The Write Stuff: Critical Mass

By David Flin

"Escaping Criticism" by Pere Borrell del Caso

If you write, you’re not going to please everyone. If you get feedback, some of it will be positive, and some negative.

For example, take the phrase: “The delicate mauve and claret of the dawning day was displaced by a frothy and furious fandango of fire. The giant trogolythic ichnyosaurus crept fawning from their lairs, and gambolled their way forward, oblivious of anything that barred their passage.” If I were to write that, I would expect anyone commenting on it to do so unfavourably. It’s the sort of thing that’s written simply to show off that the author knows words.

Whatever you write, you’re not going to please everyone. You’re not even going to please all of your target audience. That’s a given, and you shouldn’t expect to get universal praise. With luck, however, you will get feedback, and that will come in four possible varieties. There’s comment that has been thought through, and there’s unthinking comment. If you get feedback, you’ll always get people who simply say it’s good (or bad) without bothering to say why they think that. And, of course, you’ll get positive feedback and negative feedback.

Positive feedback is always nice for the ego, and helps encourage us to write more. If you’re writing to entertain, it’s nice to know that you’ve succeeded in entertaining someone. It’s always a boost when someone says something nice about your work, and there is a technical word to describe an author who says they don’t get a little glow when praised: that word is ‘liar’.

However, positive feedback doesn’t help the author improve. “That was good,” doesn’t give much in the way of clues about how to do better. Negative feedback points out areas that the reader didn’t like. It can hurt to read negative feedback, and some people set out to be wilfully negative. However, anyone who goes into writing for a public forum needs to develop a thick skin as well as careful judgement.

Look at the negative feedback. It represents a genuine view. You may agree with it or disagree with it, but it’s a view you need to consider. It’s no good complaining that the reader doesn’t understand. It’s quite simple. If the reader hasn’t understood, the writer hasn’t explained well enough for that reader. It’s never a failure of comprehension, it’s always a failure of explanation.

Sometimes criticism may be harsh. I mentioned needing a thick skin. I’ll give an example. A while ago, I submitted a piece for consideration. The reply I got said: “In an infinite amount of time, an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Your piece: three monkeys, five minutes.”

The trouble I had wasn’t with the rudeness, but the fact that it didn’t give any indication what the reader didn’t like.

That, therefore, is the first thing you need to look for in what a negative comment says. If, for example, it says that the characters are ridiculous stereotypes, then that should flag a concern. If you also get three positive comments praising your characters, then it might just be a matter of taste. If you get several comments criticising the characterisation, then you may well have an issue that needs looking at.

Sometimes you’ll get a comment that fundamentally misunderstands what you’re doing. To take an example, I once wrote a small timeline which re-imagined the Falklands War of 1982 as though it were written in a style appropriate to an 1882 writer. I received a comment that suggested that it would have been more effective had I written it as the Second Gulf War and from an American perspective, as that would make it more accessible to a larger potential readership. While I can see the point about a larger potential readership, I felt the comment missed a rather important point. I was involved in the Falklands War, and can write with knowledge and feeling about the bits that I witnessed. I wasn’t involved in the Second Gulf War, and couldn’t describe it with anything more than platitudes. I could make a few guesses, but that’s all they would be. I can close my eyes, and recall the wind and the snow and the never-ending peat marsh, the grumbles and the isolation, the cold and the shortage of anything beyond the basics. I can’t do that for the Gulf War, and it would show.

I considered the comment, and decided that it wasn’t appropriate for what I was trying to do.

There was another example, set in Persia, where I wrote about a side-trip by the central characters. It was intended to be a brief detour, but it grew, and reached the point of being a problem. Someone commented on the fact that it was a digression, and that the digression was causing problems with the characterisation. The comment was perfectly correct, and so I knew that the side-trip didn’t work, and the story needed redrafting at this point. The redrafted story was much better for the change, and I’m grateful the person made the comment.

That’s the key point. Remember to consider a comment. It may be that you decide that the comment isn’t valid, but if someone takes the trouble to point out something, you’re well advised to consider.

In Alternate History, the most common source of comment is in the plausibility, or lack of plausibility, of the Time Line. Sometimes an implausible Time Line is a problem, and interferes with the telling of the story. At other times, it isn’t. In some ways, it’s similar to the balance faced by SF and Fantasy authors; they need to generate and maintain a Willing Suspension of Disbelief in the readership.

Poul Anderson’s book The High Crusade, for example, posits a situation in which a medieval village from England acquires control of an alien spacecraft, and, although they get lost, they manage for forge a galactic empire based on feudal principles. On the face of it, it’s not a very plausible premise, but the story is a lot of fun and rollicks along at a good pace. Fantasy has suffered from an abundance of by-the-numbers sub-Tolkien clones who put together worlds that sort-of make sense, but get wrapped up in things like: “For 4000 years, the throne passed from father to son,” and I (for one) simply put the book down, knowing that a single line lasting for 100 years is a bit of a challenge throughout most of our history.

The same happens with Alternate History. Sometimes an unconvincing history can lead into an enthralling story. Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle has a premise that is decidedly dubious, but the story itself means that one is much more inclined to accept it.

The moral, therefore, is that a strong enough story can carry an imperfect premise. The reverse doesn’t hold, and a brilliant premise won’t hold the attention of the reader if the underlying story is weak. As a result, comments about a weakness in the story-telling need to be looked at carefully; comments about a weakness in the background of the Time Line aren’t so critical.

What you need is a strong setting, good characters, and a strong story told well. Getting these together takes talent. That’s where practice comes in, and to make the most of practice, you need to listen to what the target readership tells you about what you’ve written.

In essence, positive feedback encourages us to write; negative feedback enables us to improve our writing. I just wish I got more feedback on my draft tales on the writing forum here.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow