Writing Life

When’s The Right Time To Get Feedback On Your Writing?

Something that can be hard to remember, especially when we are busy comparing ourselves with others, competing, wondering why we are not Hemingway or whoever, is that NOT EVERY WRITER IS THE SAME. 

We don’t all work in the same ways. We don’t all write the same things. We don’t all use an identical writing process in order to get our best work out. Not every trick or method that works for us will work for everyone else, and vice versa. Nor does it have to.

Not a revelation, huh? Well, you’d think  (and btw, if you don’t believe me, check out the Paris Review for hundreds of interviews with famous authors where you can see the vast array of approaches to the writing life and getting work done. Or not).

I’ve been quite surprised at times, to find a certain rigidity in approach, especially on advanced writing courses or in online advice, which can give the impression that there is only One True Way of Working for writers serious about their craft . This in turn leads to unrealistic expectations, can sometimes seem artificial, and can push writers into methodologies that simply aren’t the right fit for them. Planners get forced into pantsing and end up staring at blank pages. Pantsers feel constrained and frustrated by the rigidities of planning. Deadline-lovers find time-based targets keep them going; task-focused writers hate that and prefer to go for next-step-completion in their project as a goal.

And the question of when in our writing process we find it best to show our work to others and get feedback is one of the differences I see between the many writers I know.

A Look At The Different Approaches

Some people find it most helpful  to get feedback during the drafting of the work, particularly when working on big projects like novels. This, they feel, ensures they are taking their work in the right direction and are not sending themselves off on wild goose chases that they’ll have to clear up later.

Others – myself included – prefer to share their work only after they have got as far as they can possibly get with drafting by themselves. I personally hate sharing very early drafts, and not without reason – but a lot of this has to do with how I work and what does and doesn’t get the best results for me.

So here are some of the pointers about both approaches. Neither is right or wrong as such but are just different ways of working.

Early-Stage Feedback

 It helps to be confident and fairly thick-skinned for this – after all, the looser your draft is, the more is likely to be wrong with it, so the more “development areas” you are likely to hear about. You may be happy with that, you may be a bit more sensitive to criticism. If that’s the case, you need to think if this would be the right approach for you.

It can also depend on your reader or group. Some readers are very open to both approaches, with an awareness that feedback style might need to be tailored to the situation; others – college workshops, for example – can be more absolute, feeding back on everything in the same way, regardless of where the draft or writer is at.

The rougher the work, the more the focus is  likely to be on the potential, rather than perfection of execution; although it does depend on how solid the writer’s early drafting is. Some writers, as I say, produce great-quality drafts on the first or second pass, so it probably isn’t going to be a problem for them.

I’d suggest being VERY clear with your reader or readers before you let them read about where you are at, and what in particular you’d like them to look at if you’re sharing in the early stages. Someone nit-picking your punctuation when you really need to know if your overall story or a particular character is working is not especially useful . For some writers, this sort of thing too early can kill a draft completely

Early Stage/Mid-Draft Feedback can be useful for:
  • Writers who produce solid drafts very quickly
  • A stage you’ve reached where you’re more interested in understanding the story potential of an overall idea than the nitty gritty of your execution
  • Times when there’s a particular feature of the work you are experimenting with. For instance, you might be trying out different narrative points of view, or structures in which to tell the story, and you might be unsure what the ‘live’ effects of those decisions may be. Before devoting months of your time going down one route or the other, it can be worth testing out with some readers
  • The point where have got up to a certain stage in a large project  like a novel, and are not sure how best to continue. Or, are at a crossroads where there are multiple directions in which you could take the work
  • Writers who carefully craft and edit each individual chapter before moving on.
  • Thick-skinned writers who are happy to share rougher drafts and  more interested in their story’s potential

NB one thing to bear in mind about “potential”  though. It is never your readers’ (or tutor’s or group’s or friend’s) job to decide on or write your final story for you! If the key story elements aren’t in there, it’s going to be hard for people to work it out.

If the bare bones are really all you have, it might be worth waiting until the work is a little more developed.. Even so, the views of others and an understanding of overall impact if you’re completely stuck  in the woods can give perspective that is incredibly helpful.

Later-Draft/Late Stage Feedback

 I know several writers who rarely show their work at all, or at least do only with one or two very select people. Often just before the point of submission. Personally, I get that. I find it more helpful to get feedback only AFTER I know I’ve done everything I can possibly do with the draft. I rarely share initial drafts, given mine tend to be a) rough as hell and b) when I am still working out or vague about the story.

Partly, it’s because I prefer the discipline of stepping back and self-editing, which for me is an intrinsic part of the process. I don’t like feeling I’ve wasted people’s time and efforts telling me the stuff I could have already worked out by myself given a bit more time

Also I am a pretty slow writer – not in terms of getting words down, but I tend to do at least two Zero drafts to get to one that I consider readable by the outside world – my “proper” first draft. Whereas some writers can knock out a decent, readable first draft in a matter of days or even hours.

Probably most crucially, I prefer later-stage feedback because it seems to show me any real blind spots I have. And we do all have them – we tend to pick up on different things. Sometimes this can be scales-from-the-eyes stuff that I’d never spot, no matter how adept I was at self-editing.

Late-Stage Feedback Can Be Useful For:
  • Writers who like to multi-draft before they share their “public” version
  • Pantsers who write terrible or extremely rough draft zeros in order to work out the story
  • Zero-drafters in general – particularly if you like to get the whole thing out in a rough form BEFORE you even think about editing or redrafting
  • Those who are good at self-editing and prefer to step back and do that in depth before sharing work with readers
  • Thin-skinned writers who are over-sensitive to criticism or have any kind of writing performance anxiety or block. Let yourself write and create freely first without worrying anyone else is going to see it.
  • Those who need work to be brilliant before they share, or whose readers are very critical. I’d wait until it’s in as good a state as you can get it to build confidence. Just don’t leave it for ever. It is never going to be totally perfect, and that way, never-ending tinkering can lie.
  • Writers who’ve reached the point of feeling they cannot do anything more with this story. You’ve probably spent so long with it now that you cannot be objective with it at all.
  • A time you are about to submit it but no-one yet has seen it. Other people can pick up much more easily on things that a person closest to it simply cannot. At least let someone you trust give it the once-over, especially if you’re subbing to an agent. You really do only get one shot at these.

It’s worth experimenting, of course, to see which approach works best for you and for which types of project. 

So – which methods and processes work the best for you?

 

If you are thinking about getting feedback on your work, check out my 5 Ways To Get Feedback On Your Writing post  on the different sources of feedback and where you might find them.

Happy writing!

 

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Writing, Pressure, And The Things We Don’t Talk About Enough

Since I’ve updated my competition and subbings list I’ve been musing on a few things.

A few weeks back, I attended a workshop about resilience in the writing life. It was packed, and most of the attendees were women.  I got chatting to some of the other writers about the fact that difficulties  – emotional challenges due to the highs and lows – in the writing life are part and parcel of the whole thing. We all know it’s true. But somehow, we agreed,  these are things we don’t seem to talk about openly enough .

Then, the other day, someone I know shared a great list on twitter of self-care tips for writers that really hit home (I shared them on my timeline). It started me thinking about the deep-seated issues and beliefs that were driving this  and realized just how many self-defeating myths we subject ourselves to.

Often, I think, it’s because writing is so personal. In fact, the better we are doing it, and the more honest we are, the closer to ourselves it will seem. But at the same time, the writing world is not an easy one. Writing, particularly when you are starting to get published and get your work out there, can be incredibly competitive. It can be harsh and unforgiving, and we can be overly hard on ourselves.

Here are some of the pernicious myths that can get under our skin as writers and do damage if we don’t take steps to question them, and give ourselves a little bit of self-care.

 

Myth 1: Our Writing is Us and We Are Our Writing

Because writing is so personal, and often what we write about is in some ways a reflection of ourselves, it can be very hard to separate ourselves as people from the work. Now, when we are actually writing, and digging deep for our truths, this is often an advantage. When we send our writing out into the world, however, it is a different tale.

It’s important to try to detach ourselves from the work.

A story is not “us” – it is merely from us and is ultimately, just a piece of writing.  It is part of our artistic development, whatever happens. The truth is, it may do well out there in the world; equally, it may not. Yes, we can do what we can to prepare it as best we can, but it is no reflection on our worth as people if it does eitherwell or badly.  Set too much store by it, invest too much of your ego in a piece of work and you can end up either a raving egomaniac, or a quavering fruit-loop. I’ve certainly done both. Easier said than done, I know, but best to aim for neither.

Send work out, and once that’s done, try to forget it – and work on something else as soon as you can.

 

Myth 2: Our Value as a Person = Our External Success as a Writer

 “Who are you? Are you an important writer? Are you someone I should’ve heard of?”

You may know this drill, or have seen it happen to others

And then there’s  “Ahh, you’re THAT person who did that great thing! I’ve heard of you!”

No pressure, then!

It follows from what I was saying above, really. Of course recognition of our achievement is great. We should be proud when it happens and own it. But don’t let it take over. Don’t become a legend in your own lifetime. (That said,  isn’t it a satisfying feeling to reveal oneself after a very obvious underestimation?  I’ve seen it happen to women writers a lot, especially the older ones.)

I really do think it’s important not to come to rely too hard on getting that external approval. You need to be able to carry on without it. And trust me, a bad review can crumple anyone to the floor, including bestselling authors. Times change; writers have their peaks and troughs. We have to find a way of keeping on whatever happens and remind ourselves we’re playing the long game.

Likewise, what if we worked really hard on something that didn’t get anywhere – have we failed as a person? No. We live to write another day. We tweak it, perhaps, and see if we can send it somewhere else. We rest it for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes. And you know that old thing about  your last minute emergency back up being “the one that brings it home?” – well. Think on. So no, your value as a person does not rest on your external success as a writer.

We are not in charge of the outside world. We can’t control others’ opinions or preferences. We are not what other people think. We are not in control of Acts of God or the bizarre quirks of fate that get in everybody’s way sometimes.  All we can do is keep the focus on what we’re doing. The work itself is the bit that’s up to us.

 

Myth 3: Our Writing’s External Value Is Its Only True Value

A writing tutor I know of apparently told their students that if their writing wasn’t published, then the writing didn’t mean anything. As if it was only “real’” when others – him, presumably, or someone he deemed sufficiently important – saw and approved its existence.

I hate stuff like this. Such bullshit.

I understand and agree that the world won’t know us if we don’t share our work, and so we should, when we decide we are ready. But you can’t rely on other people to tell you your work is Important. And should you stop writing completely if you and your work are never going to be deemed Important by some arbitrary measure or decree? Should you give it all up if you never win the Booker, or don’t become a millionaire?

Of course not.

It’s that external validation thing again.

I’ve always cringed when I hear that word “important” being referred to either work, or artists, of any stripe. It smacks of pomposity to me.  “Interesting” yes. “Groundbreaking” yes. And it’s good to have ambition – the ones we set for ourselves, although as I said above, we should avoid having ambitions where we have no control over the outcome.

Written work in all its stages has value. We may not even send it out into the world, but creating it, shaping it, making it something we want it to be, can still be profoundly satisfying. I’d think less about “out there”. I’d think more about “here, this, now.”

 

Myth 4: Productivity is Everything

Look, some people are designed to churn out thousands of words at a rate of knots. And some people aren’t. Don’t beat yourself up. I know loads of slow but excellent and careful writers. I know highly talented writers who send out two stories a year. And then there are writers who whip out book after book after book super-quickly and I’m amazed at their efficiency. Not to mention jealous.

Also – it’s not all about wordcount. I appreciate that sometimes we get held up by procrastination, but there is nothing wrong with projects that you just noodle along with for the love of them and that you just do for you. You don’t have to do the Protestant-work-ethic whip-whip-whip thing.

We are allowed to play sometimes. We are allowed to take a break. We are allowed to do things just for fun. Everything doesn’t have to be professional,  everything doesn’t have to be published. And remember we’re allowed to give ourselves a rest.

 

Myth 5: Perfection is Everything

 As above. Everything can’t be perfect all the time. It doesn’t have to be. A need for perfection is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block. What we do doesn’t have to be perfect. The first draft of anything is shit, as Hemingway said. Don’t get it right, get it written. Have fun. Lose yourself in the project itself, not where it might be going and who might eventually be looking at it.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even have to be good.

 

Myth 6: Write Every Day

OK, so in fairness, I do prefer to do this. And I often feel tetchy if I don’t, although my “writing” doesn’t have to be wordcount-increasing necessarily. I just like to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – on a daily basis, or I feel like it’s all building up and I find myself annoyed.

But it’s one of those ‘”rules” that gets decreed everywhere and honestly – we don’t have to. Some people write every day. Some people a bit here and there on the train, or at the weekend or on their days off from work. Yes, time can be a factor.  You’re not a useless failure if sometimes life gets in the way.

Nor if we get stuck. There are various ways to get around this, but you are not a quitter if you give it a rest for a few days. Sometimes – and you will know what your own patterns are – it helps to consciously do no writing at all for a day or so. Stick your story or novel or project under the bed, go and have a few days of life and see people and do things. Forget the pressure you put yourself under. Leave it for a bit. Return to it when you are fresh with your batteries and creativity recharged.

 

I hate Decrees-From-On-High about how we should think and feel,  and it’s pernicious myths like these that we internalise and allow to stop us in our tracks. But we can make our own writing lives by noticing when these kinds of myths come up for us, challenging them, and creating a writing life that works for us.

 

 

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5 Ways To Get Feedback On Your Writing

So you’ve written your thing? Hurrah! Now what? Get feedback, that’s what!

But how can you get it, and how do you decide which would be the best option for you? Let’s take a look at the main routes:

1. Friends & Family

It can be surprisingly difficult to get effective feedback from friends and family; not least because they love and care for you and don’t want to say anything mean…and because you love them back and want them to think well of you. Their good opinion matters. Nobody wants to fall out  or have things taken personally – and writing , however much we like to pretend we’re all dead hard and so A-grade we can take anything, is just so personal. 

This can make things tricky.

Feedback from your friends and family can often be frustratingly vague. Your mum’s  “That was lovely, darling!” is NOT helpful feedback for your work. We’re not doing this for a pat on the head. That said, you don’t want the opposite. If you’re going to share work, you want to ensure you remain on speaking terms with your nearest and dearest.

When Can Friends & Family Help?

I’ve found there definitely are times that it is helpful to get feedback on finished work by someone you are close to. Just an ordinary reader, usually not a writer or armchair critic (definitely avoid those!), but someone interested enough to want the best for you and your work to succeed. After all, especially if it’s a novel you’re writing, it is ordinary readers who are ultimately going to be reading and hopefully buying your work. Your ultimate reader is probably only going to read your novel only the once. If you have someone in your vicinity who is part of your target market and who might be willing to give you a bit of a heads-up on likely reader first impressions, why not ask them very nicely to help?

  • Is your mum perhaps a lover of crime thrillers and detective stories? (mine is!)
  • Your best friend’s kid a devourer of Young Adult sci-fi fantasy?
  • Your colleague a slipstream literary fiction afficionado?

Bear in mind, it’s risky. If you are going to go this route and there is someone willing, make sure you pick your person VERY carefully, and be precise about what you want them to look for. I’d avoid the “well, did you like it, or not?” question. DON’T choose anyone insensitive or who might have a cross to bear, or someone you’re trying to impress. You don’t need to prove your worth to anybody. Make sure it’s someone from whom you could take any honest but less-than-stellar feedback. Criticism, even mild, can often be harder to hear from someone you know than a dispassionate outsider, whom you can curse in the privacy of your own mind, with no  danger of real-life comeback.

2. Beta Readers & Critique Partners

Technically, beta readers are supposed to be a live test audience for your work. In other words, target market readers who read your manuscript as if they are the eventual reader for your book, allowing you to test for likely responses so you can make adjustments and edits as necessary. The friends and family examples I gave above are really beta readers; it’s just the relationship side of things that can make getting useful feedback tricky and has to be carefully managed.

These days, however, you often see the term “beta reader” used interchangeably with what I’d more accurately call “critique partner.”  In practice, these will often be particular writing friends with whom you’ve connected in the past and developed a mutual bond and degree of trust. They tend to know you and your writing style well and understand your writing process. They “get” you and what you are trying to do and are often used to your particular blind-spots and flaws. Often, they will be well-versed in writing craft and techniques, and are usually pretty good at feedback.

A good critique partner is a valuable asset – if you are lucky enough to have found one, look after them and nurture that relationship! Do make sure it’s mutual, and remember your critique partner does not exist merely to service your needs. We are all busy people with lives, and reading takes time. Make sure you regularly swap work and return the favour. Treat their work with the care, thought and attention you’d want for your own. Learn from one other. You’re looking for someone who is sensitive enough not to personalise any criticism but at the same time isn’t afraid to be honest and tell it like it is in a way that helps you improve your work.

Group Beta Readers

You could of course, also set up a group of proper beta readers to test your stuff out. Members of a book group, perhaps, or a mix of writers and non-writers. A good test reader should be specifically from your target market.  Someone who’s not is likely to give you information that is irrelevant and, unless they are truly objective, their personal preferences often get in the way. You don’t want your high literature types sneering at your YA Fantasy; likewise, Fifty Shades fans aren’t going to be interested in your riff on Infinite Jest. Again, be specific about the feedback you want.  Not “I want to know it’s marvellous and going to be a bestseller and how very clever I am.” (Even though that’s what we all want to hear, obvs). Prepare direct, specific questions about the characters, understanding of certain plot points, pacing,  if it was predictable or confusing in places, for example.. What you want to get from your beta readers is a grounded understanding of whether or not your piece is working. Is it doing what you intend or not?

3. Writing Groups

Writing groups are for some people and not for others. And of course it depends on who you get in your group. I’m lucky enough to be a member of two writing groups – sometimes three – and they are great in different ways.

The most important thing when choosing a writing group is whether or not it is a good match for you and your work. Are group members generally at a similar stage in their writing lives? You ideally want a group where people are at a similar stage as you or just a little ahead of you in their writing careers. Is there a variety of genres people tend to write in or is everyone in the group into the same type of work? If the latter, is it your type? How is discussion conducted and how respectful is it of all members? Are there rules about how feedback is given, what sort of feedback is appropriate and what isn’t?

When Writing Groups Go Bad

Horror stories abound, of course. A woman I met at a workshop the other day told me she’d been rounded on by a clique in a new writing group and her worked ripped to shreds with not one word of positivity or constructive criticism. Essentially the leader of the group decided her work was worthless and it went round in a circle with each individual telling her exactly why this was so. Apparently one man put his hand up and said he’d rather liked it, but was shouted down and his views dismissed by the rest. Another friend, writing tentatively about the lesbian family relationships she’d grown up in, was told by the squirming members of her writing group that they didn’t want to hear about things “like that”, and that she was shoving “her politics” down their throats.

Again – you need to pick your people. Groups, especially where there are one or two very dominant personalities, can get very cliquey. (And of course many have the Guy-In-Your-MFA types lurking in their midst. Good for a laugh but can be quite frustrating.) Make sure yours is respectful of all members and their work. A variety of writing styles in evidence is helpful, as are signs that people give each other constructive feedback which gives the writers something to work on.

4. Free Online Critique Sites

What if you want the variety of views that a writing group can bring but don’t have anything local to your area? You could always join an online critiquing circle.

Be prepared to give and take. The best of these sites operate through “karma points” – you feed back on other people’s work, and earn enough karma points for your work to be read and commented on in return. Do note though that often you only get the basic service for free so it can take time to build up points – if you want all bells and whistles on the sites, you’ll sometimes find you have to pay for it.

The advantage of this approach is that it is fantastic practice and highly instructive to have to read a lot of others people’s work as well as writing your own. Seeing other people’s strengths and weaknesses can help make you far more aware of what your own particular talents and blind spots may be. And of course you’ll get a wide range of comments, just like in a writing workshop or group. Disadvantages are that obviously reading others’ work takes time. You’ll probably get a number of comments that don’t seem relevant and that you discard. And there are often limits with regard to how detailed you can be in your feedback, and also on the lengths of the pieces you can post. You need a thick skin, too; but that is something probably worth building up. Join one up for free (see links below) and check out the sort of stuff that gets posted to see if this might be the route for you.

https://www.scribophile.com

https://www.critiquecircle.com

5. Paid Consultancy & Reader Services

Ah, last but not least. And not just a plug for yours truly – these services are not right for everyone, and as with every choice you make as a writer, it should be a case of picking what really works for you. I’d suggest trying the freebies first and then if you want something more, consider paid assessment options such as mine.

Look at what the different services offer, try to see sample reports if you can and think about what you need to take your writing forward. It may be the kudos of having a big-name author read your work (not me, sorry). It may be the window of possibility of having your novel recommended by the service to an agent (nope.) You may be after in-depth editorial  and proofreading services (no); you may be at the stage where you are looking more for a detailed analysis of the big picture structures of the work (hello! *waves*). You may be looking to send a whole novel; you may be wanting in-depth notes on a couple of short stories. Think about where you’re at with your work, and what you’d like to know in terms of moving it forward. Be totally honest with yourself, and you will find you get more out of whatever service it is  you choose. You need to know what you want so that you can ask for – and get – it. Exactly what you need.

 

So there we have it. Five ways of getting feedback on your work. Have I missed anything crucial? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 Fiction writers and screenwriters; totally different animals, right?

Screenwriters and fiction authors. One group writing to meet the often harsh demands of the film and TV industries, the other striving to create Booker-winning literary masterpieces. Different markets and forms, different audience. In other words – with about as much in common as cats and dogs. Or so you might think. What could one group of writers possibly have to teach the other?

Different Forms, Different Requirements

The difference in form certainly makes an impact on focus. Since film is a visual medium, screenwriters deal primarily in visual imagery and dialogue. This is then translated onto screen and into the final creation by directors and actors. Fiction writers, however, get to invoke all five senses in the imagination of the reader, using just words on a page. Because it is relatively free-form, fiction also has far more structural possibilities. Prose fiction allows, I think, for much more playfulness and a wider range of styles when telling a story.

So what’s the problem? Is there one?

Having worked in both forms, I was very surprised when I came to fiction groups, books, and classes and realised few of us seemed to be being taught the basics of Story and Story Structure. Or not in the way that most screenwriters would view as pretty fundamental. There is nothing about writing prose that should mean the story is less important than it would be in a script. But in  the fiction-writing world, there seems to be an over-reliance on the idea that once you have the characters and a few scenes, structure and story will just magically emerge by itself. As if even talking about it will destroy some sort of mystique.

I’m not sure why that is.

Maybe it’s arisen out of a certain snobbery about books versus films.. Indeed, choosing your “genre” is far more of a necessity in film which I guess aligns it in many people’s minds with commercial fiction.

Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the distinction between Plot – the series of events that happen in a story – and Story itself In other words, the combination of multiple elements to create a complete piece that is meaningful and says what we want it to say. That the art of something as ethereal and poetic as “literary” fiction could not possibly be subject to the more workaday structural approach screenwriters take to achieve this.

And yes, I have noticed this cultural difference between working fiction writers and screenwriters many times in person. I’ve often found it frustrating that tools that could be made available to budding fiction authors rarely seem to be, and that they’re essentially left to muddle through alone.

 

5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 

1. It’s All About The STORY

I get why sometimes the kinds of “systems” advocated by some of the screenwriting gurus can seem frustratingly restrictive, dictatorial and “uncreative”. I get that overanalysis, overplanning and picking work apart can sometimes be destructive to creative flow. And I get the fear of producing generic work, or a seeming over-reliance on plot over character – although, as I said above, I don’t believe that “Plot” is what “Story” is all about.

Here’s the thing. I’ve seen far more instances where a greater understanding of overall story and the elements that pull them togethe  would have been useful for the prose writer. I believe that whichever form you choose to write in, you are using it primarily for the purpose of conveying meaning to your reader or audience. And that, for me, is what “Story” is all about.  I’m unsure how new writers are meant to create great stories without getting to grips with ways to build them and the materials needed to do so. For screenwriters, Story is everything. Its principles tend to be taught and discussed quite overtly. This is rarely the case with fiction writing. Everything I’ve learned about the fundamentals of story, I’ve learned from screenwriting. And screenwriting teaching is streets ahead on this front.

(If you’re interested in learning more, you might want to check out my review of screenwriting guru John Truby’s Anatomy of Story here)

 

2. Tell A Story in Scenes

Remember “show, don’t tell”? That basic rule we’re all told to abide by in fiction-writing? Screenwriters have it way easier than fiction writers in this respect. The restrictions of the form means they can’t do anything else. Unless they make extensive use of voiceover (not cool), what they write is what the audience will see and hear. Visuals. Dialogue. And when you think that way, it’s easier to start thinking about what scenes you’ll need to use to get your characters and story across.

When you’re writing fiction, how easy is it to slip into an authorial narrative voice? Telling us for paragraph after paragraph about a character’s history and so on. Now imagine you no longer have that option. If you were writing this character for the screen, if you were going to move this part of their story along, what scenes would you use to show it?

You’ll often find thinking this way forces you into a more effective method of conveying what you want to say.

 

3. Structure Is Not A Dirty Word…

In fact, it’s crucial. Structure is the foundation on which the successful telling of the story rests. Your building blocks. The way you choose to structure a piece of writing feeds directly into how well you are able to convey your story’s meaning. Rather like someone building their own home – it helps to know what you’re doing. An understanding of what story structure is and does, rather than just bumbling along blindly hoping it will work, can make the process of writing a lot easier

That isn’t to say that there is only one structure possible. Not all will stories follow the classic Three Act Structure, at least not overtly. That said,  I find it is often helpful to understand such a longstanding structural form and its rules and conventions before you try to break them. Sometimes it helps to know what works and why or why not, and Three-Act is a classic dramatic structure for a reason. You will often also find that even those who encourage the breaking of the old Three-Act stranglehold recognise the debt their structural analyses owe to classical structural forms.

I think fiction writers have far more options in terms of overt structures to play with than screenwriters. But it’s important that you have a grasp of the basic principles that underly these. If a key structural element is missing from your story, you will often find that the story as a whole fails as a result.

 

4. …And Neither Is Genre

Which is not to say that all stories have to be old-school generic, or even plot-driven, which I suspect is at the heart of much snobbery about any discussion at all of genre and its many forms.

But if you think that, say, literary fiction isn’t a “genre” of sorts, with its own conventions and expectations (and no-no’s), then you are very much mistaken. It is true that commercial fiction tends more towards the old-school genre conventions used by the film industry, and that publishers often reflect that in their marketing. But that isn’t the complete picture. (See my more detailed post  Genre and Why It Matters here.)

Genre isn’t just the old-school categories. It’s more about the fundamentals of type of story – the expectations of the reader,the reasons you are telling it, the tone, whether something “fits” or not, even if the writer is consciously using a specific genre to subvert expectations. You’d be surprised at just how often I’ve fed back on a draft story that doesn’t “work” precisely because there are significant issues in the story with the muddling of genres. Or the writer doesn’t quite seem to have control of the type of story they are telling or a grasp on its conventions. Genre in its widest sense, is about “the type of story you want to tell” and why. A clear understanding of genre and the purposes and history of different types of story can be a powerful tool.

 

5. Writing Is Not Some Mystical Thing. It’s Work.

If I had a pound for every time someone has inferred to me that Fiction Writing is somehow analogous to Relaxation, I’d be a rich woman. It’s not a hobby , it’s not painting watercolours, and frankly, if I want relaxing Me-Time, I’ll go to a spa or just run myself a bubble bath or something.

I’d certainly agree that creativity and the act of being creative is pleasurable, can be profoundly satisfying. And that sometimes we make it harder for ourselves than it needs to be. But creating a satisfying piece of work, telling the story we want to tell in a way that others will want to read, is not all lounging around in scarves on chaise-longues, being poetic and getting some minion to feed us grapes, I can assure you.

If you want to finish your short story, or publish your novel, you’re going to have to work at it. Exercise some discipline to get it done. This can be a long hard slog, especially on longer projects.

A lot of people dream of writing a book; far more, I suspect than those who dream of writing a screenplay. It’s always one of the top fantasies, isn’t it? Yet very few achieve it. Why? Because ultimately, it’s such hard work, that’s why. Drafting, editing, painstakingly rewriting, over months or even years.  Many screenwriters I know, including those who are budding, seem to take a far more pragmatic approach to their writing than those who just dream of being fiction writers. This is possibly because those who dream of screenwriting tend to be closer to the realities of the industry – they know people, they get involved, get their hands dirty. I think as fiction writers,  we have to be prepared to do the same.

 

So what are your thoughts? Have I missed anything off my list? Are the forms so different that they can never meet? Feel free to leave any thoughts and comments below.

 

 

 

 

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My Journal Writing Creative Practice

I’ve had a regular journal habit since I was in my teens. Journaling is the way I work out problems, get things out of my system, discover what I really think about  the world. But my journal writing creative practice,  in the deliberate sense , has been a long time in development.

At first, possibly inspired by Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, it was just the usual teenage diary. It mostly consisted of my day-to-day woes, major news headlines , friend and teacher sagas, longstanding and hopeless crushes. OK, so I didn’t write to the BBC as Adrian does with embarrassing frequency, but these ancient records of my former self are no less cringe-worthy.

As I got older, I found I just couldn’t stop putting pen to paper in one form or another. At college, pre-internet and email, and when I travelled, and worked all over the world, I was well known among my friends  for my epic letter-writing. A 12-side probably unreadable letter from me was not at all unusual.   I also made the discovery that whenever had a problem to sort out, putting pen to paper and “writing through it” privately often seemed to lead to a solution. The process of journaling itself  seemed to have an almost magical effect, a path through any problem.  Little did I know then that these unofficial scribblings would turn out to be one of the most effective creative practices there is.

Types of Journaling

Obviously, there’s a distinction between “recording the external in detail” and “self-expression”. Both, of course, are hugely useful for fiction writers.

Reportage 

Detailed note-taking – about places, things, people, events. The aim is to capture exact detail, much like a photograph. It is factual, although the ways you record and what you pick up on can often be revealing about your own writing territory, preoccupations and truths.

Try taking your notebook and pen to a particular place to observe and describe exactly what you see, what stands out to you. People-watch and eavesdrop and write down what you hear. Deliberately try to capture the essence of a particular place, or building, or backdrop, focusing on all the detail. You can journal for detail wherever you go, as long as you have something to write on and with.

If you want to go deeper, there are some fantastic writing exercises you can do that directly tie the reportage of place to the personal; the exercises in Julia Cameron’s Right to Write, for example, or Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography. (I’ll be reviewing both of these books soon.)

Diarising

Old-school and essentially linear, driven by date, just as I did as a teen.  Your thoughts about your day-to-day, news stories, anything on your mind. These entries can seem quite unremarkable at the time – they don’t have to be Art – but are often fascinating to look back on.

I actually have in my possession my late grandmother’s diary from 1936,  which was the year she got married and moved  into the then newly-built house that she would live in for the rest of her life. It’s a pocket-sized burgundy-coloured Letts Diary, the endpapers printed with details about postal rates to the various countries across the-then vast British Empire. Train timetables up “to town” , measurements for hats, gloves and shoes. The entries probably seemed quite mundane to my grandmother, detailing her wedding preparations, her cinema dates with my grandfather, and their numerous spats. But these are interspersed with the news events of the day. The funeral of the King, the saga of Edward VII’s abdication crisis playing out on the wireless, and of course, ominous signs of the impending war.

Diaries can provide important details and nuances about a particular time or era, either for ourselves or others. They can be great prompts for pieces of fictional work. It’s interesting, too, to note the formalities – what people choose to reveal and convey of themselves or exaggerate in their “official” diaries – and what they don’t.

Project Journaling

 This is something I do regularly now. It involves gathering material and thoughts on specific projects or topic areas, and keeping them together in one place. I often keep entirely separate journals for different projects. These are great when you are in the research stage of a project, allowing you to make detailed descriptions of settings, characters and so on. You can write about related news stories, or your own personal thoughts about the issues and themes at hand. When I start a big project, I also like to track my project progress in a journal. The things I am thinking and worrying about at different stages, the problems to resolve, what I feel is succeeding and isn’t. Currently for example,  I am journaling about the novel I am working on.

Free-writing

A completely different type of journaling, freewriting is entirely about self-expression: whatever comes out, unedited will come out. The best forms of freewriting, I’ve found, rarely involve going back and looking at what you’ve written ; writing perfect descriptive prose is not the purpose, although you may find the odd gem if you do go back and look. I often use freewriting as a “warm up” before starting my writing proper, with the purpose being to completely turn off my inner editor. The most common form is to write for a certain number of minutes (it could be on a topic, from a prompt, starting from a first line etc) without stopping, and without taking the pen off the page.

Morning Pages

A form of daily freewriting, as advocated by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way and a very similar idea by Dorothea Brande before her.

Essentially, it is three A4 pages of freewriting, to be done every morning as soon as you wake up, and it’s a central part of my creative practice. Again, you write without stopping, you write anything that comes into your head, and you don’t take your pen off the page until the three pages are done.. The purpose, again, is to completely turn off your inner editor and critic and reconnect you with your creativity. Which all sounds very woo, but I can honestly say that including regular morning pages in my daily practice substantially deepened and improved the quality of my work. I have about thirty notebooks now, all filled with my unreadable scrawl, most of which I’d never reread, but which I know are responsible for most of my writing successes so far.

It’s certainly a method I can highly recommend.

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