouldn’t talk about television because my opinion was no more valid than anyone else’s.

This isn’t the first criticism I’ve had. Previously, as a British writer on a US podcast, I have been told to drop the fake English charm shtick.

But it is the first time I’ve responded.

So, yes, I did it. I said on air about having spent more than a decade being a paid TV critic on Radio Times, BBC News and BBC Ceefax. I said I was Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. I said I was a scriptwriter and a dramatist.

In my defence, I didn’t mention that I was once fired off a TV drama.

But in my attack, I don’t think I can describe what I did here as anything better than having been a prat. I did it quickly, it was under 15 seconds, but the prat level was high.

In that lightspeed moment, though, I did build to a point, which was this: everybody has an opinion about television shows, but hopefully mine comes with an informed background. Rather than just saying something is the best show ever, I’m hopefully able to capture what is so good and convey that to help you decide whether it’s worth watching.

There is an argument that this is more useful now than ever. Since we have so much television and film, since so very much of it is so tremendously good, it is a wall of drama and comedy. The sheer volume of it all is a barrier to finding any of it to watch.

So anything, anyone that can bring your attention to a show that you will then love, that has to be good.

Except, there used to be paid, professional TV critics who really just wrote about themselves and how clever they are. Who perhaps sneered about a show being exactly the same as every other one before it –– or sneered at a show trying to be different. And who tell you details about a show in order to sound as if they’re the ones who created it, regardless of whether that detail spoils the series.

Today we have fewer paid, professional TV critics, and about eleventy-billion more unpaid ones.

So many of whom have recently been damaging a show that I like, If you don’t already know it, I think you’ll like it too.

As I write for American publications, I have a press pass to the new Disney+ service. It’s not available here in the UK, but I can see whatever shows Disney’s press office wants to show me. So far there’ve been about eight shows, so it’s barely a fraction of what is on the actual service, but it has included the Star Wars series, The Mandalorian.

I watched the first one for my work but I’ve watched another two since purely because I enjoyed it so much.

And there is definitely one stand-out element of the series.

I don’t think you can actually separate out elements of a drama, you can’t solely say that an actor, for instance, is the reason to watch because he or she couldn’t act at all without the script. But you can identify something that is attention-grabbing, and The Mandalorian has one of those.

It is excellently well done, it is even a delight, and if you won’t read what it is from me, unfortunately all you have to do is look left or right on the internet and you’ll find out.

I think it’s unlikely that Disney’s press office will continue to put episodes of this show on its screening service for writers like me: anyone writing about the show has seen these and I’m sure Disney+ has other shows it wants to push.

So any moment now, I’m going to have this supply of Mandalorian episodes cut off and will have to wait until whenever Disney+ comes to the UK to see the rest.

And yet, I’m still going to know more about it than I want to. TV critics, journalists, all media writers, have already revealed this delightful element and they’re going to continue doing so. I’m not trying to seek out spoilers, I am trying to avoid them, and still have got through to me, still they will continue to.

I think the critical part of TV criticism is gone and we’re left with being barkers. Shouting about shows to get attention, ideally for the show but usually for ourselves.

I love that any drama can get inside you so much that you want to talk about it. I think that’s wonderful. I just get bored when the talking is empty. I get annoyed at spoilers. And I merely fear for the soul of humanity when the reaction to a finely-crafted piece of emotionally true drama is that the star used to be in Frozen.

Now excuse me, I need to go practice my English charm.

Own goal

So anyway, I was just after saying last week that there is never a time when sex in films or TV works. I mean, when it keeps you in the story, when it is the story, and there’s not even a pixel in your head noticing that the woman has been lit softly and that camera angles on the man make him look taller.

Hayley McKenzie of Script Angel raised a hand. While I think it’s fair to say she agreed with me about when sex scenes are poor, she had a perfect counter argument. As eloquent as she always is, it all boiled down to the word ‘Outlander’. It’s the title of a series dramatised by Ronald D Moore, based on Diana Gabaldon’s novels, and documented in delicious detail by blogger Maureen Younger.

Up to that point I’d been thinking that, well, we just have different opinions and then here was that word. And now it’s nope, she’s right and I’m wrong.

I’ve only seen one episode of that show but it was exquisite and there was sex that, just as Hayley says, was very much everything I insisted it never is. Half a dozen things were going on with characters beyond what was happening with their skin and whatever the opposite of gratuitous is, that’s what it was.

I have no idea either why I forgot that or why I haven’t yet seen a second episode.

Anyway, I love having my mind changed, it is exhilarating to be persuaded of an alternative point of view – and especially these days when we all seem locked into our perspectives on the world.

I’m obviously thinking of politics but this week I was also talking with someone and she made me realise that we’re riddled with perspectives and biases about everything. And that if they’re how we navigate the world, you know that oftentimes they are limiting us.

We just can’t always see how. And this one time, I think I can.

What this friend said was that I’d reminded her that she owns her writing. What I’d actually said was that writing is not a democratic process and that whoever told her she had to leave a particular line in a piece was talking bollocks.

It’s the norm or at least the fashion in writing that you show your work to people you respect and take their criticism. But around seven hundred years ago, I had someone tell me that one of my pieces should be redone as magical realism because she likes magical realism. “I like chocolate,” I replied.

Then I got locked into an exchange once with someone who berated me, destroyed my work and went into gigantic detail about how precisely I should fix it if it were to have any chance of not shaming myself and the entire literary world.

I’ve had harsh criticism before but this one was eye-opening. I didn’t do a single thing she told me but I studied the advice – no, that’s not strong enough a word. Instructions? Demands? I really thought about them and realised that she was telling me to write the story the way she would have done.

That fascinates me. It’s one thing to not like how I do something, but to have total certainty that her way was the only way is arresting. And perhaps as is always the case with someone who is totally certain about anything, she was wrong. I am totally certain about that. For I told you it was an exchange: she’d sent me her first chapters of a novel. She’d had deserved success with a very good non-fiction book but now she was writing fiction.

She visibly did not want any criticism, she clearly wouldn’t take any from a lesser being, but I had no problem with that because her fiction was unreadable.

I’ve just remembered this moment that we fell out really badly and it wasn’t to do with writing. It’ll come to me in a minute what it was about, but what leaps back at me instantly is the utter relief: I remember thinking thank Christ, I don’t have to find something nice to say about her writing any more.

I can think of a hundred times that my writing has been improved and actually improved beyond measure by criticism. So it’s not as if I’m against the principle, I think you just have to be damn careful who you work with – an ultimately you have to know that it’s your writing, not theirs.

The goal is to own your writing, not to write like each one of your critics.

We must’ve seen a different film

This speaks to the heart of all criticism, all reviews, all opinions, but I’m really only saying it because I was narked. Angela and I saw Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation last weekend and on our drive home, a review of it happened to be on the radio. We listened for a moment and Angela concluded: “We must’ve seen a different film”.

I like the Mission: Impossible movies – with the contractual, mandatory, must-tell-you proviso that the first one is the best, the second is the worst, the third is okay and these last two are pretty good – but I wouldn’t have claimed they were superb pieces of cinema. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to consider thinking of maybe claiming or not claiming that: I really enjoyed Rogue Nation and that’s a great thing.

Except for this reviewer. I won’t name her partly because we came in late and I’ve no idea what her name is. But she said at one point she’d been begging Tom Cruise to not do a particular thing in the story, the implication being that it was a preposterous take-you-out-of-the-story moment. (Have you seen the movie? She’s talking about the flute.) What she didn’t want to happen and was so adamant should not have happened, that it shouldn’t have been in the film, that was a ridiculous moment, is a moment that was coming for a good six minutes. We knew this, we watched it happen, it was going to happen, so the fact that it did happen didn’t feel all that preposterous a moment.

Plus, I’ll tell you this: I love thrillers (and romances but that’s another story) and there are sometimes moments in them I wish I’d written. What happens next with that flute is one of them. Your lead character is faced with a supremely clear and obvious dilemma to which there is no right answer, no good way to choose between two urgent options. So he finds a third way. A third way that leaves you blinking yet is then instantly supremely clearly the right and sole solution. It’s a tiny moment and I’ve already over-egged it too much. But where this reviewer was taken out of the movie for what she thought were silly reasons, I was taken out of it a heartbeat later for the writer in me applauding.

Only.

This is a bit rubbish of me, picking on a reviewer I don’t name and you can’t listen to unless I do. I’m going to live with that because her second criticism led me to realise there is something genuinely very praiseworthy about this latest Mission: Impossible. There’s a new character Ilsa, played by Rebecca Ferguson. My unnamed reviewer dismissed her, saying her character wafts in and out of the movie occasionally.

Bollocks.

This is a female guest lead character in an action series and she is superb. She’s not there to sleep with the hero. She’s not there just to be rescued by him. She is a storm. You want to trust her but you know, correctly, that you shouldn’t. She makes surprising choices that work completely in retrospect, she is a dangerous storm and is riveting.

My unnamed reviewer didn’t like the movie and I did. Ultimately any review comes down to that but I’m struck by how much I want to defend a film I had nothing to do with. I’m thinking this is cutting deep into what I feel about criticism, having been a film and TV reviewer, I’m thinking that a reviewer who isn’t paying attention might as well be watching a different film.

I’m also thinking that I might watch this again and that writer/director Christopher McQuarrie did a good job.

Just my opinion.

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.