99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all). #4 Don’t Use Criticism As A Razor

It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.
– Ernest Hemingway

I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.
– Erica Jong

There’s a scene in the film Betty Blue (I can’t remember if it’s in the book), where the eponymous heroine uses a comb to attack a publisher who has rejected her lover’s magnum opus with a brutally critical letter. As a negotiating tactic it failed, but at least it allowed Betty to let off steam – and Betty (as embodied perfectly by Beatrice Dalle) was a lady who needed to let off steam.

Criticism is the cliched, double-edged sword (a cliche I intend to stretch into a messy metallic metaphor) and the wise writer should be wary of both of its edges. Much criticism is entirely subjective and subjective opinions can be heavy and unwieldy.

Would you try to shave (face or legs) with something as unwieldy as a sword? No? Then why would you use a single piece of criticism to determine whether your latest project was the work of a genius or an idiot/dork/Frank Spencer/Homer Simpson/Pike from Dad’s Army (delete as age appropriate).

It’s a hard lesson for new writers, but: NOT EVERYBODY WILL LIKE, OR ENJOY WHAT YOU WRITE. Not when you start out, not when you have initial success, not when you are the writer of a global spanning, theme park spawning phenomenon.

Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times, Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 23 times and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected 12 times and Jo Rowling told ‘not to quit the day job’.

Even now the boy wizard isn’t immune to criticism. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has 47 reviews at a (Ron) measly 1* on Amazon (this is my favourite rant which is nothing to do with the book!). This isn’t holding back JK’s career or stopping her earnings, estimated at US$1 billion (more than the GDP of The Gambia).

When I first moved to London, I enrolled in an evening script writing class in Brixton. This was a pre-gentrification Brixton of families, students and squats. A place where you emerged from the tube amidst clouds of incense, hectored by a Baptist preacher’s barked eschatological threats. A place of underground bars and live music before the Academy was branded with anything other than its location. It was like entering another world and I loved it.

The script writing course was attended by an eclectic group (I remember a Sloane Ranger exclaiming “oh, ya, you’re a real Northern Lad” as if she’d encountered a mythical, hairy creature. (NB: I haven’t invented this – it happened… and I’m not Northern, I’m from the Midlands).

The course was the first time I was directly exposed to criticism. In retrospect, I can see this was a supportive – if somewhat mismatched – group of collaborators, but at the time I wasn’t ready for it.

My pitch was a serial killer screenplay called THE JIGSAW MAN. A peer of the realm had imprisoned his psychopathic child in a room with nothing but jigsaws for distraction. Now he’s escaped and as his culling all those who abetted his father in keeping his incarceration secret. Each murder scene was marked by a piece of a jigsaw puzzle placed on the victim’s body. The case was investigated by a puzzle obsessed cop somewhere on the Asperger’s scale.

Okay, not a script that will win awards, but it was my script, my idea, and it was the first time I’d pitched an idea to a large group of peers and writers much more experienced than me.

There were some supportive comments from the populist faction in the group. But then came a withering assessment that my script was basic, derivative and didn’t tell us anything about the world today or past. The critic explained she would never be interested in collaborating on such a project and instead urged people to support her (very well pitched) story about the oppression suffered by an Indian woman during the Raj.

With a few years hindsight I can see just how poor my reaction to the criticism was. Not in a throwing things around the room in a can’t you see my genius way; in a slinking away from the course and stopping writing for a year sort of way. A whole year when I could have been working on my craft. Writing short stories. Listening to criticism but only reacting to that which could take my writing forward. All my screenwriting critic was doing was expressing a perfectly legitimate subjective preference. She had the courage of her convictions. Back then, I didn’t.

& why you should ignore this golden rule: Taking tough criticism and using it positively is a hard lesson to learn. I exhort all new writers to expose themselves to the glare of criticism as soon as they can. And to listen. Really listen.

Next time: Don’t think you can make it on your own.