If you love it, I’m listening…

If you love it, I’m listening…

My Dad has always said to me, ‘don’t pay any more attention to the people that praise you than you would to the people that bring you down.’ Perhaps he is right. As writers, the best thing we can do is listen to our own hearts, and don’t let anyone else judge whether what we have created is worthy of existence.

But there’s a little problem in that, and it’s called human nature.

I don’t know about you, dear reader who’s a writer, but when someone acclaims me as a genius, or tells me that my creation is perhaps the most brilliant piece of art since Michelangelo chipped away at a marble block for three years (okay that’s never happened, but just go with it), my first reaction is to assess them as incredibly astute, insightful and honest.

Conversely, when someone offers even a mild criticism of my work – regardless of whether it’s carefully considered, constructively couched and apologetically delivered – I bristle. My hackles rise and the taste of bile fills my throat. How dare they presume to criticise my sublime creation? Why would a person take the time to try and destroy my fragile artist’s ego with such an insane, inappropriate and unwarranted attack?

A surplus, a surfeit or even an extravagance of adjectives? The unruly insertion of adverbs? ‘Overuse’ of punctuation?!? Pretentious? Fragments? My god, why don’t you just take me out the back and stab me! Why must you drag my name through the mud like that? Are you so jealous of my towering talent that you have to resort to this petty carping? And so on etcetera.

But am I being reasonable when I react in this way? Should I just take my Dad’s advice on board? The truth is, as always, somewhere in the middle.

Take compliments, and yes, allow that little glow of self-satisfaction to creep over you. You’ve earned it. But assess them properly. For instance, when someone tells me that one or other of my books or stories is ‘well written’, I ask myself, ‘does that mean the story is crap? Or is Mum just being nice?’

Look for the hidden meaning (or the hidden agenda) in any praise – especially if it’s high praise. And if it’s truly justified, take it, but don’t dwell on it: it won’t make you a better writer.

And when people, particularly those not related to you, offer genuine criticism of your work, try not to take it personally, but do try and see what they’re saying from their perspective. Even if it seems harsh or unjustified when you first read it, there are more than likely a few large grains of truth in there. Use it to improve your work, but don’t let it ruin your day.

All authors have egos, and we’re all in this business because we like to have them stroked. But dealing with both good and bad feedback is a part of the business, so try and do it with equanimity. Then teach me how.

Pace and the need for Instant Gratification.

Pace and the need for Instant Gratification.

I’ve just finished reading Emile Zola’s ‘Doctor Pascal’. It’s too bad for Emile that he didn’t have beta readers who could have helped him make this into much more of a story.

‘Emile,’ they would have said to him, ‘there’s not enough action in this book. Sometimes you go on for pages and pages about one little thing, examining the same thought or feeling from a hundred different angles. Your readers won’t stand for it.’

And Emile would, perhaps, have obliged by removing all that unnecessary atmosphere, all that superfluous guff about what was in Doctor Pascal’s heart, and Clotilde’s, and Martine’s, and upped the biffo quotient, or added a few spicy love scenes. Perhaps a body could be found under the rough stones of the threshing area. Or perhaps not. Maybe he would have said, ‘thanks for your input, but the story is what it is, and I don’t think it really requires jazzing up with more gratuitous activity.’

That’s the nub of my problem as a writer, dear reader. I understand that today, everything moves much more quickly than it did before. Generations of people brought up on 30 minute sitcoms and 60 minute crime shows don’t have time to sit around delving into the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the books they read.

God forbid that the author actually burdens them with lengthy descriptions of places, people, sunsets, non-pivotal actions and subtle observations. Hell no! What readers ‘need’ is a short, sharp progression from problem to solution. Preferably with a pile of killings, conflict, chases and sex, and maybe, just maybe, the odd wry aside that doesn’t get in the way of more action, action, action.

The more things happen in a book, the less the poor reader has to work to understand the characters’ motivations, or tax their imaginations by really trying to see what the author has created. It takes away the hard work of thinking, leaving the reader, much like the TV viewer, just watching. Breathlessly, with any luck.

Alas, my work may never achieve the success I had hoped to attain when I started writing novels. My unseemly attachment to wanting to immerse the reader in the story to the point where they don’t care so much if there isn’t some sort of massive eructation of physical activity every page or two, will be my undoing. I don’t have it in me to pander to the instant gratification requirements of today’s readers. Shame.

So rather than pursue my career as an author, maybe I should spend my time more profitably pretending to have been a beta reader for some of the greats.

‘Dear Fyodor,’ I would write. ‘I like the story, but why on earth does it take so long before Raskolnikov bops Altona and Lizaveta on the head? And what is with all that maudlin reflection? Good lord man, there needs to be at least one lengthy chase.’

‘Franz,’ I would also write. ‘People just won’t buy that your man Josef K doesn’t know what he’s being arrested for. They’re still trying to get their heads around the fact that his last name is a single letter. It would be much easier for the reader if you just had him go out and strangle a prostitute at the start.’