Image via Instagram @Edinburghreal.
When people ask if they can read my novel, my response is always: “Yes, but only if you promise to be harsh.”
Perhaps it’s that I overwrite so much in the first draft, or perhaps that I fall in love with the characters too much to trust that I haven’t indulged myself in the odd extra scene or two, but I’ve learnt to love harsh criticism. (I should point out, I love positive feedback, too!)
No matter how good you are at crafting a story, there are always things you can’t see – something left over from a cull that no longer belongs or makes sense, those words you subconsciously fall back on and re-use too many times, a small sub-plot you’ve missed tying up, or even whole scenes that are no longer needed.
I discovered my love of harsh criticism while writing a contemporary romance novel 10 years or so ago. I sent each draft to a trusted reader and a fellow writer for feedback. By the end of the third draft, I’d been given so much positive feedback, mainly along the lines of what they wanted more of, that it had blown out to 180,000 words. My attempts at cutting were abysmal.
When the third draft came back from a writer friend, there were pages and pages with red lines through them, ‘boring’ or ‘we already know all this’ scrawled on the pages. I couldn’t stop grinning. Finally, someone was showing me what to get rid of. I immediately saved it as a new document and took out everything she suggested.
Despite how happy I was, it hurt. So many beloved scenes confined to the trash. My ego was bruised, and every scene I cut, my mind filled with excuses for keeping them. But I kept going, knowing the book would be better for it. I also told myself that afterwards, I could add any or all of it back if I wanted.
But once I got into the rhythm, something amazing happened – I saw so much more that could go. By the end, I had it down to 120,000 words and for the first time, it felt tight and fluff-free. There was no way I could put things back after all that hard work. Getting rid of things was just so satisfying. In the end, I did allow one scene to return, but it had earnt its place and wasn’t there just because I liked it.
I still overwrite but that’s okay because I know that on the next draft, I won’t be afraid to get my red pen out and cut cut cut.
Of course, harsh criticism has to be helpful. There’s nothing worse than someone saying they didn’t like it but not being able to explain why. Not everyone can explain why they don’t like something, though, or give negative feedback in a constructive way. So choose the people you get feedback from carefully, and remember that you don’t have to agree with everything they say.
How do you cope with criticism of your work?