Monday, April 26, 2010

Taking it on the Chin

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today I return to our first page critiques and tackle an issue that is always a thorny one for writers - how to deal with feedback (or as it is all too often, criticism in disguise!) In my writing group I have witnessed at least one member halt writing her memoir completely - she was simply so overwhelmed by all the conflicting comments and feedback she had received that she couldn't progress any further with the book. While this may be an extreme example, there's no doubt that taking in feedback can be a daunting task - and taking criticism can be even harder.

By now I cope with criticism pretty well - my agent and editors have dished it out often enough and almost always their feedback has been spot on. In those instances I am merely thankful for their feedback and the opportunity to fix the manuscript! I do, however, worry about giving negative feedback to a new writer. All too often the issue is one of stylistic taste - and a new writer can so easily be put-off or overwhelmed by the range of comments received. One person loves the prologue - the next person hates it. One person loves the complex imagery - another finds it bogs down the book. The list of issues can be endless. So how is a new writer to respond to criticism? You hear of many established writers disagreeing with their editor or their agent over a manuscript - sometimes even parting the ways over it all...I have never faced that (as yet) thankfully, but still when I read our first page critiques, I am aware of the over-arching issue.

So how should a writer 'take it on the chin'?? How do you respond to criticism? How do you deal with conflicting feedback (I always think it's pretty easy when there are consistent issues coming up - then I know I need to address them - but what if no one agrees on what is right or wrong about your piece?!)

Anyway I'd be interested in finding out how people cope with feedback...and now it's on with today's first page critique. It's a piece entitled DOUBT. My comments follow as bullet points.


“We had a deal,” Tom said as he turned his attention back to the blonde across the table. Without waiting for an answer, he lifted the cold bottle of Heineken to his lips. The bitter liquid flowed down his throat, but couldn’t wash away the distaste of doing business with Alessandra LaFave.
Alessandra tapped her long red fingernails, one by one, on the table as she silently stared at him.


The impact of acrylic against Formica echoed like deliberate shots of distant gunfire. She took a long drag off the slim cigarette, tilted her head back and blew gray smoke toward the yellow stained ceiling.

“Deals are made to be broken. Aren't they?” she asked.

“What are you talking about?” He could see the gears turning behind those icy blues. It was now a waiting game. Tom glanced out of the large glass window behind her as he waited for her reply.

The small Italian seaport was busy. Fishing trawlers docked alongside freighters from around the world in Gaeta Harbor. From where he sat, Tom could just make out the NATO base in the distance.

It was getting late and hurried workers anxious to get home for dinner yelled to each other as they offloaded boxes and fish. The salty air merged with the acrid taste of burning tobacco as diners left the small cafe with their arms full of boxes stuffed with a local specialty, Tiella, a combination of a pizza and calzone.

Tom's dinner sat untouched on his plate.

His gaze went back to Alessandra still sitting silent in front of him. Her black pantsuit cinched at the waist, curving tight around her ample hips as she moved in her chair. A very pampered Yorkshire terrier puppy snored on her lap, its nose tucked under its tiny paws.

Yes, Alessandra portrayed the softness of a woman. But he knew better. Charming one minute; chilly the next. After having done numerous transactions with her over a number of years, he was immune to her machinations.

In return, she no longer bothered with him. It was strictly business.

“Well? Deal? No deal?” asked Tom. “I have a plane to catch.”

“In a hurry are we?” She lifted a fork and pushed the now cold chicken picatta around her plate. “This isn’t cooked properly. It’s such a shame when things don’t work out the way we hope. Isn’t it, Tom?”

“Quit whatever game you're running. This was a done deal." He jabbed his finger down on the table hard. "If you don’t want my future business just say so and we can part company now.”

  • There were a number of things I thought worked well in this first page - I liked the way the dialogue interspersed with the description and I thought there was a good balance between dialogue and backstory exposition - although the description of the Italian seaport seemed to lack specificity for me - the NATO base was a teaser but still I was left wanting a little bit more local colour (beyond the menu variety).

  • What I did feel was lacking was sufficient tension. We already know by the opening line that the 'deal' whatever it is, is in jeopardy but by the end of this first page the tension really hasn't mounted all that much. We get a glimpse of Alessandra but while at first she appears cold and calculating the pampered pooch in her lap seems to detract from her initial 'sang froid'. The threat at the end of the page 'if you don't want my future business..." doesn't really seem the raise the stakes enough for me. I think perhaps the issue is one of repetition - I would perhaps just speed up the first page - delete some of the to-ing and fro-ing over the deal and cut to the chase: what's going to happen if the deal goes south.
What do you all think?


  1. Clare, The old adage "What doesn't kill us..." works with critiques. I always say that all the praise in the world doesn't make my manuscript any better.

    When I give out my work for critque, I ask that, if they like it,tell me why. Otherwise, I hope they tell me what they think.

    With that said, it took me a long time to get the courage to read that first newspaper review for my first novel.

  2. What I like about this example is that it starts with a true scene and tension--a disturbance. Not description or set up. Good!

    It then drops in description after the scene is underway. As Clare suggests, I'd trim this, or intersperse the descriptive bits more with the action.

    For example, I might stop after the NATO sentence and get back to the dialogue. Then put in a little more description as the scene progresses, etc.

    I like the writing style itself. This shows promise.

  3. I agree. The worst critique is "I liked it." Completely useless and tells nothing.

    I'm a big proponent of critique groups, but recognize that finding on that clicks for you is akin to a warrior quest. I now belong to one that is terrific--small, rule-driven, high expectation of return. The negative feedback is invaluable, but the writer needs to know how to apply a filter. For instance, when one member criticizes or doesn't understand an element of the story, I can attribute that to personal taste. But when I find myself defending my author decisions to 2 or 3 people, this tells me they are not the problem--it's within the story.

  4. I've enjoyed working with different types of critique groups over the years. If I disagree with a criticism, I nod thoughtfully, pretend to make a note, and say thanks. If I agree with a criticism the same thing, except that I actually do make a note.

  5. I think this sample shows a lot of talent. I like the tone and the voice, and as far as I'm concerned those are the two greatest challenges for a new writer. This one nailed it. That said, it's way too fat. I personally would not put as much description of the locale here on the first page, but that's a stylistic judgment call. The only line that really jumped out at me as NEEDING to be cut was the line of dialogue, "What are you talking about?" It's unnecessary, and strikes me as incongruous with the rest of the story.

    John Gilstrap

  6. Thanks for the feedback so far - and as Wilfred said, "that which doesn't kill us makes us strong"... That's my personal take on criticism - that being said I do have a filter for some feedback and like Kathryn in those instances I merely nod, smile and pretend to make a note!

  7. I had to cut my last post short because life intervened there for a moment.

    On the issue of processing critiques, I think my approach is best described as compartmentalization. When any critic, from my wife to my editor to a reviewer, gives me input, I take it all to heart. When they tell me that a scene doesn't work for them because of such-and-such, I take that as a statement of fact: that the scene doesn't work for them. That does not necessarily (though often does) mean that the scene is poorly written, or that it does not adequately serve the story. I absorb the hard data, and then I do my own analysis.

    I rarely (never?) seek input on how to fix the problem that a critic has identified. I welcome the input to show what's broken and why, but then I reject input on how to make the broken parts better. Repair is my job. There are exceptions, of course, but usually they deal with specific issues. I might, for example, ask one of my go-to weapons guys to read a section to make sure that I got the details right.

    I'm one who has never had a pleasant experience with critique groups; and therein lies some of my rejection of suggestions on how to make things better. To do otherwise injects another layer of rejection into the process: the author not only has to repair his story, but he also has to protect the feelings of the critic who's going to be annoyed that his input has been ignored.

    In my experience, critique groups have been little more than a gathering of disparate egos with conflicting agendas.

    John Gilstrap

  8. Hi Everyone~

    I’m the author of today’s critique submission.

    First thing, I wanted to thank all of you for taking the time and effort to read/critique my work. I appreciate all your comments and suggestions.

    As a writer new to critiques (this is my first), I wasn’t sure how I was going to take your comments. My first thought was copious amounts of alcohol and chocolate. While I decided alcohol probably wasn’t the best answer, I did manage to eat some chocolate (Lindt truffles to be precise.) :-)

    Thanks again for your advice on how to improve my technique and story.

  9. John - I agree that the 'repair job' is always up to me and I've been lucky that my agent and editors have always left that up to me - no one has ever directed me to a solution - but they have pointed out the problem:)! I have had good and bad experiences with critique groups. My current group is supportive and honest - and I trust their feedback.

  10. "Thanks again for your advice on how to improve my technique and story," she says as she methodically cleans her .44 magnum S&W.

  11. And that is how to react to constructive criticism (including the chocolate). Well done, Anon.

  12. Well done anon - though leave the gun alone:)!

  13. That should be S&W .44 magnum, although it's a shit anti-personnel gun for a woman, and most men. Flies too fast and kicks too hard and has far too much penetration and pass through still moving too fast.

  14. Writers are artists. We are word-crafters. We produce something that is difficult to subjectively gauge. If you can't accept critique, you might wish to try a different field of work.

    If we're fortunate, we will receive far more positive comments than negative ones. As someone said in a public message board recently about one of my books, Jacob's Courage, "After several hours of research on numerous sites looking thorough available book reviews of his book - that although it has mixed reviews - the positive reviews very heavily outweigh the negative reviews."

    Authors would be wise to read all reviews carefully. There is often a kernel of wisdom inside a tirade of criticism. We must rise above the often far-flung dirt and remain stoic observers of the critique. And, as Harry Truman once said, If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, Jacob's Courage

  15. I really love this web site. Thanks to our 7 writers for sharing their craft in this way. It is greatly appreciated by me.

    One of my professors in college defined "critique" as the beneficial and formative kind of feedback since "criticism" has that nasty negative connotation. I still use these two words today and have found them useful in separating the two concepts.

    I have generally found the following to be true: When there is wide disagreement as to what is wrong with a piece then the problems are deep-rooted. However, when people agree then there are no big issues, just details to work out. And in the case of the former the auther should ignore all advice and simply revise in the best ways that he or she knows. Then the work can be resubmitted for review.

    "Tom glanced out of the large glass window behind her as he waited for her reply." This is a great transition line! Love it! It keeps me in Tom's POV, allows the author to provide descriptive backstory, and let's me know that I'll be refocusing back on Alessandra shortly.

    "...a local specialty, Tiella, a combination of a pizza and calzone." And "Tom's dinner sat untouched on his plate." These are also great transition lines. This, I think, is one of the author's strong points. I definitely stay in Tom's POV.

    An open question to all: I have offered advice occasionally, generally in example form, of how to correct something. Is that taken as an insult? I certainly hope not because that's not how it was intended. But I'd like to know, honestly, either way. (And since I'm relatively new here, I don't want to break any local taboos.)