There have been two exciting developments: first, I have a new website specifically for my work helping other writers, so if you're interested in my mentoring, teaching, events or appraisals, do click through to This Itch of Writing: The Studio, and have a browse.
And then, just as I was recovering from the worst of the website-wrangling, I heard from This Itch of Writing's agony aunt, Jerusha Cowless. She's been busy un-contacting un-contacted peoples in the Upper Amazon, but at last I got a message through, enclosing a plea for help from an aspiring writer, and Jerusha sent her reply by return of albatross.
Dear Jerusha; I've been reading all my life and writing for years, done some courses, read some books about writing and attended a conference or two. I've had plenty of feedback that my writing is competent and people enjoy it; I wrote professionally for trade magazines for a while, so it's not that I'm unrealistic, or that what I'm writing is deeply weird. But I don't seem to be able to get further than competent. I go on reading and writing and thinking about what I do, but I know I must be missing something. The thing is, I'm not sure what, and no one else has been able to put their finger on it either. I'm reluctant to spend yet more money on yet more courses, but don't you sometimes need someone external to nudge you forward? To point out the bits you've failed to learn so far? What am I missing? It's increasingly hard to justify the time, let alone the money, I spend on my writing, but how can I abandon the quest when I've come so far?
Oh, it's so frustrating! It's quite different from the total beginner (or born hopeless) who has yet to learn to be bad. It's that last couple of levels in Slushkiller's analysis of the context of rejection (scroll down that link to no.3) which are relevant even if you weren't going the route of wanting a book deal from a mainstream publisher. It's the difference between "Someone could buy this book but we don't see why it should be us", and "Buy this book!".
One of the things that a slushpile-reading friend of Emma's says is that once you've excluded the barking lunatics and the poetry, an awful lot of the manuscripts in a slushpile are competent in that basic way: it's not that difficult to learn to string good words in a good order to tell a coherent story. What separates all of those from the ones which are publishable is far more intangible: idea, plot, character, voice.
And Emma's experience of judging competitions is that what makes the winner stand out is that all of those aren't just competent, but that they're working together: that the choices the reader's made about things like structure and voice are so well-integrated, so well-suited to the ideas and the characters that she stops reading like a judge, aware of technique, and slips into reading like a reader, the world so alive that she just wants to know what will happen next.
So, how do you find/create/facilitate that intangible extra-ness? How do you make it happen, when for each writer it's going to be a different complex of what you're saying and how you're saying it. By definition, it's not something that you can learn to do directly, it seems to me, and it's not something that a teacher or peer can point out is lacking: it's certainly not something that a how-to-write book can explain ... Here are some suggestions to try, whether you want to have one last go at the work-in-progress, or you're thinking about putting it aside.
Does this project play to your strengths? Sometimes it works better not to say, "What do I want to write?" but to ask your talent, "What am I best wired to write really well?"
Is this project inherently exciting? A flawed, exciting project is always going to win over the reader more completely than a perfectly-executed dull one. And sometimes it might have been exciting when you first conceived it, but a series of micro-decisions which each seemed right at the time has lured you down a road which has reduced the drama, not increased it. The story's pulling each punch, in other words.
Do you need to tighten and clarify your focus, and define what this project really is, and what it's not? What, exactly are you trying to do with it? What kind of book is it, at heart? What kind of reader will like it? Which characters are the engine of the story? What is the heart of the story? Do all those different definitions work together in an integrated way, or are they at cross-purposes? Are you trying to do too many things at once? Is it a genre muddle? Are you trying to do too few, or doing some things half-heartedly?
Have you drawn on things which are potent for you? Whether it's places or people or predicaments, it's not that you're morally obliged to write what you know in the literal sense. But it is very hard to write a story really effectively if you don't work with things which get your own sympathetic nervous system going.
Are you pushing yourself in revision? It needn't be just about correct things and making them better, but what I think of as re-visioning: being willing to think from scratch about what you're doing, and ask the novel all the really important questions.
Do you let yourself experience the world around you as nakedly and vividly as you can? And the same with your imagined world? It's about being willing to be skinned and alive to experience in both worlds: not pull your punches, nor withdraw, nor anaesthetise yourself with companionship or an iPod or - dare I say it - a book. Do you do whatever it is that gets you to that thin-skinned state: theatre, art, hill-walking, singing? Books like Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer and Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way are good on this stuff.
Do you do enough writerly yoga? When the story and your imagination put in an order for the words, is your writerly mind supple and strong enough to supply not just good sensible words, but the best words, in a better order? Of course you can revise things, but once the words are on the page they have an authority which can be hard to ignore, and often blocks the madder, fresher, more powerful and exciting possibilities that might have emerged. Photographers know that while they can rescue a dull or even disastrous negative in the dark room to make an effective print, they vastly improve their chances of creating the best photograph of they shoot a good negative in the first place. You can't print what isn't in the neg: you may not be able to reverse-engineer your imagination from the words on the page.
As I said a few years ago, the way to get a greater emotional punch within a story - assuming you're not pulling your punches terms of actual plot and character-in-action - is the prose. A poem can knock you for six more completely in three lines than a decently-written novel can in three chapters, and linger in the mind longer. And poetry works always with connotation as well as denotation, and with the spaces between the words, and between the images.
But it's not just that you'll be better equipped to say what you want to say if you develop your prose-writing by thinking like a poet. Anyone searching for a rhyme knows that as all the possible words parade before you, they offer you things you didn't know you thought. So the learning works in reverse as well: trying to think about how, really, exactly, you want to say this - choosing between possible images, playing with possible sentence structures - can actually transform what you want to say.
So that's my suggestion: tackle this problem from both ends. At one end, work on focusing this project until all the macro- and micro-choices are made or re-made in the light of that laser-beam. And at the other, work on your writerly responsiveness, so that at each choice you have more options, and use that moment of choice to evoke the world and it's dilemmas and crises more exactly and vividly, and tell the story even better.