Speaking of character…A plea to newbie writers who plan to publish

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And The Most Important Character is…

I’ve been writing for dozens of years and most of those have been undertaken in earnest. I started pursuing publishing at age 12 and 15 and then again at 26. Since then, I’ve freelanced, edited, judged in contests, and of course, written my fair share of short stories, essays, flash fiction, and novels. In all, I have over 25 writing years in.

What I also did (and still do) over those years was critique other writers and have my own writing critiqued. In the early days, I don’t mind saying that my prose was filled with the typical new writer issues. It was unsophisticated: the characters lacked depth, the dialogue was flat and boring, and there was no sparkle to the prose. I had no idea how to move the plot along, I couldn’t keep track of more than two characters in dialogue, and I spent far too much time writing things that had nothing to do with the story.

OK. So maybe some of that is still true: I’m always learning, and that’s the point of my post today. I keep learning. I’m not afraid to hear when something doesn’t work. I have a pretty thick skin when it comes to negative reviews because I’ve spent a good many hours reading critiques of my work. Many, many times the critiques were not glowing. They could even be harsh depending on who was delivering the news. Sometimes, I felt sick to my stomach from reading a critique.

I had to learn to take the good comments AND the bad. I had to develop a distance from my writing in order to hear about the things that needed fixing.

And so I forged on. I discovered that usually after a tough critique that if I thought about the words, I’d realize it was hard to take because the information was true in some sense. Often, the critter would write something that resonated with me because I KNEW even when I wrote it that it wouldn’t work but kept it anyway.

Then I would go about fixing what needed fixing.

I’m a writer and that means rewriting. It means hearing hard-to-take information about my work in order to improve. It means realizing that the story comes first, not my ego.

Why am I writing all this? Certainly not to defend any review I’ve received lately: While I love great reviews, I don’t fret over the bad ones anymore unless I know I have some work to do because of them. We ALL get bad reviews at one time or another. It’s part of the game.

No. I’m writing about critique and reviews because I’m worried about some newbie indies.

I’m excited about indie work, really. But I know of some real newbie writers who are raring to put their stuff live digitally because they can.  I worry that newbie writers will not put in the character-building time of critique and revision that they need to, to produce good prose, and–more importantly–to survive harsh criticism.  Because it’s going to come. Like I said, we ALL receive bad reviews and harsh criticism at some point.

It’s how we deal with it that makes us newbie or veteran, I think. Our responses to the responses we receive are a mark of our own character. And many of us indies have spent the time behind the scenes developing that strangely plastic skin that allows truth to enter and pain to bounce off, (well, somewhat) and crafting that first-person character that is ourselves just as carefully as we craft the people that populate our work.

I wonder and worry about how many fledgling authors will scoot out to the web, jamming their new, untested, still-young prose onto Kindle, or Nook, or Kobo, because they can, and end up receiving harsh reviews that they aren’t prepared to receive.

And then never write again.

I beg of you newbies: please don’t do this to yourself. I’m not afraid of competition. I’m not trying to come off as superior and megalomaniacal or imply that I’m a better writer than you; Hell, I make plenty of writerly mistakes.

But I’m a fairly well seasoned, and I can take it when I’m told about the many mistakes in my prose.

It’s great to be an indie these days; we have a lot of venues open to us that weren’t open before, we have control over things we didn’t before, our stories can be the length they want to be.

But if you’ve never had your work critiqued privately, please reconsider before you publish it publicly.

From a veteran to any newbie who will listen: it’s not just your stories’ characters that need building, it’s your writer’s character and there’s no shortcut to that.


FREE Jan 28What do you think? Have I offended you? Have I spoken a truth that resonates? Please feel free to comment/critique/ or just plain complain.

Then go grab a free copy of God in the Machine (a short story): it’s free today only on Amazon

AND:  spread the word!

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Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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26 comments on “Speaking of character…A plea to newbie writers who plan to publish
  1. […] I’m no different than most writers. I have an ego. It does get slashed and burned at times and it does every now and then get stroked. Yes. I like it […]

  2. […] Speaking of character…A plea to newbie writers who plan to publish (theaatkinson.wordpress.com) Share me SomeShare on TumblrDiggMoreEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. Diana says:

    As someone who has written a book and is about to start looking for an agent, I appreciate your words. I think they are true and right. When my tech savvy friends bring up self-publishing, my immediate response is that I am simply not a good enough editor for that. No two ways about it. Maybe I will be someday; maybe not. Either way, I know that I am not equipped to be my own primary editor, and my only is hope is to have the good fortune to find someone willing to work with me who is.

    From way up here in the cheap seats, thanks for the honest encouragement and wisdom.

  4. I share the same fear: that people will (and are) abusing the system by putting up works that are very subpar. In fact, in my opinion it even extends far beyond the problem of ‘hiring an editor,’ because as you’ve said, it takes time to develop true writing skills. Just because a story is grmmatically and structurally correct does NOT mean that it’s dynamic and emotional. Those aspects are expressed in ways far deeper than fixed typo’s and the difference between ‘it’s & its’. It is impossible for anyone to really teach those things, even if they can critique that the experience of reading was hollow and flat.

    I personally feel that that’s where the need for a basic writing talent comes in. But that’s not enough. A writer needs years and years of honing their craft to really be able to express themselves and their characters in a truly believable, interesting, and engrossing fashion.

    To a point, i also feel that self-publishing has also opened up the floodgates of not only poor writing, but also deception. Anyone with money can hire editors and anyone with money can hire a professional artist for the cover. However, that will not hide an author’s lack of experience and practice honing their craft.

    My suggestion to new writers would be this: don’t give up, but don’t flaunt inexperienced work like it’s gold. Show self control and good judgement, and only let readers see your best side. Indie publishing is a fantastic opportunity and experience, but don’t whittle it down to little more than vanity press by not being selective and smart about what work to submit and not submit. KDP has no quality control, and therefore it is up to indie authors to control themselves.


  5. Thea,
    Great post. I’ve been a television writer for years and am making the switch to novel writing, and what you have to say is spot on. I have had to abandon books because I knew I just didn’t have the craft chops to make it work. There’s the writing and then there’s the studying. Being willing to take books you love and rip them apart to see the cogs and wheels and figure out how they did it. Thanks for this.

    • gracious! I would say you’d have to have craft chops, and I would hate to see any writer abandon novel writing if they really loved it. What were/are you working on?

      I love the way you put it:”rip them apart to see the cogs and wheels”.

      Writers have the best analogies; this one’s great.

  6. roxie says:

    Excellent post! Polish comes with practice, sparkle from pressure…a piece shines after uncompromising exertion.
    I am honored you included a link to one of my pieces 🙂

  7. Amen, sister. I know book bloggers who have been so offended by that “I know it has problems, but I HAD to get it on the market” attitude that they have made lists of authors to never buy again. Why do that to yourself?

  8. A thick skin helps. In the end I try to view ALL feedback as helpful in some way. Even if i don’t like what I hear I try so use it to look at my work in a different light. If I still disagree I will at least be able to say why.

  9. Good advice, Thea. The other side is the Vince Flynn’s who couldn’t find a publisher and self-pubbed. What us thriller writers/readers would have missed if he hadn’t bravely gone where agents/publishers said he shouldn’t.

  10. rick taubold says:

    Excellent post, Thea. You know I agree with you 100% on this. I see Diane’s points (comment #1) that some writers try for perfection before publishing (hence never publish). What you’re talking about is not waiting for it to be perfect, but at least polishing it enough to remove the rawness. I have 3 published novels. The first one I’m still very proud of. I spent 10+ years on it before it got published. Perfect? No. But after it went out of print from the first publisher, I got back the rights and sent it to another publisher as an e-book (this was before the indie revolution really took hold). All I changed were a handful of minor typos that got through the first time. And I’m still happy with it.

    Now, my 2nd and 3rd novels I’m less happy with. Assuming I can get the rights back in the near future (and I’m pretty sure I can), I plan to revise them extensively (they’re part of a trilogy, with the 3rd one unwritten). The reason is that they haven’t exactly been good sellers, yet I haven’t had any negative reviews and only a couple of minor suggestions on changing the second of those two. I suspect that had I really put these through a serious critique group in their entirety, I’d know better what they needed before I released them. I have a pretty good idea now, but only in retrospect. By the way, these novels were published by a publisher who thought they’d sell better, and were not indie published.

    The upshot is that–now–I have a lot more work ahead of me than if I had simply waited and not been in a hurry to publish. In the long run, I’d have saved myself a LOT of time. But this is one way we learn. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not UN-happy with the novels, only disappointed with the meager sales. I believe in them strongly enough, however, to want to give them a second chance at stardom, even though I had no idea what the outcome will be. What I do know, however, is that had indie publishing been as strong a few years ago, when I was submitting my second novel to publishers, I would have likely rushed it out in even worse condition.

    It sometimes saddens me to see newbies rush to self-publish because too often they don’t get any helpful reviews. They simply get few reviews (and those are “fluff” ones from friends) along with few sales and have no clue whether the cause is a marketing issue, the novel simply hasn’t caught on, or it just isn’t up to par on some level. Those are the ones I worry about–the ones who DON’T receive bad reviews when the work is mediocre. They get discouraged because they don’t know what’s wrong. EVERY writer can be helped and be taught how to improve. The key is that one has to seek out that help. Publishing something mediocre will most likely hurt in the long run because readers who pick it up and find themselves disappointed may never write that review and simply move on to another author.

    Therefore, it is CRITICAL to our writing careers to hear the bad because–as you said–we otherwise may never improve, or that improvement will come a long time later after we’ve wasted too much time pushing our inner critical voices aside instead of seeking outside opinions.

    • Rick:

      You nailed my intent very astutely. As a writer who has benefited largely from your vast store of generous and helpful as well as incredibly thorough critique, i can say I too would have rushed to publication and put out something that could be better. Mind you, I know self pubbing means we can adjust as we go, and that’s great, but for me, it’s about weathering the storm of harsh reception with clear knowledge that I have done my best for the story.

      I have learned much at your expert advice and guiding hand and am incredibly grateful

      Give us links Rick to your novels. I have the first one on my Kindle as you know, and I’d love for folks to get a share.

      And I think even one critique partner makes a difference. I have had several, and have been fortunate and grateful for each one.

  11. Diane Tibert says:

    I’m on both sides of the fence regarding this. I truly believe writers should develop their craft and learn how to write properly (in complete sentences, with proper punctuation and spelling) and know what it means to edit a story. They should also have at least one person read it to see what they think (if they can). More cititiques would be better, but not everyone wants to go this route.

    But the ability to post, remove, edit and repost makes things much easier than the traditional print world. I don’t believe writers should wait until their writing is perfect (because it never will be). There are great writers out there who simply won’t take the chance because they are told to write, rewrite, get critiqued, rewrite until it’s polished and then edit again. Some writers get caught in this vicious circle and never attempt to get published. They lanquish over the same story for decades. To those people, I say write the story as best as you can and throw it on the Internet as an ebook and move onto the next story.

    After a few years and a few more stories, you may feel like removing the first book and either trashing it or rewriting it to improve it. Either way, you’ll be a better writer and your stories will be better because you moved on and wrote more. The more you write, the better you become. And the more you write, the more you want to improve your write so you seek out advice, books and other sources to do so.

    Some people are born with thick skin, so bad critiques won’t make them skip a beat. For those who need to develop it, it will only grow when you expose yourself to the public, but you can’t get it to grow unless you expose yourself. Another vicious circle to conquer.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Diane. I agree about perfection–things will never be so, and there are writers who agonize over that and like you say, will never publish. There are also writers who NEVER intend to publish…and that’s ok.

      I guess in the end for me, it comes down to: if you want the world to read it, I’d say try it out on a few trusted souls first, so the regrets are fewer. But then: enter the viscous cycle, as you say..getting a reader and comments vs never getting it out there for lack of having trusted souls.

      So glad you dropped by; I can always count on you to get me thinking.

  12. Viv says:

    Whatever we write, we need to develop if not a thick skin then the ability to bounce back, learn from criticisms and have another go. I went through the process of trying to get published and as you know, the editors/readers at publishing houses can be harsh. I got letters back that praised my writing, begged me to keep going, but ended with the news that they couldn’t place my work. So, I know that there’s nothing wrong with my work (but we all need typos help!)
    I do think that this is a time of transition (every time I do a tarot reading, that’s what comes up) and things are being shaken up.
    Let’s see how things turn out when the mud settles. Many writers will give up…but maybe not forever.
    Excellent, thought provoking post. Thank you.

    • Viv: So glad you stopped by. I agree with your comments that some will give up…that’s my worry, and I’m glad you mentioned some will–but not forever. That’s a nice light addititon to the article.

      I do know of a woman I met in a workshop once who had just started writing. The workshopper offered crititque at the end, and hers was not harsh. It was encouraging and helpful as far as I could see…and yet she took it negatively and hasn’t written since. That was about 10 years ago. She made up her mind right there that she wouldn’t write.

      Here’s hoping she does pick it back up again.

  13. Dee Krull says:

    Hi Thea,
    I loved your article about criticism for newbees because I am a newbee fiction author. I am not new to writing but almost all of my writing over the past 25 years has been non-fiction concerning my profession as a clinical hypnotherapist. I have written two teaching books which sold to several schools for hypnotherapy. As well as many articles for various newsletters.

    I decided late in life to try my hand at fiction. I have taken to it like a fish to water. I fell in love with my characters, allowing them to guide me though the story. I have published my first book and it is not a really good novel but a good story that will get better with each book in the series. I have been taking classes through the Authors Learning Center which has helped me to realize that I am doing something right. I am almost finished with the second in the series and I know it is a lot better than the first.

    It is always good to hear from seasoned authors that it is hard to read negative criticism but is needed just as much as the positive. There has to be a time for lessons learned as well as the shiny new “Wow!” or “Great Job!” I would like to share something I learned from one interview with a screen writer that I believe in whole heartedly. He said, “never give your manuscript to mean people. Always give it to kind people who support you and want to see you succeed.” I do agree with him because I made the mistake of giving the first three chapters of my first draft to someone who did not support me and asked me questions I could not answer. It wasn’t long after that I watched this screen play writers interview. “I was crushed by this person, he helped me to scrape myself off of this persons shoes and press on with the attitude that I would prove to myself that she was wrong. I have done that and more. Thank you for the reinforcement.

    • Dee:

      Oh my! What a horrible experience, and yet I think they happen all too often. Too many writers forget what it’s like to crave emotional support at the beginning. We need it like a baby needs milk, and it’s an important part of the evolution.

      I’m glad you saw it as a positive post as that’s what I intended!

      And I agree: mean people should never have the chance to critique another’s work. A critter can be honest and still be supportive. Here’s to making sure we are always supportive of other writing.

    • Viv says:

      Then I suspect she was never truly passionately interested in writing. Those who give up at the first hurdle usually aren’t.
      In this case, I suspect it was one of those things she may have tried thinking it was easy or something she’d be instantly good at, and her ego was so bruised to find it was harder than she thought that she chose to avoid getting back on the horse again.
      I’m not good at taking criticism myself, to be quite honest, but the fact remains that you do have to take it on the chin, pick what is meaningful and you can do something about, and do better next time.

  14. shah wharton says:

    I’m the newbie you longed to talk to and I have listened. Although I already was aware of the importance of critique BEFORE publishing, and will be getting two rounds of beta readers PLUS an edit BEOFRE publishing, I realise this isn’t the case for far too many other indies out there. I have learned so much since I considered publishing my story, back in 2009. The story itself has changed so much, as have the characters. But so have my expectations. I read indies and learn from them what is good to go and, ‘OMG, NO! 🙂 I read pros and see where I want to be in the future. I want to start off in the middle of the learning curve, not at the beginning. 😀 Thanks for a great post X

    • Yes, Shah! Even the seasoned writers have typos and the like and every now and then a grammar mistake. It’s the larger things that worry me, and a good critique can catch those things like flat characters and bad dialogue. A great critique can even help a writer learn how to fix it.

      Good luck with your new story. Do come back and tell us about it when you launch.

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