The fourth post in the Writing IRL series. The other day, I sent a sample of the book I want to publish to an editor, with a query ab...

The fourth post in the Writing IRL series.

The other day, I sent a sample of the book I want to publish to an editor, with a query about having him edit the whole book. A day or so later, he replied to let me know he'd be happy to work on the book, and that he'd already finished putting notes on the sample. So, positively fizzing with excitement and fear, I opened it up in Word.

I always have to mentally prepare myself for feedback, even when it's from loved ones. It's very important that readers should be able to share their opinions with me without fear of having their heads bitten off when I take the criticism too personally, which I often do; so I try to keep my mouth shut and remember that everyone is entitled to an opinion and I'm not always right. So that's what I did while the splash screen loaded up the document: prepared myself to Take Criticism Well.

But still, I was outraged. You want me to break this long run-on sentence up into smaller sentences?! It was designed to be a run-on sentence! Why do I need an and there? I don't want a fucking and there! Why are you trying to sabotage me by making my writing bland like every other beginner writer's? I'm no beginner! AAARRRGGGHHHH!

Okay, so it wasn't that extreme. I didn't roar at all. And his suggestions were, of course, all good ones. A lot of them are now in the book. But the question is: why do I have to prepare myself to receive criticism? Why do I take it so personally and find it so easy to get offended, when I asked for the feedback in the first place?

How can we get better at receiving criticism?

Well, here are the things that I've been trying.

Take a break

The thing I've found most helpful every time I've been annoyed by feedback I've received is simply to take a step back, and breathe.

In the moment, that hot and close moment of reading words written on a page that tell me I'm shit and everybody hates me, it's easy for me to feel angry or hurt, to want to push it away and refuse to accept it. But what good will that do, in the long run? Once I've shouted abuse at my critic and thrown them out of my house, have I changed their mind? Have I changed the minds of anyone who plans to read my work in future? No.

So I just have to step away, and take a while to think about what they're telling me and whether I would say the same thing if I were reading the story for the first time, and then deal with it once I've calmed down. If I still don't agree once I'm well rested and refreshed, then that's okay - we can agree to disagree, not everyone has the same tastes. But if not, then we're seeing eye to eye, and everybody wins.

Walk a mile in their shoes

That is to say, I try to see it from my critic's point of view. I've been involved in my work - it has taken me hours to write and often days, weeks or months to come up with - so my judgment is clouded. But they have come at it from a fresh angle, completely unaware of what it was and what it meant until they first laid eyes on it.

So, of course they're going to see it in a different way. Of course they're going to have suggestions that I didn't think of, or I don't think would fit. They haven't thought it through like I have, they didn't feel the idea grow in their heads like I did. But that doesn't mean that their opinion about it can't be correct - they might hit on something that never occurred to me, or a plot hole I couldn't see when I was right in the middle of it.

Put simply, I try to talk about my work with my beta readers as if we're discussing the work of some famous author, out of reach and faceless and far away. That way, we're both just readers, and we can say what we like about the writer and what they did with this story, and no one will get offended or feel bad about being honest because the author isn't here, and can't hear us. Then later, when the author returns, he takes what those readers have said and uses it to make his work better. If he agrees.

Thank you very much

Regardless of whether or not I agree with the criticism, I always try to be grateful to receive it. It's not always easy for someone to be critical of someone else's work, so it's important that people who have spent time reading my stories and giving their opinions know that their efforts are appreciated.

The added bonus, of course, is that even if I'm cursing them inside, hating them for hating the novel I poured my heart and soul into, I'm being super classy about it. 'Thank you,' I say, 'for your kind feedback. I'll read it through a few times and then I'll figure out the best way to put it all into my next draft.' Then I go home and cry, and draw a picture of them and set it on fire, and after a while the pain goes away.

Ignore it

And after I've done all of the above, if I still don't agree with what they've said, and if it still doesn't feel right, then I can always ignore it. It was their right to offer an opinion, and it is my right to refuse to listen to it. If I'm being deluded and they were right all along, I'll learn that when no one else likes the story either, and hopefully I'll never make the same mistake again; and if not, then everyone else will love it. Either way, everyone wins.

And that's what you can do with all of this advice, too. Who am I to give advice on this shit? I'm no psychologist, no expert in constructive criticism. I've received all of 12 Amazon reviews for my first book, and I rarely even receive a single comment on my blog posts. What would I know about receiving feedback? What an idiot, let's ignore this whole article together and pretend it never happened.

"I tell you, an honest man gets sick when he hears the word 'Liberty' today, after what the Republicans did to it!" ...

"I tell you, an honest man gets sick when he hears the word 'Liberty' today, after what the Republicans did to it!"

It's 1936, and the American people are disillusioned and divided. The downtrodden have been trodden down for too long, and those in power have spent too many years helping out their rich friends and ignoring the Little Guy.

Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip says he has the solution. He claims that if he were President, every American family could have $5000 a year (though he hasn't quite worked out where that will come from, yet). He promises to return America to greatness, and be the first president to actually do something about Mexico, and the horrible and imaginary things that terrible neighbour gets away with and has gotten away with for so many years. He isn't afraid to lie, or even to be caught lying, because he believes that he is above the law. He is, after all, fighting for The People, and what they want. Or at least, what he tells them they want.

Yeah. I know. Chillingly familiar.

But where it gets less familiar - and will hopefully remain so - is after he becomes president, when he begins to send anyone who disagrees with him to concentration camps, if they're lucky enough to escape the grave. He sets up his own private army - the Minute Men - whom he uses to terrorise anyone who has a brain with which to think independent thoughts or a mouth with which to speak those thoughts. He declares a state of emergency, so that he can have complete power with no restrictions, until the country is sorted out.

But, of course, he has no intention of ever giving that power up.

It Can't Happen Here is a brilliant and scary look at how populist tyranny could take over a free, democratic and developed country like the USA, even if we think it couldn't. It was written for a different time, a terrifying and dark time in modern history, but its message and its content remains just as relevant today as it was then. Even the tactics and the words that Windrip uses to take the country hostage are no different than the ones we see on the news every day.

And that's part of what makes it a fantastic book. This isn't just an angry writer, so desperate to get a message across that he has sat at a table with a pen and some paper and written a sledgehammer story with which he means to smash the establishment; this is a well thought out, intricate and subtle idea that is so well executed that it really could happen, right now, right in front of us. It's hard to achieve, that level of subtlety which is required to make a story utterly believable and grounded; but it's something to aspire to.

There's more than that to it, though. It also has wit, and likeable characters, and intelligent dialogue. With such a heavy main plot, you'd imagine that the book would have to be a bit boring, a measure too sad to be funny. But it made me chuckle regularly - every few pages. There were even some jokes that I missed because I didn't know the famous people they were referring to, so if you're from the 30s you'll like it even more. Either way, that balance is required to lift you out of the depression of what's happening and make everything bearable, and I think Lewis nails it.

Wonderful inspiration for a writer in these times that can feel so horribly dark and dreary.

So, for readers, I recommend the book for its entertainment and political value; and for writers, I recommend it because it's an example of how to deal with such an important struggle with subtlety and wit, so that your reader realises that it can happen here. And for everyone, I recommend it because 1984 is tired now, and it's about time we all had another political story in our repertoire, whose relevance we can overstate at every opportunity, til we're all sick of hearing about it.


Please note that this giveaway is now closed. This blog post is only being left online for those sweet, sweet memories. Well, as I m...

Please note that this giveaway is now closed. This blog post is only being left online for those sweet, sweet memories.

Well, as I mentioned in my latest Writing IRL post, "Proper Blogging (An Update)", I've been itching to do an Instagram giveaway to all you lovely #bookstagram-ers. I just needed an excuse. And now, having hit 250 followers this week, I have one!

I've lined up all of the following for one lucky winner:

  • Stoner, by John Williams - as the first book of 2017 to get a 5/5 review right here on, it just had to be part of my first ever giveaway.
  • On Writing, by Stephen King - because we all dream of being fantastic, celebrated, immensely talented writers, and this is one of the best books to read when you have that dream.
  • Limited edition Han Solo Moleskine notepad - to jot down all your ideas, or your first drafts, or your plot outlines, or whatever the hell you want, after you've finished the other two books and you're feeling inspired.
  • DestroyedorDamaged merch - not pictured, but pretty awesome. Obviously.

How do I enter?! I hear you ask, barely able to hold yourself together with all the excitement. Well, you just have to follow these steps (each one will give you 1 entry, up to a maximum of 4):
  1. Follow me, if you don't already, on Instagram (@destroyedordamaged), and leave a comment on the Giveaway post tagging at least 2 other users who might be interested in this slightly-above-average prize.
  2. If you have a Twitter account, follow me there too (@destroyordamage) and tweet your Instagram name at me, so I can link your accounts in my tiny brain.
  3. Repost the giveaway photo on Instagram, mentioning @destroyedordamaged in the caption. This will count as one bonus entry unless the caption in which you mention me makes me laugh, in which case it will count as two. So feel free to tell a joke or be silly, I like that.
And it's as simple as that! You have until 18:00 GMT on Friday 17th March, so get entering. This giveaway is not affiliated with Instagram, Twitter, any publisher or literally anyone in the world but me. I'm just a guy on the Internet giving books away to people who give me Internet points. Because why not, eh?

Important notes: you have to be in the UK or Ireland and at least 18 years of age to enter. Perhaps I should have mentioned that earlier. Sorry, everyone else. You're really welcome here, I just can't afford risk or air mail.