Wednesday, 28 January 2009

With Apologies To Angelas Everywhere

There’s a certain sort of writer that I’ve met a lot of over the years: I’ll call her Angela.

Writing means a lot to Angela. She considers it a form of high art: an expression of her true nature. She keeps her writing secret for a long time and when she finally lets her friend Beverly read it she’s reduced to tears when Beverly suggests that it might need a little revision.

Angela still has confidence in her work, and after much thought she decides that the problem lies with Beverly, for making such hurtful comments. Beverly has to be wrong, Angela insists: especially when Angela discovers Caroline’s writing group where everyone tells her how wonderful her work is.

So when Angela starts to submit her work to professional markets and gets form rejections (or, worse still, rejections which tell her that she’s just not good enough), she knows who to believe: her friends from Caroline’s writing group who have told her, over and over, that mistakes don’t matter, and that unknowns never get published unless they’ve got connections.

The one thing Angela never hears from her friends at Caroline’s writing group is that her work isn’t good enough. Which is a shame: because if she understood that she might put the effort into improving it, and eventually get it published.

27 comments:

Nik's Blog said...

True, true. I've seen this too many times first hand and, you're right, it is a real shame.

Nik

Jane Smith said...

[Tania Hershman has tried to comment here but Blogger's having a hissy fit and won't let her do so. I shall post her comment for her, and I'll even add a link to her blog so that everyone can go and discover her short story collection for themselves once they've read what she has to say here.]

Tania wrote,

This is so true. So true. I do hope "Angela" is listening. The best thing a workshop can do for you is pull your work to pieces, for me that is the greatest compliment I can give someone, to truly engage with their writing by taking it apart and seeing how it ticks. "This is fabulous!" is utterly unhelpful, and, put in the context you describe, ultimately cruel to "Angela". I wish everyone understood this, workshop participants are often afraid to "hurt someone's feelings", but it is about the writing, not the author. Hard to accept, but true. Thanks for laying it out so clearly!

www.titaniawrites.blogspot.com

emmadarwin said...

Yes, and it's one reason why such myths about how the publishing trade are so pernicious: it's not the abstract truth and falsehood of it, it's because it stands in the way of a writer actually getting anywhere.

The opposite scenario is true too: if you have no idea of the realities of slushpiles, you might take your first rejection as a global, for-all-time verdict on your talent (or rather lack of it) and never write another word. I know plenty of people like that, too.

Emma

emmadarwin said...

Crossed with Tania-via-Jane (Have to say that with this one of Blogger's comment forms, most times it takes several goes before my comments post).

What commenters don't realise is that 'this is fabulous' is as unhelpful as, if kinder than, 'this is crap'. Ann Lamott says that the sword of truth can be used as well to point, as to kill, but it's quite rightly not much good for patting people on the head.

NICOLA MORGAN said...

I mostly hope that all the many Carolines are listening. Great post, Jane. Very pithily expressed. It's why I refuse to read people's work - because, on the few occasions in the past where I've dared to be a tentative Beverley, it has brought me nothing but stress. Why is it so hard for people to understand that it's the writing that makes you a writer, not the contacts / long legs / big eyelashes?

Jane Smith said...

"Ann Lamott says that the sword of truth can be used as well to point, as to kill, but it's quite rightly not much good for patting people on the head."

I'm still laughing from that one, Emma. Lovely.

If you really want to help a writer, there's little point telling them that their writing is fabulous (even if it is) and saying nothing more: you have to say WHY it's fabulous. And if a piece of work IS crap, then say why and how it's crap so the writer knows where they need to improve.

(Emma has blogged very perceptively about the difficulties of matching your comments to a writer's ability to hear them, but I can't find a link to that piece at the moment--I'll have a look for it later, unless Emma appears with it herself, because it was a very good read.)

Jane Smith said...

And now I've cross-posted with Nicola: we're knitting our comments together in a very odd way this morning, girls.

Nicola, it's very difficult, isn't it? You give freely of your advice and then the writer comes back and abuses you: it's happened to me a good few times so I very rarely offer to help either.

If you fancy a bit of a laugh you should google my name, and the title of this blog, and read what people have written about me, and it: there are some amazingly vituperative comments, many of which imply that I'm far more flexible than I really am. All because I don't pretend that things in publishing are not as they are. Google Alerts is a mixed blessing.

Sally Zigmond said...

Yes, I know Angela. She's the one who, when anyone (especially experienced editors and agents) take time to politely and tactfully suggests that a scene doesn't work as well as it should because...or that piece of dialogue doesn't sound right because...she will argue at great length the reasons that that sky is green and daffodils blue and report back to Caroline and her lovely group that editors and agents know nothing, after which Caroline adds, 'the publishing world is full of snobs and elitists who hate unknowns.' And the group all nod and sigh and tell Angela that she must self-publish (aka vanity) and that way she'll sell more books and a big publisher prick up its ears and make her rich. Because she's worth it.

PS My middle name is Angela.

KAREN said...

I don't let friends or family read my writing any more, because I know they're incapable of offering constructive criticism!

emmadarwin said...

Jane, was it this one:

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2008/10/its-feedback-not-howl-back.html

It sounds to me as if your Angela is the character I called Apparently Deaf Writer.
Maybe we need a new category: Apparently Angela Writer.

Jane Smith said...

That's the one, Emma, thank you! Apparently Angela. We're all going to remember her.

Jane Smith said...

PS--I've just noticed that someone has ticked the "not helpful" box on this post. You don't suppose it was an Angela, do you?

behlerblog said...

Sally, you hit the nail on the head. You are my new hero for the next five minutes.

Melinda said...

What surprises me is the Angela who is incredibly widely and well read who still can't see the difference between what she writes and what she reads. Or even more surprising where Angela pays a professional Beverly for a manuscript assessment and still disagrees with the advice. I'd be interested to know if anyone has ever staged a successful 'intervention'

Sally Zigmond said...

Ah, Ms Behlerblog, A whole five minute? I'm honoured.

Daniel said...

But sometimes Angela (and her male equivalent, Andrew) *will* come to professional writers for advice or critique and will have the wrong idea about what they want to get out of it. They come with the idea that the MS is like a broken watch, which we, as the "jeweller", will fix for them. What they present us with is a bit more like a box of Lego pieces all stuck together in the wrong places - and the only valid response is to say, as in the old joke about the man asking the country-dweller for directions, "Well, I wouldn't really start from here..."

I've had a couple of Andrews who thought it was a question of their producing a "rough diamond" which I'd then polish for them. They want us to say - "do XYZ to this and it will be publishable." Or even "I will do XYZ to this for you and it will be publishable."

One Andrew even asked if I'd like a co-writing credit on the finished product. With every nerve screaming at me to throw up my hands in horror and say "No! Please, God, no! Why would I want *my* name on this?" I somehow retained self-control, smiled politely and explained again that this wasn't what my critique service was really all about.

emmadarwin said...

I definitely regard the editorial reports I do as being as much about teaching as about polishing. Just occasionally I get one which only needs something more like a line edit full of tweaks and tightenings, but for the most part there's serious, basic work to do. The other mystery is the writer who pays good money for a critique, then gives the novel a good revising, pays for a re-read, revises more, pays for a third, and... the total changes are almost nil. I don't think it's always arrogance, often the way that once you're down among the undergrowth, snipping away with the secateurs can feel like major forestry, because you can't see the wood for the twigs.

The Writer said...

I have a male friend who's an Angela, or is it an Angelo? He has improved over the last year but he's still pretty much on 14-year-old-girl-fanfiction level. He tries, but he can't listen to crit at all without getting huffy and red-faced about it. He's convinced that self-publishing is the way to go for him so that he will produce the next Harry Potter.

debutnovelist said...

It's no good, I can't stand by and let writing groups the country (world?) over be written off as comprising ony Angelas. I've been (and still am) a member of workshops which certainly aren't mutual admiration societies and where honest (constructive) criticism is the point of the exercise. We expect to learn from critiquing and being critiqued. A writing group can't do the job of a professional editor, but criticism from a group, though tempered with kindness, needn't pull its punches. I have seem work improve immeasurably as a result.
I'm sure I'm preaching to the converted. Just hope any Angelas out there who pass by and aspire to do better won't feel there's no point in joining an effective support group.
AliB

Jane Smith said...

Debut, I didn't intend to imply that writing groups can't help, or are full of people who have opinions rather than a real understanding, and I don't think anyone here is suggesting that's the case: quite the opposite, in fact. Writing groups can be wonderful, supportive things and I belong to one in particular that I find enormously useful. The point is, as ever, that you have to be careful which advice you take: while it's always going to be more comfortable to believe the person who says how wonderful you are than to listen to the person who says you need to improve, such fluff isn't going to help your writing, is it?

Kate said...

But Sally, the sky IS green and daffodils blue. You're just not using your imagination!

You have it right, Jane. I once got very upset about a critique I received, which really tore my story to shreds. After a while though, I realised that though this person could maybe have been a little more tactful, what she said was absolutely true. I now value her help and I like to think my work has improved.

Tania Hershman said...

I would like to pass on some wisdom I received from a great (and wise) writer and friend, which I didn't agree with at the time but have now come to embrace wholeheartedly: giving your work in for critique to your writing group is only marginally about some kind of "fixing" of your story. The main aim is for the group to learn more about the art and craft of writing from critiquing each other's work. It's raw material, I suppose, a way to see what works and what doesn't and then to apply it to our own work. If the writer receives helpful advice on her particular story, that's almost a fringe benefit. I think this is an interesting take on it - and it may help the Angelas of this world.

I too have been asked, recently, by a writer to take a look at his stories and "do some cutting". It made me feel like a gardener. I don't prune, I am a writer! Why should we rely on others to do the work we should be doing ourselves, revision, an integral and vital part of the writing process?

Jane Smith said...

"The main aim is for the group to learn more about the art and craft of writing from critiquing each other's work."

BINGO!

That's the thing. Thanks, Tania, for pointing it out. I feel the same way.

debutnovelist said...

"The main aim is for the group to learn more about the art and craft of writing from critiquing each other's work."
I agree. Spot on.
AliB

Jane said...

This is So True. And sad really. Because it means they don't improve, and their prejudices become more entrenched. I've recently started teaching a creative writing class, and have had terrible trouble with some people who seem to be doing the course for nothing but validation. I've been accused of 'arbitrary crticism' when my crits have been precise and exact, and 'you just don't get what I'm trying to do' (that's a favorite) and when I point out that if it's not on the page it's Not There, I'm accused of 'being mean'. It's unbelievable. And yet these are the same people who really truly believe that there's a 'conspiracy against new writers'.

I used to work at Random House and feel that would be writers should spend a day at a publishing house - seeing the running around, the phones ringing, the Everest of unsolicited manuscripts that are read,(eventually) not by publishers but overworked, underpaid editors and editorial assistants. There's a saying by W.B Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of a passionate intensity." Sums it up really.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Really enjoyed reading this post on what is actually quite a taboo subject living as we do in an age where everyone is told that if they believe long and hard enough they'll achiever their dream.

I really feel that a thick skin and a lack of self-deception is just as important as talent to a writer. Yes criticism, it hurts. Get over it. Learn from the best and be suspicious if your ten year old or mum tells you your stuff is brilliant What, in all honesty, would they know?

Caroline Kent said...

Oh I thought the members of my writing group were being helpful, but now I'm being to wonder.

Thank you, Jane