Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Seven Stages of Receiving Critiques

I’m at the stage with my novel where I’m leaking chapters to a few trusted readers. Some are real-life friends and others are friends from my online forum. The forum has a rule that the only correct response to a critique is ‘thank you’. This is absolutely true. Another rule is that as writers we have to grow a hide as thick as a rhino’s because after the beta readers (if we hit the next stage), we will have to face critiques from agents and publishers. The idea is: get used to it!

Having kept this novel to myself for the past two years, it has been a swift growing-up process for me learning to put it out there in front of others. At times it’s felt like placing a baby in front of sharp-shooters and saying, ‘Duck, my darling.’ Baby grows a thick skin fast.

Even if the only correct response to a critique is thank you, and even if the critiquer is absolutely right, facing criticism is very much like the seven stages of grief:

1. Shock/Disbelief

How can he say that? That’s my carefully crafted sentence/paragraph/chapter! How can he just rip it apart like that?

2. Denial

Never heard such crap in my life. Deleting my adjective build-up? This person clearly has no idea.

3. Anger

Does he think he can write? Try spending 24 months slaving over one manuscript, fighting off children, the laundry pile, dinner dates and and, visits to the hairdresser! in order to do this. What does that writer do? Probably stay indoors and write for 12 hours a day, stopping only to order flat food that delivery boys slide under the door. I have a life! And I wrote this, and I won’t have it fixed.

Anger can go on for quite a long time. This is the moment where the writer should avoid pinging back an email by return post.

4. Bargaining

Email to the critiquer: I know you said xyz, but I really need to keep it there because of abc, you see. It’s crucial to the narrative. I know you think it should come later, but you’ll see, really you will, that this is the place for it.

5. Guilt

I’m wasting their time. I’m boring them. I’ve presumed to ask them to be my beta reader and now they’re propping open their eyelids with matchsticks trying to get through my turgid prose.

6. Depression

I am awful. I am crap. I’m nothing.

I am so freaking bad that when I finally approach an agent all I’m going to hear is the sound of roaring laughter across the English Channel, through Belgium and down into south-western Germany. People will be looking at me saying, ‘She’s the one who caused the laughter.’ The whole of the Burg will be looking at me and laughing, and I’ll be … naked.

7. Acceptance and Hope

I think I just might move xyz. That will make the chapter stronger and more resonant. I am so lucky to have such great beta readers. My manuscript is improving. One day maybe, maybe an agent will read this and think, hmmm, not bad.

This is the point where the writer should ping her beta readers and say those two little words: thank you.

Thank you to my beta readers, near and far, present and future. Thank you for your time and patience. Thank you for helping me grow up and for making my manuscript into a much better read.


Weighing and Balancing

I’m busy trying to select a high school for my ten-year-old and believe me, that is not a typo. German kids start secondary school at the ripe old age of ten. Not only that, they are streamed at ten according to their academic results into the three different types of high school: Gymnasium for those who’ll go on to university, Realschule and Hauptschule for those who won’t. So a Maths test L did last week will help to decide whether she goes to university or not.

Unable to do anything about the bizarre system, I am breaking the mould by not sending my kid to the nearest school as a matter of course. We are looking at a range of schools, state and private, in the Heidelberg area. For me, it’s a huge decision: she’s my first child and the first person in our whole family to be heading for high school in the German system. The decision we make has to be a good one: she’ll be there for eight long years, and it should be a school that suits our other two. We want a school that has a good mix of Germans and foreigners, and where there is emphasis on languages. Nothing too homogenous.

The first of our six school visits took place last night. We went to the local high school – a vast place with more than 1000 pupils that educates kids from the Burg and all the surrounding villages. It’s the monopoly gymnasium. There are no other options nearby. We were impressed by what they had to offer, but I fear it’s going to be too homogenous for us. Plus it keeps us in the Burg for ever.

Tomorrow’s visit is to a private school. Private schools have a weird  reputation in Germany – they are seen as places where rich people send their thick or difficult children in order to drag them through Abitur. They are also considered elitist and someone said to me in all seriousness, ‘Are you sure you want your child to have an elitist school on their CV?’

So we are weighing and balancing, taking some things we see and hear to heart, ignoring other things.

I’m in the same process with my novel. Right now, I’m weighing the plot, what works and what doesn’t and throwing out the latter. I have a whole file called ‘extra stuff’ full of back-story that I’ve chucked out. Now and again, I find a use for a sentence or two and I thread them back in.

The next iteration will be on the language level. One of the readers from my writers’ forum pointed out that my characters nod and shrug a lot. She’s right, of course. I’ll be working through it line by line, strengthening the verbs, improving the body language, working on stimulus and response. The plot might be colourful and vibrant, but the language needs to be too.

So that’s where I am, dear readers, weighing and balancing. Trying to make good decisions that will stand my family and my novel in good stead. Trusting my instincts. Moving forward.