By Maggie James
Most people have been supportive of my career as a novelist. Many incredibly so! One or two, though, haven't. In this post, I'll examine why those around us don't always back us when we make big changes in our lives, and why the right approach to criticism is so important. Not just for authors, but for anyone who's contemplating life-altering goals.
My first book for writers, Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft, contains a chapter on this subject, aimed at helping writers get their heads in gear. For this post, I'll reproduce part of that chapter here.
Quote: ‘You must expect great things of yourself before you can do them.’ - Michael Jordan
Here's why your attitude is so important. Without your brain being in alignment with your writing goals, you’ll struggle to succeed. Many people don’t write a novel because their mind-set holds them back. They obey the little voice in their head, the one that whispers, ‘Who do you think you are, wanting to be a novelist? You’ll never manage that.’
How does this happen? Why do people give up on their dreams? Let’s examine some possible reasons.
Reasons someone in your life might try to sabotage your writing dreams
1. Lack of confidence
‘My English teacher at primary school destroyed my confidence,’ Lisa told me. ‘Our homework assignment was to write a page about the Easter holidays. I didn't realise she meant a factual account of what I'd done with my family. Instead, I crafted what I thought was a wonderful story about an Easter bunny that embarks on an egg hunt. My teacher poked fun at me in front of the class and told me it was a poor effort. The humiliation has always stayed with me.’
Ouch! Not hard to understand why Lisa lost confidence in her writing, is it? If this is your issue, do your best to think positively, replacing negative thoughts with healthier ones. Doing so isn't always easy - old habits die hard - but the results are worth the effort. Every time a thought surfaces such as, ‘my writing is hopeless; nobody will want to read this stuff; what's the point in even trying?’ re-frame it straight away. Turn a negative into a positive. Tell yourself: ‘My writing is improving all the time through regular practice. Someone, somewhere, will love my book. I've everything to gain by persevering.’
Get to know yourself. Note down the thoughts you have about your writing, whether they're negative or positive, and consider why the unhelpful ones are surfacing. Then re-frame them in a more effective way, as shown above. A positive attitude paves the way for action, leading to your book getting written. Alter how you think and you'll change at a deep level.
2. Those annoying naysayers
Other people can be brutal. ‘Oh, everyone says they want to write a novel, but it's a pipe dream for most!’ they sneer, thus fuelling your insecurities. Or, ‘writing is OK as a hobby, but you'll never earn an income from it.’
Is there a naysayer in your life? If so, either get them on board or consider how you'll tackle them. The last thing you want is negativity from other people as you write your novel. We novelists excel at beating ourselves up over our efforts - we don't need anyone else to do it for us!
‘My sister tells me I'll never make it as a novelist.’ Sadness resonates in Lucy's voice. ‘She says the competition's too difficult and that few people get published these days. In her opinion I need to be more realistic.’
Don't you just love self-appointed experts? Unless Lucy's sister is an author herself or works in publishing, how can she claim such knowledge? Who is she to offer advice to Lucy or to judge her potential success or failure? Her statement fails to account for the meteoric rise of self-publishing, which has shed its former stigma and is now mainstream. Publication has never been easier and it's available to everyone.
3. Self-appointed experts
1. They hold no literary ambitions themselves and so fail to understand others who do. They realise authors exist - someone must write those novels they see on people’s bookshelves - but they don't expect to include such an unusual creature amongst their friends and family.
2. Similar to no 1, but more insidious. Such people are control freaks, believing they know best how you should live your life. Perhaps they belittle your writing dreams. They want to shame you into behaving the way they desire because then everything will fall into place in their cosy little worlds.
3. Like Lucy's sister, they worry you'll face disappointment as a novelist, so they seek to shield you from hurt. They mean well, but such an attitude keeps your horizons narrow. Don’t adopt other people’s limitations as your own.
Dealing with criticism
Criticism can be soul destroying, particularly when received as a child. Many people, told when young that their writing wasn't good or that their spelling and punctuation were poor, lost confidence. That's a shame. I doubt anyone, however gifted as a writer, would say their early work shone. It's OK to be bad in the beginning, provided you're willing to learn. Besides, even if you're never a good writer, does that matter? If you yearn to write, then you should. No exceptions, no excuses. You might not publish your novel, but that shouldn't put you off achieving your goal.
A thick skin is important. As a writer, you’ll attract plenty of criticism, much of it from people who have never written themselves. The perfect novel doesn't exist. There are umpteen examples of famous novels that have attracted rejection. One of my favourite books is George Orwell's ‘1984’. This dystopian novel is a classic, but many dislike it. Let's take a couple of reviews from Amazon, the first a five-star one, the second a one-star:
5-star review: ‘1984 is an amazingly good read. It's easy to get into and the characters grip you straight away. The language is straightforward and it's a compact story - not a marathon 800-page monster like many modern novels. The dilemma of Winston Smith is so involving that I've found myself re-reading the whole book in one or two sessions (and I know exactly what happens!), because I can't bear to put it down.’
1-star review: ‘Absolutely terrible book that has been hyped up by hipsters. Maybe it was the first to portray a dystopian future but the story could have been far better written. Boring to an extraordinary degree. The characters are rubbish; I feel nothing for them. Winston is a meek cowardly excuse for a human being. The romance is the most unrealistic interaction between two human beings imaginable.’
So who's correct? Both reviewers are! There aren't any rights or wrongs, only readers' perceptions.
Fact: as a published novelist, you’ll face criticism. Not everyone will like your book and some people won’t hesitate in thrusting their opinions down your throat. You have two choices. Either use criticism to improve your work or let it affect you in a negative way, which won’t result in better writing. First, though, learn to distinguish between destructive and constructive criticism.
Destructive: ‘Your book sucks. In fact, it’s the worst I’ve ever read. You’ll never make it as a writer.’
Comments like that are useless and say more about whoever delivers them than they do about your book. There are no pointers as to what to change; moreover, it’s rude. Who needs critics like that?
Constructive: ‘The pace dragged during the middle of your book. At times there was too much description and not enough action or dialogue. I can give specific examples if you’d like.’
Far more helpful! Constructive criticism is intended to show you where and how improvements can be made. In this example, we’re given an idea of what didn’t work for the reader along with an offer of extra feedback. No rudeness, either!
I love this quote from Frank A. Clark:
‘Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.’
Isn’t that lovely?
(I'll end my excerpt here. The chapter goes on to list actions a budding writer can take to address the issues I've discussed.)
Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft will be published on July 1, 2015
My book will be published on Wednesday, July 1, 2015, but is available now for pre-order from Amazon. The price will be $0.99/£0.99 for the first week of publication, after which date it will be $2.99/£1.99. Here'sthe link, or click the image on the left.
Have you always longed to write a novel? In Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft, I aim to inspire you with the confidence to do just that. With this book, I'll be your cheerleader, your hand-holder. We’ll work on your mind-set, find sources of support, and deal with procrastination issues. I’ll help you carve out the time to write and together we’ll smash through the excuses that are holding you back.
What else? Do you need help in finding ideas? Worried where to start? Unsure whether writing software is right for you? Confused how to plan your novel? No problem! We cover all these issues and more. Every section ends with an action plan so you're raring to go!
I’ve included two chapters on plotting and another with writing advice. That way, once you’ve finished Write Your Novel!, you’ll have an outline in place, one that will inspire you to get going, and you’ll know how to start. My aim is to prepare you to write your novel as soon as you’ve completed the exercises in this book. So if you’ve always yearned to be a novelist but you're unsure how to begin... why not buy Write Your Novel! and get started?
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