Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Show and Tell - Elen Caldecott

Last week I made a small contribution to the £12,000 raised by Authors For Japan. I bought something very exciting-looking. And I also sold two items. The first, a signed book, was easy. Jiffy bag, job done. The second, a manuscript critique, will be much harder.

When the manuscript arrives, I will be honest, I will be thorough, I will do my very best to be helpful. But, it will be hard to forget that I will be commenting on someone's hard work, something that they will have crafted at for months or even years.
Of course, I know exactly how it feels to have people reading your work and pulling it apart. It happens to me all the time and I love it. Writers need readers like yin needs yang. Yang on it's own looks like a one week old foetus. Hmm, maybe that's an image a critiquer would have me re-work.

Over the years, I have been priviledged to have a number of different people read and comment on drafts of my work. The MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa provided me with a solid core of peers who would shout me down if I went all OMG with the exclamation marks (early drafts of my prose tend to look like a place punctuation goes to die). We still meet once a month, three years after the course ended.

Online communities have also helped. A few authors I've met love WriteWords. Personally, I like Litopia, it has none of the competitive element of some peer-review sites and the critiques are harsh in a way that only strangers can manage.

Then, a little later down the line, there's my agent and editor. People who can be relied upon to tell me when I'm going astray. Some of my stories have even required specialist readers - a Somali family were kind enough to check one a few months ago. The novel that will be published this summer needed a golfer's view of the final draft (a golfer's view?! OMG!! ).

I know exactly how it feels to hand over a piece of work and be told: try harder, think clearer, make it better. It hurts, it's hard. I hope that doesn't mean that I will pull any punches when it comes to the assessment I do, because it's what we need if we're ever going to get our stories out to the harshest readers of all - children.

Who reads your drafts for you?

 Read more about the need for a golfer's view at
Elen's Facebook Page


Anne said...

Before I was published I paid £100 for someone to read a draft of an adult novel I'd written. The ms came back to me a month later with a nine page letter attached. The first few lines told me to turn to page 8 if I wanted to read the positive stuff. the rest ripped my ms to shreds. I cried and tore it into pieces. My husband comforted me and he put the pieces in an envelope and told me to reread it when I got my first book published. When my first book arrived through the post I took out the critique and sellotaped it back together (a long job). I read it over and cried again.

Elen C said...

Ouch. I feel for you, Anne!
Was it the first time anyone had critiqued your work? With hindsight was it overly harsh, or were there comments you might have used?
It's amazing how much it can hurt, isn't it?

catdownunder said...

Ow! Anne I feel for you, really I do!
I wish though I could find someone to really read mine. There is not much point in giving it to someone who says "I like it" or (much worse) "I do not like it" without them saying why they felt that way. How many people really know someone who can do that - or can afford to pay someone to do it?
I ended up just sending the last effort off with just one person reading it - and I am not sure that is a wise thing.

Penny Dolan said...

A very good & relevant question, Elen. There comes apoint when you aren't at all certain yet don't want to face your agent with your m/s. Will check out those sites. I have been tempted to do an MA for just the reasons you give, but they can be quite expensive if you have to add in travel. Can be quite hard to find out what the course truly offers too - I have heard of at least one bad experience. Local writers groups can be useful but not if you are writing at length. Or "for children". It is a problem!

Elen C said...

One of the best things about doing the MA was meeting the people who are still prepared to read my work for me even all these years later, but I agree, Penny, it is an expensive commitment.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

For the last ten years I have been a part of a writer's group specifically for children and YA authors - Giving constructive feedback is an art form.

karen ball said...

I was reluctant to join a writing group, but am now so glad that I did. We're small - there are only four of us - but I trust all of my friends in the group. There are also reading agencies such as Cornerstones, but these aren't cheap. Being involved in the authorial community helps, I find. You can usually find someone who will give you an opinion on something. Feedback, even when it's tough to hear, can be hugely helpful and save many wasted hours. But it's finding the right person who's opinion you trust (and who you can take straight talking from).

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

With your own writing, it’s always difficult to see the wood for the trees, so if a writer can find a fellow writing friend, a tutor, agent or editor who ‘gets’ them and where their writing is coming from, then, wow, that’s a hugely friendly thing in a lonely writer’s life.

I do some work for a well-known consultancy, and although the writers won’t establish a relationship with us, the editors – we do it anonymously, and strive to be kind – I think that can help too.

Stroppy Author said...

If you can find someone you can exchange with that's good. It doesn't seem such an imposition if you know you will read theirs in return. But you do need to know someone who writes similar things and is at the same stage in their career.

I have an exchange arrangement with another RLF fellow - we both criticise other people's writing professionally, we both have loads of books published, we both know we can take harsh criticism! It can't be unbalanced; giving anything less than honest feedback is useless, but it's time-consuming to have to hedge it around with gentleness.

I'd be in the torn-up letter camp, I'm afraid (writing, not tearing) - so don't ask my unless you're brave!

Linda Strachan said...

I agree with Lynda, when she says 'giving constructive feedback is an art form'.
I have found myself going back and re reading comments I've made about someone's work because I wanted to be sure I was honest but not destructive. I refuse to praise bad writing but hope to couch the remarks in a way that will encourage the writer to work harder and improve their writing and not give up altogether.
We all know how fragile you can feel when someone makes negative remarks about your writing, and perhaps even more so for someone who has not, as yet, had anything published.
But without honest and constructive feedback it is difficult to see how you can improve, and it is a strange creative person who is so satisfied with their work that they think they cannot learn anything... (I hesitate to mention the incredibly unprofessional behaviour of that woman who destroyed her reputation recently, by abusing a reviewer for his review. She said "My writing is just fine!")
I find it incredibly exciting to come across a new writer who has talent that is just emerging and it is wonderful to see them eager to learn and listen to advice.
I am not part of a writing group but I do have one or two writers who I trust to read something and will happily return the favour.

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting mix of ways of dealing with this - but maybe we all need a friend like Anne's husband? Someone who can be positive and calming whenever hard and even unjustified words strike the soul? Three cheers for those people too!

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