Taking Criticism

For a writer taking criticism of your work is part of the job but it’s difficult not to be devastated by some of the things editors say – or don’t say. When I do critiques for aspiring writers I’m very conscious of this. I try to couch my opinion in a gentle way but that can mean I’m not being honest or clear, so now instead of beating around the bush I preface with some advice on how to approach feedback:

This is probably the first critique of your work you have ever received so you should know that ALL writers (no matter how long they’ve been writing) tend to hone in immediately on the negative remarks in critiques and ignore the positive; I know I do. Having your work critiqued can feel a little like being flattened by a steamroller! Read on, but remember good writing is all about teasing out what’s working and what isn’t, and then rewriting/editing with that in mind. Whether it’s song lyrics, poetry or prose, no one writes perfect ready-to-publish pieces straight from their head onto the page.  All ‘mistakes’ are there to be learnt from and are the typical mistakes everyone makes when starting out. If you pick up any of the books on writing I recommend you’ll see they all cover the same ground over and over again. Writing is a craft as well as an art and this critique is about helping you develop the craft. Most writers write, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite again. First drafts are just that – drafts. When I critique work I intend everything to be taken positively. Everything is about going forward to the next stage.

Then comes the critique.  At the end I add some advice on how to recover from it:

Picking yourself up after a crit of your work

Having your work critiqued can be overwhelming and feel very negative. This is how I respond to having my work pulled apart by editors.

  • I go into a 24 hour sulk and eat chocolate cake.
  • Then I acknowledge to myself that there are things in the crit which hit me in the gut as true. These are things I know in my heart I need to fix.
  • Conversely there is usually at least one thing in a crit/edit which I don’t connect with at all, something which feels wrong/incorrect – I examine these but ignore anything which honestly feels wrong or as if the editor didn’t ‘get’ something.
  • I may continue to feel irritated and sulky but I accept there is work to be done, usually way more than I thought.
  • I take a few days, a few weeks or a few months away from the work to absorb this and to put some distance between myself and the manuscript. When I pick it back up and reread I can usually see lots of stuff that needs doing and can now attack it with energy and purpose.
  • Editing and rewriting can feel daunting and a chore but when you actually get into it and see your work get tighter and cleaner and better you should begin to enjoy it.

The yellow image above is one of four pages of feedback from my editor on the first draft of the opening six chapters of my first novel. The blue image is the first page of feedback on draft number four. Note that this sheet only covers the problems on pages 1-37! The scribbles are my reactions to the notes. I was lucky to have a fine editor holding my hand through the process of writing Timecatcher and I learnt a huge amount about the writing craft from him.

To the students of Marino Institute of Education: Three brave Marino students have already sent me work to critique and I enjoyed reading their manuscripts very much. I hope my feedback was useful and they had cake to hand when reading it. I’m up for critiquing three more pieces, so if you are a secret writer or illustrator send me one chapter or some images or a handful of poems or a short story or a picture book idea, but get them to Ciara Ní Bhroin ASAP as it will be on a first come, first served basis.

This is my third year as writer-in-residence at Marino Institute of Education. (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin. MIE offers courses across the continuum of teacher education and prepares specialist education practitioners at early years, primary and further education levels. 

Dog Blog

DINO

Dino was my first dog; he took me from my first year in school to my first year in art college. Named after The Flintstones’ pet dinosaur, Dino was a French poodle. His mum belonged to my Uncle Luke and his gran belonged to my Aunty Kate – a dog-family-within-our-family thing which delighted me no end. Dino hasn’t made it into any of my books (yet) but his ability to kill a rat instantly with one lightning snap did, attributed to another (fictional) dog who was based on another (real) dog. Ah, the creative onion!

Dino was loyal and fiercely protective but a wee bit snippy. Our next family dog, Tags, was an old darling.

TagsHe could be a complete nut and whirl around the house like a tornado, or lean his head on your knee and stare lovingly into your eyes. He sat behind my chair every day while I worked. That quiff of hair standing up on the top of his head was the result of all the petting he got from everyone who ever came into the house! Even my dog-phobic friends loved Tags.

Tags made it into a series of English Readers I illustrated in the 1990s. In the books his name was Patch and he was white with brown splotches, but Patch’s shape and personality and goofy grin were all pure Tags.

I cried for weeks after he died. Even dogs who live decent dog-length lives are here for too short a time, but they can still overlap ours significantly. Tags took me from 18 to 31. My mother was only 54 when we got him – which doesn’t seem at all old to me now. By the time Tags died she was 67 and a widow. He was about 4 when my niece Ann was born. Theirs was a mutual adoration club and she was heart-broken when he died.

I considered writing a book about him, following three generations of women through an eventful thirteen year timespan all in the company of a very special mutt. It’s one of those book ideas that never made it from thought to page; I guess I couldn’t face the emotional journey of trying to capture something so personal. If I’d known what a major success a book about a crazy lovable dog could be, maybe I’d have made a little effort! Some day.

Cara

Cara was a rescue dog, and another special hound. Not because he turned out to be an endangered breed, a fact I only discovered when he was 10, but because he, like Tags, had a BIG personality. A personality I tried to catch on paper in my first novel, Timecatcher, where I made him the main character’s dog. He is Duff, the steady friend, the braveheart, and in the end, the hero. Cara died while I was working on the book – that’s five years ago but there are tears in my eyes now as I type.

I painted him into the corner of this endpaper for The New Kid. He’s walking the beach with myself and Michael, off the lead and beside the sea, just as he would have wished.

Endpaper

The other dog who features in The New Kid wasn’t mine; Frankie belonged to a friend. Another rescue mutt, she’d been mistreated and was nervous as hell.

Frankie

Named for Dear Frankie, Ireland’s radio agony aunt of the 60s and 70s, Frankie-the-dog was so nervous she wouldn’t let me touch her and ran away at my approach. Yet she was so anxious to make friends she kept appearing at the door and coming closer, kept fighting her own fear until she was through it and sitting on my lap as I wrote!

Not surprising then that I used her as the dog in a tale about a group of kids working through their fears and worries to make friends with each other.

Oscar,-Frankie

Unfortunately Frankie went missing last year and hasn’t been seen since. But I part-dedicated the book to her, wherever she may be. I part-dedicated Timecatcher to Cara so I guess I’d better get working on books for Tags and Dino if I don’t want to be haunted by some small four-legged ghosts… not that the ghost of a good dog could be a bad thing.