Everyone’s a Critic

“Everyone’s a critic” is something you often hear, and it’s true in that everyone has an opinion, and rightly so.  We’re all entitled to think what we like about books, art, films and music or whatever, and with social media these days it’s a lot easier to express those opinions freely.

What IS difficult, however, is to accept criticism.  It’s something an author has to learn the hard way.

An author can't afford to be a diva :-)

An author can’t afford to be a diva 🙂

It starts when you first send your manuscript to friends or critique buddies. Although they will, in general, want to be nice to you because they’re your friends, their job is to tell you what isn’t working and what they think can be improved in the story.  Most authors feel their manuscripts are like their ‘babies’, so if someone points out that it’s less than perfect they may take it personally.  But you have to learn not to because this is just the first step and a friend will hardly ever be very harsh so there’s worse to come.

Once a manuscript is finished, it gets sent to an agent and/or editor.  They’ll have an opinion and at that stage the story might need to be revised and rewritten again.  Then, if the editor accepts the manuscript, it goes off to a copy-editor, and that’s when the home truths really emerge.  Because it’s a copy-editor’s job to make the book the best it can possibly be so although they’ll phrase it nicely, they’ll definitely point out all the flaws.  Ouch – this bit hurts!

But authors want their book to be great so they learn to listen – let’s face it, if enough people tell you the same thing then the odds are that you’re wrong and they are right.  Even if it hurts to tinker with your ‘baby’, you do it and afterwards it feels good because you know you’ve sent out something polished into the world.  Something which hopefully readers will enjoy.

But of course not everyone does.

With so many readers, reviewers and bloggers out there, it’s impossible to please everyone.  So when the reviews that come in are a mixed bag, that just reflects the diversity of people’s tastes.  Sure, it still hurts when someone says they didn’t like your book, but then again, I don’t like all the books I read either!  So you concentrate on the good reviews because they make you feel great and keep you going when you think that what you’re currently writing is a pile of poo.  And yes, an author’s worst critic is always going to be her/himself!  You learn to live with that too 🙂

So, back to gritting of teeth and rewrites …


Pia Fenton writes contemporary romantic YA stories and her Northbrooke High series features UK heroines clashing with US heroes in an American high school setting.  The latest one is New England TLC.

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EXAMS AND YA FICTION by Gill-Marie Stewart

Unhappy girl studying Free Photo

Do exams – and in particular exam success – feature more in YA fiction than in real life? I’ve been pondering this recently. Is YA fiction some middle-class enclave where for the most part exams matter and, for the most part, the leading characters do well in them?

Examples of exam success in books are numerous – Hermione in the Harry Potter series is brilliant (and although Harry and Ron don’t do as well as her, they still do pretty well). Cath in Rainbow Rowell’s Fan Girl is also outstanding. Mollie in fellow-Piranha Claire Watt’s How Do You Say Gooseberry In French is equally bright. Kat in Vikki Gemmell’s Follow Me has done well enough in Fifth Year not to need to continue to Sixth. Even Finn in my own #George-and-Finn series is disappointed (or his aunt is) that although he gets an A in everything else, he doesn’t get one in his maths. You really have to be in fantasy or dystopian literature to get away from this exam bias.

Of course, every teenager in the western world now has to deal with exams. Even home-educated students are usually enrolled for them. But the level of exam success seen in books is definitely not typical of the real world. In Scotland only 10% of pupils get 5 Highers at C or above in the first sitting. So are we YA authors – who by definition are a fairly literate bunch – writing for and about our younger selves? And if so, should we stop doing this right now?

This plethora of brilliant students wasn’t always the found in YA literature. Mary Yellan in Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn had very little schooling, likewise the brilliant heroine Cassandra in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle. Perhaps the obsession with exams is a reflection of our modern lives, where the world really is structured around how people do in their exams.

As writers we are encouraged to be more diverse in our work, including characters of different classes, religions and colours. But are all these characters going to be top exam students? And if so, do you think it matters? I do, and am going to examine this aspect of my own characters more carefully from now on :).

Gill-Marie writes YA mystery/romances as Gill-Marie Stewart. As Gilly Stewart she also writes women’s contemporary fiction. The first book in her YA series about George and Finn is Music and Lies (try out the first chapter here).

Want reviews and fab YA stuff? Sign up for Book Bites . Victoria Gemmell is interviewed in the current edition.


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41 excuses for not writing v. 3 reasons to write

Excuses for not writing

  1. It’s too late to start now. I’m too tired.
  2. It’s too early. I can’t think straight.
  3. I haven’t got my creative head on just now.
  4. I need to cook the dinner.
  5. I need to shop.
  6. I need to clean.
  7. I need to go to work.
  8. I need to reupholster the chaise longue.
  9. I’ve run out of ideas.
  10. I have too many ideas – I don’t know where to start.
  11. It’s just not flowing today.
  12. Everything I write is rubbish.
  13. I’ll never get it finished anyway.
  14. Who’s going to want to read something I’ve written?
  15. Who’ll publish it?
  16. Who’ll buy it?
  17. And even if I did finish it, I couldn’t go out in public and sell it to people.
  18. How can I possibly write anything original when there are so many books out there already?
  19. And how would I know if my idea is original when I’ve read so many other books?
  20. Is there even any point in my writing it, when there are so many books in existence already?
  21. What if I think it’s good and everyone else thinks it’s rubbish?
  22. I haven’t got my laptop.
  23. I haven’t got a pencil.
  24. I haven’t got paper.
  25. It’s too noisy.
  26. There are too many people around.
  27. There’s no flat surface to write on.
  28. People keep asking me when I’m going to be finished.
  29. I’ll never be finished because it will never be as good as all the books I love.
  30. I’ve tied my plot up in knots and I have no idea how to solve them.
  31. I’ve realised there’s no actual plot in the 80,000 words I have written.
  32. I am supposed to be writing one thing but all these other ideas keep me up at night.
  33. Who am I writing for anyway?
  34. Isn’t it incredibly self-indulgent to think that anyone wants to know what I have to say?
  35. Somehow I’ve forgotten how to make my characters talk like actual human beings.
  36. Do real people nod and shrug as much as characters in books?
  37. I’ve changed my mind about the style of my book and I’m going to have to rewrite 40,000 words before I carry on.
  38. But what if I’m wrong and the style’s fine, and I waste days rewriting?
  39. I think I’ve fallen out of love with my characters.
  40. You’re supposed to write in a clear genre, aren’t you, to make it easy to market your book? But I’ve no idea what the genre of my book is.
  41. I know what happens at the end, but I can’t work out how to write it in a satisfying way.


Reasons for writing

  1. That moment when the story’s coming faster than you can type.
  2. That moment when you’re so excited about your story that you go around telling people about it all the time.
  3. That moment when you read back something you’ve written and it’s just exactly right.


Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?

There’s a giveaway for Claire’s book running until June 1st 2016 over on Goodreads. Click here to enter.

Want more YA book stuff?

Every month, the Paisley Piranha YA newsletter Book Bites brings you brand-new author interviews, bookish competitions and other fabulous book stuff.

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Creative differences

The Piranhas are going to YALC!!!

(Can you tell we’re a bit excited about this?!).

Last year was my first experience of YALC, and what an experience it was (check out one of last year’s blogs if you’d like to live vicariously through YALC 2015)! Loads of book-loving people, and LOADS of costumes. I felt as though I was the only person without spandex, a princess dress or a magic wand.

So this year, that’s going to change. I decided to make myself a costume. I’m a creative-type, after all. As well as creating whole new worlds in my head, I can knit a sweater and sew on a button – how hard can it be? (Famous last words of any optimist!).

Katy Haye's costume pieces

Just follow the pattern, they said. It’ll be easy, they said…

I bought a pattern, some fabric and matching cotton and knuckled down, thinking it would surely only take a weekend – one day to cut and pin, the next to sew, perhaps.

Ha ha! It turns out that just because I can be creative with words, doesn’t mean my creativity is operational in other areas. Understanding the pattern markings and instructions was perilously close to map-reading (NOT a skill I would ever claim), and pinning pattern pieces to fabric turns out to be a strangely aerobic exercise (I had the aching thighs the next day to prove it).

The start of Katy Haye's YALC 2016 costume

Cut it all out and stick it together – what could possibly go wrong?!

It’s a good job I started early, because three weekends later and it’s still not close to finishing (although formatting deadlines can take the blame for some of that). Everything takes MUCH longer than you would think possible (which I guess is similar to writing, when the first draft turns out to be the quick part of the process). I wish I could end with a picture of the completed outfit, but it’s nowhere near ready. You’ll have to wait for YALC for that (fingers crossed it WILL be ready by then!).

Maybe I should have simply bought myself a costume, but that would have felt like cheating. Strange, really, because in other areas I have no problem owning up to my lack of skill.

For example, I have no personal aptitude for anything visual. I hire out cover design because it would take me longer to create a cover than to write the entire book. And I know I still wouldn’t come up with anything anywhere near as fabulous as Jane Dixon-Smith does without (apparently) too much trouble.

So, instead of a picture of my YALC costume, here is the cover for my next book, out June 24th. Isn’t she a beauty?

The cover of Katy Haye's Rising Tides

Another wonderful creation by Jane Dixon-Smith

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Yes you read that title right. I’m not talking today about WHAT to read but WHERE to read. Think of reading as an active thing to do. The experience of reading (where you are, your mood, etc) can change how you perceive what you read, how you think of it, even which book you choose to read.

Ardnackaig harbour

Rubha Caol – a good place to read?

And it’s such fun looking for good places to read, seeking them out and enjoying them. There are the obvious places and times – over coffee, in bed before you put the light out. But what about sitting on that rock over-looking the shore? In a library surrounded by other thoughtful people reading?

I’m not talking about the times you end up reading just to pass the time, although obviously you can do useful reading here too. On a bus or train, waiting to pick someone up. But these are rarely actively chosen for their reading potential, they are just blank bits of time that can be usefully filled.

The best reading moments are when you are somewhere special, maybe you haven’t planned to read but you of course always have a book with you. And then you realise that this place is where you should sit and enjoy.

Some memories to share – sitting back to back with good friend Zelda, on the shore at Seapoint, Cape Town, South Africa, reading D H Lawrence (I was a student, I was allowed to like D H Lawrence!). Balanced precariously on a rock over-looking a loch, somewhere off the Fort William–Mallaig road, reading Nigel Tranter. Tranter’s books are set in historical, rural, Scotland, so this was definitely a win-win. Curled up on the windowsill of an old vicarage where I was working as an au pair, reading Jane Austen and Rupert Brooke (what else could you possibly read in an old English vicarage?).

You can set a reading date up intentionally, or it can just be happy serendipity. But one thing to remember is, when you are somewhere new and exciting and interesting, don’t just enjoy being there, enjoy reading there too.

Here are a few suggestions of good places to read – the bath (but oh don’t drop your book/kindle in), on the steps of a beautiful building e.g. Kelvingrove Art Gallery, so you have that amazing structure rising up behind you, whilst sitting on the terrace of a café with life going on all around you, in a bookshop (yes Waterstones et al have cottoned on to this idea with their coffee shops in situ). And you don’t have to spend money to read, you can read anywhere (as long as there’s light!).

With thanks to Alexis Mes, whose refrain ‘oh this is a good place to read’ was one of the many great things about our recent trip to South Africa.

Gill-Marie writes YA mystery/romances as Gill-Marie Stewart. As Gilly Stewart she also writes women’s contemporary fiction. The first book in her YA series about George and Finn is Music and Lies (try out the first chapter here).

Want reviews and fab YA stuff? Sign up for Book Bites .

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I have spent all day creating character profiles for my new book. It’s one of the things they tell you to do when you start writing, and something I’ve only ever done in the sketchiest way. I have always thought that a character takes shape as you write and conjuring them up before you start is a waste of time. I’ve never had any particular idea what my characters look like before I start writing, and I’ve only mentioned their appearance if it came up in the plot. I know a lot of readers like to have a visual image of a character, but when I read, I don’t care. What’s the point, I thought, of telling everyone my character has long blonde hair and blue eyes? To me, my characters are more creatures of mind than of body and what they look like is mostly irrelevant. And where you write in the first person it’s terribly difficult to put in character description without ending up with something lame like ‘I brushed my long blonde hair a hundred times and then put on some smoky grey eyeliner to bring out the vivid blue of my eyes.’

However, I’ve set myself the task of writing a very thorough plan of my next book before I start to write, and as such, it seems a good idea to write a profile of each character (including their appearance). I’m not going to go to the extent of scouring the internet to look for people who I can imagine as the characters, though I know many writers do this; no, even if I have written a description of them, I don’t expect them to have a physical presence in my mind.

At least I didn’t.

I do so like to experiment with different ways of writing. I like the way concentrating on your method pulls out totally unexpected creative ideas. This morning, I drew up a spreadsheet with the character names across the top and a long list of items to fill in down the side. I started with about fifteen things to fill in and kept adding more as they occurred to me. Here’s the finished list of twenty-six:

supernatural talent
good at
bad at
loves to
positive qualities
bad habits
best friend
who do they trust
important memory
favourite food
favourite colour
favourite TV show
favourite book
favourite music
favourite film
most overused words
likes to wear

I imagined I’d only fill in all the boxes for a few of the characters, but as the day wore on, I found I could do most of them for all ten. And I discovered other things about my characters. I realised that two of the sisters were twins. I found that my main character went to cry on the shoulder of her dad when things went wrong. I worked out that the spiteful girl who made my main character’s life difficult actually wanted to be her friend.

IMG_2993I’m not absolutely sure that I need to know all the things on my list. How important is it that someone loves Strictly Come Dancing and nachos and that she bites her nails? Probably not important at all. Except insofar as it makes each character into a rounded person in my head – even the minor ones whose role in the book will be little more than to push the plot in the right direction.

And I find that these people are taking on substance in my head. It’s rather like trying to describe someone that you used to know to someone who also used to know them when neither of you can quite remember what they looked like: you know, that girl who used to dye her hair crazy colours all the time and could never sit still in class, the one who was always tinier than everyone else in the class, like she was built on a different scale. And so they appear, my characters, like people taking shape out of the fog of memory.

All I’ve got to do now is complicate their lives.

Claire Watts

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?

Want more YA book stuff?

Every month, the Paisley Piranha YA newsletter Book Bites brings you brand-new author interviews, bookish competitions and other fabulous book stuff.

Sign up now .

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Reviewing books – who’s it even for?

You probably already know that as well as this blog, the Paisley Piranhas also run a book-review blog (check us out for some YA recommendations if you haven’t already). We review books because we love them and we want to share that love. A blog is the cyber-version of grabbing your friends and pushing a book into their hands with, “You’ve got to read this, it’s amazing!”


Now, everyone agrees that reviews are important (it’s all about discoverability these days). But I was on a writing forum the other day where writers were complaining that they’d got some “unhelpful” reviews from using Netgalley. Now, in this context it was clear from what they said that unhelpful = lower than 4 or 5 stars, and, while I sympathise with the pain of discovering that not everyone loves your books, I thought they were missing the point.

A review, although it will be scrutinised and celebrated or lamented by the writer, isn’t intended for them. The review is for other readers. Once the book’s published it’s too late for a “helpful” review – that’s what writers have beta readers, and editors and proof-readers for.

Reviews are for readers

Reviews are for readers, and as a reader I love them. I do look at the stars, but I’d argue that one-star reviews are the most ‘helpful’. A one-star review reveals either:
a) the book is genuinely awful (e.g “this book seems to have been written by someone with only a nodding acquaintance with English. I counted 37 errors in the first two pages”): thank you, reviewer, I need go no further;
b) the reviewer doesn’t understand what a review is for (“I ordered a toaster and Amazon sent this book instead. It’s entertaining, but I didn’t want it, so I’m giving it one star”);
or c) (And this is my personal favourite) the reviewer is simply barking mad (“The hero of this book is called David. My ex-boyfriend is called David, therefore I hate this book.”).

For instances and b and c I’m now intrigued and want to check this book out, so I’ll look at a few other reviews, and if it sounds promising I’ll download the preview and make my own mind up. Then, once I’ve read a book, I’ll write a review to help other people decide whether the book’s a good match for their tastes. I follow a number of review blogs run by people whose opinions I’ve come to value for exactly this reason: to find recommendations for new books I can be confident I’m going to enjoy.

One book in an ocean of words

And that’s why I write reviews: to help other readers find the books they’re going to love in the ocean of words that’s out there (and growing bigger by the day). If I can help an author whose books I love, then I’m delighted to do so (to keep them writing more), but I don’t review in order to massage the ego of writers.


It’s also worth bearing in mind that all reviewers (I haven’t yet found an exception) blog and review and generally rave about books because WE LOVE BOOKS. You’re disappointed as a writer that I didn’t give you four or five stars? I can understand that – because I’m disappointed it didn’t get four or five stars. I’d love for every book that I pick up to be five stars, but that just doesn’t happen. Personal taste gets in the way and books other people rave about leave me meh, and vice versa.

Any review, regardless the number of stars, IS helpful to a writer, because they boost up the raw numbers of people who’ve read your book and bothered to express an opinion. These numbers matter for things like Amazon promoting your book (“if you liked this, try this…”) and they are also part of the decision-making process for book promotion sites like Book Bub. The overall score does matter (if you’ve got 100 reviews with a score of 1.9, you’ve written a turkey – take it down and start again), but so long as your book averages out to something decent you’ve got nothing to worry about – and complaining about a review won’t help. If you want the reviews you receive to be helpful, then accept the help the reviewer is giving you by reading the review and seeing if they maybe have a point – then get on and write the next book, making it your best yet.

In good company

If you’re feeling down because of your reviews, have a look at (and be cheered up by) some famous, culturally beloved books which have received excoriating reviews in this article. To illustrate my point about taste: I agree entirely about Lord of the Rings which I find utterly unreadable (I have tried, several times), while 1984 is fabulous (although I love Harry Potter, too).

Do you write reviews? Do you read them? Are they useful? Let me know in the comments.

Katy Haye constantly has her head in a book – her own or someone else’s. She writes fast-paced YA fantasy stories. Check out The Last Gatekeeper and The Last Dreamseer.

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