Help yourself: the novel-planning grid
Publicity for Writers: several rabbits at once (take 2)

Mechanistic vs Responsive

One of the things which is being really interesting about teaching Creative Writing for the Open University is that, in the nature of things, how work is assessed and discussed on such a course can't be completely free-form: it must be fair across all kinds of writing and students, and it must make it easy to be consistent from student to student, tutor to tutor, and year to year. And it must also be useful to the student: they need to be able to look at the criteria, and understand why they got the mark they did, and what they could do to get a better one. I'm extremely used to giving detailed comments on what's working and not working in a piece of writing, but I'm sure I couldn't have distilled that into general descriptors which fit all genres (the course studies short fiction, sections of long fiction, free verse, formal verse, life writing in prose or poetry), all subjects and all kinds of writing. But some very clever people have come up with 30 or 40 word descriptors which mean I really can put a piece into one of eight bands, and then probably say whether it's in the lower, middle or upper part of the band. In combination with my comments on the script itself, and the longish (several hundred words) remarks that go on the form along with the grades, it seems to me that it really is possible to accommodate the tension between the subjective and the objective.

And then on a forum, the subject of editorial reports came up. Someone had had their novel critiqued, and the editor suggested pretty major changes, on the grounds that X and Y and Z are what this kind of book has to do, to sell into its market. And the writer had done them all, ticked every box, and ended up with a right dog's breakfast. There are editors who are slapdash, lazy and narrow minded, but I don't think that's what was going on here. I wondered aloud if the editor had mistaken what kind of book it was trying to be, and the writer said:

As an (ex) English teacher I found, broadly, two types of markers amongst colleagues, the responsive and the mechanistic. Each year, about this time, we would have moderation sessions to ensure parity of marking for our classes’ coursework essays. Responsive markers understood both their students and their essays, reacting flexibly and sensitively to what they found. Mechanistic markers focused on the descriptors and specifications handed down by the micro-managers of government: I was never convinced they understood anything.I encountered both sorts at the editorial agency. Unfortunately the last editor was of the mechanistic school (all criteria and no comprehension) and hence left me with a bad impression.

This distinction betwee mechanistic and responsive is very illuminating, I think. Yes, we have a largely mechanistic response to spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax: only writers who really know how all these things work can then make them work purposefully and expressively. At the crude level, though, the mechanistic marker works like a computer, and can't even be responsive enough to see that the 'wrong' variant spellings are evoking an accent, and the grammatically incomplete sentence is brutal and abrupt and powerful. And the reason I refuse to recognise such a thing in creative writing as a rule - which mechanistic markers cling to so that they'll know when things are 'right' - is because I guarantee that if you tell me a 'rule', I will come up, within five minutes, with an example of when you should break it. And just you try to take marks off me for that... As an editor I always start from the position of trying to understand what the book is trying to do, and then try to work out how it could do it better. This may annoy writers who want me to tell them which boxes they should tick to get a deal. I'd say sorry to them, but I'm not sorry. And, in reverse, as a tutor I quite often find myself saying, 'Normally it's not a good idea to do X, because... but here I think it works, because... '

But I think that the book trade itself divides into the two types as well. A good agent will recognise a good book when s/he sees it, but with the best will in the world to judge a book on its own terms, responsively, they have to think about how it will fare in acquisitions, marketing, bookselling and so on. And most of the people who will have a say in whether a book gets bought won't have read it, and for business reasons their bosses push for the kind of consistency in judgements and outcomes which universities also very properly insist on. So inevitably their judgement tends to be based on descriptors of what makes this kind of book sell well, and the decision is chiefly about whether this book fits them well or badly... (although we shouldn't forget that 'new and different' is one of the descriptors). Still, an agent's responsive 'I love it passionately' must be followed by the reflection of that mechanistic thinking, and may well mean she goes on to say, 'but I can't sell it '. It's a not uncommon response in an agent, and though it's devastating for the author, it's also very frustrating for the agent. But a really creative agent, or the right mentor, or the best kind of writing friend can turn their responsiveness to good use: by hearing the book, and asking the right questions they can help you to find the third way for your work: the one which escapes the binary opposition of being true to yourself or selling out; the one where what you write best and what the market will buy become one and the same thing.