Criticism – it’s an art form

Why do people write books?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for years. On the face of it, tying yourself to a desk for months and months is crazy, especially when our world offers a never-ending cornucopia of delights. Is it the story that gets lodged in your brain and refuses to disappear like the line of a song you keep humming? Or is it a passion for words – their use and arrangement on paper – as it is for poets? I can more easily understand an artist who sees the world in terms of colour, aquamarine and ochre, or a musician who hears a sequence of notes which he embroiders into a symphonic poem, than I can an author.

For me, though, it’s always been about telling a story, which makes me a plotter not a pantser and for years I have told my stories, both funny and sad, for a younger age group, while writing ‘edge-of-your-seat’ thrillers for YA’s and adults.

And in those years, thanks to the many experts who tutored me along the way, admonishing my work when it was poor or metaphorically throwing a book at me when they hated a certain phrase or paragraph, I learned and eventually managed to create something worth reading. My favourite editor was the one who expressed himself somewhat forcefully yet used such poetical language that his criticism, harsh though it was, made me laugh.

That is quite a skill because criticism is exceedingly difficult to take. I know I have several times asterisk-ed my language ******** when on receipt of an editor’s comments, muttering he/she was a fool and a) either they hadn’t read the novel or b) were prejudiced against my style of writing. Strangely, I found that the poetical abuse being lobbed at me the easiest form of criticism and never took umbrage. Moreover, I listened and changed the recalcitrant passage or in the case of Scott in Running, his character!

And it is criticism or the-not-taking-of-it that concerns me.  Authors make mistakes … fact. We get so caught up in our work we often stray. I should say from the path of righteousness – meaning the story. Unfortunately, this is something pantsers are prone to. Admittedly, skilled pantsers are to be envied because they can turn out a book in a month or six weeks but even they confess, especially after a couple of glasses of wine, that they have been known to write themselves into a blind alley and have to start again.

Which shouldn’t happen if you are a plotter. but it does. Recently I have noticed an alarming trend to throw everything at the plot including the kitchen sink. Why? You know the central premise of your book so why stray down alleys adding superfluouos descriptions or events.That was a lesson I learned very early on, from one of the editors who worked for Cornerstones.

‘If it adds nothing to the story … get rid.’

In my case, the book was Time Breaking – and yes, it is now fantastic and ended up as recommended reading in school. But it didn’t start out that way. ‘You have spent 5 pages describing the town and 5 pages the interior of the inn. They add nothing to the plot. What is important is Molly’s reaction and that took half a page!’

So, however, much you love the writing, or think readers will love your ihn-depth research, keep to the point. Don’t embroider or go off at a tangent in an attempt to bolster the number or pages or, in many cases, show off your knowledge of a particular subject.

Probably the most diligent plotter I have ever came across was Anthony Horowitz who wrote the Alex Rider series of books although he is likely to be more famous for his television work – Poirot, Midsummer Murders and Foyles War. Particularly the latter. People loved that series because the story lines were so creative and they worked. I remember being told that Horowitz was such a diligent plotter, he knew where each chapter began and ended.

And for years, that is how I wrote my children’s books so that at any point in the process, if  asked how many chapters left to write, I knew the answer.

There are many pieces of advice that came my way over the years and in the next few weeks, I shall be discussing these in my blogs, but now I want to move on to the section:

Hoist with my own petard

In 2013, after a mammoth session of planning which took months, plus awarding each character their own bio, I began writing The Year the Swans Came. The first hiccup came when I realised the character I had called Yöst was not a Yöst at all and, moreover was breaking all my rules – stalking in and out of the script whenever he liked and creating mayhem. And so he became Xander. Except by then, he was dominating the action so completely he asked to be called Zande – with the accent on the final e.

Sorted! It worked brilliantly and peace was restored!

The second hiccup came when an agent said, ‘you need to introduce the magic earlier’; responding to my valid complaint, ‘I am not sure if that is possible because it diminishes the tension and mystery,’ with the words, ‘Then write a prequel.’

At this point you could levy the criticism – so plotting did no good after all. And, yes, you are quite right. On this occasion, it didn’t. I would have been no worse off had I been a pantser, able to change the story as I wrote it.

Except, would I?

The writing of the Children of Zeus series has introduced a storyline so very different from anything I have attempted before, I am still pinching myself that it came from my pen. ‘The Click of a Pebble’ starts with a bang and ends with one too. Intended purely as a way to throw light on the magic of ‘The Year the Swans Came’, it does far more than that, introducing readers to a very different storyline one in which love, friendship, prejudice and persecution tussle for supremacy.

Written in the third person, the series opens in 1934, some seventeen years before Maidy and Ruth step onto the stage in ‘The Year the Swans Came’, on an island in the Bay of Biscay before moving into mainland France and Holland.

105,000 words later I may have written the words … The End … but it wasn’t.

And so, Book 2, ‘An Ocean of White Wings’ continues the story of the Albert and Marie Meijer and their adopted family, Yöst, Zande and Tatania. By now of course Holland and most of Europe has been overrun by the Nazis, although I never refer to them as Nazis, only as the invaders and one in particular Kapitein Leischman, known as Captain Death, who has sworn to obliterate the carinatae from the face of the face of the earth.

And yes, it is a love story. And yes, in its hero, Yöst, I have created a most memorable character. Admittedly Zande may haunt your dreams, but Yöst will keep reading until the last page, needing to know what will happen to him. He is so very human, it’s quite a challenge to discover he isn’t. 

‘You must promise never to speak out about your heritage,’ his grandmother said, her old voice fearful and faint, ‘because people fear anything different.’

‘Fear us!’ Yöst laughed in protest. ‘We are too few to fear.’

‘It makes no difference. You are carinatae, descendants of Zeus, magical creatures …’

And the third book? ‘The Drumming of Heels’ will be published on the 28th March. Has it brought their story to an end? No! It has taken a fifth book, ‘Sunset on Golden Wings’, the sequel to ‘The Year the Swans Came’ to do that. Happy Reading.

6 thoughts on “Criticism – it’s an art form

  1. Reblogged this on Pattys World and commented:
    Good morning.
    Here we are on this beautiful spring #SocialMediaMonday morning and Barbara Spencer is back with her Monday blog.
    In this post, she’s some wisdom to share.
    Enjoy! And do pick up her books because they’re quite incredible!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Writing to be Read and commented:
    Drop by Barbara Spencer’s “Pictures from the Kitchen” for a eye-opening post on the importance of criticism in writing, and ways to deal with seeming negativity based on her own experiences. Lot’s of food for thought, and it’s a great lead in for the release of the third book in her “Children of Zues” trilogy, “The Drumming of Heels”.


  3. A very interesting post, Barbara. Negative criticisms, while often difficult to take, if you take the time to listen, you may find a great value in it. Authors do make mistakes, but the nice thing about writing is we can always go back and correct them. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always find them the day after my paperback has gone to the publishers for printing!
      That happened in The Year the Swans Came – I found an s missing. But yes with ebook, typos are easy to correct but not plot holes and poor characterisation – I guess that’s why we spend so much time working on our novels … to get them as good as humanly possible.


  4. Hi Barbara, thank you for sharing your experience and insight. I have only been writing for 5 years but I have learned so much from developmental editing and constructive criticism of my work. This is the only way you can learn and improve.


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