Criticism: dishing it out, sucking it up

Recently I’ve been working with a group of young writers, offering feedback on their works-in-progress. It’s got me thinking about critiquing and about receiving criticism. In my writing life I’ve experienced two broad categories of criticism, and lots of versions between: the first kind delivers renewed faith in my ability and energises me to tackle my writing problems; the second leaves me paralysed with despair, questioning whether I ought not just give it all away.

Can you relate to either of these experiences?

In this post I’m looking at tips to consider when giving and receiving criticism. A caveat: I am not a professional editor. I am a novelist and a teacher of creative writing with time spent on each end of the reviewing seesaw. If you’re up for it, join me on this crucial part of the writing journey. I would love your input.

Why have your work reviewed?

I have yet to find anything in the revision process that equals the value of frank, supportive feedback from a trusted reader. Novelist Robert Stone likens the revision process to trying to cut your own hair. You may sense that your story needs improving, but without a clear picture it’s hard to get it right. Stone says that an external reader may not be able to tell you how to style the material, but they can hold up a mirror to help you see beyond your normal range of vision.

Writer’s tip: during the manuscript process, carefully consider who you hope to review your work. Your family and friends may love every word you write, but unless they can pinpoint and articulate your story’s strengths and weaknesses, they are probably not the best means of advancing your story. An independent reviewer, a writing colleague, an astute reader, a teacher or mentor, one whose opinion you respect (perhaps even tremble at a little), may be better equipped to offer practical, productive guidance. This doesn’t mean you are compelled to agree with or act upon every point of call. You are the referee of your own story, free to consider each problem and solution.

First flush

The term first flush refers to the first plucking of a tea plant during harvest season, said to yield the purest tea the plant is capable of producing. A reviewer’s ‘first flush’ reading of your work, free of the echo of earlier drafts, is likely to offer the premium yield. That crucial ‘first read’ invites keen observations and astute queries. Unless you have an unlimited bank of trusted readers vying to see your work-in-progress, be strategic about who you will ask to read your work, and at which stage of the drafting process. If you have the luxury of more than one reviewer, look to each of them as yielding a ‘first flush’ reading. Invest wisely.

Writer’s tip: requesting someone to review your writing, especially a novel-length work, is a big ask, best approached with consideration. Such a review amounts to an extraordinary act of generosity and a monumental undertaking on the reviewer’s part. If the reviewer declines your request, be gracious. If they agree, be sure to acknowledge them for their time and input. Needless to say it would be poor form to expect someone to review your work if you were unwilling to contribute in kind.

Respect your reviewer

The degree of effort and attention a writer puts into their draft is sure to have a boomerang effect. When I read a work that demonstrates care and polish, I know I have been entrusted with something deeply important to the writer. But when a work is riddled with typos and poor grammar, where parenthetical notes indicate incomplete business, the review process feels disruptive, at worst dispiriting. You need your reviewer to be on your side, to see your commitment and to want you to succeed. Author Joyce Carol Oates likens the readers’ role to that of ideal editors: a friend of the text and a friend of the writer. Compare the interaction to any important endeavour: it wouldn’t be in your best interest to rock up to an interview without considering your appearance or preparing as best you can. Recently a writer emailed me their work for review. In the week that followed I received multiple updates with instructions to ignore the previous versions. A reviewer is donating their time and expertise. Enough said.

Encouragement, false praise and brutal blows

Do you remember your earliest days of creativity, when the act of forming letters on a lined page, or making up stories, or drawing or painting or colouring-in was unadulterated fun? Do you remember your earliest artistic creations and the joy you felt at a teacher or parent’s words of praise?

What went wrong?

Well, nothing went wrong, other than adulthood. The downside of developing and honing a skill is a rise in self-awareness and with it the inevitable onset of an inner critic. I respond positively to encouragement. We all do. I suspect so much of the child resides in us all. As I write, and when I review my writing, my inner critic is all too ready to give me a serve of self-doubt. I have to listen to that harsh little voice, I can’t ignore it, but left unchecked, our inner critic holds the power to unravel the positives: creativity, confidence, drive, motivation.

An external voice, one that is measured and perceptive, will look to both the strengths and shortfalls in your work. It will offer praise, encouragement, guidance. That said, is there a place for false praise? And how does the need for encouragement position words of actual criticism?

False praise is about as counterproductive as brutality. As a reviewer you are ultimately doing the writer a disservice not to be up front about areas of the writing that need work. At the same time, a sole focus on the negative does not offer a measured review. I haven’t yet read a piece of writing in which there wasn’t something to admire. Acknowledge those high points. I am mindful when asked to review a work of how far along the writer is in their journey. For some, this will be their first experience beyond school at receiving a review unquantified by a grade. As reviewers, our language is paramount. Match the tone and advice to the individual. Be clear. Be kind. Put yourself in the writer’s head and imagine receiving your review.

As for brutality, I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. The objective of a review is never to crush the writer’s confidence, but to enable the writer to see both the strengths of their work and where it may fall short—to offer strategies that advance the work to become the best that it can be. Writing is a courageous undertaking, a commitment of hours and effort, a never-ending school of learning. I’ve always loved this philosophy from my creative writing professor Dan Mueller at the University of New Mexico, back when I was a writing student. Dan’s words introduce a creative writing workshop, but can as easily apply to any writing or review situation:

I believe that every piece of fiction has contained within it the blueprint, or seed, of what it ultimately wants to be. For the author, fully realising a piece of fiction requires carefully listening to what the narrative is telling you during the act of composition, from the first sentence to the last, and at every stage of revision. In this way, pieces of fiction are born.  —Dan Mueller

How will a review best serve writer and reviewer?

Picture this: the writer has completed her third, sixth, thirteenth, nineteenth draft. Whichever number it is, she tells you she feels close to completion and asks for your feedback. Before undertaking a late-stage reading, it behoves reviewer and writer to clarify their intentions. Is the writer being clear (and honest) about what they want from a review? If it came to the crunch, would the writer be willing to discard and rewrite, or have they travelled way beyond that point? You may be asked to review a manuscript limited to word and line-level comments. Does the writer fully appreciate the time and expertise involved in any form of review? I was asked once to review a multi-page grant application. ‘It just needs a light edit,’ I was told. More of a light kidney transplant. Perhaps you’re being called upon because your particular expertise in life fits the subject matter of the work, independent of writing craft. Are you willing to tailor your reading to the request? If not, think carefully about taking it on.

Writer’s tip: isn’t there a part of us all just craving to be told that the work we have produced is genius? Before surrendering your manuscript for review, interrogate your motives. Consider who you are asking to review your work and what you are asking of them. If you are unwilling to receive criticism or act upon it, set your manuscript aside or submit it for publication.

Your thoughts

Was there a mentor who helped you overcome adversity or gave you faith in yourself? Was there an experience that altered your approach to writing or reading? Do you have advice to share? Drop me a line in the Comments box below or email me via this link. I would really, really love to hear your experiences.

Readers on Reading

In this segment I invite an inspirational reader to share a little of their life and a favourite recent read.

“Fiction – particularly historical fiction – can reveal disturbing but significant truths for all of us; stories that need to be told, that need to be heard.”—Nicole Sinclair

Nicole Sinclair. Photo credit: Jessica Edgar

I first met talented writer Nicole Sinclair during my time in south-west Western Australia. Nicole, a secondary English teacher, was already highly regarded for her award-winning short fiction and non-fiction and had decided to tackle writing her first novel as part of a creative writing PhD. Any postgraduate study is a mighty undertaking, and for Nic it proved to be a remarkable, if not wild and crazy personal journey as she navigated a way through research and writing, in combination with falling in love, marrying, moving between towns, and bringing two energetic daughters into the world. Whew. I am delighted that dedication and perseverance has rewarded Nic’ with happy outcomes—a shiny new family, an academic degree, and the recent publication of her PhD novel Bloodlines. Here, Nicole shares two treasured experiences that have shaped her life, along with a favourite recent read.

Travelling solo

Traveling by a taxi in Dogon country, Mali, 2006

With local children in Dogon country, Mali, 2006

From a young age my sisters and I were encouraged to travel. See the world, our folks said, there’s plenty of time to settle down when you’re older. I was always interested in other cultures. History was one of my favourite subjects at school – I loved learning about faraway places, so vastly different to where I Iived. I have travelled to many different countries, and know I am fortunate to have done so. At a particular time in my life I was drawn to countries less frequented by tourists – Mali, Ghana, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea. This deepened my ideas of humanity, and the whole spectrum of human experience. I found the adventure of solo travel thrilling, but I look back now with an acute awareness of my vulnerability at moving through such countries alone. I know that this experience fostered in me a sense of my own power, an assertiveness, and the necessity of trusting my intuition. All these things are important – especially for a woman. Having said that, I have always had a strong feeling of ‘home’ too – often linked to my childhood farm in Western Australia’s wheatbelt. I remember feeling exhausted and sick with Giardia on the road to Timbuktu. We were caught in a howling sand storm at a river crossing and the sight of a lone gum tree brought me to my knees with longing. So many of my travels were woven into Bloodlines in some way, and I appreciate the depth and sense of expansion having access to travel brings to my life.

Mothering

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Traveling these days requires a different backpack and is limited to the south of Western Australia.

I have two very young daughters (aged four and two). I wrote my novel, Bloodlines, while they were babies, and although I often felt torn between my writing life and my role as a mother (that I was doing neither job particularly well), my children were lifelines in the busy period of writing and editing. I knew early on that I was never going to be a perfect mum, that this is just a fallacy and so the idea of being a ‘good enough’ mother resonated. I found this helpful for my creative life too. I have a tendency for perfectionism and I realised at a certain point my novel had to be ‘good enough’ – otherwise I might never finish it, never be ready to send it out. Small people also make us laugh and have fun. They give us permission to act like a goose. I’m inclined to live in my head a bit, so this is a real blessing.

My favourite recent read

The Sound coverThe Sound is a historical novel written by Sarah Drummond. Set in the 1820s, it centres on the sealers who sailed along Australia’s south coast. These men are a violent, rough mob – most evident in their treatment of the indigenous women and children they kidnap from islands and coastal communities. Based on much research (this novel was undertaken as part of a PhD), Drummond chillingly depicts this merciless world; she does not shy away from the brutality the sealers dish out to the women, animals or each other, yet her portrayal is never gratuitous. It is testament to the skill of a great writer when they deal with such confronting material so deftly. It is not all hard-going for the reader – through the protagonist Wiremu Heke (Billhook), we witness decency and tenderness. He is our moral compass. And the evocative images of the coastline around Albany (Drummond’s childhood home) are expertly drawn. Drummond is a fisherwoman and her knowledge of the sea gives real authenticity to the tale; she knows her stuff. I enjoy reading stories based on the colonial era in Australia – so much of it ‘left out’ when I was a student. Fiction – particularly historical fiction – can reveal disturbing but significant truths for all of us; stories that need to be told, that need to be heard. The Sound is one of these. I found it compelling from start to finish.

Bloodlines coverA big round of thanks to my guest reader Nicole Sinclair. The Sound has just arrived at my local bookstore and I can’t wait to read it. And I highly recommend Nicole Sinclair’s stella new novel BloodlinesFor more on Nicole and the story behind Bloodlines, check out this fab posting on Amanda Curtin’s Looking Up Looking Down.  

Image of the Week

Cold coast, pointy mountains, polar bear

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Spitsbergen, main island of the Svalbard archipelago. ©Robyn Mundy

Procrastinating about writing, I was seized yesterday with the urge to back up my computer, RIGHT NOW, THIS VERY MINUTE. In the process of tidying-up I lingered over images, including these, photographed last season on a flight from Tromsø in northern Norway, to Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard Archipelago.

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Looking across to Hornsund on the south-west coast of Spitsbergen. ©Robyn Mundy

I’ve been flying to Spitsbergen since Polar Pioneer, the small ice-strengthened ship I work on, set off on its maiden voyage in the year 2000. It’s a rare reward to look down upon this wild place and gaze across its breadth. And you know it must be good when the pilot manoeuvres the plane so that both sides can gain a clear view.

This icy part of the world earns its title: Svalbard translates to cold coast, Spitsbergen, to pointy mountains. Svalbard is also territory to a large population of polar bear. To encounter this mighty animal roaming across its foraging ground is a heart-pattering thrill of any voyage.

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A female polar bear foraging on pack ice in north-east Spitsbergen. ©Robyn Mundy

One Year in Tasmania

Videographer Simon Treweek. Photo: Robyn Mundy

In a recent blog about Maatsuyker Island, I spoke of an island visit from two shiny videographers Simon Treweek and his mate Nick ‘Noodle’ Nain-Smith. During their stay the boys experienced the full brunt of Tasmania’s Southern Ocean, with knock-down winds, lashings of rain and tantalising bursts of sunshine. I doubt anything could have dampened their enthusiasm, for in 24 hours the boys soaked up the island with their cameras to create the 3-minute video Maatsuyker.

Now, not one but two of Simon’s adventure-plus videos, The Edge of the Earth and Maatsuyker, are shortlisted in the One Year in Tasmania Adventure Film competition 2017, part of the Cradle Mountain Film Fest. I thoroughly recommend grabbing 3 minutes then another 3 minutes from your own crazy adventures to view them. Have your say in The People’s Choice Award, open now until May 2nd. To vote, simply like♥ your favourite(s). Links to my two faves below:

Photo courtesy of Simon Treweek


The Edge of the Earth: Surf photographer Stuart Gibson grabs inspiration from Shipstern Bluff, the heaviest wave on earth. Directed by Simon Treweek, this high-octane video won Simon an overnight stay at Maatsuyker Island, courtesy of Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.

Photo: Simon Treweek

Maatsuyker: Visit a mysterious island that Tasmanians hear about every day in the weather forecast but that few have ever seen. Directed by Simon Treweek. 

 

Image of the Week

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In our final weeks at Maatsuyker Island, my partner Gary and I had the joy of sharing the island with the Friends of Maatsuyker Island (FOMI), a fun-filled volunteer group who visit the island each year for an intensive working bee. Amongst the hard workers was photographer James Stone. On the second morning of FOMI’s stay, I made my way down to the lighthouse at first light to carry out a routine daily check. Rounding the corner I did a double take at the sight of a camera and tripod standing untethered on the path, where it had stood overnight. With the relentless winds at Maatsuyker, snagging a time when you might find your camera and tripod in the same place as you left it is a noteworthy event in itself. But when I saw the results of James’ photography, the aurora shown above, and a second image below, I was the one blown away. I invited James to share the story behind his stellar images.

James Stone_IMG_9227As a night sky photographer and self-confessed aurora-addict I couldn’t believe my luck when an aurora was predicted for my first couple of nights on Maatsuyker Island, Australia’s southernmost lighthouse and maybe the best location from which to view the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights outside of spending a winter in the Antarctic. This was in conjunction with clear skies and no wind – conditions exceedingly rare on this exposed lump of rock in the Southern Ocean, renowned for being amongst the wettest and windiest places in Australia. Despite a very early start to get to Maatsuyker I knew I had to stay up and make the most of this incredible opportunity.

The lighthouse stood as a stoic sentinel as the lights danced high in the sky behind, the peace of night broken only by the cries and bellows of the seals on the rocks far below, and the occasional muttonbird swooping by. Being my first night on the island, and with restoration work going on in the lighthouse, I wasn’t sure if I should venture inside, but chanced sticking my head through the door to shine my headtorch up the stairwell, illuminating the windows and lantern room for effect. I would loved to have posed for a silhouette shot on the upper gantry but didn’t think I had better risk it without permission. Next time…

I watched the display long into the wee hours of the morning, in awe of not only the stunning night sky, but my spectacular good fortune to be able to be there, in that location, under those conditions, a unique and truly memorable experience.

Eventually tiredness overtook me and, placing my tripod in a sheltered spot out of the wind and flightpaths of birds, I left my camera clicking away shooting a time lapse until its battery ran out. Meanwhile I staggered back up the hill to bed.

For keen night-sky photographers, James shares his camera settings, and a second aurora image below: Camera: Nikon D750, Lens: Nikkor 16–35mm f/4, Exposure: 20seconds @ f/4.0, ISO: 5000. Be sure to check out James’ brilliant time lapse sequence on Vimeo.

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Beneath the rainbow

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Any title that includes Rainbow is bound to conjure images of crystals and incense sticks. Nope, there’s not a tinkle of glass nor a whiff of sandalwood to be found in this post, only photographic proof that it is possible to see the end of the rainbow, and live a serene life beneath it. We’re talking Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, the island where my novel Wildlight plays out, within cooee of the south-west corner of Tasmania.

Our six months of caretaking and weather observing at Maatsuyker Island has come to a close. Now, even more than our first few days of treading paved roads, it feels like crashing back to earth. The work on the island was hard, the living conditions cold, and the wind rarely stopped blowing, but perhaps all these challenges contributed to us having the time of our lives. And even though we turned into eating machines, we each left the island many kilograms lighter, and fitter, thanks to hauling lawnmowers up and down slopes, wielding brush cutters, digging drains and tending a large vegetable garden, plus all the walking. It’s a win-win formula that I’m naming The Maatsuyker Diet.

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Here is my partner Gary with ‘Helga’ the mower. There’s little scope for traditional gender roles on Maatsuyker Island. We divided the mowing and brush cutting work that tends a 2-kilometre-long grass road, 2 helicopter pads, 1 vegetable garden, the surrounds of 3 cottages and 1 lighthouse, 1 paddock, and brush cutting 7 bush tracks, paths and numerous slopes too tricky or hazardous to mow. One round took each of us 4–5 days on a 3-weekly cycle.

A corner of the Maatsuyker pantry at the start of our stay; strawberries from the veggie garden’s poly house; sushi rolls for dinner (my partner Gary’s speciality); during our stay we consumed 42 kgs flour transformed into sourdough loaves and baked goods.

During our first caretaking term in 2010–11 we barely saw another two-legged being, but on this stint we relished the company of several energetic visitors. Long-time friends Katherine and Kevin from Western Australia arrived on a crayfishing boat and stayed for five days. The permits and arrangements took them months, and even then it was nail biting times as the ocean swell and weather was against them both on their arrival and throughout their stay. Katherine and Kev were thankful for the handrails in the howling gales; they very quickly found their footing, embraced nature, and contributed to Maatsuyker with all manner of island work.

The wonderful Friends of Maatsuyker stayed over for two intensive working bees. This volunteer group contributes to almost every aspect of the island. Amongst the hard workers was Mark, who has turned his passion for lighthouses into restoring those around Australia that require serious TLC. Mark made his own way down to Tasmania and donated time and skills to continue work on restoring Maatsuyker’s lighthouse. During his days on the island we would regularly cross paths at first light as he headed down the hill to begin his day, working until late into the nights. He made impressive progress by removing damaging paint from a big section of the inside walls, and repainting top parts of the tower.

An unexpected visitation came from Dutch presenter-producer Floortje Dessing and her camerawoman Renée, who flew all the way from the Netherlands at short notice to produce a documentary about life as caretakers on Maatsuyker Island. Floortje To the End of the World (Floortje Naar Het Einde Van De Wereld) is a popular Dutch TV series which focusses as much on the people who choose to live in remote corners of the world as it does on the the natural wonders of wild places. While they were on Maatsuyker the girls got to experience the brunt of the Roaring Forties latitudes with 6-metre ocean swells and a record wind gust for January. Maatsuyker claims plenty of ‘personal bests’ when it comes to record winds: still to be beaten is its August 1991 squall of 112 knots (207.4 kms per hour), the country’s highest non-cyclonic wind gust. Floortje and Renée embraced every moment of the weather and were fun to be with. I only learned later how big a celebrity Floortje is in her home country, while to us they were simply two sparkling, energetic women who joined us each evening for dinner, washed up afterwards, brought a whopping great round of Edam cheese in their suitcase and followed us here and there on our daily routines.

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Lastly we welcomed Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife video competition winner Simon whose prize was a visit to Maatsuyker Island. Simon and his mate Noodle lobbed in for an overnight stay via helicopter, though with under-par weather conditions it was touch and go whether they could even make it to the island. Thanks to the skilled pilots at HeliRes they arrived safely after a short delay. Without losing another minute, the boys donned wet weather gear and bounded from one end of the island to the other with cameras in tow. In the evening, between ducking outdoors to watch a brilliant sunset, they joined us at Quarters 1 for curry and a pint of home brew beer. Next morning at 0400 they were up and at ’em to watch Maatsuyker’s thousands of short-tailed shearwaters launch off the island. In 24 hours Simon and Noodle succeeded in filming and later producing a professional 3-minute video which showcases the island. I will have that clip available to share in a week or so, along with an interview with Simon.

I could go on about Maatsuyker, but will close with the info below and a selection of photos which I hope express the magic of the island.

The nitty gritty of caretaking at Maatsuyker Island

The volunteer caretaker program is coordinated and managed by Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service who currently advertise the position through Wildcare Inc. every two years. Each applicant must demonstrate a range of skills and an adequate level of physical fitness, and will be responsible for purchasing their own provisions for the six-month term. Part of the Maatsuyker caretaker duties is to conduct daily weather observations for the Bureau of Meteorology Hobart. Many short-term volunteer caretaking opportunities across Tasmania are advertised through Wildcare Inc., the incorporated community partner organisation that provides management and support for volunteers working in natural and cultural heritage conservation and reserve management. Friends of Maatsuyker Island (Wildcare Inc.) is a volunteer group who contribute time and skills to the island, raise funds towards maintenance and improvements on Maatsuyker, run day trips to the island via boat, and conduct annual working bees.