writing

How to take criticism

I’ve been told a couple of times, from different editors and beta readers, etc, that I’m good at taking criticism. I want to tell you right off the bat that it was Not Always So.

At one point I got so hyped up about a certain piece of work, so convinced it was Perfect and would Change the World, that when it didn’t win a National competition I was devastated. That’s right, win. I didn’t care about the achievement of just getting it done, and entered. I expected to win. I had built this thing up in my head so much that one little set back really hurt me. I thought I’d never write again. I had months of over the top despair (granted, some other things were going on in my life but still). 

I took a long break from writing. I nursed my hurt and told myself I’d never be good enough. It sucked, it sucked like nothing else. 

But then, as I sorted out my life, and I found some joy, I found inspiration again and I began to write again, too. I started out with short stories and then I attempted a couple of ill-thought-through novels which I’ve abandoned, then I got to work on the old one. The one which had failed in the National competition. I gave it another edit and I sent it in for a manuscript assessment competition, which I won a place in. It’s been edited a few more times, and I’ve had positive and negative feedback on it. Feedback which hasn’t gutted me, or convinced me I’m hopeless. 

A couple of months ago I self published that book (without the help of a professional editor, mistake mistake). I’m currently reading it as a proof paperback and writing all over it, all the things which need to be updated. I feel shame that I let it out into the world, but overall I’m proud of the achievement I made getting it out there. 

I’ve learned a few things about taking feedback and criticism, and having learned these things, I want to share them. Its’ all about how you frame the feedback. Here’s my tips: 

Think of it as a favour – no one has to give you feedback on your work. In fact, in my experience, very few people will give you useful feedback. So if you get feedback that is technical, that points out that you use dialogue tags wrong, or that your character has been inconsistent, or that you’e contradicted yourself later on, that’s great and valuable stuff! (all real examples). The fact is, you hadn’t already noticed these things yourself, and now some awesome person has given you the feedback. Think of it as a generous favour they’ve done for you, and be thankful.

It’s not personal – when someone critiques your work, when someone finds an error, they’re not insulting you. They’re not telling you you’re a bad person, or a bad writer at all! They’re giving you the opportunity to improve. If you feel hurt by the feedback, take a step back. Move away from the manuscript for a day or three and let yourself sit with it. Then you go back in and look at the criticism again. 

Trust – maybe I should’ve put this one up at the top. But basically, trust the person you are getting feedback from. Don’t give it to someone whose taste doesn’t match yours. Ask for feedback people who are better at writing than you, people who know their shit. Then you can trust that they know something when they give you advice.

You don’t have to listen – just because someone says you should change something doesn’t mean its true. You can disagree with the feedback given. You can ignore it. You can listen, judge if it’s worth it and use it or not. It’s your choice.

Consider if it would improve your work – even if you don’t agree right away, stepping back and looking at feedback objectively is important. A little distance from your words is important, because maybe what they’re saying would make your sentences and your story stronger.

Read and Learn – always be learning. There’s a thousand writing blogs, podcasts, videos, courses and conventions that you can take advantage of. The more you learn, the more you improve your craft. The more you learn, the more you can write without making so many mistakes. There’ll always be mistakes, but you don’t have to make the same ones over and over. Getting third party feedback on your writing can highlight these mistakes for you. 

So… those are my things I’ve learned about taking feedback, comments and criticism. Do you have anything else to add? Comment and let me know your thoughts on feedback.

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Christmas Movies watch list

There’s nothing like a Christmas movie to get you in the festive mood. Here’s my favourites, and there’s a lot of them! I’ve also put some exclusions in the bottom there…

The Muppet Christmas Carol  – this is my absolute favourite Christmas movie ever. I first saw it when it first came out and it’s the best version of Christmas Carol ever. I can watch it on a loop.

The Man Who Invented Christmas – This only came out last year, but it’s a really good one. An interesting look at the writing process + Victorian Christmas + just really entertaining.

The Princess Switch – This one is a Netflix special and it’s an adorable Prince and the Pauper/Parent Trap thing. I love it.

A Christmas Prince – I actually don’t love this one, but it has some good moments. I think it’s probably just on the far side of twee for me to truly love.

Love Actually – Classic. Skip the Colin sequences and try not to think about how almost all the relationships are about men in power and their literally subordinate women.

Santa Claus the movie this is an eighties classic about the true meaning of Christmas which includes a very charming Santa origin, an upsetting sequence of breaking toys and a very rough ending for John Lithgow’s bad guy.

A Christmas Toy  – this is a weird little Jim Henson special which was Toy Story a decade and a half before Toy Story. Toys come alive! and want to be the special Christmas Toy! It’s emotional and lovely.

The Santa Clause – the old ‘you kill Santa, you have to be Santa’ thing. Surprisingly sweet, aside from Tim Allen is a real douche to his ex and there’s lots of fat jokes. 

Elf – A surprisingly charming Will Ferrell movie in which he’s an honest to goodness Magic Pixie Dream Boy. Zooey Deschenal with blonde hair is pretty disconcerting though.

The Muppet Family Christmas special – this is a gem. A heartwarming found family togetherness story with lots of great music. The ‘careful of the icy patch’ gag is funny every time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojtGHXsTXmU

Nightmare Before Christmas  – You can watch it at Halloween AND at Christmas! Also has a special place in my heart because we saw the Haunted Mansion decked out in Nightmare stuff this year. 

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – the friendly stop motion classic which reminds us that it’s only okay to be different if someone can profit of you. This is a pretty rough watch, lots of bullying and trying to force Rudolph to fit in. Maybe don’t watch this, it’s rough and dated. But watching it a few years back gave me all kinds of weird flashbacks so I think I used it watch it as a kid, so it’s still on my list.

Its a Wonderful Life  – A true classic. Many a TV special was based on this classic ‘what if?’ story and although the first half is very rough going, the happy ending makes up for it.

Meet me in St Louis – A year in the life story of a well to do family with songs and dances and the classic Judy Garland ‘have yourself a merry little Christmas’ tearjerker. There’s a fair bit of implied racism and very dated attitudes though.

A Charlie Brown Christmas – they always played this one on TV and I always watched it. Watching it as an adult I found it one of the bleakest and most nihilistic Christmas specials, but hey. 

Bad Santa – This one isn’t for everyone. It’s very rough, with Billy Bob Thornton being a truly terrible person, and Lauren Graham (aka Lorelei Gilmore) as a bartender with a Santa fetish, but if you can watch without getting hung up on it it’s a good laugh.

Rise of the Guardians  – Not technically about Christmas (in fact probably a bit more Easter in this) but you gotta. That bad ass Battle Santa is to die for.

Thomas Kincade’s Christmas Cottage – featuring Jared Padalecki acting his wee heart out in lots of knitted accessories. It’s adorable and silly. 

Holiday Calendar – Hey, it’s a Netflix holiday rom-com with a non-white lead! This is a surprisingly sweet one, and damn I want her apartment and her vintage advent calendar. 

Gremlins – for when you want some horror with your Christmas. Plus Phoebe Cates’ tragic backstory about why she hates Christmas is a classic.

Arthur Christmas – a cringey, family drama misfit story but generally a good watch and I liked the ending.

Deliberate exclusions: A Christmas story, Die Hard, any and all Grinch variations, Home Alone, Four Christmases and The Holiday.

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Writing in cafes, a review of Auckland options

I’ve been writing out at cafes a bit, here’s my rundown of which ones worked for me and which didn’t so much. Here’s what I’m rating on: food quality, service, atmosphere/noise, how comfortable I was, how easy it was to write.

Disclaimer: I don’t drink coffee so cannot give you a review of how good the coffee was.

Cafe Melba , Ellerslie

Cafe Melba is my favourite cafe chain in Auckland. Whichever one you go to the food is great. Ellerslie is great for friend meetups and taking out of towners for a nice meal, but for writing it wasn’t ideal. I think partially because the tables are quite close together, I felt like I was in the way somehow. The table wasn’t quite big enough for my laptop, too. I love this place, food and service are great but I won’t go back there to write.

Cafe Melba, Hillsborough

The other Melba I go to is a bit more of a trip from home, but it is a blessed space of lightness, inspiration and motivation. Something about the amount of natural light, the high ceilings, the weird geometric shapes on display, it works for me. The tables are big enough to have food and notebook side by side (haven’t gone there with laptop yet) but I’ve consistently got a lot done. Love it here. Staff are attentive and friendly but also happy to leave you to it.

Bean there cafe, Onehunga

Bean there has a great line of giant, sturdy tables, and is usually pretty quiet so you don’t have to worry about where to sit. It’s counter service, so you have to either decide what to eat really fast or go and sit and then decide and get back up again. They have excellent orange juice, but the food’s just kind of okay. It’s kind of good, and kind of not. I actually started feeling conspicuous because it was so quiet, like everyone was watching me, or noticing me or something. Little awkward.

Circus, Circus cafe, Mt Eden

Circus Circus is where my writing group meets up in the evenings, and that is always brilliant. Nice large tables, friendly staff who are willing to add another table to the one you already have (if needed) and fantastic food. Going on my own, during a weekday was a different experience, due to different staff, etc. I did get a lot done, and it’s nice being in the middle of Mt Eden for other chores but overall I didn’t feel entirely comfortable. Not sure why.

Fridge cafe, Kingsland

The Fridge is great. Large, sturdy tables, various rooms, so if you see a bunch of people in suits having a loud business meeting you can just skedaddle into another room and sit in a corner. Sometimes sparrows come in. It’s quiet during the week and the staff have a good level of checking if you need anything else and leaving you alone. Brilliant pies, do recommend. It’s a bit out of the way for me to get to, but if it was close I’d probably be there all the time.

Allpress Auckland Roastery, Freeman’s Bay

The food here is brilliant, you can get soft boiled eggs and toast soldiers. Hot chocolate is good but not awesome. The table was great, atmosphere pretty good. But I happened to open my laptop to start writing just as a guy came in with a friend and he seemed to decide that he needed to impress her and me (he kept looking at me, it was weird) with his knowledge of generic geek stuff like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. They sat at the table next to me and he was diagonally across and it was so annoying I couldn’t write anything. On another day this place is probably great.

Onehunga Cafe

Too loud, the music was great but I was singing along to it because it was up that loud. The chairs are comfy, the one/two person tables are a little too small for the laptop though. Although the food is delicious, the staff don’t ask if you need anything else, like a hot chocolate. Disappointing. I mean, probably they were being considerate and not interrupting, but also they didn’t bus the plates away when I was done so. Not ideal. Delicious fried chicken though.

 

Now my conundrum is: do I keep looking at other options or do I just keep going back to Hillsborough Melba even though they stopped having the porridge I really liked?

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Inspiration

Currently juggling two projects: the editing of my paranormal mystery, which I’m suffering from the ‘I don’t wanna’ syndrome with, and writing a new romance novel. The first in the series is with beta readers right now, and I’m so excited about this series that I’m having to hold myself back from messaging them and being like ‘well? WELL?’

Actually it’s three projects, if you count the travel blog I’m writing while I honeymoon through Japan, and that has been taking lots of time so it should definitely count.

Also I’m trying to write postcard thank you notes to the people who came to our wedding and donated to our honeymoon fund, so there’s that as well, plus writing my longhand travel journal for me. The longhand one is suffering the most, I haven’t updated that in a few days (it feels like doubling up on the blog a bit).

But the point is, even though I’m doing all this stuff and traveling in Japan, I’m feeling super inspired. My current romance series will likely be published under a pen name, but it’s set in a themepark, and we’ve been traveling to themeparks. I literally had a brainwave of how to bring in external conflict as we got onto Space Mountain in Tokyo Disneyland. Then, a few days later, I realised the format of the first chapter.

Since then I’ve been writing consistently and getting a chapter done each day. My partner, Anna, has been a really good alpha reader, reading each one as it’s completed, making grammar and spelling corrections and pointing out if I haven’t made sense. It’s been a wonderful way to write.

I don’t know if anyone else face casts famous actors for the characters they’re reading or writing, but in my perfect world if a movie was made of my current work in progress it’d star these two boys.

In other news, Suburban Book of the Dead has some amazing reviews on Amazon and I can see that it’s slowly climbing the rankings as a result. Please purchase! and if you have already, please consider leaving a review, it really does make a difference. Amazon are more likely to show it on referral or ‘similar to…’ selections, and that increases the exposure.

You can find it here.:

 

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Issues with reptile resistance

tuataraOr how I overcame my own brain’s freak outs and published a work of fiction

I’ve written about impostor syndrome before, so I won’t go into that too much. Instead I’ll list all the behaviours I tried based on my brain not wanting to try something new.

Internal resistance, as I understand it, comes from the ancient lizard part of our brains that wants to keep us alive. You stay alive by doing the same things you’ve always done, because those things haven’t killed you yet. But it’s not a smart part of the brain beyond that impulse, so the same instinct that prevents us from just walking out into traffic also creates resistance to new things which are quite safe. Such as changing jobs, or going to a new country, or attending a new conference.

This list is framed around writing and publishing fiction but I believe it can be applied to lots of attempts to try something new.

Procrastinate, just put it off

This is the easiest one. There’s always housework to be done or errands to be run. There’s always an enticing new TV show on netflix, or a stack of movies you should get around to watching. I have shelves full of books I need to read, I have a blog that needs posts on it… there’s always reasons to not write. There’s always other ways to spend your time, and they can be good, productive things which makes it easier to talk yourself into avoiding the work.

Solution: make yourself do the thing. Even if it’s just for five minutes a day, that’s five minutes doing writing that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. Every baby step taken helps to break down your internal resistance and build a new habit.

Forget about it altogether

This one’s insidious. I can’t keep deadlines for writing competitions in my head. I forget if I’ve told myself I’ll submit to a magazine while they’re open for it. Dates just fly on out of there and I focus on other projects, other things.

Solution: write it down somewhere you’ll check. This can be reminders that pop up on your phone, a trello board with deadlines programmed in, post it notes on your mirror, whatever you will look at. Now you don’t have to remember, because something external will remind you.

Multi-task so it’s never done

For example, you could write a blog post about resistance instead of the editing you’re not enjoying. Or you could think about other projects you have on the go and get excited and do those instead. You could promise blog posts to other publishers, and work on those. You could start a new thing! Everyone loves a shiny new project, right? This can lead to a hundred partly done pieces of work and nothing completed. You feel like you’re doing so much, and you’re staying safe because nothing’s ever getting put out there for people to judge.

Solution: force yourself to focus on one or two projects at a time. My current focuses are my new work in progress first draft (fun fun fun) and editing my last big project with beta reader feedback. There’s also a travel journal I’m working on typing up, but that’s it. All other projects are on the backburner until those are at the next stage of feedback. It’s not easy, because the temptation to work on other things is huge, but giving yourself just a narrow focus reduces time lost from switching your brain’s context between different projects and allows for quicker work.

Keep editing

What if this piece could be better? Of course it could. Now that I’ve finished my novel manuscript it needs a certain amount of revising and editing. Of course it does. But this can be a perfectionist nightmare of never being finished. I can do editing passes for intimacy, for story arcs for each character, for repeated phrases and words, for setting continuity, looking at it from a different perspective, etc etc. Editing is super important, but there’s a temptation to just keep on editing the thing so it never has to see the light of day because it’s not quite right.

Solution: Let it go. Nothing you create is ever going to be perfect. The tech delivery concept of ‘minimum viable product’ is useful here. What’s the least you can do that will create something a customer will be able to use and enjoy? I use this question to shape the amount of work I need to do to be able to let a piece of writing go. It has to be spell checked, I need a beta reader to give me some constructive feedback, I need to give it a final pass to check I don’t just have all my characters smiling at each other all the time. Maybe there’s a couple more steps in there too, but after that I have to let it go.

***

So there you have it. These are all real examples and real solutions that have worked for me. And the good news is the more you can push past the resistance, and achieve something new and NOT DIE from it, the less your scared little lizard brain will freak out about it. It learns that the new thing is safe, and it won’t try and stop you doing it in the future, well. Not quite so hard anyway. But each time you do it, it learns a little more, and then it will adjust to the new thing being normal.

Watch out, world, me and my freaked out lizard brain are going to publish a bunch more books!

If you’d like further reading on resistance and creative life, this post was heavily influenced by learnings from the War of Art by Stephen Pressfield.

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How I defeat my self-sabotaging brain

I’ve written previously about Impostor syndrome and the way it’s affected me. One of the really annoying things my brain does is distract me from my goals by forgetting things.

It’s so frustrating, because I’ve missed a hundred different competitions and opportunities because the dates go shooting out of my head. Or even goals like ‘finish this novel’ get forgotten, because I’ll get excited about some other project instead and spend all my time on the new thing.

Once I’d realised this was a problem for me, I used a tool I’d enjoyed using at work for organising projects. Trello. Trello is like a free online to do list, and totally customisable.

Here’s what mine looks like:

writing trello

I like colour coding my works in progress, and it’s very satisfying to move a card from ‘doing’ to ‘done’. It saves all my thoughts for me, and all I have to do is go look at it to see what I should be looking at. You can open the cards and put checklists in it, or due dates or random comments. Very useful stuff.

If you have any kind of organisational problems I recommend trying something like Trello or a personal kanban board to see if that helps.