Monday, 21 September 2009

Constructive criticism and a good weekend

A while ago – it must have been a couple of months back – I submitted my draft query letter and synopsis, and a short extract of the text of GY, to an online Peer Review site for some comments. It has been a very interesting experience.

Some of what made it so has been through things I had anticipated, and even hoped-for; for example, some useful comments on my very weak query letter, and some good advice on cuts (as well as some more advice on cuts that was utterly useless – more on this anon!). But another aspect of the experience that has been enormously useful has been dealing with the advice that was no use. I had guessed that some of the suggestions would be pointless (five years of Art School can make one pretty cynical about critiques) but had not expected this, in itself, to be helpful.

Every piece of advice I have had has made me look afresh at what I’ve written. The good advice has made me rethink - sometimes with a whoop of delight at a glitch spotted and solved, sometimes with a sigh at a phrase I like, but don’t need, removed - and I have rewritten or made cuts in response. Genuinely constructive criticism is a lovesome thing, God wot. To my delight, I have found it not just useful but actively enjoyable. Constructive criticism shines. It purrs. It is wonderful. I want to put a ring on it (I’m a single leg…). I have had relatively little of it in my life (see comment about Art School, above) but I know it when I see it, and it is truly a delight to get the real thing.

The bad advice, on the other hand, has made me sort out and explain to myself why it was bad, and this has clarified things that in some cases I had never really thought about, much less analysed in any depth.

For example; one commenter produced a complete re-write of my opening paragraphs; reducing about 600 words to 75 or so in the process. Her basic point was that she thinks I over-write and I need to make some cuts. Fair enough, and she was right on both counts. But the scale of the suggested reduction was ludicrous, and the attitude of someone who feels happy to make such a sweeping revision, apparently without any suspicion that it might not be welcomed, baffles me. The thing is, if I followed this advice, I’d be left with a piece of stark, minimalist prose completely out of keeping with the whole way I write. I write for the joy of writing, and I write to become the best writer I am able to be – but as myself; not as an imitator of some other writer who does do stark minimalism.

If the only way I can get published is to write in a way that is entirely alien to me, and for which I therefore have neither passion nor commitment, then I’d simply stop writing altogether, because I would not give a tinker’s **** for it. So telling me to write in a totally different way is pointless. It may even be true that the prose style recommended is the only thing that gets into print at the moment, presumably because it is fashionable. I hope it isn’t so, but if it is, well, in that case, I just won’t get published.

This has taught me something I’d never really understood about myself. I don’t write because I have decided to make a career as a writer. I don’t write because I expect to make a living as a writer. I write because I want to write. I have stories I want to tell. If I can get published, so much the better. If I can get read, so much the better still. If by some miracle I could one day spend most of my time writing and know I’d earn enough to live on from this, without having a day job (even one as quirky as this), so much the better yet. Who would not prefer, in an ideal world, to spend the bulk of their time doing things that are truly satisfying, rather than cramming them in around the edges of the dull daily grind of work? But if that cannot be, I’ll still write, because I really am not in it for the money.

Even among the constructive criticism, some is (for want of a better term) right, and some is not right. But I have had to think about why the not-right stuff is so. I’ve accepted advice to prune the description of the flock of starlings, and cut a little bit of description of Simon’s past dreams, which I am fond of but have had to agree doesn’t move the story on or serve any other function. But then a bit later on the same commenter who proposed this suggested that I cut out the first description of Falmory’s orchard; and since the orchard goes on to figure several more times and to be mildly important, I don’t agree with cutting it. And I would never have thought this through, if the cut had not been proposed in the first place. I just wrote it as it came to me, bluuuumm, like water out of a tap.

The whole experience has made me analyse the text differently, and I have made further tweaks and cuts along the same lines, and mentally ear-marked a couple of areas where there are things that I like but which one could argue are not essential to the unfolding of the story. If I am ever talking to an agent or an editor about GY, I’ll expect to be looking at those areas again!

Although I felt pretty ropey physically all weekend, with a gut-rot like nothing on earth, working through all of this and inputting the revisions I agreed with and the further ones that were prompted by this process kept me busy and happy. And I had the pleasure of a very low evening’s tele on Saturday – “Merlin”, “Strictly Come Dancing”, and “Casino Royale”. The first two were exactly as anticipated, ie harmless fun; the last was a lot better than I had expected. I hadn’t gone to see it in the cinema. I got very bored with the old model Bond movies – the oh-so-tired formula of exotic locations, sick jokes, explosions and excruciating sexism. The idea of a blond Bond with jug ears wasn’t terribly appealing, either. Luckily Daniel Craig is a good enough actor to overcome these mild physical shortcomings (& he looks good stripped, too), and some wise soul has given the old formula the boot, and instead has produced a good, solid, genuinely thrilling and plot-twist-ing action movie with a bit of real characterisation and development on the side. It made for a good evening, and a box of chocolates slipped down very well alongside.

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