No Pain, No Gain

Back in 2008, I had a painful but extremely valuable encounter at the Winchester Writers’ Conference. As part of the Winchester package, you are given the opportunity to have fifteen minutes with three different writing industry luminaries. These may be agents (pitch!), editors (pitch again!) or experts (listen!)

My three sessions were booked with an agent (to pitch a non-fiction project that’s still awaiting lift-off), a radio producer (to get feedback on a radio play that’s still awaiting interest) and a writer (to get feedback on a children’s book that I’d first touted around in 1992 during my first attempt at a writing career). Unfortunately the writer, Daniel Clay (who incidentally is doing very well indeed right now), was unable to attend through illness (although he did send me a very thorough critique later) and the first substitute offered failed to turn up.

The second substitute was a well-known author, creative writing teacher and journalist. I gave her my manuscript, which she scarily speed-read in front of me, metaphorically tearing it to shreds as she went. In particular, there were a number of unconventional aspects to the book, which she did not like at all. Basically, she wanted to kill my darlings.

I reacted badly.

I think I’m generally OK with dealing with criticism of my writing (except – curiously – from my nearest and dearest), but for some reason I lost my rag this time and we had a very argumentative and heated fifteen minutes, following which I came away feeling as if I’d completely wasted my time. I also felt more than a little embarrassed at having behaved so unprofessionally. However, I felt a bit better after we’d bumped into each other in the breakfast queue the next morning and I’d apologised to her for not taking her criticism well. She was very nice and actually suggested that I send it out to a few agents, asking me to let her know how I got on.

The odd thing was that after I’d thought about it for a while afterwards, I came to the conclusion that what this showed was that I was actually too close to the book to send it out as a first novel. There was no way that I could ever submit to the inevitable compromises that I would have to go through in order to get it published; I loved the concept too much. So I decided to put it to one side and focus on other things (including – eventually – Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens).

But the other really important thing that I picked up on was a tiny grain of encouragement she’d given me right at the start of our fifteen minutes. I’d thrust my writing CV at her, with a comment that what I really wanted was to have a short story collection published, “but of course, there’s no chance of that ever happening.” Her response was to look at the CV and say, “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” This was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to me about my short stories.

So, in the light of recent events, I rather think it’s about time I thanked Sophie King for that painful fifteen minutes.

Thank you, Sophie.

4 thoughts on “No Pain, No Gain

  1. It’s taken me quite some time to realise I actually don’t take criticism too well – especailly from ‘them as knows’. But I do remember it, think about it, and when my bad mood has worn off, work out what it really means for me. (Like you say, not necessarily a case of going off and doing what was recommended).
    Glad it worked out and good for SK to show some vision there

  2. Exactly. I think one of the most important things to learn as a writer is to separate criticism from one’s emotional reaction to it. But it’s not at all easy.

  3. Let’s face it, we writers are always our worst critics so to actually get to the point of showing your work must have meant that you really believed in it.
    And here lies the problem. We may edit and polish all we want, but we will never read something we’ve written with the fresh eyes of someone who hasn’t.
    So I think you have hit the nail on the head when you say we are too close to our own work.
    Great post, thank you.

  4. Thanks for dropping in, Elpi! It’s a very fine line to walk. You ned to be close enough to your writing to love it – because otherwise what’s the point in writing? But you do need to be prepared to give up control at some point if you really want to be published by someone other than yourself. And the more of a novice you are, the more control you’re going to have to give up.

    What I realised here was that with this particular high-concept project, I just wasn’t prepared to give up that level of control. It surprised me that I reacted that way, but I’m very glad it happened then and not at the point where I might have had the choice between what I would have seen as compromising and not getting published.

    I should also add that SK was indisputably right about some of the other issues with the manuscript, by the way. And she may well still be right about the rest. But I hope not.

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