Today, I’m delighted to present you Simon van der Velde, an award-winning author who also provides critiques and mentoring services for both individuals and organisations.
Simon has written an article about bad critiques – and how to deal with them. Without further ado, I give you… Simon van der Velde.
Who needs a consigliere
Bad critiques can kill our stories, undermine our confidence and poison our passions. Where once there was light and truth, there will be fear and doubt. And make no mistake. Fear and doubt are our mortal enemies. There is no room for sentiment. This is a struggle of Darwinian ruthlessness.
Truth is at the core of our work, our own truth charged with the passions that drive us. That is why writing can be such a terrifying, personal, holy thing. Which in turn is why we should think very carefully before inviting some stranger to trample over our souls. At the very least we need to thicken our skins and understand exactly what we’re dealing with.
Critique writers, like plumbers and doctors and everyone else, come in all shapes and sizes. There are the good, the bad and the merely mediocre. Certainly, they don’t have a magic wand, though the better ones should at least bring experience and objectivity to the process. Trouble is, the bad ones can do an awful lot of damage.
Pedants are the most common. Grey faced and jaded by decades of unhappy experience, they will skim our work until they find just enough to churn out a page of the same tired old clichés. Then there are the fools. Flushed pink with their newly acquired knowledge, they will leave us with a generic regurgitation of whatever they learnt in last week’s class, distracting us from what really makes our work matter. Worse still, are the malicious versions of these creatures. The passion-killers. Frustrated by failure, cowed by their fears, they find solace in awakening ours, in feeding our doubts and undermining our confidence with their jargonised pseudo-science.
Don’t let them.
Okay, the nuts and bolts do count. If we’re in a room, I need a sense of it. If I’m following a character, I need to believe in them. When someone speaks, their voice must ring true. But beyond all that, it’s what we’ve got to say that really counts. Focus all our time on the ‘rules of writing’, (as if there could be such a thing), and we miss the point. Give me love and hate run wild, despair, frustration, anger and riotous comedy. Give a reader emotional force and they will want to read your story.
That said, it is those very passions that can cloud a writer’s thinking and leave them puzzling furiously over what may well be a simple problem. It is also true that however intense and personal our journey, someone has always passed, at least nearby, before.
Wouldn’t it be easier to learn from their mistakes?
Let’s face it, our craft is hard enough without having to battle through entirely alone. And that’s the point. Writing, like carpentry, is a craft. We may have the idea for the most wonderful bookcase, but unless we master the basics of saw, plane and mitre, then our bookcase will never achieve its true potential.
And lightning does have to strike somewhere. There’s always that one in a million chance that we’ll stumble across a critic who really gets our work. Someone who cares enough to think about it. Someone who might just elevate our writing to the next level, guiding us through the darkness, mentoring us through the pain, helping us translate our passions from gut to page undiminished by the process.
If you can find such a person, hold on for dear life. Cling to that mentor like a rock in a storm. Work with them, and if they prove themselves worthy, then trust them. But not blindly. Read your critique. Leave it for six weeks to marinate. Read it again, and only then decide what to keep and what to change. You make the final call. In your writing, you must be the fearless god and the mighty creator. You alone are the boss of bosses. But then again, even Lucky Marciano listened to his consigliere. That’s why he was lucky.
About the author
Simon about… Simon:
I began writing as a law student way back in the 1990’s, and am delighted to say that after twenty years practice and an M.A. from Northumbria University, I have finally learned how to do it. Having now left the legal profession I divide my time between my writing, my business, and my wife and two tyrannical children.
My work has won and been short-listed for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Short Story Prize, The Writers’ and Artists’ Short Story Prize, The Harry Bowling Prize, The Henshaw Press Short Story Competition and The National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Competition, amongst others.
Stories and excerpts have also been published in Wasafiri Magazine and The Crack Magazine. Recordings have been audio-published and are available on-line at www.ListenUpNorth.com. Further works may also be read at www.simonvandervelde.com.
I offer bespoke critiques and mentoring services for a number of individuals and organisations.
Ongoing projects include Cameos, a collection of stories featuring people you know, and The Boy Who Couldn’t Talk, a story for 8-12 year-olds about a boy with speech anxiety and his friendship with a trans-woman.