Friday, 3 July 2009


For a writer, there are sensible ways to take feedback and there are foolish ways to take feedback.

I won't add (much) to the vitriol hurled from and at two writers who got themselves into the news this week as examples of extreme(ly bad) ways to take negative criticism. Alain de B and Alice H will make up their own minds how to react to the feedback to their feedback to the feedback (aka reviews) to which they took such exception. Published writers must learn that some people will hate their books and must work out which negative crits they respect and which they think are rubbish. And how best to react. (Answer: not.)

But what of unpublished authors? What of the feedback that you get, if you're lucky, when you send your precious oeuvre to agent or editor asking for an honest opinion? I know, you don't really want an honest opinion, unless the opinion is "Brilliant! How much do you want for it?" But the fact that so many unpublished authors react unpleasantly to the more unwelcome honest opinions is partly what stops many agents/editors from giving any feedback other than "Sorry, I don't have room on my list." I know agents who've been told to rot in hell after saying that a piece of work wasn't up to scratch. Why should they put up with that when they're not paid and not likely to be paid if offered work that's crap?

Thing is, if you send your oeuvre to an expert, someone you plan to trust with your work during publication, you must accept his/her honest expert opinion when you get it. That doesn't mean you crumple into a heap and blindly make every change suggested if you don't fully believe or understand it, but it does mean that you consider closely what they say and accept that they know what they're talking about. Otherwise, why did you approach them, you deluded idiot? (Crabbit old bat is back.)

The author who does not listen properly to feedback from trustworthy sources (i.e. agents with a track record, publishers with a track record, writers with a relevant track record, and select readers who actually know what they're talking about, and NOT your relatives, friends, pets or even most members of your writing critique group unless they fall into the first category) is a fool and does not deserve to be published. Thing is, if a publisher happens to be taken in by your inferior writing and actually publishes it, readers will not be so forgiving: trust me. They will rip you to shreds on Amazon and your book will die horribly, messily and painfully. And you will be gutted and quite possibly throw a hissy fit. (In private, please.)

The aspiring author who, on the other hand, behaves like Jen Campbell, bravely and open-mindedly laying herself bare (not literally) and allowing herself to receive feedback in public from a host of people she has never met but has decided to trust on the basis that if they read this blog they must kind of slightly know what they're talking about, deserves publication and success.

The aspiring author who does all this and then generously gives me chocolate, just because I allowed her to be publicly judged, deserves to be published thrice-fold (or more) and then to win all the prizes going. Jen, thank you so much for the gorgeous Coco chocolate, pictured below - you honestly shouldn't have, but I'm very glad you did!

Vanessa's bookshop
now seems to be the depository of presents for me. In case any of you need to know, for any reason of a donatory nature, her shop can be found at 219 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh EH10, and delicious chocolatier Coco of Bruntsfield is conveniently close by. Vanessa is also opening a grown-up bookshop soon, and I am equally happy to receive chocolate or sparkly wine there too. I am sure Vanessa is quite delighted to look after things for me.

Jen, you're amazing, even without the chocolate - you are an example of how to take feedback properly, maturely and constructively. There's no reason why you should follow it all but I believe what you're doing is seeing your work through the eyes of others and you know much more clearly what you might do to make it gorgeously and perfectly publishable. When you get there, let me be the first to know and I will give you chocolate too.

I also take my hat off to others amongst you who have submitted work to the Submissions Spotlights, either for children or adults, and especially those who sent their work in even after seeing the intensity of the comments that Annie and Jen so wonderfully dealt with. Congrats to Annie too - her response to the feedback for her children's submission was also wonderful.

Meanwhile, I'll be doing another spotlight on July 13th or thereabouts, and I haven't completely decided which ones to pick so do keep your submissions coming. Please follow the same rules as before. I was really pleased with how it went - I learnt from it too.

Thank you all for being such excellently contributory blog readers. You are restoring my faith in unpublished authors: see, I confess that before I started this blog I thought most of you were completely hopeless nutcases and that, on top of that, if that were not enough, many of you were also deluded idiots. Nutcases and idiots among you are obviously keeping quiet, which is quite the best thing for you to do, letting the sane and potentially publishable have their voice and show good author behaviour. Having so many published authors, agents and editors reading this blog is also an enormous help - thanks, one and all.

I can't send you chocolate (otherwise, of course, I would) but I can show you Jen's chocolate and the lovely Coco bag.


Jane Smith said...

Nicola, I read both Annie's and Jen's queries and was mightily impressed by them both: I had intended to comment but found that other people had got in before me, and said all I had to say. But I'd really like to back you up here: I thought that the way they both responded to the comments about their work was absolutely amazing: it's exactly what an editor would want to see in a writer she was working with (at least, it was exactly what I longed for from the writers I used to edit), and they both carried themselves extremely well (their writing was good too).

When I was still a full-time editor I dealt with some nightmare authors. They all were convinced that I wasn't as important as they were, and that I had nothing to offer them; as a result, I had to fight them on just about every point. Their books never ended up quite as lovely as they could have, because everyone was weary of them well before they went to print and it showed in the books: they somehow had no heart.

The good authors were the ones who listened and then, if they disagreed with me, told me why they disagreed, and showed my why I was wrong and they were right. Working with them was a joy: a real collaboration. We both wanted the best for their books, and we usually got it. Those books usually shone and looking at them now, they still do. To my eyes, at least.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Jane - they really did an amazing job, didn't they? The whole exercise could easily have degenerated into something either negative or dull it didn't. Or am I being a deluded idiot, somewhat addled by the blurry feeling of having had a tough week and a couple of glasses of wine? (Did I say couple?)

The ability to listen to criticism and then judge it openly and generously is possibly the most useful quality for an author. I know that I never stop listening to feedback and analysing it and often using it, and am heartily grateful for it. (Though, of course, like everyone, I prefer the nice stuff. But the nice stuff doesn't change me, and I do often need to be changed.) God, that must be the wine ...

And yes, at its best, feedback becomes a dialogue. Bloody hell, that sounds worthy!

Ebony McKenna. said...

Everything is public these days. The only private things are the thoughts that remain in your head.

Jane - fabulous post.

Donna Hosie said...

If something good comes out of this whole critical debacle then it is a lesson to all of us on how not to behave on the internet. Nothing is private - even deletions can be copied and cached.

On a far more positive note, I bow down to the bravery of Annie and Jen. Good luck to you both.

texaspoets said...

I have found the greatest joy in my "not for profit" poetry books. My writing is pure and tells my story. It is sixty-seven years of "life" so far. It has been a great ride. The feedback from those who found a connection in my work over the four years of my two published poetry books, with a third awaiting a volunteer formatter, has had joys beyond any dollars. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and advice to serious writers.

Personal Regards,

John Rigo

siebendach said...

I LOVE this blog post, and despite the lateness of the hour mathematically eliminating my chances of driving reasonably on tomorrow's morning commute, I will take the time to read the stuff it refers to.

However, I must take exception to your assertion not to listen to writing criticism from pets. My cat Acorn is the most brutal beta reader ever. Between stealing my passwords and using my e-mail address to spam Viagra ads and scam the elderly with phony investment schemes, he always finds time in his busy schedule to rip my story ideas to shreds. The fact that he WON'T make time to correct my grammar and syntax is probably the only reason I'm still alive. He can't read of course but that's hardly the point.