Monthly Archives: August 2014

Conflicting advice

For most of my life, I’ve considered writing to be a solitary activity. When I began studying creative writing at university, I discovered the joys and frustrations of ‘critique groups’. Then my fellow-student Kathy George and I adopted each other as ‘writing buddies’. In the process of co-writing an article on writing partnerships for WQ, we interviewed fourteen other writers, who all told us they rely on fellow-writers for mutual support. Some people work one-on-one with a single trusted writing friend, others operate in groups of up to eight (though more commonly three to five).

One of the main ways writing buddies support each other is through providing feedback (sometimes called critique or constructive criticism) on work-in-progress. But here’s where it gets tricky. What if you don’t agree with your buddy’s feedback on your story?

Jenny writes a story and is very pleased with the climax, which she considers subtle and powerful. Her writing buddy Ryan, however, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Jenny explains the climax to Ryan, who suggests she provide a few more clues so the reader knows what’s happening. Jenny fears this will give too much away, risks telling rather than showing, and doesn’t demonstrate trust in the reader. She hopes Ryan’s missing of the point is just an aberration: on most of her target readers, she thinks, the climax will have the impact she’s aiming for.

How can she test this optimistic hypothesis? She sends the story to another three writing friends. Emma thinks it’s brilliant, and insists she mustn’t change a word. Viv, like Ryan, doesn’t get it, and Anthony understands what’s happened in the climax but is underwhelmed.Different ideas

Jenny tries to analyse why her buddies’ responses are so different. It doesn’t seem to be a gender thing. It’s not that they read and write different genres: each of these people appreciates and experiments with diverse writing styles. Emma has known her the longest, so perhaps Emma’s knowledge of Jenny as a person has helped her grasp and enjoy the story.

What should Jenny do next?

  1. Send the story to some more people, and keep monitoring reactions. She’s running out of writing friends, but maybe she should just find people who belong to her target market. There are potential problems here. She may end up with even more conflicting advice. Non-writers may feel ill-qualified to ‘judge’ her work, and may tell her it’s great out of politeness. Or tell her it’s not great, but be unable to articulate why not. And what if her sample ends up equally divided between thumbs-up and thumbs-down? How’s she going to feel, and what’s she going to do?
  2. Look for an expert who can tell her definitively whether the story ‘works’ or not. Unfortunately, as William Goldman once famously remarked in relation to Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ The most experienced agent or commissioning editor will sometimes completely misjudge what the readership will accept, understand, and embrace. Anyway, opportunities to access genuine expert advice on a specific story are rare and usually expensive.
  3. Send the story to market as is. After all, there must be people out there like herself and Emma, who’ll get the story straight away and love it. On the plus side, this is one way to get expert advice. If Jenny sends the story to a magazine, the editor may either publish it (yay!) or send specific guidance for a rewrite or to inform Jenny’s future efforts. Sadly, the chances of receiving such feedback from an editor nowadays are slim: it’s usually just yea or nay. If it’s nay, Jenny may have spoiled her story’s chances with this editor. And the story could be tied up for a long time waiting on that fairly unhelpful nay, unless Jenny has chosen a publication that allows simultaneous submissions.

I don’t have an answer for this one – do you? What would you do?

 

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Rewriting

Often when we talk about the “rewriting” stage of a manuscript, we’re really talking about editing and polishing. We take the material we’ve written and shuffle it around, cut some bits, expand others, add a scene, correct the punctuation, and so on. This is all very easy to do with a word processor.

But there can be great value in actually “rewriting” the manuscript: turning to a blank page (or opening a new document) and starting again from scratch. Most of us probably wouldn’t do this with a complete nrewritingovel manuscript (though some do, and I have). However, it may be the best approach to a scene, chapter, or short story that just isn’t working. Sometimes, the more you tinker with the draft, the worse it gets. You’re better off starting over.

One approach to rewriting is to change something quite fundamental, and see what happens. Here are a few examples:

The protagonist

Particularly in a short story, it’s easy to make too early and easy a decision about who the main character is. Perhaps, if the story is based on events that happened in your life, you’ve unconsciously selected the “you” character as the protagonist. If the story’s not working, try rewriting it with another character in the leading role – and/or from another character’s point of view.

The point of view

If you’ve written the story in first person, what happens if you change the point of view to limited third person, or omniscient third person? I once rewrote the draft of a novel from limited third person into a first person/quasi second person narrative stance, with the narrator an omniscient being observing and addressing the protagonist (a little like Death in The Book Thief, except that Death commentates on Liesel’s activities rather than speaking directly to her). I ended up changing back to limited third person, but the voice had changed for the better. My limited third person approach had been too limited. Once I allowed a few more insights into the character and her situation to shine through (insights I’d gained courtesy of my first person narrator), the text became much more lively and less opaque.

The framing device

Is this story being told by one character to another, late one night in a pub? Is it a dramatic monologue? Is it being narrated as a first-person reminiscence? Whatever the frame, if the story’s not working, a “reframe” might provide a useful starting point for a “rewrite”.

Mood and tone

Is this a serious piece, that might work better as a comic one? Or vice versa? Is the overall mood sombre or cheery? See what happens if you try for a mood or tone that contrasts with the one you’ve established in the first version. Can you, by taking a radically different approach, achieve more light and shade?

Voice

What about the language – is it generally formal, with longish and well-constructed sentences, or is it colloquial and chatty? What about the pace? Voice will of course depend heavily on the choices you’ve made above – protagonist, point of point, frame, mood and tone. But even if these remain the same as in the first version, can you rewrite using a very different voice? Try not to reuse phrases from the original.

The idea of rewriting from scratch is to free your creativity to give you something fresh and new, rather than feeling constrained by what’s already on the page. At the end of the day you’ll probably meld the two versions into something that’s stronger than either. And then it’s time for editing and polishing!

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