Thursday, 15 October 2009

Writing as Craft

The first novel I ever wrote was The Emperor's Men and I thought it was magnificent. It had wonderful characters, more than half of whom I was in love with. The description was vivid and new - I remember with particular fondness the Rose Petal Palace. It stood at around 60,000 words and was perfect for a debut fantasy novel. This was mumble, mumble years ago. (Let's just say while there weren't actually dinosaurs roaming the streets mobile phones were rare and heavy enough to slay a dinosaur should you actually come across one.)

What really surprised me was that no one wanted my opus. Rejection after rejection hit the doormat. Some scolded me for starting sentences with 'and'. And in that I like to think I was ahead of my time, but sadly what I was missing was my novel had a few tiny flaws.

The story jumped around all over the palace. Characters achieved great things 'off-screen' and returned to show their prizes rather than their actions. There was no coherent flow-through of story. It was essentially a series of poorly connected vignettes strung together. The characters weren't bad, but they were more in my head than on the page. There were long unnecessary pieces of dialogue added in simply because I liked 'hearing' them talk and which helped in no way progress the story. Pace was an alien planet. There was some good description, but my world was a nod to every fantasy novel there had ever been. It didn't copy anyone, but there wasn't any particularly special or startling about. (Though be to honest at the time if I had been well known enough that probably wouldn't have been a deal breaker.) But as new break out novel it had nothing going for it except to show there was a chance I might be able to write one day.

At the time self-publishing wasn't an option. It simply didn't exist except in very expensive vanity presses, which by their very name kind of gave you a clue if you were going there it was a bad idea. I'm very glad of this, because at the time I was sure enough of my work and my ability (i.e. arrogant and angry enough) that if self-publishing had been a realistic option I would have done it. If I had gone this route I would have learnt nothing about writing, my work would not have sold and I would have become the embittered sort of failed writer you find in corners of bookshops sneering at the latest top ten titles. (Although you have to admit they do sometimes have a point.)

I'm not saying self-publishing is always bad. For some people it may be the best option forward as long as their work is of a good enough standard and they are willing to embrace the engulfing necessities of marketing.

What I did and what I would encourage any writer to do is learn the craft. I already had a Eng Lit degree, so I could tell everyone else where they were going wrong even if I was totally blind to my own flaws! I trained as a journalist, learned to edit, worked as a book editor, read everything I could get my hands on and of course I wrote and wrote and wrote. I also went on to study psychology and personal narrative in psychotherapy - but even I admit that's not entirely necessary.

And I joined a writers' group.

These are always dangerous places. A group of people who tell you your work is wonderful or who tell you it is terrible are equally useless. You need people who are selfless enough to give their time and attention to your work and to offer what they feel to be constructive criticism - and then, of course, you need to learn how to listen and filter that criticism and how to give it in return. My writers' group is outstanding. I'm lucky.

I could write at length about writing groups, but a short rule of thumb is if they don't audition writers, who wish to join then it's unlikely to be worth taking part. (An audition is usually submission of a piece, followed by a crit session with the group to give and take crit.) Also if at least half the members aren't published somewhere then they're probably not on the right track

I still fall in love with characters. I still make mistakes in my writing. I still leave too much in my head rather than on the page. But I've learned a lot about the craft. Recently, a member of my group phoned me out the blue and asked my advice on which way he should take his story, saying I was rather good at that sort of thing. I won't name him, but he's well published and I remembered feeling extremely flattered that he not only asked me, but subsequently in the following draft took my advice.

I'd love to say that now I only write perfect work that needs little revising. Of course, I don't. However, I've come an awful long way from The Emperor's Men and I'm still going. Writing is far from being all imagination. A huge part of it is hard graft and a willingness to learn. Be prepared that many of your novels will fail before one is published. But with each work you complete you will learn more.

(See my previous post for an extract from the newly published A Death in the Family: A Euphemia Martins' Mystery.)


Rebecca said...

Some very good points, Caroline. I belong to two writers groups and I find both very useful.

I’m lucky that both groups contain people who are willing to put the time and effort into a good critique, and for the most part, don’t take criticism of their own work personally. You always get one or two who are obstinate enough to ignore all negative feedback and only pay attention to the positive, but in the end it’s their loss if they don’t want to improve their work, the rest of us have done all we can.

I’m not sure about the idea of an audition process, though. When I started with the first group five years ago there is no way I would have passed any kind of audition. My writing was cliché-ridden and I didn’t know the first thing about giving useful critiques to others. I needed time and practice, two things that you can’t get without being in a group in the first place. I’m now one of the old hands of the group with publishing credits and grand plans for the future, and I see new members come along who are just like me five years ago, and I would never want to turn them away.

The second group is an invitation-only one that is specifically for local writers who have novels on the go, rather than short stories. Although the critiques I get from that group are often more useful to me, I would never want to leave the first group, because without it I wouldn't have found myself in a position to be any kind of good writer.

Caroline Dunford said...

Hi Rebecca
You make some very good points. When I joined my writers group I'd already published thirty short stories. won a number of competitions and had worked as a journalist and editor. I still had a lot to learn, but I knew a little. I was looking for a professional writing group rather than a hobby group.
I think it's all about finding the right writing group for your level. It has to be a give and take situation where you can offer the group something from your critic and where you can also learn. My group is not a group for beginners - and I suppose my fear always is that raw writers can all band together and reinforce each others flaws.
I understand your desire to support writers who are just starting out, but I think it's during this time that workshops and recognized short courses are at their most useful.
Quite selfishly, due to my ever tightening schedule, I would not be interested in giving up my time to crit someone else's work if they weren't prepared to consider my opinion (and I say consider not accept).
I do think there's nothing worse than a writing group with members who go round and round over the same flaws and don't manage to improve. It's discouraging for everyone. This is why I tend to support the concept of writing groups that are very much aimed at professional or soon-to-be professional writers.
But writing is a lonely business and any group that leaves you feeling supported can't be a bad thing.
I'm glad you've found groups that work for you.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lots of very important points here but what I most liked was your very powerful reason why you are glad you weren't able to self-publish - all those flaws you hadn't seen. Gosh, you'd be cringing now, and so would I because I was doing the same. Luckily, no one can read the flawed stuff we thought was so good and they'll just have to take our word for it!