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. 

Mr Hops Goes to Tea

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Mr Hops was walking in the forest when he heard a telephone ringing. There in a clearing he saw a big green phone box. He went into the box and answered the phone.

‘Hello? Is there anyone there?’ he said.

‘Hello Mr Hops,’ said a mysterious voice. ‘This is, um, um, your cousin, um, um, Bugsy. Would you like to come to my house for tea?’

‘Hmm,’ thought Mr Hops. ‘I don’t have a cousin called Bugsy. In fact, I don’t have a cousin at all.’ But he was curious, so he said: ‘Yes, I’ll come to tea, Bugsy.’

‘Meet me at Mountain View at the house with the red door at five O’clock,’ said the voice. ‘Bye-bye.’

‘Bye-bye, Bugsy,’ said Mr Hops, but he didn’t put the phone down right away and he heard the voice snickering on the other end of the line.

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Mr Hops went home and baked a cake. It was very yellow because it was a… CHICKEN CAKE! And Mr Hops put a secret ingredient in, a unicorn sleeping potion.

thumb_IMG_2672 2_1024When the cake was baked he set off for Mountain View and at five O’clock he knocked on the red door.



A very strange-looking rabbit opened the door. It had extra floppy ears and sloppy stitches all down its back.

‘Hello, Cousin Hops,’ said a gruff voice.

‘Hello, Cousin Bugsy,’ said Mr Hops. ‘I’ve brought you a cake.’


Please observe the remains of former tea guests buried under the floor…

‘Oh. How kind. Carrot, I suppose?’

‘Chicken, actually,’ said Mr Hops.

The strange rabbit jumped up and down with delight. ‘Chicken! My favourite,’ he squealed. He jumped around so much that some of his stitches burst and out popped a big red bushy tail.

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‘Oh oh,’ said Mr Hops.

‘Oh oh,’ said Mr Fox.

‘Cake?’ said Mr Hops nervously. ‘Please do eat.’

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‘I will,’ said Mr Fox. ‘But I don’t know what to eat first, the cake or YOU!’

Suddenly something blocked the open door and a huge black shadow fell over the two enemies. They turned around slowly.

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It was Mr Wolf!

‘Do something,’ cried Mr Fox.

‘Mr Wolf,’ stammered Mr Hops. ‘Would you like some chicken cake?’

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‘Ah,’ said Mr Wolf. ‘I knew I could smell something very delicious.’ And he snatched the cake from Mr Hops’ trembling paws. ‘This will do as a starter, before I gobble up you and your foxy friend.’ The cake was gone in a gulp.

Mr Wolf turned to the rabbit and the fox and opened his great stinky jaws to bite off their heads.


He fell forwards in a deep deep sleep and landed in what was left of the chicken cake.

‘What happened?’ said Mr Fox.

‘Unicorn sleeping potion,’ said Mr Hops. ‘We’d better get out of here before he wakes up.

‘Yes, let’s,’ said Mr Fox. ‘I’m awfully sorry, Mr Hops, for trying to trick you.’

‘I’m sorry too, Mr Fox,’ said Mr Hops, ‘for trying to trick you back.’

‘We’ll make a great team, Mr Hops,’ said Mr Fox, and the two friends jumped over the snoring wolf and ran all the way home to Bunny Burrow.

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This story was created on August 12th at the Wild Words Festival in Carrick-on-Shannon. It is the work of Piper, Kayanna, Peter, Connor, Zoe, Emily, Roxi, Ronán, Cadhla, Mia, Eimear, Tristan, Ruby, Poppy, Róisín and Rossa, under the guidance of Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick. © is held by Wild Words Festival on behalf of the creators.


When I’m finishing a book I’m already anticipating the day I can start the new one  pulsing inside my head. This time there are three ideas – an older picturebook idea which wants a sample colour illustration, a new one which needs to be roughed up into a dummy, and a novel. To be honest I’ve already begun sneaking a few hours on these over the last few months – I wrote three chapters of the novel while we were in the US and did some work on one of the picturebook texts. In fact, both of us snuck a little work on other projects while on holidays…

…so you’d think that the minute I sent off Owl Bat Bat Owl I’d be straight into the next project, right? I thought so too. I always think so and I’m always wrong. After a few euphoric hours end-of-book ennui sets in and has to be gotten over. Himself was also at the end of a book. We took a few days off and went west.

When we got back I was raring to go. The novel was first on my list but I decided I couldn’t write another word until I made character sheets. I cleared the kitchen table to spread out the profiles as I made them. I’d written two when I realised I needed to hoover. The whole house. And put on a wash.

Then I realised I couldn’t possibly write about my characters while the ones in the book I was reading were in my head. I made a hot chocolate and curled up in a chair to finish reading it – totally necessary from a work point-of-view, I promise.

Next day a couple more character descriptions made it onto A4 coloured card and hit the table before I found myself on my knees cleaning the kitchen cupboard doors. I couldn’t possibly ignore the drips and fingerprints on them for another moment, despite managing to do so perfectly well for three years a fair while.

Meanwhile Michael, having sent off all the interior art for his book, still had to design a cover. But first he headed off to Woodies to get some plywood to make the bullet-proof case he will post the finished cover in – art is sometimes damaged in transit.

However Michael came back with plywood PLUS several lengths of wooden plank. The piles of books and work dotted around the house were getting on his nerves so much he absolutely had to make a new set of bookshelves and some work-in-progress shelves to go beside the computer desk. Twenty-four hours later we had new furniture and he finally began his cover designs.


I now had a table full of character sheets but felt compelled to sort and arrange my projects into the new work shelves. At the end of which I realised I wasn’t ready for the novel – it needs more research. Instead I will get cracking on the two picturebook ideas… though I’ll need to clear off my drawing desk first. I’ll go do that now.

I will. Cross my heart. Just as soon as I finish writing this blog.

the end…The End…no, really, THE END.

Finishing a book can turn into a cascade of endings. I’ve been ‘finishing’ Owl Bat Bat Owl for months. All the main interior art was ‘done’ before we headed to the USA for Thanksgiving, but that still left the title page, endpapers and cover, so I set to REALLY finishing it when I came back.

Then came the tweaks and corrections. Bits and pieces which my editors had spotted – these post-its adorned the print-out of the art they sent me. I peeled them off as I fixed them…


But there was even more fickity feckity stuff I spotted myself. And stuff Michael pointed out – it often takes a fresh eye to notice things this late in the game. So many things to sort that I had to list them image by image, then go through methodically and tick them off as done.

This is my first time illustrating a book digitally and I found it involves way more tweaking than usual. With physical art there is a point at which tweaking could destroy the piece so you have to just let it be – with digital you can go on messing indefinitely.

So there were tweaks to the tweaks… some from the editors and some more of my own. I felt as if my head and shoulders were actually inside the computer and my depth of focus was permanently reduced to two feet. I was vacillating between ‘I hate this book, I don’t care what it looks like’ and ‘steady…steady…not long now…one more push and it will all be over…’

There have been books where ‘I don’t care’ won the day so I’ve got to live with those flaws I was too tired to fix. This time ‘steady, steady’ won – I even pulled the cover back from my art editor for more tweaks (one for Michael, two for me) after she’d already given it the thumbs up. But the thing is there will always be flaws, stuff which could have been better. You could go on fixing and polishing indefinitely – how do you know when to STOP?

Usually it’s the publishing schedule that dictates when you have to let go at last but the problem with all that final polishing is you risk your art losing vital energy, spontaneity, freshness, so at some point IT HAS TO END. It’s the same with a novel. In theory you can keep reworking; in reality (in my opinion) books can die from overworking. You’ve got to abandon* this book and take what you’ve learnt onto the next one. When I finally put the memory stick of files in the post I was at the stage where I could no longer see the images as images, the characters as characters – they had become just so many pixels. I was way beyond doing positive work on it so it was time to let it go.

The End.

And then, having already downed my celebratory whiskey, an image bounced back with some comments I couldn’t ignore because I agreed with them… grrr! Three days later…


Until, that is, the proofs arrive…

*A poem is never finished, only abandoned. Paul Valery

Links for Picturebook Makers

Following up the last post – Dear First-time Picturebook Author –  here are the links I promised. 

Great tips from the experts:

Joyce Dunbar  http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/writing/writing-tips/36/

Mem Fox  http://memfox.com/for-writers-hints/  and then clink on the articles underneath- Quick and Snappy, 20 dos and don’ts, Even more Advice

Malachy Doyle on how not to write a picture book http://picturebookden.blogspot.ie/2014/08/dont-do-it-how-not-to-write-picture.html?spref=fb

Lots of writers give their thoughts on picturebooks to Marilyn Singer:  http://marilynsinger.net/onwriting/what-makes-a-good-young-picture-book/

Emma Blackburn, Bloomsbury:        https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/327/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-for-children/


On writing in rhyme:

http://picturebookden.blogspot.ie/2013/10/to-rhyme-or-not-to-rhyme-by-natascha_3.html?spref=fb                                                                                                      and  http://nosycrow.com/blog/rhyming-picture-books


If you live in Ireland:

Children’s Books Ireland is a great source for info/links and conferences on writing for children: http://www.childrensbooksireland.ie/

SCBWI Ireland is a branch of the huge international organisation. They run courses, conferences etc.   http://scbwiireland.wordpress.com/


A useful book:

The Children’s Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook. It lists publishers and agents and also has articles on various writerly things. This year’s should be in your local library. https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/store



Tips for Dummies http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/writing-childrens-books-for-dummies-cheat-sheet.html

Why are there 32 pages in most picturebooks? Here’s an explanation: http://writersrumpus.com/2013/09/24/why-thirty-two-pages/


B/W photo © Róisín White

Dear First-time Picturebook Author

For any picturebook writers hiding amongst the many NaNoWriMo-ers out there this November, this is a letter cobbled together from my replies to questions I’ve been getting from first time picture book authors. Recently I’ve had a rush of queries, many of which were about commissioning illustrations. My replies are based on 27 years working as a picturebook author; however, the publishing business is changing rapidly and other folk may have different experiences/opinions, so get Googling to see what everyone else says!


Dear First-time Picturebook Author,

The good news is that you do not need to commission your own illustrations. You submit your text to publishers or to an agent who submits it on your behalf. If a publisher takes it, they will match your work to an illustrator, they will deal with the illustrator, they will pay the illustrator. The only publisher I have ever heard of suggesting writers find their own illustrator is An Gúm, the Irish language/government owned publisher, and that was years ago. Occasionally a well-known writer will team up with a well-known illustrator and suggest to a publisher they work on a book together, but that is a different thing altogether.

So forget trying to find an illustrator! It’s the publisher’s job to do that, not yours. That is the way the industry works. And yes, in picturebooks the royalties are split between author and illustrator.

It’s possible you feel your text needs the illustrations to work? Well of course it does! That is completely normal with a picturebook and editors are used to reading texts. You don’t need to /should not add detailed explanations of what you think the illustrations would look like – the illustrator is supposed to be free to react to your text and interpret it. However, sometimes there is something you may need to flag – for instance, the child in the story is playing with a red ball but it is never mentioned in the text. The action of the ball – which we will read visually – forms a vital part of the narrative, hitting things, breaking things, and explains gaps in the text. If your text works this way then do add notes explaining what is happening in the illustrations, but keep them very brief and to the point.

Do you have a strong idea of size/shape of your book, and of the placement of the text? If this is because it is integral to your idea then you should indicate it and why. Otherwise the size and design of book will be decided by the publishers/design editor.

Editors are really big on picturebooks written and illustrated by the same person, so should you have a go at illustrating it yourself? If you are a talented illustrator/artist then I would certainly have a go at illustrating it; otherwise don’t even consider it. (By talented, I mean professional or capable of achieving a professional standard.) Editors like books illustrated and written by the same person because of the cohesion and integration that usually brings to the idea; the author/illustrator is likely to come up with concepts which you won’t get from a writer and illustrator working separately. To this end editors will often encourage illustrators they work with to try their hand at writing, but I have never heard of an editor encouraging a writer who has never shown any artistic ability to try illustrating their own work. Picturebook art, no matter how simple the style, takes a lot of hard work, skill, and time. Some people might take as little as 2 or 3 months to illustrate a book, I take 8 – 10 months, other illustrators take a year or more.

By the way, if you are an illustrator/writer you should produce rough art (simple pencil sketches) for your idea and maybe two finished pieces – don’t do finished art for the entire book. If you find a publisher for it many things will be changed and you may have to do the whole lot again.

The not so good news is that the children’s book industry is awash with people trying to place picturebook texts and novels at the moment. I don’t say that to put you off but to encourage you to concentrate on crafting/writing the best idea and text you can before trying to place it. Just like the illustrations, developing a great text takes time and skill. My earliest books were developed over years and years. Izzy and Skunk took rewrite/re-rough after rewrite/re-rough. It was 7 years before I figured out the right way to end it and finally found a publisher for it. I have no idea how many rejection slips it got along the way, but I did gather up some useful comments amongst the ‘no thank-yous’ which helped me get there. You, Me, and the Big Blue Sea took 9 years of revising and revisiting, which included letting go my (strong) inclination to write it (badly) in rhyme, and realising the book needed to go from portrait shape to landscape. It was finally taken by a publisher who had previously rejected it. Silly Mummy, Silly Daddy was rejected at least 24 times. My niece Beth, heroine of that book, was 2 years old when I got the idea, and 16 when it was finally published. *

These days my skill levels are much higher and I can develop ideas relatively rapidly, but they still take time and attention to get right, I still like to mull them over, let them sit with me a while. And I still get rejections, only now they land in my inbox rather than on the hall floor.

When you have given your idea/text plenty of time and hard work and sweat, and it is the VERY BEST you can possibly make it, take some more time to do your homework about approaching publishers and agents. Most publishers and agents have clear guidelines on their websites setting out what kind of ideas they are looking for/not looking for, and how they like them presented.

Best of luck and happy writing, Marie-Louise

* For clarity’s sake I should say that I got all three of these book ideas in the same year (1992) and developed them simultaneously, while working on my third book, The Long March, doing many, many illustration projects for an educational publisher, and also part-time teaching. I brought the ideas (physically, because that was the norm then) around the publishers in London on two occasions, once in 1994, again in 1998. After that I got an agent and she began showing them after I reworked them yet again. There was a fourth idea which I ditched very early on, and then a fifth, I’m a Tiger Too, which I developed more quickly and which was taken by the first publisher I showed it to. So the development work on each of those early ideas was a month here, a month there, two months here, two weeks there – months and months of work with long gaps inbetween each bout. The long gaps inbetween were at least as important as the periods of actual work because time away from the idea would throw up sharply exactly what wasn’t working and suggest what might. Basically I was developing skills and learning my craft by working and reworking all these ideas; I was finding my personal writing ‘voice’ and also my visual style. At some point everything began to click into place, the ideas were working and publishers began to take real interest.

On Friday I will post links to some organisations, websites and blogs I like and which you may find useful.