The Royal Literary Fund Fellow's job is simple, on paper. We are professional authors who are paid by the RLF to spend two days a week, in term time, for a year, supporting academic writing across the whole of an academic institution. Most are universities, but conservatoires and art schools also have RLF Fellows, and the students who come range from first years who've never written an essay to postgrads in the very middle of the PhD muddle. Their problems can be anything from "What does 'critically analyse' mean?" to "I need a Distinction or I won't get funding". I am cooking up a post of my Ten Top Tips for Academic Writing but, meanwhile, here's a tweaked version of a piece I wrote for the RLF Fellow's own forum, about my first impressions of the post.
Unlike some brand-new, nervous RLF Fellows, I was already familiar with the institution: Goldsmith’s is a small, compact campus three urban miles from home. It’s only concerned with the arts, humanities and social sciences, and I did my own PhD in Creative Writing there not so long ago. I also taught there for a year, so today’s undergraduates, from those who live and breathe Theory, to those whose sentences would be impressive in a nine year old, aren’t too much of a shock.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t brand new and nervous about the post. My allergy to passive voice and Germanic traffic jams of nouns contradicts so much that the students must read, while what I know about Media could be written in the margin of a vintage Radio Times. But the latter limitation, as everyone tells you, is an advantage: the easiest teaching trick I know is to say, “Tell me about it,” because almost invariably you can then say, “See? You do know what you’re talking about.” The second easiest is to say, “Write the first draft for yourself, and the second for your reader.” And the third is to explain how to shake an essay question out into an essay structure.
So, five times a day someone walks in looking stressed and un-confident, and (nearly) five times a day someone walks out looking better. Sometimes amazingly better: if I wanted a measure of how likely a student is to succeed it would be in how well they can take tools I’ve offered, and use them on their own subject, in their own way. Interestingly, it’s by no means always the most polished-seeming students who have that kind of intelligence. Some others are always going to struggle, but it's a very rare student indeed who made no progress at all despite my efforts and those of my fellow Fellow, playwright Annie Caulfield. And it can make a huge difference just to say, “No, you’re not the only one who finds essay-writing baffling and difficult. But it’s not magic, it’s just a set of skills that people can learn, and I know you can learn them too.”
Sometimes the most useful thing you can do is just give a student 50 minutes of your undivided attention. I'm not in their department, I'm not judging them, I'm not reporting to anyone, and in my RLF room there's no such thing as embarrassing ignorance or a stupid question. About a third to a half are foreign students, and though we're not EFL specialists and don't offer that kind of help, it's immensely interesting unpicking the nuances of English which are beyond the reaches of normal Language teaching - and beyond the reach of some native-English speakers, too. It's often the lack of micro-attention to language which is stopping the student getting the grades their understanding of their discipline deserves, and having to explain the nuances I take for granted makes me think about my own medium for myself.
All in all, it’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, not just because you can make such a difference by such straightforward means, but because the range of subjects and levels is pure joy for my novelist’s, fox-type brain. From the FSA Photographers of the American Depression, to the patterns and psychologies of illegal online consumption of foreign TV, and the writing of History in Ancient Greece, I get to do kinds of thinking and play with stuff that novels never offer me. I've helped with poetry for a Fine Art installation and case studies for Dance Therapy, number-crunching for Anthropology, literature reviews for Music and structure for absolutely everything. Yes, I’m really rather familiar with that particular first-year Social Work essay, let alone comma splices and dangling modifiers, but each student is different. And that makes all the difference.
The other day, something I was reading tossed a tasty short-story idea into my lap: two people in a particular situation with dramatic possibilities. If you think of craft as a process of problem-finding, as Richard Sennet puts it, then the problem I had found was how those possibilities might be realised. And I worked out how quite quickly - how the problem could be solved - how it could be written. I knew what the voice would be, how the structure would work, and that it would end up as a decent short story that quite a few readers would enjoy. At which point, all desire to write it melted away. I knew the answer to the problem that the idea presented, and felt no urge to glue the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair for several days, in order to spell it out word by word.
Obviously, in one sense, I was wrong: that spelling-out is also, in itself, a process of finding problems, and then solving them: "How do I write this sentence?" is really a question of "What am I trying to do with this sentence?", and once you answer that, the how is answered too, within the limits of your current capabilities at choosing and arranging words. And, of course, I was wrong in the sense that one can always do it better, or worse, in terms of the effect on readers or the money in the contract.
But I wasn't wrong, creatively speaking, to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a decent story. These days, some of the time, I know my writerly self: I had not only found the problem, I had solved it, and it was that very certainty that meant there was nothing to fire up and fuel my creative engines. Imagine a scientist who gets fascinated by a phenomenon, and spends a year or ten observing and imagining and analysing it, to work out how it works. The human, physical-mental joy of creative thinking is at full-tilt; that's why she came into this business. Once she has a theory that is proved to express and explain how that phenomenon operates, the job is done and there's no more of that joy to be had from it. The scientist moves on to something else: either a new phenomenon, or a new puzzle posed by this one. And mountaineers, too, can't find the fire and energy to put themselves through all the sweat and agony to do the same climb again. Saying, "But there's one tricky bit where the path's washed away," isn't enough to sustain the desire to climb the whole route and reach a top you've already climbed and reached: they look for a new route, or a new mountain. Why should writers be different?
And would I have been wrong in commercial terms to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a saleable story? Perhaps: I have rent to pay. If I'd had to try - if it had been a commission, say - I would have taken a leaf from Rachel Aaron's book, and gone on trying to find a problem, inside that story-idea, that I did feel an urgent, passionate desire to solve.
Maybe I would have been wrong to refuse to write it on spec, too, if it was a story which might get me lots of readers or money or both. But perhaps not. A deliberately found, not naturally-arising, problem is not such rich or efficient fuel. Things not working out is always a possibility a creative artist has to live with, of course: human creativity is nothing if not wasteful. But with something that doesn't arise naturally I know from experience that I often make the wrong judgements about the project: I stick where I should twist, and cut where I should add. It might not, in other words, have turned out as successful as it looked as if it would.
So, as ever, I'm not saying that I - or you - should ever refuse a project because it will do well as art or commerce, or refuse a project it because it won't. There's no merit in the snobbery that assumes that anything written for money is whoredom, nor in the snobbery that assumes that refusing to write something saleable makes you an idle dilettante. Snobbery is sterile, and this is a decision about fertility: about the fundamental mental-physical joy of creative thinking, and its relationship, in each of us, to our own particular, writerly self.
DON'T FORGET THE 500th POSTIVERSARY COMPETITION:
Keep those entries coming! Closing date Friday 31st May; full details here.
I can't quite believe that This Itch of Writing has being going for 500 posts - and five and a half years, come to that - but it's true. To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to have a competition, and some of my favourite writerly places have kindly offered prizes.
TO ENTER: Please write a blog post, 500 words at most, which is helpful, interesting or illuminating for other writers. Of course yours will stem from your own experience of writing, but the focus of This Itch of Writing is outwards, towards other writers, not inwards towards yourself. If you're new to This Itch of Writing, have a look here, to get an idea of the range of topics across the whole blog. If you want to include links or images that add real value to your post then please do, bearing in mind that This Itch is all about the words on the page. And you're welcome to enter more than once though, to be fair, I won't give the same person more than one prize!
THE PRIZES: In the spirit of This Itch that every writer is different and so wants and needs different things, the first prize is to be able to choose whichever of these three will be most useful and pleasurable for you:
The second prize is to choose from the remaining two prizes; the third prize is - well - you do the math.
All winning and any highly commended posts will be posted on This Itch of Writing at suitable intervals, and at that point I'll ask you for a couple of lines of biography, and, if you like, a link back to your own blog, website, Facebook page or any other web presence.
THE CLOSING DATE is the end of Friday 31st May (BST, if we're being precise), and I'll post the result as soon as I can after that, although, the writing life being the unpredictable thing that it is, I make no promises about when.
To enter, email your post to me at thisitchofwriting [insert the usual email symbol here] gmail dot com. Please make sure you give your full name as well as the text of your post, and put "competition" in the subject so I can keep things tidy!
By entering, you confirm that the post is your original work, and not published anywhere else.
You keep the copyright in your post, but copyright on This Itch of Writing operates under a Creative Commons Licence, (see the left-hand sidebar for the details) so you must be happy with those principles. The winning posts will stay in the archive of This Itch of Writing while it exists: all other posts will be deleted, so do make sure you've got a copy of the file.
My decision about the winners is final, and I don't promise to enter into discussions of the whys and wherefores of my decision.
There's no cash alternative to the prizes, but they are transferable to someone else, or postponable if (for example) you're already a member of WriteWords, by arrangement between you and the donor of the prize.
The Retreats for You prize includes full board for two nights, but transport there is your responsibility. Retreats for You can arrange transfers to and from Exeter St Davids station for an extra fee.
Everyone knows about the terror of the blank page that you've just written Chapter One at the top of. Some writers spend weeks approaching it, dabbing a couple of words on, and deleting them. Others research for a decade in order to avoid getting to the blank page moment at all. And one of the chief reasons that the crazy/shitty first draft principle works for so many people is that suddenly the cost of failure isn't so high: this was only a crazy first draft, after all. Anything goes to get words on the page; we'll turn them into the right words later.
But what if you're fine with starting, and with finishing that draft, but are terrified of revising? Some feel uneasily that their punctuation/grammar/spelling aren't up to scratch, but that's relatively easy to learn - and you may not be nearly as bad as you think. Others just don't know where to start eating this elephant: some suggestions here. But what if what worries you is revising the bigger and more intangible things? What if you're terrified you won't know if you're making it worse, not better? For some, that fear can be paralysing. First, here are some thoughts about how to keep in touch with the shore as you launch out into the unknown.
But the other side of dealing with this kind of fear is accepting that whatever happens in revising happens. No novel is ever, totally perfect: they're just too big. What you need to do for one reason means it won't quite be perfect in some other way, and it can never be all things to all readers. You have to forgive the novel for not being things it can never be; and for the answer to the question "When do I stop?", click here.
Another face of this business of letting go of the outcome is to understand that revising, too, is partly a matter of trusting your instincts. In the first draft you're inside a bubble of your organic sense of what the novel is - the characters and their situations and conflicts, the settings, the themes and ideas, all in their magical, cloudy reality - and you write within that bubble.
In revising (whether you do it after every sentence, or only when you've free-written the whole book) you have to step outside that bubble and train your editor's searchlight and telescope on it. You have to bring in feedback and general advice, and worry about your particular weaknesses and patches of tone-deafness or simple technical ignorance. Which matter, of course, but when people are afraid of "editing out the freshness" - and it certainly can happen - I think it's because they don't find it easy to bring that cool, technical eye to the writing, while keeping in touch with with the bubble.
One of the best summations of what an editor is doing for your book - whether it's someone else, or a workshop, or yourself - is that it's helping the book "to become the book you thought you'd already written." And so you need to hold on to your instinctive, sense of the bubble that you hope you've written, even when you revise: you sometimes need to close the notes and the checklist and the writing text-book, forget it all, and trust that everything editorial/critical you've absorbed just will emerge in your head and on the page, when the text in front of you needs it.
That way, not to sound too mystical about it, the text is driving the process from inside and taking what it needs from outside, rather than outside stuff imposing its will on the text. And that's why it's likely to all work better if, when you've realised the book needs to be very different, you resign yourself to going back and re-building it from scratch. It's not just because you've tweaked the hell out of and it's still not working so you've got to try something else. It's because by starting, mentally, from scratch, you're allowing the bubble to reconstitute itself and come alive for you. You're going back to thinking, "What is this book really, really trying to be?"
A while ago I blogged about what's going on, intuitively, when you're reading a really good book, using Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as an example. But, of course, many of us do read a really good book for a conscious, specific purpose. And if you have to write at length about it then you have to read even more clear-headedly. The first time I did that was for my MPhil dissertation, and the book was A S Byatt's Possession.
I was writing a novel which wasn't, then, called The Mathematics of Love, and there were things I wanted to say about my first, 1819, story that couldn't be said until a 1976 world. I balked at the all too well-used letters-in-the-attic scenario, but I invented my planning grid, and used it to track and connect themes, images, ideas and places, and one mysterious child across two wholly separate plots. Then my squirming, half-formed novel was rejected by an agent on the grounds that parallel narratives don't work. Aha! What I was trying to do had a name, had it?
With not a little sense of thumbing my nose at her I decided to write the critical paper for my Masters about a parallel narrative novel which does work. I needed novel with two stories with wholly different casts, set in wholly different eras and well-enough written to stand up to critical scrutiny: A. S. Byatt's Possession was the obvious candidate. Like many I skipped the poetry at first, while admiring the virtuosity of the ventriloquism. But all the structural things that I'd struggled with – what goes next to what, what's revealed when, how do you make it seem uncontrived? – Byatt does with such virtuosity and brio that my first reaction was, Thank God I didn't read this before I'd finished my own. And then I went back and took the book apart to write my paper.
So what does Byatt do? Well, she certainly illustrates the risk, built into parallel narratives, that most readers will enjoy one strand much more than the other. I have one friend who prefers the modern literary-detective-campus-satire strand, but most of us fall for the wonderful Victorian love "story" that's never narrated, but only put together un-chronologically, seemingly naturally, very carefully, from letters and diaries and slippery inferences in Ash and Christabel's published work. Byatt's even said herself that her heart used to sink when she realised another chunk of modern-day literary detective story was due.
And yet, like Conan Doyle's Watson, modern Maud and Roland are our representatives in the novel: Byatt's so determined to assemble the Victorian story only from its remains that we need their help to put it together. In these narrated sections the writing is authoritative, densely-textured, magnificently precise in its diction and wide-ranging in its references. You could spend a scholarly paper tracing Byatt's use of the imagery of insect life alone, or her exploration of the possessive possessedness of the biographer, or her structural use of the Melusine myth. And yet the narrative voice is detached: coolly narratorial. Only in what I came to call the documents – the letters, diaries, poems, literary criticism and stories – does the fierce subjectivity of each character-writer seem to break out and away from the narrator's own controlling intelligence and shrewd judgement.
The most interesting thing for me as a writer is just how Byatt plays those documents within that narrative. My novel had letters in it because I was fascinated by the technical challenge of expressing for the reader what a letter-writer wouldn't say. But here were documents used as clues for readers and for characters: as structure, as image, as plot and personality. Here were letters not sent or not delivered, diaries that didn't say things, private meanings in published works, "secondary sources" used as ammunition. Here was a long statement – implicit and explicit – about why people write. And here were three moments of a great love story, arguably the most important moments of all, that couldn't be put together from characters' writings, because they were beyond the characters' own words.
So what did Possession do for my own writing? Well, when people started saying that they loved the two strands of The Mathematics of Love but spent the whole novel wondering when they were going to come together, it was the physical, crumbly reality of the documents in Possession that showed me how I could do it. In a novel that's all about photography, voyeurism, reflections, and light making images, it's even better to have Anna handling photocopies, with the back of the letter showing through that thin, shiny 1976 Xerox paper, to be read in a mirror: what I'd feared would make the novel more ordinary actually provided the ram in the thicket. And the influence of Possession continues, in a contradictory way. A Secret Alchemy begins thus: "What I have known, I shall not set down. My habit is silence, and it is a habit that has served me well. Words set on paper are dangerous."
And, more broadly, Possession made me think very hard about narrative and voice. When you start a novel, one of the first things you have to decide is, Who's telling this story? Is it me, or an authorial persona not altogether unlike me? Is it some Supreme Being, modern style, who neither comments nor interferes, but merely states what happened? Is it one of the characters now, as the story unfolds or even explodes? Is it one of the characters remembering the past? Or is it really the reader, in which case my black marks on the page aren't definitive but merely the material for readers to make the novel for themselves?
There's no right or single answer, and it makes me very cross when I hear teachers and editors and writers themselves saying that one kind of narration is 'old fashioned' or another 'pretentious'. What Possession showed me is that there needn't even be a single answer for a single novel. As so often in Byatt's fiction it doesn't have to be 'either-or', it can be 'both-and'. 'Both-and' is more difficult to get right, of course. But when did difficult mean that a writer shouldn't try?
A version of this article originally appeared at NORMBLOG
Posted on Monday, 22 April 2013 at 12:29 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Books and reading, Craft, Creativity, Historical Fiction, Photography, Poetry, Point of view & narrators, Technique, THE MAP TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, THE TRAVELLING LIBRARY, THE WORKBENCH, Writing | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)
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It must be spring in the air: I'm fantastically busy on various fronts, but some of them might be relevant to all you lovely blog-readers, so here goes.
Since October I've been absolutely loving my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths; it's been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable teaching I've ever done, so I'm delighted that playwright Annie Caulfield and I will again be there next year. Our job is to help with academic writing across the full spectrum of the College, from first years to PhDs and staff, from Fine Art to Social Work and Anthropology. I am planning an occasional series on academic writing, since I know quite a few blog-readers would be interested. And the RLF's website has excellent resources on academic writing, although you do need to do a bit of digging to find it all.
The York Festival of Writing 2013 is on the 13-15th September. I'll be there as usual - as will Debi, several hundred writers, and a hundred or so authors, agents and publishers - and I'll be teaching a half-day mini-course and several workshops, although exactly what hasn't yet been settled (did I say I've been a bit busy?). It's always a fantastic weekend, and if you want to get the flavour, there's a great video here, which was made last year.
I've been playing around with Pinterest, assembling a "board" each for The Mathematics of Love, and A Secret Alchemy. The idea is partly to have somewhere for readers who are tickled by the real life correspondences in the novels, and partly perhaps to pick up the occasional interest from someone browsing Pinterest who didn't know that my novels existed. The boards are very much work-in-progress, and I've sometimes raged against the assumption that novels simply represent Real Stuff. But I shall gently add more images, since it's a lot of fun, perfect procrastination, and I do feel they're adding something that hasn't quite been get-attable before.
Some of my friends do boards for works-in-progress, but I don't talk detail about what I'm working on. That's partly because once I start I'm not very good at stopping and I'm fond of my friends, and partly so as not to "talk it out". But most of all it's because other people's reactions at this thinking-dreaming stage often not helpful, however well-intentioned or merely interested.
But when I got onto Pinterest I discovered that you can have "secret" boards, which only you can see. And compared to files on the PC and folders on my desk, it's a really easy way to collect together images, complete with links to their origins, and see them all at once. So I've made a secret board for the WIP and, when the W is no longer in P, I shall simply turn the board to "public".
At the Historical Novel Society Conference 2012, I took part in a panel discussion called The Lying Art: Tensions and Issues at the Fact/Fiction Interface, and it was recorded. The authors on the panel were Elizabeth Chadwick, Ian Mortimer (when he's being a historian, James Forrester when he's being a novelist), Barbara Ewing, Daisy Godwin, Harry Sidebottom and yours truly, and it was a really lively discussion with lots of disagreeing!
Obviously it might interest anyone writing historical fiction, but it's also very relevant to anyone who's grappling with the perennial questions that come up when you're using real factual material in your fiction - what you must be faithful to, what you can change, what you can ignore.
You may know that I co-teach an online course on Self-Editing Your Novel with Debi Alper. It's a six-week course based on a private bit of the Writers' Workshop Word Cloud. We developed it together, over a hundred writers have "graduated" from it, and this week we're in the thick of the seventh course. As ever, it's being huge fun, and then on a thread which a Word Clouder started about writing courses in general, our course was mentioned. And such was the reaction from graduates that I can't resist posting a link to what they said here. And one of the participants last time has even drawn a comic strip to show (and tell) what she got from it.
and finally...We're coming up to the 500th Postiversary on This Itch of Writing - at least, we are if you don't count the various posts that were just administrative. Once I'd recovered from the shock of realising that this has actually happened - can it really be? - I decided to have a competition to celebrate, and some kind colleagues have come up with some fantastic prizes. But did I mention that I'm horribly busy? At least until the end of term for my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths, and the end of the Open University Creative Writing Course A215, that is. So, since the whole point of blogging is that I can fit it round the rest of my life, it'll be a few weeks until I actually post the competition. Watch this space...
Posted on Thursday, 11 April 2013 at 11:44 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Blog and blogging, Competitions, Events, Historical Fiction, Photography, Research, Teaching Writing, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE IDENTITY CARD, The Mathematics of Love, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)
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Q: I'm being kept up at night by one rejection; four full MS are still out there. The agent in question is super starry and it sounds like she gave my MS a thorough reading. She said some nice things, even said I nailed some things. But she said she didn't get a new perspective, neither was she challenged. I've also come across a lot of stuff about risk in writing. I am now wondering more generally where I actually take personal risks, and finding that I'm not doing it much. I guess the book that is looking for a home took a long time in the writing and is probably the 8th iteration of the original idea, so what might have been a new perspective is old hat. But more seriously the things that have affected me in life seem so far in the distance that to bring them up as material feels like a weird contrivance. My second novel is halfway done at least in draft format and although it has plenty (I think) in terms of new perspective I don't feel exposed in the writing of it - not really. Yeah, I'm trying stuff with voice but everyone is doing that to some extent. I know writers who only ever write about their lives and relationships. I don't think that's me so much. Am I alone?
A: I think it's easy to be vague and touchy-feely (or macho and suffering-artiste-ish) about how it's necessary to dare all and bare all if you want to write well, but I'm not sure it's the whole truth. It certainly isn't a guarantee of good writing that the original source experiences were difficult or powerful. But, conversely, it's not a guarantee of bad writing that they weren't, or that you didn't have them. And heaven help any of you writers if you felt tied in to writing about your own lives and relationships - how boring would that be?
Having said that, I do think that for most of us, the best writing comes from places and materials which are really potent for us. That potency may be transmuted into other characters and situations, other worlds, other times, but it still connects with something quite fundamental inside ourselves. If you're not trying to find some kind of direct emotional (in the broad sense) connection with the story you're telling, then you're not going to find and write what's particular and individual and therefore real-seeming about this story. As John Gardner puts it, it's by the convincingness of the particularity of the story, that you persuade the reader to buy into the whole thing even though it's fiction. And the more individual and particular to you it is, the more likely it is to challenge and surprise a reader, and offer them a new perspective. That direct connection needn't be dressed in the settings and relationships of your own life, but even if it's not there at the start of your thinking about "what if...", you do need to find it as you work.
So it's easy to assume - non-writers do assume - that the best writing comes from the newest, closest, most vivid (and so probably painful) stuff. But you also need distance. When Emma has set out to write a story which will enable her to explore something pressing and important to her, it doesn't work. Sometimes it really is too raw: she's dodging being really honest about something difficult. Sometimes it's that the project gets lumbered with her need to write about that stuff, and the needs of the stuff trump the needs of the project. Sometimes it's that this stuff is so potent for her that she just doesn't realise she hasn't done enough for the reader: readers who don't find this particular situation inherently potent may need more help to find these characters-in-action convincing. But one way or another, her relationship to the stuff messes with her writerly compass.
For Emma, the necessary distance only comes with time, and/or when the project is something else. Then, the material from experience has no more and no less status than any other material, as she was thinking about in Yours to Remember, Mine to Forget. Then, the potency of the experience supplies your writing-engine with high-octane fuel, if you're willing to let it. But it is just fuel; it's the project that decides its own direction and organisation, and what fuel it needs and what it doesn't. As Nora Ephron said, she did finally make a happy marriage, but she only found a way to write about happy marriages by writing about cooking, in Julie & Julia.
So I don't think that bringing up the distant past in order to use it as fuel for the present project is necessarily a contrivance; I think it's probably the best way to use it. Only people who don't understand the distance thing (read: non-writers) and assume that there's a direct correlation between how recent the experience is, and the how immediate the story feels, will think it's contrived or inauthentic. The rest of us (read: writers) know that the sliver of ice in the heart is necessary: it's what provides the distance - the duality we need - in order to re-experience and re-create experience in the service of the story.
If what the agent says resonates with you, and you want to do something about it, I wonder if somewhere in the iterations that deep, and live connection with your concerns has ... not exactly gone, but weakened. Perhaps you've so taken its presence for granted, that you haven't spotted that it's been nibbled away (at least for some readers) as you've worked at other things? Perhaps as things changed in the novel and you were concerned with the mechanics of cutting it apart and solving problems and stitching everything back up again, you didn't go looking to connect with that original fuel-source afresh.
Much-revised novels are like the proverbial knife which has had four new handles and three new blades. It is in some sense the same knife, but the question is, do both handle and blade still work together to cut the same things with the same precision? And if not, do they cut different but just as good things with the same precision? It's the last bit which can get lost.
As to whether you don't feel exposed in the new novel - and whether that matters... It could be that you're suffering from Submission Blight: that awful self-consciousness that comes over so many writers when their work is somewhere out there, being judged, from the first competition entry to the reviews of your twentieth novel. Submission Blight is an auto-immune disease which allows your Inner Critic to get the upper hand.
It could be that the new, different project doesn't make it as clear as the first one did, where you might find the most powerful, new material for it - inside yourself, or out there in the world. That needn't mean it's the wrong project, just that you haven't yet seen which large and small aspects of the story offer that scope.
Or, yes, it could be that the piece is full of things which could work better - be better written, more powerful, more challenging for the reader, more radical in perspective - but you've decided, consciously or unconsciously, not to do them that way. There are a hundred thousand choices of that sort in any novel, and you do have to choose. There are always perfectly sensible reasons for choosing not to go down a road which you may not even be acknowledging to yourself is difficult for emotional, political or practical reasons. You might be right that something's too raw still and must wait for another couple of novels. You might be right that drawing on something from a long time ago might seem contrived. You might be right that a ton of research would be needed and you're not sure you could handle the material anyway. You might be right that this topic is one which can't be a sideshow in a novel, but only the main subject, and that's a different novel.
Or you might not be right. How do you tell? I'm not sure you can, although shying furiously and desperately away from an idea is a sure sign of its potency for you - and therefore potentially for the novel. Whether it would be right to put that potency to the service of this novel is a different decision, and has to be controlled by your overall sense of what this novel is. It might be too rich: like putting rocket fuel into a Morris Minor and watching it explode into shards. But certainly on a smaller scale, I do think a willingness to be as open and naked to the writerly demands of the situations in your story is very important. And that can be difficult to do, especially if in other areas of life things aren't being so easy at the moment. But readers know, instinctively if not consciously, when you're pulling your punches in a piece of writing. Even when the only person you're not hurting is yourself.
Emma Adds: Re-reading Jerusha's reply, and seeing the comments, has made me think of a couple of points. First, that when Jerusha's talking about "emotional connections" she doesn't just mean heartbreak, or love. She also means things like fear, triumph, excitement, frustration. You can no more write a good thriller if you're not willing to find those places in yourself and let them fuel your story, than you can write good mumlit if you're not willing to find the places where the stuff of family life lives.
Second, Jerusha is careful about confidentiality, so it's I who can produce an example of how you don't need to have experienced a trauma directly, to evoke it effectively. The first time I wrote about a divorce I was happily married. Years later, after I was divorced, I came across that MS again, and realised I'd got it right. I'd imagined how it feels by spinning together the usual threads from which we all make our stories: what I knew about marriage, and breaking up with boyfriends, and friends' experience, and things I'd read in fiction and non-fiction. Out of that - it turned out - I had spun together a convincing rope of story, even though no strand in it came from precisely that situation. And that was the day I realised that, despite having had a very ordinary and boringly un-dreadful life, I really could be a writer.
Posted on Friday, 05 April 2013 at 01:09 AM in A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Book Trade, Craft, Creativity, Historical Fiction, Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt, Research, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE FUEL TANK, THE IDENTITY CARD, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)
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A writer friend had feedback which said that her novel suffered from "ping-pong dialogue". Had any of us heard of this particular ailment, she asked here. None of us had, but the example she posted did suffer a bit from something I've seen a lot over the years, and no doubt I've been guilty of too; in fact, I'm rather grateful to have a name for it. It's not that the dialogue in itself is badly written; rather, it's a combination of things. Have a look at this:
"How long can you stay?" he asked.
"My bus doesn't go till six," she said.
She slung her jacket over the back of a chair.
"Would you like some coffee?"
"Only if you've got decaff, thanks."
"Yes, I've got some."
He put the kettle on to boil.
"You've cut back the hedge," she said.
"It got shredded in that storm. Had to do something," he replied.
Roly began to scratch at the back door and whine.
"I'll just let him out."
"Does he still come upstairs and bark if you stay in the bath too long?"
"No. He only did that to you." The kettle clicked off.
"No milk, please."
"Right you are."
He put the mug on the table.
"Did you get my letter?"
Now, there are various things going on here, all of which could be contributing to the ping-pong effect. First, it's not actually that briskly alternating lines of dialogue are a Bad Thing, but more that there isn't enough else going on. The dialogue has got detached from the other kinds of action in the scene: we've got speech-action, but not much physical action, or mental action and so on.
The effect, as someone else said on that WriteWords thread, is of "talking heads". In real life, we don't actually just sit there, immobile, and say things: speech is only part of the interaction of two characters: there's gesture and body-language: we move, or meet the other person's gaze or avoid it, or think one thing and say another, we have displacement activities like picking at fingernails or smoothing hair, we offer coffee by waving the coffee pot, or we decide not to offer coffee... Sometimes the other kinds of action are aligned with the speech: we shout "I hate you" and throw the saucepan. And sometimes they're in counterpoint: we concentrate hard on buttering the toast very neatly while we say, "Are you telling me you're having an affair?"
Even where there are actions in this dialogue, the writer hasn't put them on the same line as the dialogue by the same person, so the two kinds aren't connected even when they actually would be in the scene, and exacerbates the sense of talking heads. At the basic level, a good rule of thumb is to have something attached to every fifth line of dialogue, which shows who said it.
The other main thing that's going on in a passage like this is that every bit of the conversation has been written down, because that's what happened. It's a sort of narrative literalism, and is obviously a very natural outcome of how we imagine the story in the first place: to get at the right shape and pace of this scene, you probably need to imagine it in real time. But (as I was exploring in The Common Scaffold) that doesn't mean it should stay there in second draft. It's very easy to lose sight of whether, actually, each line is essential to taking the story (not necessarily plot) forward.
Working out what this scene is actually doing in the story can help you to decide which of all the little bits of dialogue are actually earning their keep. It's probably most useful to think in terms of compression, which can be used to focus the reader onto what's important. If my first example sounds a bit familiar to long-standing readers then you'd be right: it's what you could imagine as the first draft version of what I was using in Blow By Blow?, which might be your second draft:
"How long can you stay?' he asked.
She slung her jacket over the back of a chair. "My bus doesn't go till six."
"Good. I'll put the kettle on."
They sorted out the business of coffee - when had she gone decaff-only? - and he waited until the kettle had boiled and the dog been let out into the garden before he said, "Did you get my letter?"
If you click through to "Blow By Blow?" you'll find a discussion of why some of the apparently trivial bits (the decaff, the dog) got to stay in. But thinking in terms of compression and expansion isn't just so that you condense out the dull bits of what actually happened; it's about the rhythms of the passage.
In the first example the speech tags are all neatly tagged onto the end of the speech, which has a certain mechanical, binary effect - click-click-click. More generally, the first example lacks the weaving together of actions of speech, of gesture, of thinking which brings a much more flexible, varied rhythm to the writing. Among all its other uses, free indirect style and reported speech can break that on-off, binary, "talking heads" effect, by integrating what's said or thought into the rhythms and voice of the narrative. In the second example, even though it's a silly scrap written for demonstration purposes, that last sentence combines summary/telling, thought, physical action and direct speech, all into one. Because of that, it's much more energetic and forward-moving sentence, than if I'd separated them out into dialogue, speech tags and action.
Whether you have one would-be writing buddy, or a large writers' circle which meets twice a week, or a bunch of eager or reluctant students, giving and getting feedback is central to most writers' lives, but it's a while since I've blogged about it.
This discussion usually comes up when someone on a forum has found feedback distressingly painful, and battle lines are quickly drawn: "fluff is useless" vs. "no one has the right to destroy confidence", "some people just want to be told they're wonderful" vs. "some people can't admit there are other ways of writing". I've blogged before about how it all works best when there's a good match of style, but recently I've been thinking about what sort of mindset we all ought to try for, if we're going to get the most, and give the most, from feedback situations.So where do you start trying to be useful as a critiquer? I think John Updike's Rules for Reviewers fit rather well. Editing out the specifics of reviewing, they go like this:
First, I want to say clearly that there is no inherent merit, no virtue, no bravery and no use in being brutal for its own sake. "This is shit, you fool" is no more useful than "This is wonderful, darling." If anything, it's marginally less useful because it damages the writer's confidence, and un-confident writers don't dare do the things which would make their writing stand out. If the writer feels bruised or worse, then it's a regrettable if sometimes inevitable side-effect of being told how their creation affects another reader. Those bruises are not a mark of how right the critiquer is.
So, if you have a lot to say about what's wrong with the writing
a) have a bit of humility. Don't assume that you're right, when it's really just that you're you. Don't hand down your comments as if they're the laws of the Medes and Persians. To quote Updike, check it's the writer, and not you.
b) keep it specific. "This is shit" is useless and damaging. "The middle paragraph is flat and unengaging, maybe because you're suddenly Telling in the middle of the scene" is useful, if painful, because it's specific about both which words, and what's wrong with them: it may be hard to take, but the writer knows it's worth swallowing. And that "maybe" is a nod towards humility.
And it's forcing yourself to be specific about others' writing - good or bad - that will make you a better writer yourself. At least 50% of the value in critiquing is in how it educates the critiquer, so stay humble long enough to be grateful to the writer for offering you the chance of that education!
c) be specific about what works, as well as what doesn't. It's not about sugaring the pill, it's about reflecting the piece back to the writer: it's information which is equally useful. It does also help the writer not to shut off from tougher things you're saying, out of a very natural instinct of self-protection,
d) don't be afraid to say what you think. Someone has asked for your opinion, in order to improve a piece of their writing, and you do them no service by not being honest about your opinion. It's patronising to behave as if they can't cope with the truth as you see it. Better to practise being specific and honest, as above, than to just dish out bland and useless "lovely darling" stuff for fear of hurting feelings.
e) think twice before crossing out and re-writing someone else's work. It is often the quickest way to show (rather than tell) what you're trying to say about something. But it is an assertive act to write over someone else's words - not least because it lacks humility. If it really is the best way to make your point, make it clear that this may be what you would do, but of course the writer must find their own way to address the issue. In other words, if you've taken power over someone's writing, hand the power back to the writer at the end.
f) if you find yourself being very brutal in how you express what you see as the truth, bear it in mind that the words may be brutal not because you're right and brave and splendid and everyone else is a wuss who only wants affirmation, but because you have the hide of a rhinocerous and are incapable of hearing anything said less forcefully.
Not all writers have rhinocerous hides - most of the good ones don't, because you have to be thin-skinned to life to be a good writer. If in doubt, assume that the writer has a thinner skin that you have. You are a writer too: you're perfectly capable of expressing a truth in a way which helps without damaging. If you're not that much of a writer, why would your comments be useful and what are you doing in a writer's circle?
g) let the writer demur. Your job is not to persuade the writer that you are right (and by implication they were wrong.) One in many ways excellent writing teacher I know is, somewhere inside him/herself, a bully. It's not that what they say is wrong, or that how they say it is brutal: it's that they're temperamentally incapable of letting the writer disagree, and in conversation will push on and further, in an attempt to win the argument. But the critiquer's job isn't to persuade, it's to mirror. Even as a teacher, your job is to reflect back the effect of the piece of writing, and make suggestions - not assertions - about how that effect could be strengthened or changed to benefit the piece.
In Conditional Validation I was talking about how Malcolm Bradbury saying "They're good. Keep going" was enough for Ian McEwan to - well - keep going. We tend to think that the "they're good" is the important bit of that, but I more and more think that in some ways "Keep going" - said by someone whose knowledge and judgement you trust - is just as important. The thing is, they're two sides of the real question, which is "Is this worth doing?".
Mind you, Hilary Mantel said on Front Row that having won the Booker twice is no help at all, when you sit down to work on a new book: it's like the first day you started to write. In other words, the energy doesn't come from the pleasure of doing something know you're good at or are admired for - because that evaporates at the sight of the blank page. The energy to start in (again) and keep going comes from the knowledge that it will all turn out to be worth it, when you finally get to the summit. It's that knowledge which keeps you going over the endless immediate difficulties and setbacks of the terrain. Every step, every day, every month, every novel.
I realised this all over again recently, when the novel I'm working on was being profoundly awkward, at a moment when I had let into my psyche more of the routine book industry doom and gloom than was wise. As a result I was feeling the routine hysterical conviction that the novel, as a creative form and a way of earning money, is dying. Some writers and would-be writers seem positively to relish* feeling like that (or I assume they do, or why would they blog and tweet and grumble about it all the time?), but all it does to me is make it extremely difficult to get on with the novel. But this time, my agent happened to ring up to see how I was getting on; I said something about how disheartened I was. "Well, let me tell you why I'm optimistic about the long-term future," said my agent, and proceded to do just that. When your agent's been in the trade long enough to have only just missed Allen Lane, you believe what she says. And I put down the phone, rolled up my sleeves, and barrelled into the novel with as much energy as if I'd just had two strong coffees and a fan letter.
The novel hadn't miraculously solved its own problems, and the industry hadn't changed a hair: what had happened was that the work that the novel still needed suddenly seemed worth the energy and time and loneliness, and (let's admit it) occasional boredom that it was going to demand of me. When I thought that all might be pointless, I had no energy. When I thought it was worth it, the energy came rushing back.
And I think making it seem worth it is also one of the functions of a teacher. I was surprised, in writing But Can You Teach Creative Writing?, to realise how important a part of my job isn't just to provide a safe space for experimenting, say, or technical tools: it's to help the writers to feel that what they do is worth it, that there's a goal worth aiming for, that it's realistic to think they might reach it.
But in the end, I think you have to decide for yourself what makes it worth it, and then do your damnedest to seek out those things. And, perhaps, be prepared to acknowledge that they're beyond your reach, and either change your idea of what makes it worth it, or give up. For me it's having readers. Coming from the storytelling, not the journaling end of becoming-a-writer, I know that If I had no mechanism for reaching readers, I wouldn't write. But not everyone is like that: for some the act of writing is self-fulfilling.
And one final thought about what your writing is worth. As Claire King was discussing on her excellent blog some time ago, what we pay for something is a crucial component of what we feel it's worth. There are lots of good reasons for giving your work away for free on occasions: for charity, as review copies, as exposure in a place you want to be seen, as a twenty-four-hour ruse to get yourself top of a "bestseller" ranking. But I do think that anyone who consistently doesn't expect to be paid for their professional creative work is sending out a very strong message: that they don't think their work is worth it.
Far be it from me to tell anyone what to do with their life. But, I don't know about you, but my life is far too short to spend on anything as frustrating and badly paid as writing, if it isn't, also, profoundly worth it in all the ways that matter. I want it to be good. I want to be able to keep going. I need to feel it's worth it.
* I asked a psychotherapist friend why so many people seem determined to hear and even relish only bad and depressing news. "It's a form of masochism," she explained. "They're getting off on it." So next time someone insists that we're all going to hell in a handcart and refuses to hear your evidence for the reasonableness of a bit of optimism, you can quite legitimately and exactly describe them as that technical term: a w***er.