Taking it Like a Man
I started this blog last November with the intention of using it as a way to get into the habit of writing and to get feedback on how my writing is coming along. I’ll be honest – I don’t like getting feedback, mainly because I’m not very good at taking it. Even the most constructive criticism of anything I’ve done tends to make my go all sensitive and defensive, and I very rarely act on the advice I get. Although it may seem that this is a flaw borne out of an overwhelming arrogance that my work is perfect and beyond reproach, I think the truth is actually the opposite. I have very little confidence in my writing, and when people point out flaws or problems in what I’ve done I don’t want to listen to it as I kind of feel like it’s all adding support to the little voice of doubt in the back of my head. A nasty little voice that’s always asking me things like ‘Why do you even bother? You’re rubbish at this writing lark. Best to give it up now.’ I realized a long time ago that this was an attitude I’d need to change if I actually wanted to have a chance at improving as a writer, hence the blog.
The idea is that it would force me to put things out there for other people to read and pass judgement on. This way I could improve and hopefully become a bit more confident in what I was doing. The only problem is that it’s quite a passive means of getting feedback – I put something out there, people may read it and some may comment, but on the whole they mostly just say nice things – people who might find things to criticize probably don’t do so out of a sense of politeness. And, if I’m honest, I was quite happy with this set up as it meant my sensitive soul was kept safe from nasty reality and the horrors of constructive criticism. But recently I came to the conclusion that as much as I feared to do so, I had to take things further.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine let me know that a magazine he writes for were looking to publish some original short stories (very short at 1,000 – 2000 words), and suggested I send something in. I went away and gave it some thought, and after binning a couple of ideas I came up with something that I thought would work in the very short word-count allowed. I knocked out a first draft during my commute to and from work the next day, and typed it up that evening. There I was, with a work in progress draft that I was polishing for submission to an actual honest-to-goodness publisher (something I’ve never done before), when I made a tough decision. I decided to seek feedback from others on this piece actively, rather than passively like I did on the blog. Instead of putting something out there for people to comment on if they felt the need, I would actually present the text to a willing volunteer and ask them to give me their honest opinion.
As soon as I’d made the decision to do this the old fear of finding out I was wasting my time started to creep in, but I persisted and stuck a little post of Facebook asking for volunteers from among my friends. Several people came forward, including a couple of published authors I happen to know, and I sent them all the draft asking them to be as frank and honest as they could be. Deep down I didn’t really mean that. If I’d included a message that reflected how I was honestly feeling at the time it would have said something like ‘Please don’t rip me to shreds. Just tell me I’m great at writing, I’d rather live on in delusion than have my confidence savagely mauled by constructive criticism.’
What with it only being a very short story, it was within the hour of sending out the e-mails when the first response came back. I sat staring at that e-mail lurking there in my Hotmail account for a good five minutes trying to pluck up the courage to open it. I then spent a further five minutes mucking around on Facebook trying to forget the e-mail was there. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was acting like a big jessie, and it was time to bite the bullet and get on with it. I’d asked for the feedback,so I should damn well read it.
So I opened the e-mail.
For the next minute or so I looked anywhere but at the laptop screen – I looked at the telly, at the cat, at the fireplace, but not at the screen. But I couldn’t put off the inevitable for ever, especially as the cat seemed to be looking back at me with an expression that said ‘get on with it you bloody pillock.’ Slowly I dragged my eyes back towards the computer telling myself that my friend had taken the time to read my junk at my request, so I should bloody well look at it.
So I read it.
And it wasn’t too bad.
My friend had pointed out bits they liked. They’d pointed out bits they didn’t like. They’d made suggestion about how things could be improved. They politely mentioned that my spelling and grammar were a bit shaky in places. But on the whole it was really very encouraging. There were clearly things that needed a lot of work, but in this persons opinion the story idea had legs and could be hammered into shape with a bit of effort. Maybe, just maybe I wasn’t wasting my time after all.
Now while I was reading this another two e-mails of feedback had turned up, and despite the fact that the first one hadn’t torn my heart out and shown it to me as I died, the cycle of avoidance began again. This carried on for the next few days as I got further responses. Opening each one and reading it felt like a genuine effort and was proceeded by a horrible dread that it was going to contain a heap of painful home truths. Unsurprisingly, my friends aren’t such horrible people who would just kick me in my literary balls as it were, but rather they were offering some genuinely good advice to help me out.
The feedback didn’t match up entirely, which is to be expected as some people liked bits that others didn’t, but there were some clear themes running throughout the comments. Grammatical things like run-on sentences or paragraph length, story things like the weak ending and some clumsy clichés were all pointed out (as well as the haphazard spelling and Grammar). I fought down the urge to have a big sulky strop and just give up and dismiss the piece as rubbish, and instead I tried my best to take the take the comments on board. Upon re-reading what I’d written I could see where they were coming from and set about making changes. After a few more re-writes and some extensive tweaking I felt much happier with the story as a whole. I’m not going to claim that it’s a work of genius or anything, but I certainly think it’s better than what it was originally.
It turns out that I won’t be able to submit the piece to the magazine in question, as by bad luck I’d managed to pick the one topic they categorically don’t want stories about (the formal submission guidelines only came out after I’d finished it) but I’m still glad I set about getting the feedback. The reality is that receiving and acting upon this kind of criticism is the best way I can go about getting better as a writer. I may have found the whole affair to be a bit nerve racking, but I guess I just need to man up and get used to it. After all I’m still very much a beginner at this writing lark, so I should get used to having the things I’m doing wrong pointed out to me. And if I don’t toughen up then I’ll end up an emotional wreck when I start getting rejection letters from publishers, or when (if by some miracle of miracles I actually get something published) I have to read reviews of my stuff.
I’m going to go an do some more editing on another short story that the magazine might be interested in, so in conclusion I’d just like to say a big thank you to all the people who kindly gave their time to read the story and give me their thoughts – your assistance is very much appreciated.
Oh, and if anyone happens to know a publisher that might be interested in a 1500 word short story about the zombie apocalypse I’d love to hear from you…