Remember that memoir you loved and spent ages on, years back? Or the novel you loved which has just spent ages on a slushpile, but come back? Or the story you coolly put in a drawer for six months, and now the light of day is actually cold you can see that it really doesn't work? And yet ... I've blogged about how to tell if your revisions are making it better or worse, and when you should stop revising. But how do you know whether you should be working on it at all?
As ever, it vastly improves the chances of reaching the right answer if you set up the right process. If you're standing there with the MS in your hand or on screen, you have a chance to read it cold and fresh: as if you're a reader. So make the most of your chance: don't dip in and fiddle but instead, as Jerusha Cowless said here, use this read-through as a process of problem-finding, not problem-solving. For myself, that requires hard copy, a biro, a notepad, and a very comfortable sofa: you may differ.
Don't start working on corrections or changes, because readers don't do that: instead, use the hard copy and the notepad to record your readerly reactions. This is a diagnostic read: be open to what the book gives you, and try, as a good doctor does, to set aside your first assumptions about what's probably wrong, so as to listen/feel for what's really on the page. Note the clunks and creaks and saggy bits, but don't try to cure them. Record what works too: what's healthily convincing and exciting is just as important an aspect of the patient. And when you know what this book gives a reader and what it fails to give, there are quite a few options.
1) Give up on it because, actually, you're not excited by it any more. Your interests in writing or in life have moved on. Be honest, now: can you and do you want to do more work? If you're a stubborn type, you may be reluctant to give up but, after all, you've done perfectly well up to now not working on this. A creative worker always has the right to say, "I have better things than this to spend my creative energies on." BUT are you someone who flits from project to project, and finds finishing things difficult? Would it be worth pushing a bit harder, doing some relaxed, speculative thinking about how the story might be re-worked, and seeing whether you do get excited again?
2) Give up on it because a trusted reader or industry person has said it's beyond redemption or no reader would be interested, and you agree. Your plan to tell the story of Savanarola through the consciousness of the stake he's chained to as he burns didn't turn out so well. It's too late (or too early) for a romance set in the First World War to sell. A SciFi thriller which imagines the CIA reading the German Chancellor's emails has been overtaken by that inconvenient phantasm known as Real Life. That's life. BUT if you think through the particulars of that project, to the quality of that story which excited you - the thematic and emotional heart of it - could you transplant that quality to another setting or story which would work or sell?
3) Give up on it temporarily, because you've some idea of the problem, and it's not one that you know how to solve. But another project may teach you more, and meanwhile this novel isn't going anywhere. What's for you, as they say, won't go by you. You could even set up some projects to help you learn what you think it needs, rather than hacking about in the text itself. This is the only option that I can't think of a BUT for, unless there's some way in which the project is time-sensitive and it's now or never; in that case it's perhaps the moment for some help from your writers' circle or a trusted teacher-type editor, to work out how to solve it.
3) Revise it, because you want to and can see what the problems are. This, in a sense, is the obvious thing to do. Now for the problem-solving: click here if you're daunted by the relative sizes of your elephant and your spoon. You could even try importing it into Scrivener and chopping it up, so as to be able to handle individual bits without getting in a muddle. BUT it's worth thinking about the scale of what needs to be different, and I can best illustrate that with an anecdote.
Years ago I did up my kitchen, and I wanted a bare-sanded floor-board floor, but it was a mid-Victorian house and almost every board had been cut and lifted once or more at some point in the last 130 years. "I could get rid of the worst and shuffle up the rest. But would take me all day to do the jigsaw puzzle, which I'd have to charge you for," said the builder. "We'd need two or three new ones which would be a completely different colour and texture, and it would still look terrible at the end. I wouldn't take any pride in it."
The thing is, words on the concrete page always look more convincing than the cloudy words that have arisen in your head to suit your new conception. That's what "darlings" really are, and murdering them is difficult: when you're totally re-working a project it's like pushing a real, teenaged child out of the house to make space for a baby that's not even conceived. So the risk is always that holding onto the old stuff - which may be gorgeous writing or fascinating ideas - distorts your overall sense of what the story needs. It becomes, unconsciously, an exercise in saving old writing, not doing whatever it takes and cutting whatever should go, to create a story which works.
The builder continued: "Whereas if you give me £200, I can pop down to Wickes, get a room's worth of new boards, and have them down by lunchtime. It'll cost you much less and look a hundred times better." I did, he did, and it did. Which suggests another option:
4) Think of this as a new story - a totally new take on an existing project - and treat the old one as raw material. In other words, you use the idea, setting, characters etc. as no less, but also no more important than any other material that's in your imagination and life and notebooks. And then you think up a new story which won't have the failings of the old one (though of course it may prove to have others: such is life!), plan it and write it, drawing on as much of that material as the new story wants and nothing else. It'll be quicker than your first go at this project, because of course so much is already decided and the raw data has composted down. But the big difference is that you're letting the new, whole concept of this project drive your decisions about which words and characters and scenes get onto the page. I'd even suggest that when the new story does need some of the old story's words, you don't copy-and-paste, but copy-type them, for reasons I explored here.
AND if you're horrified by the inefficiency of copy-typing in a world which has invented drag-and-drop, and, more generally, you're rebelling against abandoning a whole lot of work and starting again, then I'd suggest - respectfully - that you haven't quite grasped the role that efficiency plays in creative work. Creative work is inherently wasteful, but that doesn't mean throwing aside time or money will make your work better (I'm a great believer in not messing around when you're working: in having a to-do list and sticking to it.) It's just that sometimes what seems efficient in the crudest sense is actually very inefficient. Reducing the number of new words you must write to the minimum isn't nearly as efficient, because it's not as effective, as making the most of your capacity to conceive and grow a story which actually works.
I've blogged before about how critiquing works best if there's a good fit between critiquer and critiquee, but it still amazes me how many aspiring writers think that positive comments - even those on their own work - are useless.
The praise on the outside of a praise sandwich is far more than mere sugar to make the filling more palatable - though side-stepping natural, human defensive deafness or resistance is one of its functions. Yes, a vague "this is wonderful" is no more useful a critique than a vague "this is shit", though it hurts less. And yes, if you've got 20 sums right, and 5 wrong and so only got a B+, concentrating on what's wrong with the wrong ones is probably the way to an A- next time. Mind you, it's concentrating on how many you got right - holding on to the fact that you're worth it - which is most likely to give you the energy that it's worth putting in the work.
But there's something far more important at stake. No creative worker ever knows quite how something will come out, or why it comes out how it comes out. And, by definition, none of us can know how our work will seem to someone else. So discussing what does work in someone's piece is just as valuable, much of the time, as discussing what doesn't work: a mirror should show you both how gorgeous your dress is (no need to change it) and the thread hanging down from the hem ("Mu-um!"). Without that mirror, the artist may genuinely not see either thing. Positive critques aren't "blowing smoke up your skirt" or "bullshit" or whatever pejorative term you fancy: they're feedback about the reader's experience of your work.
Why wouldn't you want feedback on what works and ideas as to why, so you can do it again? Working on a piece of writing is just as much (actually, far, far more) about trying to affect the reader in the way you want to affect them, as it is about trying not affect the reader in wrong way. So a feeder-back who only tells you negative things - even if those things are quite useful - is only telling you half the story. So why do they do it?
1) You've asked people not to "waste time" on telling you what works. Yes, lots of fluffy comments about how lovely it is don't get you much further, and yes, when I've had a rejection, being told "But they said it's really well written" doesn't comfort me much because of course it's well written: that's my job! But reading practical, specific details of what works (as well as what doesn't) for that reader in your writing is never a waste of time.
2) They genuinely can only identify and explain negative aspects of your work - which probably means anyone's work including their own. This is all to do with how they're wired (parents and teachers have a lot to answer for), but still, they're only 50% useful, as opposed to the 100% useful that other readers might be. By all means make use of what they say, but (as when listening to anyone's story of their break-up or sacking) remember that it's always only half the story.
3) They're being deliberately nasty in withholding positive things that they could usefully say, but choose not to. In which case, their motives for giving feedback are clearly selfish, or actively malicious and they're not a person you want in your life - specially not your writing life.
4) They have a macho delusion - again, probably about themselves as much as others - that positive things are fluffy nonsense, and if there's no pain, there's no gain.
But can any of us actually swear that we know precisely what we do well and how well we do it? The more developed a writer is, the more they're aware that they can't read their writing as others do, and only with feedback can they be sure they're working on the reader as they wish to. So one could argue - I am arguing - that it's a form of arrogance in itself, to say that precise, positive feedback is useless: such writers are so sure that they know their strengths that they don't need them pointed out. But they're wrong, because no writer can know all their strengths.
And what's more, all teachers know that the weakest students of all are the ones who haven't yet learnt that they're bad. So, if that pain in the bum on your favourite forum is busy declaring that they don't need positive feedback, or busy declaring, as they put the boot in, that you're fluffy and un-serious for objecting to their offensive comments, you can safely assume that a) they don't know how writing works and b) they don't know how people work. In which case, their feedback isn't worth two seconds of your time.
Whether you want to snatch a couple of nights somewhere like Retreats For You, or you're planning to buy your own personal desert island, or you're wondering whether to offer cat-sitting to friends, most of us dream of running away from the clutter of everyday life, to write. And it can be wonderful. But unless you have infinite income and zero emotional ties, you're likely to feel you need to "justify" the time and money, by coming home having done lots of writing. And that's a very real pressure which can hamstring you quite as much as the half-term bedlam at home which you were trying to escape. So here are some suggestions for making the most of it.
- Have a think about the best way to use the time. That's partly to make sure you've got the right equipment and books with you. But there are other reasons:
- Consider not working on the big project, if you've got a novel on the go, say. You could do something much freer and madder, and then return to the novel refreshed, seeing it with a cooler eye and with some new skills that it hasn't taught you, but the new stories demanded and so you learnt.
- You could also plan to work your way through some of a how-to-write book, or write a haiku every morning, or sketch a flash fiction every evening in the café - or scale similar things up till they're most of your writing time. Sometimes having a lot riding on your writing time ("This is my One Big Chance - oh, help, it's not working, I'm such a failure) can be less productive than doing something apparently minor: something which doesn't have too much riding on it.
- If you've got an ongoing project then it will have its own logic and demands. I would myself work out a fairly discrete project for the time away: an achievable goal of "revise on hard copy and put those revisions in" or "draft the next two chapters". Just planning to "Do some more" leaves you at risk of not-really-writing, fiddling, procrastinating and all the other ways we find of avoiding jumping in and getting swimming.
- If you're trying new things you could decide, say, that by the end of the week you'll have at least one story in first draft. Are you a shitty first draft merchant? Let yourself splurge, and worry about sorting-out and tidying-up later. But with new things it's all rather more imponderable, so you need to forgive yourself if it doesn't happen. And therefore ...
- ... it's always wise to judge how much you "should" write by time, not words produced. You're not altogether in control of the latter, but keeping the seat of your pants/trunks/bikini on the seat of that chair and off the internet for the four-hour morning you've decided you'll do, is always possible.
- Take a favourite how-to-read or how-to-write book: one that gives you energy for writing, and will help to sort you out if you really can't write sense, or stick because you don't know how to handle the scene you want to write next. If it's an ongoing project and you really will be stuck for want of a particular reference book, then take that.
- Take whatever you're comfortable writing with. Maybe not even a laptop? Even if you do, also take your favourite kind of big notebook and pen, so you can write even if the electricity goes down, the laptop get nicked or the sun makes it impossible to see the screen. Take a pen drive to back up stuff and keep it separate from the laptop so they don't both get nicked. And if there's wifi, get a Dropbox account.
- Explore, and record, whatever you stumble on while you're away. Take walking boots, small notebook, camera, guidebook, history book, binoculars, whatever. Filling the storehouse for future projects is just as valid a use of writing time as scribbling. Also buy postcards and pick up leaflets of anything that feels potent even if you can't see what you'd do with it now: you may in a year's time.
- Consider avoiding having constant wifi available. At one place I run away to, I use a cheap mobile PAYG WiFi hub. It's not expensive but, as in the old dial-up days, you're conscious that it's on, and don't end up surfing.
- Each day, let yourself stop when you've done your hours, and do whatever else you want to do in this different place. If you just drive-drive-drive with the writing you'll run out of fuel. Simple physical activity clears the mind, allows solutions to float up, and helps fend off heart-attacks. Music, art, landscape, history all refuel you in other ways.
- Don't feel guilty about stopping and doing something else when you've done your time. If you're writing every day, then the project will always be in the front of your mind, and be ticking over and solving its problems and shoving the solution in front of you, even when you're splooshing around in the sea or stomping up a hill.
- Consider splitting your writing time into two: 2 x 4 hours with a brain-clearing walk in between may be better than 1 x 8 hours. Or decide that you'll have an optional second chunk of writing time in the evening if you feel like it.
- Don't hit the alcohol or other such too much, tempting though it is when in some senses you're on holiday. It's desperately frustrating to be all keen to work the next morning, only to find your brain feels like fudge. Same goes for staying up all night, perhaps. I hate to sound like a killjoy, but one of the markers of being serious about your writing is that sometimes you don't do nice things, because writing is more important. And that is why you're going away, isn't it?
Have a lovely, productive time!
I am now galloping over Mrs Dalloway, re-typing it entirely from the start, a good method, I believe, as thus one works with a wet brush over the whole, and joins parts separately composed and gone dry.
That's Virginia Woolf, in her diary, and I should imagine not a few readers of this post are thinking, "Imagine re-typing a whole manuscript! Such drudgery! Thank goodness the technology's moved on since then!" But Woolf obviously thought it was worth it - and several other authors did too. "She would re-type the whole, cutting as she went," says Jane Aiken Hodge's biography of Georgette Heyer (who published two books in a year, more than once, and knew a thing or two about working efficiently). Mary Stewart, too, reckoned to type out four drafts.
What's more, several how-to-write books suggest getting inside another writer's voice, sensibility, voice and tone by writing out some poems or some pages of their words - maybe even longhand. Yes, really: copy them out, the way art students used to copy great paintings, brushstroke by brushstroke, as a way to study all the decisions and gestures that the great artist made.
It sounds inefficient, but then in creative work the best way to work is often the apparently inefficient. To copy something out it has to go through your brain a bit (which shows, in reverse, when typesetters set the common word or phrase they're expecting, instead of Shakespeare or Joyce's actual, odd, coinage, and thereby give the scholarly editors of the future a whole lot of fun and career opportunities). By actually writing the words, you'll experience the connotations and denotations, the sound and rhythm, of that writer's work more than you ever will with reading it silently, and more slowly, too: more even, perhaps, than you will by reading it aloud, though that too is something I'd recommend strongly.
Many of us prefer, too, to edit our own work as hard copy: the intuitive marking-and-scribbling of a pen is part of it (quicker than faffing with a keyboard, plus you can see your thought-process). But more important is how the typing-up of the marked-up copy is a natural way to review your decisions: again, it feels less efficient, but actually it's more efficient. (Track changes has the latter advantage, but lacks the physicality of the pen.) And in the days when I wrote whole novels in longhand, the copy-typing-up process was very important: I got a fast, reading-like overview of the whole thing but, even better, the words I'd already written in Draft One, and the new ones I was working in to create Draft Two, had the same status in that overview.
More recently, I've been re-building a novel with a complete new plot. To have a really good, strong narrative drive and shape, with everyone's arcs of change arc-ing properly, in planning, writing and revising I've treated it as a new project, not a new version carved and glued out of the old one. However, every now and again the new novel tells me it needs things from the old text: flashbacks or a scrap of description which are still exactly right for the new version. I have the old version up on the other screen, and I can pull those bits across.
But copy-and-paste is still a danger: it's quick, and it seems to fit into the place that's asked for it, but does it? Does it really? If you couldn't copy-and-paste, are you sure that the words you came up with this time would be just the same? You can't be, and yet new words might not be as good, even if they fitted better. And, frankly, I'm dying to get This Bloody Novel right. So I have forced myself to copy-type anything I want to use.
And it's worked: even when I thought I'd want that chunk unchanged, I find myself tweaking it and editing it as I go, or even realising I don't want it after all. And I know I'm right to go to this trouble because with one important chunk, I forgot my new rule and dragged it across from the old draft. It's a good piece of writing, though I say it myself, and I tried to tweak it, I tried to edit it, I tested each phrase and it seemed to be fine. And yet ... it just didn't sit right.So I forced myself (and it really was forcing: it felt such a stupid bit of work to make myself do) to cut it, and I copy-typed it in all over again.
And yes, things did change. There was something in the physical act of my fingers operating in exactly the same way as they'd been operating in putting new words onto the screen, which reduced the existing words to the same status, to be words-in-process, not words that existed: not darlings, just fodder. Copy-typing, as Woolf says, makes the dry, already-set words back into wet, malleable paint like everything else your writing-brush is working over.
Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so on.
Were your novel set within living memory, in Britain, or the US, or somewhere else your potential readers know at first or at least second-hand, then you could write phrases like "Trafalgar Square Tube" or "Bridezilla" or "TV Evangelist", and they'll conjure up a full set of denotations and connotations which become part of your readers' experience of the novel. But for readers to feel the same density and complexity in life in 5th Century Athens or on the planet Zog, you can't rely on that existing knowledge: you're going to have to supply more of the cultural/physical hinterland. Another reason our books tend to be fat is that readers who want to spend time in another world want to buy into a full, substantial world: to sense that for each street the story takes them down, there's a whole village fanning out beyond it, for each moment in the chapel there's a whole history and geography of faith and heresy underpinning and overlying it that single prayer. Readers want to sense that every wardrobe or weapons store that's opened has twenty garments or guns in it, even if the only ones that matter are the right one the character fails to pick out because it belonged to their hated, abusive grandmother, and the wrong one they do pick out, which leads to disaster in thirty pages' time. But the reader doesn't know what those other eighteen will look like so, rather than do as cheap TV dramas do with their obviously empty suitcases, you're going to have to fill those cupboards.
Or are you? I'm reading Fahrenheit 451 at the moment, and it's startling what Ray Bradbury doesn't put in: what doesn't get explained, what doesn't get described, what actually isn't there at all. And yet I'm experiencing a vivid world; it's self-sufficient and convincing in how the characters struggle to operate in the only reality they know. If you asked me to free-write my experience of that world, it would be full of things Bradbury didn't put in it. (Which is probably why "the film of the book" - any book - always leaves fans of that book disappointed.) It's not coincidental that it's Bradbury who says, in Zen in the Art of Writing, "The artist learns what to leave out." Just because readers want to sense the presence of all those other streets and lives and faiths and garments and guns, doesn't mean that you should put them all in.
But Bradbury hasn't said, "The artist learns to leave everything out"; what we must learn is to know what the reader can and can't do without, in order to create the world for themselves. The art is in picking which glimpses you offer the reader of those other streets, that religion, those garments and guns. That almost certainly means you imagining or researching an awful lot more than ends up on the page, and then picking which bits of your material will have the best and strongest effect, while taking up the least space on the page. For more on how to pick the details that are evocative, without slowing up the story, click here. And finding the right kind of feedback and beta-readers is the way to grow the judgement of what to leave out, and the confidence to do it.
The other reason that all the imagining/researching too often ends up on the page, is that we too easily feel that any map smaller, and with fewer dimensions, than the world itself is imperfect (which it is, in strict logic: some things are left out). There's always another bit that could and "should" go in: another alleyway or heresy to write, another, subtly different garment which these people really did have ... That's perfectionism in the negative sense: the idea that if you don't create the perfect version, you've failed.
But all maps are selective: all mapmakers take decisions about what to include and how to show it. As important as learning what to leave out, is learning to forgive your (nearly) finished novel for all the things it's never going to include: for all the things it could have been, for all the roads you could have taken this project down and didn't, because you chose to go another way. Unless you're utterly incompetent and have no capacity at all to change how you write something, there will always be other ways you could write it. There is no such thing as a perfect novel in the absolute sense: there will always be avenues/heresies/weapons-stores you could write, which might be just as good, in a different way - but you've decided not to. So be it.
Posted at 02:41 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Craft, Creativity, Genres, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Religion, Research, Science, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, THE WORKBENCH, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
When things are quiet on here, I know a post about procrastination will liven it up, but things are pretty lively at the moment. However, I've come across a post about it on the splendid Wait But Why blog which is so good that I'm going to share the link, and my take on it too. But first, a thought or two about why you might find yourself procrastinating.
Sometimes you're unconsciously waiting until the work only needs to be just-good-enough. Sometimes your Inner Critic is in charge: in a bid to stop you writing he's found a dozen reasons for you Not Getting On With It, or declared that it's all been done already. Once you've learnt to ignore him he'll dress up as someone else to persuade you. Sometimes you've simply run out of fuel because of what else is going on in your life. But whatever the cause, you can sort it out or ignore it, get shot of the children or the day job, have the perfect snack and your favourite tea steaming gently in the sunlight (no, let's not have sunlight because then you'd have to go for a walk, no? Call it rain and cold, but no, the saucepan under the leak in the roof won't have filled up for another three hours) and .... still find it incredibly hard to jump into the water and start swimming.
And that last post of mine is where Tim Urban's two Wait But Why posts come in. In Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, he introduces the divided way a procrastinator's brain works and, like any writer, he's embodied the abstract stuff of psychology in psycho-geography and imagined creatures. There's the half of your brain which is the Rational Decision Maker, who wants to plough on through the Dark Woods of the hard work involved in writing (in our case) a book and reach the point where it's enjoyable and even exciting, and anyway the end is in sight. But the other half is the Instant Gratification Monkey, who can only see the horribly boring and unrewarding work under his nose. So Monkey wants to run away and play in the Dark Playground: that place full of email-checking, biscuit-eating, Facebook noodling, trivial research you'll need later, cheese-on-toast toasting, pencil-sharpening, checking out flights for your holiday in case the prices go up later, Wikipedia-link-following, email-checking, Twitter-twerking, coffee-making ...
Of course, the harder the task, the more Monkey wants to run away and play. The stuck plot, the baffling research, the 99,999 words still to go, the bad feedback, the book-trade's-imploding-it's-not-worth-it glooms on the Net ... all of these are like feeding Monkey e-numbers until he's hyperactive. It's only when you're close enough to your deadline that the Panic Monster appears, and terrifies Monkey into agreeing to stay with Rational Decision Maker as RDM hacks onwards, probably very hurriedly and carelessly and without enough time, now, to do a decent job.
Let's leave aside the question of how some people find it so difficult, even as adults, to shut the Monkey up, though I'd put a bit of money on it being something about fear, from perhaps young childhood, that anything you don't grab now will be lost. And let's leave aside the question of why you (okay, I) and anyone else with a very active Instant Gratification Monkey could have found themselves with a job which involves huge, single projects that take years to get from first idea to first sale. That's just what seems to have happened, and now you (okay, I) and anyone else all have to deal with it.
And then in his second post, Tim tackles How To Beat Procrastination. That's not just about practical ideas though he's got some good ones, such as ways to cut the vast, shapeless, impossible or (Monkey feels) impossibly long task down into possible-looking chunks. A house gets built brick by brick, as he says, which is delightfully similar to Ann Lamott's principle of Bird by Bird, and is why I keep word-by-word spreadsheets, on the stripey-sweater principle, to track my mounting wordcounts. And if the one-day-at-a-time is beginning to feel a bit 12-Step-Programme-ish, well, who said that procrastination isn't an addictive behaviour? After all, it's complete with the waste of time/money, the desire to change, the backsliding, the badly-done work, the lost job, the despair? Who said that you aren't going to have to replace the story you're living with - that the Monkey always gets to decide what you do - with another story? And who said that learning to change the story in practice might not take a while?
So Getting On With It is also about recognising the point where you can, and you must, choose to enter the Dark Woods of working, and not let Monkey drag you off into the Dark Playground. Only by staying in the Dark Woods and hacking your way onwards, will you get to the point where it starts to be self-propelling, and the end - the pleasure of having written - starts to feel achievable, the way that you can smell the sea before you see or hear it. And it's only by practising making that choice, over and over again (Monkey has a short memory) and often enough, that the connection gets made, brick by brick, somewhere deep inside you: you can choose not to be at the mercy of the Monkey. You can choose, today, now, to work.
Saturday 29th March was the anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As you may know, my novel A Secret Alchemy is woven from three strands, two of the fifteenth century and one of our own time, so here is a scrap of thread from each:
Una – Saturday
We roll on up the motorway, out of the plump, low Midlands towards a bigger and rougher landscape of hills and moors and deep-carved river valleys. There are signs to the junction at Ferrybridge and I think of young Anthony seeing his beaten fellows limping back from there, waiting on Towton moor for the battle that would certainly come and the death that might.
It didn’t, not for him.
And then, half a lifetime later, he rode back over that old life, retracing himself from Sheriff Hutton to Pontefract, knowing that this time he was, certainly, going to die. We know that they told him, and we know the journey need have taken no more than a day, so near midsummer: a long, hot, single day.
But I can’t think what he thought as he rode, or feel what he felt. He was a man of – no, not piety, that’s too smug and narrow a word, and faith too weak. He had a belief that’s hard for us to feel, perhaps impossible: a structure of absolute certainty that transcended faith, a knowledge as much part of him as his own bones, clothed in words and rituals that had clad him since the chrisom-cloth first wrapped him, since he was borne to church, to be baptised with holy water to bless him, and salt to scare away the Devil.
I’m very tired, and deeply shaken, and it suddenly seems unbearable, too, that I can’t know Anthony, that I can’t read his books, talk to him, walk beside him, look into his eyes, touch his hand. Perhaps if I try hard enough, perhaps if I imagine completely ... I try to feel him riding at my shoulder, but he isn’t there.
Elysabeth – the 1st yr of the reign of King Edward the Fourth
There were more battles. And then came the news of the fight at Towton.
Even by those first reports, it was clear that the slaughter had been like no battle before. My father was thought to have fled north with the King and Queen, and Antony was most certainly dead.
My mother’s grief for the loss of her first-born son was no less for being silent, or for the news being still uncertain. My own, coming so hard upon the loss of my husband, seemed more than my flesh might bear. And still we could not be sure. It might be a false report, I told myself, but if it were, would a true one not have come by now?
It was a week before a messenger from my father brought news: he and Antony were both safe at York, and the King and Queen were fled to the Scottish king.
Our joy that Antony lived was the sharper for having thought him lost. But if it had not been one of our own men who told of my father’s going to Edward of York, kneeling first in surrender and then in fealty to his new king, and Antony with him, I would not have believed it.
Antony – Tierce
Micklegate Bar is the strongest gate of all. Now I am leaving by it, in the company of my captors. And we entered by it so many years ago, when my father and I rode as the staunchest Lancastrians to join Queen Marguerite and see off the Yorkist rebels for good. Duke Richard of York was already dead, killed almost under the walls of his own castle at Sandal, his second son Edmund with him, and King Henry rescued in the second fight at St Albans. My father pointed upwards to the men’s heads stuck on pikes, leering down like puppets from the gate tower. They were black, not with age but with tar, the better to preserve their rictus of fear: the threat of death to the traitorous. I was nineteen, and I did not know that the wheel of Fortune would turn again so soon.
‘See that one, son? Edward’s father of York, and a very great man, whatever he did. Edward’s brother at least was laid in the ground unbutchered. But that’s what gives Edward the fire in his belly. He and Edmund were brought up together, so close in age you might call them twins, and no older than you are. He has much to avenge. When he comes north to find us, it will not be an easy fight.’
If Edward had much to avenge, then the fight at Towton was a vengeance I had not thought it possible any mortal could wreak. It was the only time, they said, that Edward gave no order to spare the commons, and forbade his men to take any prisoners for an honourable, profitable ransom. All the enemies of the House of York were to be killed.
At Tadcaster we leave the Roman road that leads to Doncaster, and turn south. The sun is hot and high now, and I pull my cap down to keep the brightness from my eyes. No more than a couple of miles’ ride, and we are in Towton village. Chickens scatter from beneath our hoofs and a glimpse of skirts shows how the women whisk themselves indoors. Beyond the huddle of cottages and alehouses the road runs level; on our left hand the heat is beginning to shimmer above the higher ground. Even the larks have fallen silent, and only a sleepy dove, calling from the trees of Carr Wood, is still awake.
How bare and high the road seemed that day, with the sky hanging like lead over the frost-hardened earth, and the becks that we could not see until we stumbled on them, so deep had they cut their way into the land. Old soldiers felt the raw wind that stung our faces and looked to the east and shook their heads. Young ones left off rubbing blisters and asked what they saw. ‘Snow by the morrow,’ someone said.
We were part of the vanguard, south of Towton village. Places were set, tents put up, horses untacked and watered, ale barrels broached and cannon shot stacked. Squires polished armour and checked straps and buckles, clerks scratched at lists and camp women set snares for rabbits. The men piled their fires as high as they could get wood for them and smoke began to rise. By the time I had accounted for my men and seen them settled, I could smell charring meat and fat dripping on to embers. Some was not meat but fowls, no doubt got against the rules of war. But I knew better than to ask or to tell my father. He was in command of the second battle – supporting his new young grace of Somerset – and might decide he should seek out the felons, though there were far greater matters at stake.
A shout from the London road made us leap to our feet. A straggling handful of men, a few mounted on horses whose heads hung almost to their knees. No threat to us even before we could see their badges in the failing light. A lad with more energy to waste than the rest ran to them, and ran back to bring the tale: this was what remained of our vanguard. York’s men had forced through at Ferrybridge, and were even now but an hour or two away.
It was all but dark already. They would not arrive in time to attack tonight, my father said, coming out of his tent with a list of the musters who had joined us since yesterday. But we must make sure everything was in readiness.
We had need of all our strength on the morrow to hold on to a dream of any kind of good. Hard to believe it now, with the sun beating down on my head and the horses half asleep under us as the road drops gently towards Saxton. Hard to believe that some men who lay down to sleep that night never woke to fight but had the snow for a gravecloth. Hard to believe that the wind and sleet drove so hard in our faces that we could not see the enemy, and our archers’ arrows fell short time and again. The noise was as brutal as the press of men about me: steel and flesh, and cries for the King shrieking in our ears. So close did we fight that it seemed each army barely moved, or gained on the other. It never grew fully light, but the day crawled on. Too late did we realise that where once Cock Beck had guarded our flank, now we were turned inch by inch, and pushed back to where the ground fell away, and the men with it, tumbling helplessly down to the ice-covered rocks and bloody water. It was said the waters ran red for days. Men who could walk slipped away, those who could only crawl were left for the villagers. We who were captured in hope of ransom knelt and prayed that our knighthood would earn respect, and our estate earn safety. It was certain that the cause of Lancaster was lost.
But soon we realised that, with the battle won, Edward of York had reconciliation, not vengeance, in his mind.
‘Has not God shown by this victory that there can be no hope of peace while Henry with his usurper’s blood still wears the crown?’ he asked my father, with a solemn face. Then he smiled. ‘Sire, I have lost my great Plantagenet father, and must have men about me of worship: of courage and wisdom. There’s peace and prosperity waiting for us all, had England but strong and godly government at last. You are one of the few who can give it that peace and prosperity. What say you, my lord Rivers?’
My father went to Mass and prayed for guidance, and I prayed, too, that the oath of allegiance which would secure our family would also be acceptable to God.
One of the things I often have to explain when I'm teaching academic writing is that it's important to define any terms you're working with, because if you don't make it clear how you're using them, then the first time anyone says, "But what about...?", the chain of persuasion, which is your argument, is broken. The thoughtful students look nervous: they know that concepts such as Modernism, or Need, or even The Eighteenth Century (1713-1789? 1660-1815?), are things which people write whole books about, arguing with other whole books. So we talk about working definitions: of the possible sensible, reasonable definitions, which is most useful to you, in persuading your reader that what you're saying is true?
And then there's the idea of the working hypothesis. To work an idea out to the point of discovering if it's true or not, and whether it's useful or not, you have to act (for now) as if it is true. Whether you want to study single-cell animals, or create a dance work, you have to anchor some of your thinking - take some things as givens - so that you can imagine and observe and understand outwards from those anchorages. You must make a reasonable assumption about how a certain kind of animal behaves under certain conditions, so as to decide how to measure that behaviour. You have to decide how many dancers you'll use, before your ideas of space and bodies and budgets can start to develop.
In other words, when you work creatively, you must treat some things as if they're true, knowing perfectly well that they're not the only possible truth, and might not turn out to be true at all. So it's just as well that creative people are, by definition, very good at behaving, for now, as if things were true. But it's part of the paradoxical nature of the writer - the way we are both/and, not either/or - that sometimes we have to decide to stick with a definition and an assumption, and sometimes abandon them and make some new ones.
So how do you chose between stick and twist? When, in other words, do you stop suspending disbelief? Even when two writers are caught at the same point of decision, they may decide differently, and may not ever be sure if that was the "right" decision, even though it made all the difference. They can't now know what would have happened if they'd gone down that other road through the yellow wood. So, here is a handful of working definitions and hypotheses, with a suggestion of why they might help you to develop creatively.
I am a writer, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. You need to define yourself as a writer, at least for now, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.
This is a story on a scale which makes sense, because you can't actually know whether it's the right proportions for itself and the right length for your readership till you get there.
My overall way of writing this story will work - because you need to commit to a form, a voice, a structure, if they're going to develop coherently. Trying to fine-re-tune every line or scene, to suit every different scrap of feedback, or information about "what sells" or "what wins prizes", or evidence of what other writers do well, is disastrous for now, when your overall idea of the "how" needs to be calling the shots.
My grammar, vocabulary and syntax are up to the job of a crazy - first draft - because it's more important at this stage to let your overall sense of storytelling run.
I shall be able to get help with them later - so you don't need to fret about them now if that blocks the creative channels of your writing-mind. Which doesn't mean you might not start looking about you for a good writer's circle or forum, of course.
My writing is worth being wasteful. Creative work is inherently wasteful. If you focus on "being efficient" in the crude sense of time spent and acceptable finished article produced, instead of focusing on the best way to get the story out of yourself and onto the page and revised and polished, you're not being efficient, you're just being penny wise and pound foolish.
My narrator is X. You need to know, in order to write any words, which consciousness is conditioning what gets narrated and how: is the narrator you, a version of you, an external narrator who isn't you, (a) character(s) in the novel, a character looking back on the events of the novel?
This part of this scene should be in Y's point of view - because you need to decide what consciousness the setting and events are told through, at this moment of plot and story.
This scene (or whole novel/memoir) starts in the right place - because you have to start it somewhere, in order to start it at all. Even if you're a writing-out-of-order writer, it's worth having some kind of sense of what the reader will first know about your characters and their story.
This scene (or whole novel/memoir) will end where I can sort-of see it ending. Some writers (all right: this writer) have to know where a story will end - in the emotional sense, or the physical sense, or both - before we know where it should start, and before we can have faith that we'll be able to make the decisions as we work through the as-yet unknown middle.
My reader is intelligent. If I Show (evoke) this place/emotional turmoil/action, the reader will do the Telling (explaining, interpreting) for themselves.
My reader will be concentrating. I don't need to shove everything that matter under their nose with a large label saying This Is Important.
My reader will trust me. If I don't explain what happens in the gap of this jump-cut, they'll still believe in what happens next.
My reader will be patient with me. If I bother to narrate something whose reason for being in the story isn't immediately obvious, they will construct their own working hypothesis that it is a necessary part of their experience, and keep reading.
My reader has their ears and other senses open - as well as their eyes and mind, so I can work with sound, rhythm and lyrical writing.
This is what I need to find out for the story I'm imagining - because your imagination can't work and grow a story without being fed with real-world stuff.
This is what I don't need to find out, to tell my story - because it will only be inert data. If readers want facts, they can go and read a book about facts.
I'm only not a good enough writer yet. It's unrealistic to expect yourself never to have deep doubt - or even the three-in-the-morning horrors - about yourself and your work. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon your original working definition of yourself as a writer. You just might need to change the working hypothesis about what kind of writer you are, and where best to put your effort and talents.
I will be published, or find enough of the right readers by another route, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. We're back where we started: you need to feel that you will be read, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.
Of course, the opposite of all of these is also true. Any of these, hung on to for too long, becomes a drag, not an anchor. These are the not-working hypotheses, the un-helpful definitions, the equivalent of the person who refuses to see the evidence of their partner's infidelity, or their job's destructiveness, or the fact that their lack of talent at something precludes a professional career in it. So hanging in the space at the end of each of those working hypotheses and definitions are some further things to think about:
The first commentary on any creative writing that I had to write - or read - was the 30,000 word commentary I wrote for my PhD in Creative Writing. I didn't find it easy. The next I tangled with were the 300 word commentaries that my Open University students have to write for their course. They don't - most of them - find it easy either. Most writers take some kind of notice of what happened along the road of writing a piece, if only to try to abate the agony a bit next time; some even keep a parallel journal of the whole process. But turning that notice-taking into a formal, organised exposition is a different thing altogether.
Writing's a mixture of conscious and unconscious creative thinking - intuition and craft - and it feels very unnatural to analyse it any kind of systematic way, and until you have to pass a course, you probably never have. But writing a commentary isn't just the thing that makes a writing course academic; it does feed your development - your learning - as a writer. So even if you don't, at the moment, have to write one in order to pass a course, it might be worth thinking about how it might be useful to you. And if you're interested in writing professionally in any way in the future, then conscious, technical awareness is essential for learning to write what's wanted, to length and deadline. What's more, you might well find yourself talking about how how you wrote your novel on a festival platform or in an interview. It's good to have had some practice.
So, what do you do? Check the course requirements, of course, but I'll bet that somewhere in the rubric will be at least one of the following terms, so have a think about what that means they're asking for:
I would say that these are the basics that should be in pretty much any commentary:
So far, so good. But the context in which you're writing is very much part of your reflection. So these wider reflections are also important, though in a short commentary you may have to choose between writing more about fewer points, or less about more points:
It really helps if, as you work on the creative piece, you keep a journal, or at least a few notes about your experience of writing it: just enough to remind you when you come to the commentary. In particular, look up and use the right term if you're noting a technical point. And if you're doing this for a grade, don't forget that points mean prizes. If in a 300 word commentary you can make 20-25 solid, well-expressed, properly evidenced points, and do so in a way which is also makes a graceful, mini-essay in itself, yay for you. But that's extremely difficult to do, and you should never sacrifice the quality and substance of the main dish, just so it's more elegantly presented. So what gets a commentary a good 18/20 from a teacher like me?
And that's it. One way to sum up what you're doing is to think of "aims and outcomes, choices and changes". Honestly, it's not as difficult as it seems, and I've seen, year after year, just how much the necessary act of writing commentaries has drawn my students on to learn further and faster than they ever would just on their work and my feedback alone. And yes, you can refer to This Itch of Writing: just make sure you reference it properly.* Good luck!
* You should do the reference in whatever form your course requires, but it will probably include the title of the blog, the title of the post, the author, the date the post was published, the full URL, and the date you accessed it.