James’s Writing Experience: Interlude 1
It’s time for my monthly blog on my writing experiences. Hurrah! Now, at the beginning of the year I set out a loose plan for what I’d write about each month, and this month was going to be all about the fear of being a writer – that question that goes through all writers’ heads:
Am I any good?
Will people like what I write?
What if they don’t?
I’ve read many people who have said that this sense never leaves you, regardless of how successful you are, and for me this is true. I’m not successful, but it certainly still haunts me. But at some point you’ve just got to say f*ck it, and get yourself out there.
But it wouldn’t be a blog of I didn’t write about what was on my mind at this very moment, and so I’ve changed my plans. Instead of talking about fear, I would like to relay something that has recently happened to me which has somewhat changed my perspective. Here’s what it is.
The Value of Friends
I was out for a drink and a bit of music with a friend last month, and before the gig kicked off, he declared to me that he was going to write a book. This was very exciting.
This friend of mine did know that I wrote – I had given him a really early draft of my book last decade, which I think I recall him liking. But we did not talk about it much, and most of that was probably my fault – I don’t tend to discuss my writing with my friends very much. Stupid really.
So the fact that my friend was writing too was extremely exciting, because it gave us a shared passion; and much more to talk about. But I think I also realised how closed I’ve been, and this free-flowing discussion helped my confidence, and will hopefully allow me to be more open about what I’m up to in the future. I have some great friends & family, and I would be a fool not to engage with them.
The Value of Comparison
But beyond that valuable confidence boost, something else also occurred to me. I realised, from discussions with my friend about writing, that I had actually learned quite a bit. That never occurred to me before.
Now, one of the problems of this writing industry is that success can be very binary. In the past, I have been desperately focussing efforts on finding an agent and publisher, and there are only so many shades of rejection. Success is measured by a deal, and it is hard to gauge the path to that goal because there are not so many benchmark measures along the way. Therefore, it is hard to see how you’re doing.
That’s not to say none, and I have paid for some professional feedback which was incredibly useful, but between these yardsticks – which were infrequent in my case – the progression is hard to see.
But when I started to discuss the concepts and ideas behind writing with my friend, it suddenly came to life. It was the same information I used in my own work, but framed against someone else’s knowledge base, it seemed almost … intelligent. This was an immense confidence boost in itself.
And the Value of Feedback
So, being thoroughly dazzled by my expertise in the field of book-writing, my friend then asked me to review his work when he got started (or in fact, what’s more likely, is that I offered some feedback) and this was a fantastic opportunity.
My friend is writing in the historical fiction genre, so though there is likely to be some stylistic cross-over with fantasy (my preferred genre in case you didn’t know), it is quite different. And my friend is also a history (and English!) teacher, and a relative expert on the subject in hand, so I might have been daunted by the prospect of reviewing his work.
But actually, I wasn’t.
Because I realised then that the formula for writing is actually rather independent of the genre, and I could offer constructive feedback without even needing to know the gritty detail.
For the record, this is what I fed back when he passed across his draft of the first two chapters. I took my time with this feedback, and am actually a little bit proud of it.
My first advice would be: ignore this advice. For now. I think the most important thing is to get writing, and to see it through. A first draft will always need heavy surgery – follow my writing of a short novella if you don’t believe me! – so the best stance, as I see it, is to get writing in the first instance. See also my writing experience blog! (Yes I’m trying to plug my website to you… Shameless I know.)
So – onto the review.
I am fully on board with a prologue – I think they are great. I have one in my books, and many great books also have them. Think George RR Martin’s prologue at the start of Thrones. That encounter with the white walkers has probably ensured my continued allegiance to the series. It was brilliant.
But to understand why it was so good, we need to have a think about what it is. I think it was this – a shameless plug of the core tenet of George Martin’s imaginary genius. It is a suggestion of the horror that will come some 7 volumes of text later; and it is a flash of action that entices the reader. It is a hook.
And this is what I’ve tried to replicate in my books – a hook. The prologue is an immediate literary fix that pulls the reader in before they’ve even got going, and it can also add that initial flair where the core “arc” does not have the requisite explosive initiation.
Now, what I see with your prologue is not this. What you currently have is more like “background” – not quite textbook material, but not a gripping piece of prose.
I’ll probably come back to this a lot, but I think you need to consider the old adage “show, don’t tell”. There’s too much telling at the moment, and this unintentionally slows pace. Once you do come round to reworking this, I would consider either a) removing altogether (possibly replacing with a very brief background sentence); or b) structure into a small story in its own right.
Just a quick note on prose: overall, this looks pretty good – just what I’d expect of an English teacher! When I first started writing, my prose was pretty bad, but I don’t think you have much to worry about. Good prose should “melt” into the background, and although yours doesn’t do this yet, the reason it doesn’t is because of the show vs tell issue rather than the prose itself. I spotted a few grammatical points, but it is the sort of stuff that would buff out with a review.
Though much better, I think chapter one suffers from the same problem as the prologue: it feels a bit like background. Of course, some stuff does happen, like Timmy’s mission, but not a lot…really.
I think I mentioned the importance of an arc, typified by a beginning, a middle and an end, and though this is fundamental to the overall novel, it is also important in each chapter. If we think about chapter one, I think we have the following:
- Laura with her dead husband. She has called her son and sent Timmy on a mission.
- Timmy on a boat fulfilling the mission.
- Alexandra worrying about events and what might happen.
Ignore the accuracy of my recounting here, and instead focus on the arc of this chapter. I can’t see one, and I also can’t really see what happens. There is also quite a lot of jumping between characters within the chapter, and though not necessarily a no-no, it needs to have a clear linkage.
So I think this will need quite a lot of surgery, and you may actually end up getting rid of a lot of this. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. This is all a learning curve!
This is much better. A couple of notable things happen here:
- The Timmy mission comes to life; and
- We get a sense of the Laura-Timmy dynamic.
One thing to note is that we’ve already been “told” about the dynamic Laura has with her son, but now we get shown it which is much more powerful. So why not remove the telling? The reader doesn’t need to know everything at outset.
I also think that this could be two chapters rather than a single lengthy one, but this will become more obvious when you think about the structuring more generally.
That’s probably it for now. I hope this is helpful. Keep going!
So I was able to provide structural, stylistic, and mechanistic feedback on these chapters without actually getting too bogged down in the detail – where my scope of feedback is not as strong. And we’ve since gone through some back and forth on this, and I’ve seen a re-work which is already looking much better.
In some ways, I wish I had had someone to bounce of all those years ago, when I started writing, but that is my fault for not looking hard enough – there have always been sources of help out there.
And do you know what the most useful part of my feedback above is? Just keep writing. Really, that’s all there is to it.
Picture Credit: Vic via Flickr