Tag Archives: feedback

Taking criticism on the chin

Have you seen my troll?Phil: One of the projects I work on has an associated web forum. Users can comment on the publication whether they read it or not as well as discussing many other topics.

Sadly, some see this as an opportunity to have a pop at the editorial team with wide ranging statements along the lines of “The last issue was a load of rubbish” or “I want a better magazine”. None of these provides any help producing said better magazine and are just posted to give the writer a little thrill that they’ve bullied someone and can get away with it thanks to being on the web.

I’d suggest that they then run off and boast about their cleverness to their friends but I suspect like most trolls, they don’t have any.

Being on the receiving end of this kicking, can be very hard indeed. More than once I’ve wondered what the point is and started taking more interest in job adverts. After all, you do your level best and the only response if from some pathetic individual holed up with a computer who gets a thrill from being nasty.

Nowadays you can’t avoid this, the only salvation is to realise that you are often looking at one or two individuals who just make a lot of noise. The majority are happy with the results and many do use the opportunity to say so or indulge in helpful discussions, something I really enjoy.

What does this have to do with writing our book?

Well, we’re working through some publisher comments at the moment. Happily, there is nothing bad and some of them have fired us up to write extra scenes that will enhance the story. This has been great fun and the additions have enriched the text.

Others though are more contentious. Taking criticism isn’t easy and there are a couple of suggestions that we aren’t so happy with. Not angry or upset, simply we disagree.

Being a writing duo makes this a lot easier – we’ve chatted and agreed with each other that we don’t agree so there is none of the ruminating in the middle of the night wondering if the whole project is all rubbish that can affect the solo author.

This is helped by the publisher making it clear that these are just suggestions. When we meet them, we’ll chat over the ones we disagree with. So far, having someone who isn’t as immersed in the book as we are reading and commenting has improved the text and long may this continue.

And as you are head for the comments, if you wouldn’t say it face to face, don’t say it on-line.

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A positive rejection

Reading[Day12]*Phil: I’ve been back on the query letter treadmill recently.

There has been much trawling through the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook looking for agents who aren’t based in London. We’ve nothing against an agent residing in the capital it’s just that we think they may prefer authors from within the M25 and that isn’t us. If anyone wants to prove me wrong, feel free, but when faced with many pages of potential contacts, you’ve got to reduce the list somehow.

Anyway, last Saturday I e-mailed off another query complete with letter and fully proof-read first 3 chapters. Later on, while checking my phone in the pub (I was waiting for my mate to come back with his round and looking at your phone says, “I’m not a weirdo loitering for no reason” to anyone who looks your way. Or at least most blokes think it does.) I spotted a reply.

Sadly, the reply was a rejection, but a good one.

This looks a good read. Sadly, it wouldn’t be quite right for our contacts.

A good read.

She thinks it looks like A Good Read.

That’s brilliant!

All we have even wanted to do is write a good read. We’ve never claimed to be knocking out the sort of complicated literary stuff that gets the hard-core critic excited. We just want to entertain a few people. People who might be sitting beside a pool somewhere or curled up on a sofa with a steaming mug of tea and a slice of cake.

It’s important to remain positive as you struggle towards being published, so we’ll take this little morsel and thank the kind person who made both of our days.

Now, if we can just find someone who thinks the same thing AND has suitable contacts…


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How long should a book chapter be?

How long sir?

Phil: When working on people’s websites, I come from the usability camp. That doesn’t mean I sleep in a tent or walk funny, it’s those of us who decide how a site should work by looking at the people who use it and see what they are doing. We don’t ask them what they want, we watch to see what they do and then modify the pages to match those expectations.

The theory is that if you give people what they expect, using the website is easier and they achieve whatever it is they came to it wanting to do. It’s a bit like car design really – put the brake pedal anywhere but the middle and you’ll lose a sale. Steve Krug nailed it with his book, “Don’t make me think“. If I have to learn how to use a website then I’m probably not going to bother.

I reckon you can apply some of these lessons to writing a book and chief amongst these is chapter length.

Grabbing some books from my shelves, I did a quick survey:

John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos – 12 pages

Tony Hawks – A Piano in the Pyrenees – 16 pages

Freya North – Pip – 13 pages

Stephen King – The Long Walk – 19 pages

Alan Titchmash – Knave of Spades – 7 pages

My methodology (for those who care about such things) was to pick a random chapter somewhere in the middle of the book and count the pages. Don’t complain, it’s as scientific as most of the stuff you get reported on the telly.

What does it tell us?

Not as much as I expected. My guess was that chick-lit would have shorter chapters than other genres. Freya North and Alan Titchmarsh (same audience I reckon) are on the lower end of the scale and she manages a few 2 pagers in the book. A quick look at our Book and I think we are in line with this.

Since it’s rude to gawp over people’s shoulders while they read, I’m basing the conclusions on Candice and my feelings. Both of us are fans of short chapters to give a story pace. We’ve broken our story pretty much every time you change scene as this seems logical and tried not to stay in any one place too long.

I also think it makes the book easier to read. I pick books up and put them down to snatch a moment of reading. If I can do a chapter, the bookmark moves in a satisfying way and it doesn’t seem odd to stop. If the chapter end is 4 pages away, I’ll stick at it. 10 pages and I’ll probably realise that I’m not going to make it to the end in this session so will look for another convenient place to halt, be it a paragraph or end of page. Picking up won’t be so easy but I don’t have any choice.

Injecting pace with short chapters will probably increase the tiem a reader spends with you each session. Get momentum in the story which carries you along and you think, “Oh I’ll just do another chapter” making the book becomes a page turner. Both readers and writers want that don’t they?

Conclusion: Length matters and for commercial fiction, short wins.


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The Cathedral Killer feedback

Phil: OK, you’ve now read our short story, The Cathedral Killer (Part 1 and Part 2) we entered it into the Writers Forum short story competition and also paid for some feedback. Here’s what we received:

Presentation: Manuscript layout needs some attention. You might find this post useful: http://suemoorcroft.wordpress.com/manuscript-presentation/ and also this one: http://thewritersabcchecklist.blogspot.com/2011/01/punctuating-dialogue.html for dialogue punctuation. When a sentence starts with a number it has to be written out in words. Salaciously isn’t the right word in context. Typos: over hang/overhang, though/thought, brothers/brother’s, see/seen, back packing/backpacking, no-where/nowhere

Title: Good – apt for the story and intriguing.

Opening: This introduces the main character, but it doesn’t contain a compelling reason to read on. A strong hook is needed to grab the reader’s attention.

Dialogue: The dialogue helps to drive the story but doesn’t do as much as it could to aid characterisation.

Characterisation: Brad didn’t come to life as a real person. I think you could have used his dialogue to flesh him out more – particularly as you want the readers to believe he is the killer.

Overall: I realised a bit too early that she was the killer – it had to be her because it obviously wasn’t Brad. I think you need to give us another red herring so that readers will believe it is Brad. In other words, make another character suspicious, the readers will discount him and look for someone else, so Brad needs to be the next logical person but appear to be above suspicion (which then makes him suspicious).

Needs some work but has potential


OK, it’s not the ringing endorsement we were hoping for but I think I can see where most of it comes from. We’re still at the stage of trying to balance writing enough story to make it interesting with keeping the short story, well, short. If another character was added to make Brad more suspicious, would we need to increase the length of the thing by a third to give this person some dialogue ? Does this matter ?

To be fair, I’d had the same “I guessed the killer too early” point made by a friend who read the story. Throwing red herrings in is much harder than you would think. Agatha Christie was brilliant at this yet she’s often accused of writing pot-boilers. On the other hand we want people to be able to guess the outcome. I hate it when a deus ex machina gets the writer out of a hole. I want to solve the crime, or at least realise I could have solved it.

Still, at least we have potential. Maybe we will re-work the story and re-publish it at a later date in some sort of anthology. Mind you, we’ve also had ideas along the lines of turning it into a play where the audience take the part of the tourists following the tour. Potential indeed.


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Needs some work but has potential

Gold starPhil: Can you take criticism on the chin ? The answer to this question divides the members of team nolanparker it seems.

We recently entered a short story into the monthly Writers Forum competition. For an extra fiver, you can request personal feedback and so, being keen to learn, we did.

The feedback arrived. An A4 (electronic) sheet with some suggestions. They liked the title, thought the presentation could do with work, didn’t feel the opening was especially compelling or that one of the characters was fleshed out enough. Also, the dialogue drove the story forward but could do more to aid the characterisation.  The conclusion was “Needs some work but has potential”

I read it and was impressed that someone really had taken the time to read and comment on the piece. I didn’t expect to win any prizes at our first attempt but you have to start somewhere and for a fiver, it was well worth it. I fancy re-working the piece and then putting it out there again. The comments seemed fair to me as we are aiming high, and not pointlessly harsh. We might think it’s a wonderful story but you can’t expect everyone to see this until you are mega famous at which point they don’t wish to look stupid by pointing out the emperor has no clothes.

My friend on the other hand, took it less well – “I read that straight away, thus putting a damper on an afternoon when they didn’t tell me we were the next JK Rowling.  If I hadn’t jumped to that email there and there I might not have ruined my afternoon!”

How can we be that different ? Am I too laid back ? Is Candice too thin-skinned ?

I’m not ignoring the comments – far from it – but I don’t take them personally. We aren’t JK Rowling yet (It could have been worse, imagine if the comment had been “You are the next E. L. James“, that would have caused a fuss !). No, feedback part of the learning journey. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger etc. etc.

But, there is a problem. It can’t be denied that Nolan is a far more succesful high-flyer than I am. Maybe I am too laid back ? Maybe I should take criticism to heart. Perhaps if I was wracked with distress it would fire me up to do better, or would it make me want to give up entirely ?

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Finding happiness in small things.

LollypopPhil: The publishers response (blogged last Thursday) caused some discussion at our airport cafe lunch venue. Rather more than the sandwiches which were, to be honest, a little stale.

Maybe the unseasonably warm weather had something to do with the state of the bread as well as our good spirits. If so, then all is forgiven as sitting outside watching the ‘planes go by was lovely. Both of us felt the same way, even “You can give me criticism and I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich” Nolan who was more concerned with trying to get as much of suntan as you can in 45 minutes while wearing work clothes.

The reply was disappointing but there were hints of promise too. Like a jump lead for our enthusiasm, it has revved up the nolanparker creative engine and some serious fiddling with the manuscript is apparently underway by my co-writer. I await the results with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

WordPress provides another measure of our progress. A week or so ago, we were awarded a badge for breaking the 20 followers barrier. Apparently this is a new feature designed to encourage all of us bloggers to follow each other until no one has time to write anything because we’re all too busy reading blog posts. I suppose that someone in WordPress headquarters has decided we all need little prizes to encourage us to keep hammering the keyboard, hence the new badges which you can read about here. Don’t just look at visitor numbers, although Robin Coyle seems happy doing this, you get a badge. Woo hoo.

They say good things come in threes and as you can see from the photo, and the real reason for this post, it does. Dear reader, feast your eyes upon my first ever prize for a sporting endeavor.

As you might guess from our headline picture, I’m not very good at sport. Look up “Last to be picked at school for any team” in the dictionary, there is a picture of me. In fact I can confidently claim to be utterly useless at any sport. You might laugh at Eddie the Eagle, but he’s Franz Klammer compared to me. Candice has medallions for running – apparently putting one foot in front of another lots of times and traversing a distance without the aid of St Johns ambulance is something to be reward with a medal, even if you’d probably prefer a Mars bar. Me. Nothing. I don’t think I even got a swimming certificate.

Sometimes this isn’t for want of trying. Every month I go Ten Pin bowling (yes, this is a sport, just like darts) with a group of friends. For at least 3 years this has been happening most months. Enough time for some of the practise to bear fruit you might think. No chance. I’m actually getting worse !

Sometimes though, even I get a break. On the score screen last night popped up a promise that if you got a strike on the next throw, a prize would be awarded. No one in our group has won this, not even Dave who is so keen that he has his own ball and shoes. Not until last night, when I lobbed the ball down the alley and knocked every pin down ! Expecting a triumphant presentation, perhaps with some champagne spraying and pretty girls like they get in Formula 1, I waited.

And waited.

For quite a while. Until we’d nearly finished the game in fact. Maybe they were busy setting up the ceremony I thought.

Eventually, I couldn’t bear it any longer and wandered over to the shoe swap counter to ask.

“You get a lollypop.” said the man in charge of shoes and shoe spray, “But I haven’t got any.”

Thwarted. I returned to the game but my heart wasn’t in it. I mean, the Olympics this year had better be more organised. “I’m sorry Mr Bolt, we forgot to order enough medals. You don’t mind do you ?” won’t go down too well.

Eventually they realised that I wasn’t a man to be trifled with and by the end of the evening, the prize had arrived. No champagne or eye candy, but hey ho, it’s not much but I’m proud of it. A plinth is under construction along with a trophy cabinet. At least I don’t have to polish it.

Little things.


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Feedback from a publisher !

Phil: Out of the blue a few days ago, I get a letter. Oddly, it is addressed to both myself and Candice at my address. Then I notice the franking and realise it’s from a publisher.

Tearing open the envelope, I hope with all my heart that it says something along the lines “We love your book, here’s a huge cheque.” but I know it’s more likely to say “Please don’t bother us again or we’ll call the Police.”. I read the page contained within. Then I read it again.

It’s a rejection letter.

But it’s a special rejection letter. One with a little bit of positive feedback. The second paragraph reads:

Although your story had appealing elements and your writing style was suited for the chick-lit genre, our reader felt that the authors were too concerned with explaining the background rather than introducing the main character or getting into the action of the story.

They think our writing style is suited to the genre ! We can actually do this thing !

OK, so there is the bit about taking too long to get to the point but as regular readers will know, we are working on this. Sadly the query letter to response time straddles the point where we found this out and started trying to fix it. Had we realised this earlier then maybe the latter would have been more positive. Or maybe there would be something else wrong. For the minute we are both taking the little bit of positive out of this.

Anyway, at the very least, someone has at least read our three chapters. Someone in a publishing house. Better still, they didn’t just send a standard letter, but took the time to make a suggestion. Someone who gets loads of stuff from the slush pile to plough through took the time to help. How special does that make us ?


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Candice :  Now writing is one thing but being able to take feedback on what you’ve written is something entirely different. I have to admit, I am not the best at taking constructive criticism. My usual response is to jump to the defence of what I have done, right or not.  Phil is much better and doesn’t take things quite so personally.  However, we have had feedback from a few people over the last year and we seem to have two different types of reader:

One: who reads the book cover to cover and then gives constructive notes on the whole thing with a few pointers. They fall in to the “I liked it” group.

Two: those who read it as if they are marking a school essay, mark up every typo or grammar mistake and give it back three months later.  They are the ” I hated it but I’m not going to be that blunt.”

Now, we understand everyone is different and we all don’t like every film we see or book we read but I have to say I have taken some our feedback personally . Hey, this book is like my baby, we’ve both put alot of time and effort into it and when some one is negative I feel like saying, your child is ugly too!

However, after my last negative feedback, I really felt like throwing the towel in.  But after a pep talk from Phil I thought it was about time we sent something to a professional editor.    So I found Liz, a locally based editor also on wordpress (libroediting.com) and we sent off the first three chapters.  And 48 hours later back they came.

Finally I felt that we  were getting professional help that was constructive and actionable. So, Liz’s feedback spured us on in our writing chat last week.  Here is someone who said, well actually you need a better hook at the start and need to beef up your proganist, and I understand what she means.

So we are going to work on book 2 and keep Liz’s comments in mind. And when we get back to reditting book 2 we’ll send it to her for the professional opinion as well as those of friends and family, to keep things in perspective.

And hopefully with all our feedback, 2012 will be the year when someone goes, “”hang on I think this is worth pursuing.”


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Facing criticism

Phil stared down into his beer. The delicious Old Speckled Hen coursed through his system and started to dull the pain of what he feared was to come. This was high noon for the writers. The day when all the chickens would be coming home to roost. It was the day he had arranged to meet V and find out what she thought  of The Book.

He had met V three jobs ago. She was a PA who ruled her boss and his department with an iron fist. She wasn’t so much the power behind the throne as the ventriloquist behind the dummy. Grown men cowed in her presence and Phil remembered more than once receiving a verbal slap down over the telephone when he dared to step over a previously invisible line

But this made V the ideal person to read The Book. She wouldn’t pull her punches. If there were problems, they would be exposed. If the plot was rubbish, blushes would not be spared. At the end of the day, if The Book had satisfied its reader then a good job could be said to be done.

OK, I’m hamming things up a bit, but this week I’ve received a couple of feedbacks from our second batch of test readers. I won’t be telling you the results until they have been discussed with Candice but the one thing I can be sure of is that they are fair assessments. Some friends are too close to be honest, they might fear causing offense by criticising a project that you’ve been rambling on about in the pub. Others though, aren’t so close so you don’t feel too bad about asking them to devote time to reading your great work whilst being confident that they will tell you the unvarnished truth.

I made it clear to all my test readers that what we needed was honesty. If it’s rubbish, tell me. OK, so this might be ignored but it’s your opinion. It’s possibly an opinion likely to be shared by someone who we approach to publish the thing. On the other hand, if it’s good then there’s the chance of some word-of-mouth that might just reach the ears of someone useful.

The other thing is that opinions vary. I’ve bounced early feedback off later readers and they have disagreed. OK, it’s not a focus group, but I’m doing my best on a limited budget most of which is spent on beer.

For the writer, it’s important to be open to criticism and make this very obvious. We are conditioned (mostly) not to be confrontational and so sitting down to tell some hard truths about a manuscript someone has spent ages slaving over is very difficult. A pint of beer or cake helps but it’s still a big ask to get someone to give up time to read and then comment on your book. It has to be done though. I mean, I think it’s great and so does my friend Candice. But then we aren’t really the most impartial of witnesses.

Whether V liked it, you’ll have to wait to find out. I need to discuss the results with my colleague first. Watch this space.

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