When I was little, I’d draw things. Mostly unrecognisable things in crayon. Then I’d run to my Mum, say, ‘Look what I did!’ and await the praise.

‘Ooh, look at that! Is it a dragon?’

‘How can it be a dragon, Mum? It’s bright blue! That’s a guinea-pig.’

I’ve only just grown out of it.

Not showing my mother renditions of blue rodents, but running to someone for praise every time I produce something.

I finished a story, look!

What about that for a chapter!

See this article – I did that. No, it’s about guinea-pigs, actually.

Looking for feedback is like looking for water – some of us need it more than others. I have a friend I’d describe as a camel and another as a goldfish. (And another I’d describe as a pot-bellied pig, but that’s for different reasons.) Camel writes entire books, trilogies, even, and needs no cheerleaders, coaches or encouragement. Whereas Goldfish can tear apart paragraphs, sentences and individual words like a ferret at a wishbone.

Feedback can be feast or famine. My earliest public critiques came from a website which operates on a give-and-take basis. You review random pieces, random people review your work. I gained a great deal of insightful advice and realised my weaknesses. Some brilliant writers, without patronising or offending, pointed out where I needed work, and I appreciated every last one.

But the key word is Random.

I also received opinions  I filed under the heading, ‘I’ll Laugh About This Later’. Reading them back now, they look so bizarre, they could be clever spoofs.

They weren’t.

“Avoid pretty description. No clever phrasing. No cute dialogu. (sic) The motor that drive (sic) the story is conflict. Readers do not want characters to be happy.
Apply the above to everything you write.”

“I know I have a poorly developed sense of humour, which may be why I don’t find this funny, even though you describe it as a comedy.”

“I commend you for trying this but as regards your English, I advise you to walk before you try to run. Why not compose a simple but interesting plot and write about it in straightforward English, taking great care with your vocabulary and grammar – all the time, keeping it simple and very well organised.”

“I don’t know what I’d suggest to improve your writing. You seem to write with confidence and style. If you wrote a longer piece, I am sure it would be good. People always mention pov in my reviews, and I am not always clear what they are referring to, so I won’t mention that, except to say I think yours are fine.”

Hmm.

So how to find those Heavenly Critters? The ones who get what you’re trying to do and offer constructive advice, the ones who point a laser at a lazy cliché, the ones who can spot the plot-hole before you’ve even written it.

I found some treasure and I’ve drawn a map …

More soon …

… the Zurich Writers’ Workshop

I spent a May weekend in the company of fourteen writers; reading, discussing and analysing what makes great writing. Two successful authors gave us the benefit of their experience and guided us towards making improvements in our own work. Two practical, useful and inspiring days, in which I also met some amazing writers.

Here’s what I learned and/or remembered, from major issues to the tiniest details:

1. Root your story. Place, time and character orient readers and help them interpret the action.

Example – Julia Alvarez’s Snow.

2. Choose the details which perform this orientation with care, avoiding obvious and familiar examples.

Example – Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel.

3. What are the stakes for your character? Do we know from the outset what s/he stands to lose or gain? And do we care?

Example – Alex Garland’s The Tesseract.

4.  Is the story arc clear, representing fundamental change between beginning and end? Example – Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.

5. Even if a story is true, it must be believable as a story. Reality often makes the worst fiction. Add those details which bring the piece to fictional life.Omit those which don’t.

Example – Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

6. Look at where you begin your story. Do you need your prologue, your framing device? Is that the best place to start, or a writer’s conceit? What purpose does the section before the story serve?

7.  Be aware of subtext. Dialogue and action, as well as serving a purpose in moving the story on, can carry subtler resonances.

Example – Tobias Wolff’s Say Yes.

8.  Rewrite. Ensure every scene, every line, every word earns its place. Check that every line, paragraph and chapter ends with the strongest word.

9.  When writing a query letter, be professional. Avoid excessive arrogance, but do sell yourself. Avoid fawning humility, but show respect. Compare your work to well-known writers or books relevant to yours. Make your target agent’s life easier by putting your name, title and page count (eg; 3/15) in the header/footer.

10. Your profile on the Internet can be a useful tool. It can also shoot you in the foot. Be professional at all times.