Taking It On The Chin

Zoë Sharp

Somebody once told me that writers have to take more criticism in a year than most people have to deal with in a lifetime.


The advent of the internet has turned everyone into a critic. Not just that, but an anonymous critic. In some ways this is good, if it allows somebody to speak their mind when they would feel constrained not to do for otherwise – for whatever reason.

Of course, in other ways it’s terrible, because it allows people to be snide and nastier than is called for, in the knowledge that there won’t be any comebacks should they happen ever to bump into the author they’ve slated.

Getting honest, critical feedback on your work is always going to be tough. I’ve found that writing fiction is far more personal than the non-fiction article work I did previously. That was easy – I was telling someone else’s story and somehow the ultimate responsibility for it also lay elsewhere. All I had to do was make my words convey the meaning without getting in the way of the story itself.

Although most of the time I approach fiction is much the same, there’s no doubt it is very different. It is the collective jottings and jumblings from inside your head, which you are spilling onto the page for anyone to pick apart with a sneer for your apparent lack of nuance or narrative voice.

There is nothing more terrifying than being given a blank piece of paper and told to let your imagination soar.

OK, perhaps there are slightly more terrifying things. This pic of a giant coconut crab, for instance, still makes me nervous about going to put out the garbage, although apparently they’re bought as pets in Japan.


Very cuddly, I’m sure. But I digress.

At the beginning of last year, I found a great writing group, the Warehouse Writers, which meets in the Warehouse Café at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal on alternate Wednesday evenings. We email work around the group beforehand, which gives everyone a chance to read it and make notes. On the night, a sample of the piece is read out – either by the author or by someone else, so the author can hear it for themselves – and everyone throws in their two-pennyworth.

The group is about twenty strong, although the average turnout would be less than half that, but those who participate do so actively. Several of us are working on novels, or short stories, poetry, non-fiction or memoir.

I like the group because of its honesty. I may not always agree with their comments – in fact, sometimes they don’t always agree with their comments – but they give definite food for thought without animosity.

After all, the last thing I want is to be given encouragement to continue down the wrong path with something. Ultimately, being given false hope will lead to greater disappointment.

The problem I suffer from – and I think every writer suffers from this at some point or another – is that by the time I’ve finished a piece of work, I have lost all judgement about it. I can’t tell if it’s the best or the worst thing I’ve ever written, and sending it away for anyone’s opinion is agony. You hope for the best but expect the worst, and any delays seem to confirm your darkest fears – that the work is so poor it’s failed to hold their attention. The fact that the person to whom you are sending it may have been too busy to do more than download the file or open the envelope before putting it to one side, has no relevance here.

Hope makes us dream of being contacted within days – hours – and told that this is the best thing the person has EVER read, EVER, and they want to publish/submit it just as it stands, with no alterations. You are not to touch a word of your deathless prose, not even to move one comma.


Yeah, right.

Experience tells us that when they do eventually get back to us, their praise will be cautious and there will be many points they don’t like/understand/ believe work in the context of the rest of the story.


And because I have a warped sense of self, even if by some miracle the Hope scenario worked out, I’d be worrying that they didn’t want anything changing because they simply didn’t know where to start trying to make something worthwhile out of such a morass.

But, realistically, what do you expect when you send a piece of writing out for critique by anyone? And at what stage should you send it? First draft? Twenty-first draft?

I like to send out the opening of a new book. Finding the right jumping-off point for a story is so important, and a first-time reader may only give you a certain number of pages to come to a decision on whether or not to continue, so for me it feels vital to get this right. I’m looking for as much doubt and criticism as possible at this stage. It’s the foundation for the story – if it’s not solid, the rest of the construction may come tumbling down.

Then I also like to send out something when it’s in its first completed draft form. I self-edit as I go along, so I hope that by the time I’ve reached the end, I hope it’s a reasonably clean typescript.

I always make sure I send something out when I know there is still an opportunity – and probably several – to make changes based on the opinions I receive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had stuff sent to me only to be told that it’s already gone out on submission. Are these authors looking for critique, or simply affirmation?


I have come across some people who bring pieces of work to a writers’ group meeting (not the Warehouse one, I hasten to add) that is not only already as finished as they’re prepared to make it, but which has already been submitted and possibly awarded prizes in competition. I’m not sure what they hope to gain from this exercise other than admiration. Even if I spot something that I would change, it’s pointless to suggest it, because the time for minor alterations is past. Mostly, I am at a loss to know what to say other than, ‘Erm, yeah … very nice.’

And that’s the kind of approval you can get from your mum.

Although, now I come to think of it, my mother has never said much in the way of admiration for my work. It was only when I was about six books into the Charlie Fox series that she told me she didn’t care for Sean much …

So, ‘Rati, if you’re a writer, what do you hope for when you put a piece of work up for critique? How much does that expectation differ from what you actually get? And if you’re not a writer, do you have any examples of times you’ve performed a task at home or work and looked for feedback? Did you get it? What makes you feel good about criticism? What makes you feel bad?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is Sweet FA, meaning anything boring, monotonous and now worth describing. Although this has come to mean Sweet Fuck All, it actually stands for Sweet Fanny Adams. Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old girl from Hampshire who was found murdered and dismembered. At about the same time as this crime, the British Navy changed their rations from salted tack to tins of low-grade chopped-up sweet mutton. The new ration was tasteless and unpopular, so sailors suggested with macabre humour that the new meat was the remains of the murdered girl, christening the ration Sweet Fanny Adams.

And finally, I hope you’ll forgive me two bits of BSP. I’m off to the States next month on a signing tour for the US publication of FOURTH DAY. The full tour itinerary is on my website here. I hope you’ll check it out and, if I’m at a library or store – or convention – near you, that you’ll come and say ‘Hi!’

The second bit is that I’m absolutely chuffed to little mintballs, as my friend Donna Moore would say, that FOURTH DAY has been nominated for the Barry Award for Best British Novel. The results will be announced at Bouchercon in St Louis in September. But, until then at least I can bask in the reflected glory of a shortlist that also contains Kate Atkinson, SJ Bolton, John Connolly, Reg Hill and Roslund & Hellstrom!


43 thoughts on “Taking It On The Chin

  1. MaryQuiteContrary

    The crab is truly terrifying and still pales in comparison to requesting a writing critique. My plan is to have my amazing body of work discovered and lauded posthumously.

  2. Dana King

    Congratulations on your nomination. I read the tour schedule, and have but one comment: for future tours, please remind your publicists that the United States has an East Coast, too.

    Good luck with the Barry.

  3. Eika

    *full-body shudder at the crab* Note: never go to Japan.

    When I put something up for critique, I'm hoping they'll tell me it doesn't COMPLETELY suck, but also that they tell me where things aren't clear. I tend to repeat myself, in-story, on things; yet, time and again, I get told to put in more detail on (insert something here).

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Dana

    As FOURTH DAY is set in California, and I'm already going to be away from home for three weeks, there was only so much of the States I could get to! I did an extensive East Coast tour for SECOND SHOT, which was set in Boston and New Hampshire.

    Don't worry – I'll be back!

    Thanks for the congrats, by the way ;-]

  5. Thomas Pluck

    I need some distance and perspective from anything I write before I can revise or self-critique. As soon as it's blurted onto the page, it's gold. Only later can I pore over it and see that the shiny yellow was actually bits of undigested corn.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eika

    I'm thinking, from my knowledge of Japan, that the crab would either be on a leash or on the menu – probably still wriggling ;-]

    I think I put stuff up for critique with much the same hope. It's amazing though, how a sentence of additional description, or the removal of a sentence of repetition, is often all that it takes.

    Best of luck!

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Thomas

    Love the description of the shiny yellow bits, if ever so slightly icky …

    But yeah, stuff I wrote and happily sent off at the time, can make me cringe a little when I come back to it later.

  8. Grace

    Hi Zoe: Congrats in your nomination and good luck. Thanks for your post re writing and your early rejections. I am unpublished but was asked for a full from an agent one week ago and the wait is agnozing, telling myself she'll love it then she won't etc. etc. Your post helped to calm me. Thanks.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Congratulations on the nom!!!!!!! Thrilled that this means you will have to be at BCon.

    That crab. OMG. Chilling.

    With this new one, I think what I'm hoping to hear from critique reads is that it's not too dark to publish.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Grace

    I'd counsel patient, patience, and more patience. Nothing puts somebody off more than being badgered by an anxious writer – even though it's so hard not to do!

    Best of luck with your submission.

  11. Debbie

    Posthumously! Mary, I am so with you on this one. No matter how many times I read through my MS, there is always a line, an entire passage, sometimes even just a word that needs revision, so I feel like I'll never be ready to submit. Critique sure, submit…nah, you've got to be kidding.

    Best thing so far about writing was finishing a MS and finding that nobody really wanted to read it. If those who claim to care about you won't read it and affirm you, why hunt out more rejection? My husband who has always been exceptionally honest, read it and enjoyed it, and offered suggestions. I'll have to find contentment in that.

    As for what I'd look for, it would be concrete advice 'LOL' scribbled on the page, 'who's talking here?', 'I have no idea what this place looks like,' or 'you lost me through this section…why do I need to know this?', 'This dialogue was witty', "So vivid I was there', 'this section was disturbing and well conveyed'. Tell me in concrete ways what needs to improve but let me know what works too.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Thanks for the congrats – and I'd already signed up for St Louis before I found out about this, so I'll definitely be there ;-]

    I would have thought that being told something is too dark to publish would be a badge of honour!

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie

    Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and say, 'That's it – it's done.' But knowing in the back of your mind that you'll always have the copyediting and pageproof stage to make a few more little last-minute adjustments.

    Getting family to read something is always hard. Like you, my Other Half, Andy, is brilliant for first impressions. He reads everything I write – sometimes over my shoulder if I'd let him. But I'm aware that I've talked over the plot with him, discussed reactions and responses of the various characters at a detailed level as we're travelling around, so what I need then is a cold response, from someone who doesn't know the story or have an inkling of where it's going.

    Getting the kind of feedback you mention is invaluable, but you also need to know if the story works as a whole, if the arc and the theme comes through – the bigger picture.

    Alex could probably put all this so much better than I can ;-]

  14. Spencer Seidel

    I remember once starting Jackdaws by Ken Follett and just not being in the right headspace for it. I said I didn't like it. It was boring. It was this or that. A few months later I picked it up again and really enjoyed it. I had the same experience with the first Odd Thomas book by Dean Koontz. And I have met people who hate both.

    It's all so subjective. Maddening.

    (But that hideous crab? That's just not right. Can we all agree on that?)

  15. Allison Brennan

    Congrats on the nomination! That's terrific 🙂 And that crab scared the Hell out of me, along with my daughter, though my son wants to know where he can get one . . .

    Criticism is hard. I don't mind editorial revisions (expect them — is my editor told me something was perfect, I would have a huge anxiety attack.) I also have no judgment whether something is good or not. Sometimes, I'm too close to the story to see any problems. It's a wacky business.

    But anonymous, snarky reviewers just tick me off. I can handle criticism, even when it stings. But no one needs to be mean. They get away with it because they think they can, but I do believe in cosmic justice/divine intervention. It'll come back to them, in spades.

  16. Allison Davis

    Zoe, congrats on the Barry nomination, awesome and well deserved.

    Feedback is really important in some form or another. I've tried both a paid editor, which has worked well for big picture feedback, but most importantly someone who is just above my experience (has published fiction) to give me a reality check. It is time consuming and generous for someone to read and give you good feedback on a manuscript. I tried to do 50 pages at a time, a big enough bite to chew on.

    Most recently I received the same feedback from both (remove a chapter, which I promptly did, great idea ). The feedback isn't just to critique the work but it helps me see more clearly my own opinions. I find myself not caring about some things — i.e., not so sensitive to the criticism, and other things, I feel strongly about. Helps me form my own story…what is it here that creating my drive and passion for the story? And locking yourself away to write, you sometimes wonder if you're moving yourself around in circles.

    I loved that crab. Are they good to eat?

  17. Kim C

    "my mother has never said much in the way of admiration for my work. It was only when I was about six books into the Charlie Fox series that she told me she didn’t care for Sean much …"

    What??? I can't wrap my head around that one. I adore Sean.

    Congrats on the nom!

    I'm always looking for feedback on what wasn't clear, if the piece drew the reader in and what bored them to tears. Not that the responses I get are usually that helpful, mostly they're vague at best.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Spencer

    Yeah, I think we can agree on the crab – be a hearty meal, though, wouldn't it?

    I, too, have to be in right headspace to read certain books. I made several false starts at getting into the Millennium trilogy, and just couldn't fight my way past that huge wodge of backstory at the beginning of book one. But, when I did persevere, I couldn't put the last book down.

    And I once had a very well-known author's book for review for a magazine, and really didn't enjoy the book at all. The plot devices were obvious, the main character a charisma-free zone, and the action sequences were shonky. I was just wondering what to do about this when the editor of the mag got in touch, very apologetic, to say he'd managed to give the same book to two reviewers, and the other had just delivered their review. When I saw that other review it was filled with praise and I had serious doubts that we'd both read the same book!

    Subjective – you got that right ;-]

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    "I'm such a coward about feedback … I take each and every comment to heart."

    Ah, I don't do that. I believe the bad bits and disbelieve the good bits ;-]

    Thanks for the congrats!

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Tell your son giant coconut crabs are found in the Indo-Pacific islands. And if you REALLY want to be freaked out, they got their name because they can crack coconuts open ….

    OK, moving swiftly on. I really like getting editorial feedback, too, particularly when it shows that the editor has really got beneath the surface of the story. And I would react the same way to being told something is perfect.

    The proper name for anonymous snarky internet reviewers is Keyboard Heroes. Can't stand 'em.

    And thanks for the congrats!

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison D

    Thank you – I've had a big grin ever since I got the news.

    I, too, have certain things I stand firm about, but that tends to be got out of the way at the outline stage and involves decisions my main protag would or wouldn't make to be true to her character. Apart from that, I'm always willing to listen to comment and if the concensus says something's not right, or unclear, then it's got to go.

    One of the best things my editor does is simply to ask questions, and if I can't answer then to my (and her) satisfaction, a re-writing I will go.

    It's a fine balance between not accepting as gospel every single opinion offered, and being too pigheaded about changes. As always, it's the rule of thirds – one third you accept, one third you consider, and one third you ignore complely. Of course, working out which third is which is the tricky part …

    Never tried eating coconut crab. But even if they weren't very flavourful, at least there'd be plenty go to round.

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kim

    I'm glad you're a Sean fan. And thank you for the congrats!

    Getting vague reactions to your work is no real help is it? The Warehouse Writers group I go to are all talented writers and they give some really great strong opinions. There's nothing more frustrating than looking for feedback on the big picture and only being told about the repetition of a word halfway down page three…

  23. Alafair Burke

    I'm both fragile and a little lazy about changing anything, so the only feedback I like to hear is, "Great job."

    And to you, Great Job! Congratulations on the nom.

  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Can I get one of those crabs on ebay? For me it would be a pet. Or a mode of transportation, perhaps.

    Congrats on the Barry nom!

    I agree that the first few chapters have to be solid. They are the ground work for the entire novel. I usually write and rewrite that over and over again, getting ever more painful (yet constructive) criticism from my wife along the way.

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Crab-riding, hmm? Are you nuts? Don't you realise you'd always be going sideways? Still, this is LA – it could catch on ;-]

    Thanks for the congrats.

    Nice to see that most spouses are the first line of defence – or should that be offence – for the writer!

  26. Allison Davis

    The crab is facinating: yes, it is a delicacy, it steals pots and pans (shiny things), it a sort of hermit crab and has a strong sense of smell. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut_crab#cite_note-36 I think he'd make a delightful character (they are frequently kept as pets). If they get you with their pincers, the only way to get them to let go is to tickle them. (ok more than you wanted…)

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    "If they get you with their pincers, the only way to get them to let go is to tickle them."

    Yeah, that would have been my first instinct … ;-]

  28. lil Gluckstern

    Congratulations on the nomination. right now I am patting myself on the back for having the British edition of your book, for no other reason than because I wanted it…I don't mind criticism that is constructive, to make a point, but criticism that makes the speaker sound wonderful, brilliant, and superior, makes me feel bad, and resentful. I find that I am writing and enjoy the process, but I really think that what I am saying is not so hot. Weird. I am my own worst critic. Have fun on your tour!

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lil

    Yeah, being your own worst critic is a tough one, because that's one critic that is very rarely – if ever – satisfied. Criticism should encourage and enlighten, not demoralise.

    Sometimes people do seem to criticise just to show off, but that's a whole different problem. It's like the occasional audience member at the end of a panel, when it gets to the questions stage, who doesn't actually ask a question, they make a point of their own and simply add, "Don't you agree?" at the end in order to dress it up as a question.

    Thanks for the congrats!

  30. KDJames

    "I'm absolutely chuffed to little mintballs"

    Zoë, this expression just made my day. I'm going to be smiling about it for hours.

    I have nothing constructive to add (day job has addled my brain cells today) but wanted to congratulate you on the Barry nomination! Wow and good luck!

  31. Reine

    Hey, Zoë. Looking forwad to seeing you in Tucson. Can't write tonight– y'know physically. So will just say congrats on the nomination. I'm such an introvert… criticism just is too awful. Of course I take it when I have to, just never do ask.

  32. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    Thank you! I think many writers ARE introverts, which is why we create an alternative reality – tell an alternative story. Outright criticism IS awful, but we just recognise it as part of the job if we want to improve and – perhaps – suffer less of it in the future.

    Or maybe we're just all masochists?

  33. Greg Gountanis

    Zoe, facing critique as a writer is the absolute toughest thing to do. It's natural to want to shield "your baby" from the masses, but at the end of the day it has to come out for all the world to see. I like to let the writing I'm working on sit for a while. Once I've finished a first draft, I'll move on to another project, keeping my momentum going and confidence level up. Then I'll come back a week or two later, to get back to work.

    Then I'll send it out for feedback…and cross my fingers.

  34. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Greg

    Yeah, letting something ferment – or should that be fester? – for a while after it's written is one of the great ways to see it's strengths and weaknesses. I also find that having a really bad memory helps, too. When I come across very old snippets of things I wrote years ago, I often a) don't remember having written them, and b) am surprised by what happens in the story. Which can be a good thing ;-]

    Good luck with your feedback!

  35. madisonroberts

    The emotional baggage accompanying criticism spills open as embarrassment, rage, shame, frustration, insecurity, shut-down, despair, revenge, of a retreat to the exit sign. I have felt that vaccinations caused much of the illness in the world. The fear, guilt and intimidation put upon us by the medical community, the media and politicians would certainly lead .
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