A few nights ago, I did one of the scariest things I’d managed in weeks – I sent a story to a friend for feedback. Somehow, it was more difficult to do than send queries off to agents I don’t know, but at the end of the day it all boils down to two things: better writing and a few words of encouragement.
The thing with writing is it’s a lonely, regularly demoralising business. You sit in a room, or if you’re hipster enough in a coffee shop with your MacBook, you chip away at your masterpiece, then you spend ages editing it before sending it out into the world. And most of the feedback you’re likely to get is negative. That’s just the nature of the beast; your critique partners might feel some bits of your work need tightening up, or that agent thinks it’s not a good fit for them.
Now, some take the responses better than others. Some go totally apeshit, others just shrug and go ‘meh’. I’ve grown a thicker skin over the few years I’ve been sending my work out, but there’s still off days when a rejection or constructive criticism will put me in a black mood. And I stress ‘constructive’. I met someone recently who decided, before even looking at my work, to launch into an extended rant about how much they hated pitches for children’s books, how simple and crap they were, how urban fantasy was overdone, that sort of thing. Then the person next to them said ‘you know Laura writes YA urban fantasy, right?’ and that was an awkward mushroom cloud of epic proportions.
A few positive words can’t be hard to muster. Way back when I did a writing course in Cambridge, there was a chap who had behavioural difficulties. His writing… wasn’t great. Every week, he reacted badly to even the most kindly worded comments. But then the last week arrived, the non-fiction homework, and suddenly… it was weird, but it was almost like he woke up. He wrote a piece about his teenage years in the 70s, his love of punk music, and one of the more memorable gigs he went to. And it was brilliant, because it clearly came from the heart. So I made a point of telling him how much I liked it after class, and he skipped off with a big smile on his face. And that’s why, in the Edinburgh writing group I go to now, I make a point of trying for the ‘compliment sandwich’ to make the negative critical points more bearable. It could be the only nice things that are said that week, in a torrent of social media outrage and constant drip of ‘doesn’t quite fit in my list’ emails.
Yeah, I know, the trite inspirational quote trend gets some people’s backs up a lot. But if it’s meant well, frankly I’ll take any encouragement going. In the last fortnight, the handful of compliments I’ve clung onto for dear life are:
- Having a short story’s description of synaesthesia compared to Alfred Bester
- Getting a rejection with the phrase ‘there is much in your work I admire’ in it
- Opening my work inbox to find an email beginning ‘fuck yeah’ complimenting some copy I’d written
- Going to the City of Literature Salon and being encouraged by a prolific children’s writer
That sort of thing. While I don’t think a stereotype of a writer is helpful, I’d go out on a limb and say most aren’t doing it full-time. When they do talk about it, or put the fruits of their labour out there, they’re in danger of an avalanche of criticism and sneering. Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all in the same creaky boat trying to snatch a bit of success. How we get there, and what kind of encouragement we need along the way, doesn’t matter. I think more folk ought to remember that, and try to drop a kind word or two our way. And, incidentally, I’ve also critiqued work written by the friend who just got my story. It was a little bit of Blake’s 7 fanfiction, and full of lush language that made me make little happy noises when reading it. And besides, giving some nice feedback to fellow writers gives me a warm fuzzy glow normally only achieved through post-rejection cheap wine. A suitably deep thought to end on, methinks.