Monday, May 30, 2016



good idea well followed through we enjoyed
a great deal we read with pleasure and interest
there was much to take note of the bustle and
jar the excursion and homeward turn some
belters of poems got hold of my ears all well-
crafted precise rhyming we particularly liked
numbers three four and seven but

I heard this poem at a reading given by Hamish White and it made me laugh out loud.  Hamish is a well-known and very accomplished Scottish poet (who also reviews crime fiction) and he has  kindly given me permission to share it with you.

Do you recognise this too - the 'but...'?  I think it's what's known as the enthusiastic rejection: when you know that if they meant what they said in the first paragraph there's no way they wouldn't be publishing the book.  I think it's intended to be kind, but in the days when all I seemed to get were rejection letters ( wish I'd kept them to paper the downstairs loo) I used to skip the first paragraph and look for the one beginning with that 'but..'   It spared me the pain of hopes raised only to be dashed.

I wasn't very good at interpretation, though.  Just about the first story I sent to a magazine, while I was still at university, came back with a letter that pointed out what was wrong with it, and I was crushed.  I went wailing to my friends, 'They didn't want it!'  and it took me a long time to get up the courage to write another one.  If only one of my kindly and sympathetic friends had told me I was lucky because not being sent a form letter was real encouragement, and that I'd better learn, mark and inwardly digest every precious comment, I'd have started my professional career a lot sooner.

The difficulty when you're starting out is getting criticism from a reliable source.  With the best will in the world, your friends probably can't provide it; their responses are inevitably tailored by the relationship with you.  If they are too impressed, it doesn't help you, if they are too brutal it doesn't help the friendship.  After a very bitter experience, I decided to make it a rule not to critique other writers' work.

It was a steep learning curve, but I came round to understanding the value of brutal criticism.  It still smarts, particularly when it's justified, but I'm good about taking it now - as long as it's from my agent or my editor.  Between them, agents and editors have improved my writing beyond recognition and I'm grateful.

To this day, though, when my agent calls with comments and begins by telling me tactfully how much she loves what I'm doing, I don't listen.  I'm on the edge of my seat, waiting for the 'but...'  I'm always quite disconcerted if it doesn't come.

The other sort of criticism is the kind that comes in the form of reviews in newspapers or on Amazon and the like.  Of course the fun ones come from the highly intelligent, sensitive and discriminating readers who give you five stars and say, 'Even better than the last one.' You purr, but you don't learn from those.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ones who give you one star, and say they hated it from page one - clearly total dimwits.  Authors should be able to ban these people from ever reading another of their books.  Have you thought about that, Amazon, huh?

But there are the ones who come in the middle, who generally liked the book but thought there were one or two things that were wrong with it, and those reviews are invaluable.  There was the one, for instance, who pointed out a mannerism my lead character had that she found annoying; she was right, and I dropped it next time.  Someone else pointed out a theme that wasn't fully developed, and I took that one on board too.

The cruellest critic of all, though, is me.  I can always see something that wasn't quite what it should be, something that next time will have to be better.  It's uncomfortable, but I think if I ever wrote a book that was in my eyes perfect, I'd retire.

Hamish White's book 'Hannah, Are You Listening' is published by Happenstance.

1 comment:

Donis Casey said...

Love your insights and I will be stealing several of them for the next time I give a writing workshop.