Fear — and learning to accept criticism

This post written by Mike Staton.
This post written by Mike Staton.

When nine years old, I wrote a novel. What am I hearing? Clapping? Please keep down the applause. It really was a humble endeavor.

I was home sick. Not sure why. Too many years have passed. Could not have been the flu with all its symptoms – vomiting, wooziness, an unbearable headache. I’d never have been able to sit on the couch and write the science fiction tale on the pages of my Mom’s notepad. My guess? A bad cold. Lots of coughing and sneezing, maybe a minor headache. But not sapping enough to keep me from writing my first book.

The pages of Mom’s notepads usually became grocery lists, letters to Ohio relatives, sickness excuses for me, and new recipes. On a school day in 1961 some of the pages of one notepad became Alien from Planet Z.

Is this how you began? Writing short stories or a novel by long hand. That's how I began.
Is this how you began? Writing short stories or a novel by long hand. That’s how I began.

Folks reading this may think the title of the notepad novel sounds familiar. Remember the 1950s movie Man from Planet X? Maybe the film’s synopsis will prod a memory to consciousness: “To study a rogue planet heading for a near-miss with Earth, Professor Elliot sets up an observatory on a remote Scottish Island. Accompanying him are his daughter and Dr. Mears, a former student with a shady past. Soon after the arrival of a reporter, a ship from Planet X just happens to land near the observatory. Is the alien visitor benevolent? What are Mears’ real motives for trying to communicate with it?”

More than fifty years later I’m coming clean: I plagiarized. Yep, I regurgitated the plot of Man from Planet X. I’m not proud of it, but I’d only been on this Earth for nine rotations of the sun. I assure you that nowadays I always strive to be original, although a character may occasionally turn out to be stereotyped.

I read the story to Mom. I don’t recall what she said, but Mom must have encouraged me or I wouldn’t have become the prolific reader and then writer that I am today. I hung out in school libraries, gobbling up science fiction novels about trips to the moon and biographies of baseball players like Babe Ruth and Mel Ott. Not until eighth grade did I take another stab at a novel, this one about an alien invasion. Not plagiarism, just a tired theme.

That's where words can take a writer and his readers -- to places plucked from the writer's mind.
That’s where words can take a writer and his readers — to places plucked from the writer’s mind.

The second time I didn’t share any of the chapters with anyone. I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin about my writing. To sum up my thoughts back in junior high, “Lord help me, someone might think I’m a terrible writer.” It was the same in high school when I wrote a tale about the English Civil War. Skin too thin to weather criticism.

At about the same time I was writing about a young boy joining Cromwell’s New Model Army, I decided I wanted to become a newspaper journalist. Enrolling at Ohio University, I took the required courses and graduated in 1974 with a journalism degree. Over the twenty years as a reporter, I wrote thousands of news and sports stories, features and columns. My skin thickened. I’ve come to appreciate criticism, not retreat from it. I want to know if something is lousy; I also want to know how to fix it.

After I finished The Emperor’s Mistress, I searched for a competent online writers’ workshop where I could get the chapters critiqued. In 2003 I began using the Online Writers Workshop of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Reviews remind me of my days making cold calls. Ninety-nine result in no new business, but that last one becomes a winner. For me, that last one is Michael Keyton from Newport, United Kingdom.

A writer sometimes needs a spark from someone else. One of my sparks has been a fellow writer -- Michael Keyton.
A writer sometimes needs a spark from someone else. One of my sparks has been a fellow writer — Michael Keyton.

Keyton is a wordsmith. While he’ll give me his opinion on setting, character development, show/tell, info-dumps and POV, he does something else that helps me immeasurably. He tells me when a paragraph is clunky. Not just tells me… suggests ways to improve it. Sometimes I stick with my words, but I’m not shallow skinned anymore… often I’ll choose one of his suggestions. Or build on it and deviate slightly.

I’ve been reading and reviewing Keyton’s chapters for his novels for nearly ten years. The strength of his novels is the way he paints words onto pages. The language is very poetic. Yet the passages of description rarely get in the way of the narrative flow. After reading one of Keyton’s science fiction/horror tales, you’ll close the book with a cornucopia of imagery still firing off neurons in your brain. That’s why I consider him a wordsmith, and why I eagerly await his suggestions for making paragraphs stronger.

A few years back I was one of the reviewers for Keyton’s novel Clay Cross, a private eye tale done in the pulp fiction genre popular in the 1950s. Nowadays the covers for novels about cynical, hardboiled detectives are popular collector items. The plot seduced me – like a fem fatale seducing a detective – and I found myself often in reader mode, editing forgotten. I loved the setting… Louisiana. From the moment James Finn runs down the priestess daughter of a voodoo-practicing houngan in a bayou, Clay Cross takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of plot twists that lead to a revelation – Finn has been trapped in the persona of comic book-style detective Clay Cross; Finn’s cultured wife, a fem fatale named Sheri Lamour. Anything can and will ensue when voodoo runs amuck.

Fellow author Michael Keyton has been an invaluable reviewer for my novels. Another of his novels -- 'Clay Cross' -- has been published. I helped review the chapters.
Fellow author Michael Keyton has been an invaluable reviewer for my novels. Another of his novels — ‘Clay Cross’ — has been published. I helped review the chapters.

I won’t say anymore; don’t want to give away too much of the plot. That’s because Keyton has decided to indie-publish Clay Cross. It went live in April. In Record of a Baffled Spirit, Keyton’s blog, he says he first imagined a character named Clay Cross when he came across piles of cheap paperbacks in a Woolworth’s in Newport, Wales. The paperbacks mostly featured Richard S. Prather’s detective, Shell Scott. Shell Scott led to Keyton’s creation, Clay Cross. Woolworth’s is long gone, but Clay Cross is very much alive in the pages of Keyton’s newly published novel.

I’ll offer up a link in case Clay Cross has intrigued you.


20 thoughts on “Fear — and learning to accept criticism

  1. I started writing about the same time! I remember a story of a battle between giant bees set thousands of years in the future when they had taken over the Earth. I still have a notebook with all those stories in them somewhere in a box. Your post brought back a flood of neat memories. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I did not write until about 10 years ago. My husband talked me into giving it a try. Loved the post and Clay Cross does intrigue me. I’m always listening to stories about the detectives from yesteryear on XM Radio. Great blog Mike, and you are very lucky to have a critique partner. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have started a couple, but never finished them. I’ve been doing these little Historical Western (light) Romance books, that are a lot of fun to write. I may pick one of the old stories back up one of these days. Cher’ley

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Always wrote, just poetry and plays with few stories. Now, well…

    I am happy you decided to pursue your writing. Those dreams are special. The Clay Cross book does sound like a great story and I thank you for making it known. Here is to many stories to come and the criticism that makes them great. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post gave me good memories and made me think. I’ve always written, I guess. Poems and stories were my favorites to write as a kid. When I really got the “bug”, I was ten years old and we saw a movie in the school gym called “Shoes for Billie Jean.” I’ve never forgotten that short and I came out of there changed somehow and truly inspired. I went right home and started writing a story of my own (with a little plagerism here and there – hey, I was only ten! I won writing awards throughout high school for my essays, which were always longer than anyone else’s and in story form. I didn’t save even one story and I’m sad about that. I only learned to take constructive criticism when I joined the Writer’s Club in Mexico. We were hard on each other, but only to see each other succeed. Good post, Mike. Thanks for sharing.


  5. Reblogged this on L.LEANDER BOOKS and commented:
    Here’s another post from Writing Wranglers and Warriors I think you’ll like. Author Mike Staton has a lot to say about when he began writing and how important it is to take criticism to make your work better.


    1. Yes, pure gold — and through the years I’ve found a few others who are good reviewers as well. Some, though, no longer participate in the workshop. I miss them. One, though, still reviews and posts. Crash Froelich. As good as Michael Keyton, and he’s written some fun SF/fantasy novels as well.


  6. Good post. I am still working on accepting the critique’s, but starting to get thicker skinned and better at seeing their value. Glad you are a writer. I too started writing in grade school, finishing or filling in background etc. for newspaper stories that caught my eye. Never showed it to anyone but somehow as a young adult, people started asking me to help write stuff. Long journey for me but the stories have to get out of my head somehow!


    1. Yep, all those stories in our heads. Just think of all the consequences if we couldn’t get them out and on paper. They’d keep piling up, more and more of them, until they’d not be room for even one more. But that one more would happen and look out. Stories would fly free like bricks, and God have mercy on the people in the room with us when that happens. People would be diving for cover. So the moral here… write!


  7. Great post, Mike! I love those old detective-style shows and books; mysteries can be such fun and so intense, even without the gore and such many writers use these days (I can’t/don’t read those — I like mystery but not horror). Writing as a youngster for me meant TV scripts and I could easily get absorbed into many western and detective/police shows and stories I’d create. I saved those notebooks for years, then decided to “pitch ’em’ — wish now I hadn’t; I had GREAT FUN creating them!


  8. I wonder how many of us did start off regurgitating plots from favorite shows or books? I did some of that too. And then wrote poetry and first chapters of novels that never went anywhere…


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