Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday Talk Time: Dealing with Criticism

PHS columnist Kate Walker talks about the worst part of the writer's life - the critical assessment - or, even worse, the dreaded rejection letter.

Calm Critique or Crushing blow?

I suppose in a way that this is really a Writers’ Wednesday sort of post. But as I don’t have one of those until – Oh, until March – I’m writing on this topic now because it’s very much on my mind.

What topic?

Well, a few days ago a friend sent me an article that referred to a web site called It’s fairly obvious what the site is about - it is a sort of shrine to the rejection letter. A major portion of it is devoted to writers anonymously posting rejections they’ve received, and commenting on how it made them feel. I do understand their need to vent.
Rejection hurts. We’ve all been there. We send in a manuscript, our precious baby, the work we’ve toiled over, put all that blood sweat and tears into it and then it comes back. And it comes back with critical comments.

It’s the same with a critique. As many of you will know, the Romantic Novelists’ Association runs the New Writers’ Scheme. In this scheme, on payment of the special fee, an unpublished writer can submit a manuscript and have it read and critiqued The organiser has a team of over 30 readers who are authors with extensive publishing histories in various types of romantic novel. The scripts are sent to an appropriate reader who provides a report including, for example, such aspects as plotting, characterisation and structure. The reports are intended to be honest and constructive suggestions from a published novelist - they point out flaws but also offer advice based on experience.

I’ve been a reader for this scheme for over 8 years now and the reactions of the writers who submit vary. Some of them read the report of their manuscript, they take on board the comments and criticisms, they absorb the advice. And then they decide whether to follow it and use it to, hopefully, make their work better for the next subscription.

Others react quite differently. They cannot believe that their work has not been passed for a second read, sent to an agent or even, in the case of category romance, direct to Harlequin Mills & Boon with a recommendation from the RNA. They believe that the reader must have a personal axe to grind, or that he or she is determined to destroy their work, their confidence and their fledgling career before it has even begun. They refuse to even consider that the critique might be right. And so they don’t learn from it.

Some of the worst problems come from writers who have shown their novel to someone – a friend, their partner, their sister . . . That reader they say enjoyed it. Said it was good. So this criticism can only be meant to be cruel.

I understand. I really do. I’ve been there. Not with the critique perhaps, but certainly with the editorial rejection. I’ve felt the sting of getting my work back, and reading what I believed was a couple of scathing comments on it. It was only much later, when I’d calmed down and reread the letter that I saw it was not really scathing at all. I found that letter again a few months ago and was stunned by how encouraging and kind it actually was.

This topic was already in my mind because the last of the NWS scripts recently went back and as always there have been those who have felt hurt, slighted, attacked. And those who appreciated getting an objective considered assessment of their novel. It’s also in my mind because of ‘John Sergeant-gate’ here in the UK. For those of you who haven’t been aware of the furore, on the UK programme Strictly Come Dancing, 64 year old political commentator John Sergeant has been – depending on your point of view – either made a delightful and amusing contribution to this ballroom dancing contest, or made a laughingstock of himself – he has even been unkindly dubbed the Dancing Pig. The professional judges have criticised him, often been brutally honest, but a huge public vote has kept him in the contest. He was, they say, providing some wonderful entertainment as he made his heavy footed and ponderous way through the dances.

Now it doesn’t matter what side of this argument you come down on. The point is that today even as I was writing this John Sergeant pulled out of the contest. He knows that, no matter how many people love to see his own form of dancing, this does not make him a dancer. Even with all the professional tuition and help in the world from his dancing partner Kristina Rihanoff. And no matter how cruel people think the judges are being, they do know what they are talking about and they are giving a professional assessment on his performance as they see it. John’s performance may be fun – but it’s not ballroom dancing.

So where does this leave the would-be writer and their critique or rejection letter?

Well, first and foremost, lucky to have some feedback. Yes, even critical feedback. When most publishers barely have time to read the ‘slush pile’ and most writers simply receive a ‘not for us’ form letter of rejection, any actual comments on why the book didn’t work for this publisher or agent or reader is like gold. Even when it stings – or worse. All right, it always stings. Even a so-called ‘good’ rejection hurts because it is a rejection. So you’re allowed to react a bit! Scream and shout if you want to. Throw the manuscript at the wall – throw the letter/report at the wall. But please don’t rip it to shreds – you will want to read it again when you calm down.
You will – honest. Even if only to go through it muttering vindictively and wishing a dreadful revenge on whoever wrote it. Even if you totally disagree with everything they said.

If you can, put both the manuscript and the report/letter away for a while then wait a week, a month – sometimes it takes months before you can look at your own work objectively and can see what the reader was seeing in it and what they’re trying to say. At the beginning of my career I once had a book that an editor didn’t like and I couldn’t see why. I filed it away for 6 months then took it out and read it – squirming inside with embarrassment because I realised that almost everything the editor had said was true and the book really did need a lot of work. (Yes, I did rewrite it and yes I did get it published in the end – because it was a much better book.)

Unfortunately, criticism and rejection are part of the writer’s life. You can only avoid them in one way – by never sending out any manuscripts to any agent editor ofr reader, but if you’re writing to be published then that won’t be much help. You can only learn to cope and to find ways of dealing with the comments – and reading them to find ways to learn to write better and more successfully. In my experience of working with the New Writers’ Scheme it’s the writers who pick themselves up, dust themselves off, absorb the fact that the comments are meant to help you improve as a writer, not destroy you, and start all over again who ultimately come out of the long dark tunnel and into the light. The PHS’s own Natasha Oakley is a shining example.

After all, John Sergeant may have a huge wave of popular feeling on his side, he may have been taken to the nation’s hearts in a way that he never expected – but if he wanted to learn to dance professionally then it was the professional assessments, however painful, that he needed to listen to.

And even if you do get a rejection letter or a bad critique – it can’t be quite as bad as for poor Snoopy - who gets a rejection letter for the story he hasn’t even sent yet!

If you want a chance to have your manuscript assessed by the RNA New Writers' Scheme, check out their web site for details. The best time to apply is at the beginning of the year when there are 200 places available - but be quick - they're snatched up fast.

Kate's latest book, Bedded By the Greek Billionaire is on sale now in the USA in Harlequin Presents. The UK edition is still available on the Mills and Boon web site (as a print book or in ebook form) or on
Romantic Times called this book "a delicious melodrama full of dizzying emotions as the reader goes along with the highs and lows as this couple finds each other again," and they also selected it as one of their Top Picks for November


  1. Hello, my lovely Kate. I have your 'cut for pace' ringing in my ears at all times! vbg

  2. Hi Kate,

    I just wanted to say that this is an extremely inspiring post. Everything you say is true and yes, rejection in any form hurts like hell. But, and there's always a but, something good can come from something bad. Now, I've yet to submit anything to anyone but I plan to, when I know I'm ready and have produced the best material I'm capable of. I'll expect rejection but more than that, I'll expect to learn and grow from it. Not until after I've had my little hissy fit of course. My point is that the fall won't matter because I'll dazzle on my way back up again. (No matter how long it takes).
    Ok, maybe dazzle is too strong a word but you know what I mean. After my children nothing makes me happier than writing and if somebody takes the time out of their busy schedules to offer me some constructive criticism, I'll grab it gladly. With both hands.

    Thanks for a wonderful post,

  3. Hi Kate,
    I have this year sent in my second submission to NWS. I learnt a great deal from my first critique and have had a much better result this year. I'm pleased - even if I'm not there yet, I'm making good progress and enjoying every minute of trying to become publilshed. So if anyone is thinking of joining it is well worth every penny.

    Thanks for an inspiring post and I am working on my next NWS submission.

  4. Kate darling, fabulous post and put far better than any of my cautionary epistles on criticism.

    after all, no one learns from a critique that says, "Oooh, I liked it a lot!" I think most people need to allow themselves that time to react to the criticism and get it out of their system, and then be open to it objectively once that "stage" is over. I still have those stages - had one yesterday, in fact. Now I still don't agree with the assessment, but I have accepted it!

    Thanks for the great post love!

  5. Hi Kate!

    I've recently read that editors have fantastic memories and can actually remember people's previous submissions a long way down the track. This tid bit has brought me to a screeching hault!

    I'm finding that NOTHING is good enough to send away lol. Probably because I don't particuarly like the idea that the editor I'm trying to impress will remember what could potentially be eye-damaging work in the future.

    Is this a myth? Or does the elephant memory exist?