‘Is It Any Good?’

I would guess anyone who doesn’t ask themselves this during the course of writing a novel is not going to produce a very good one.

What’s probably not such a good idea is to include this angst in comments accompanying a chapter sent to a tutor for a tutorial. Asking ‘Is it any good?’ really means ‘tell me lots of nice things about it please to boost my writing ego’. So when I didn’t immediately get that response from Emily my reaction was ‘She must think it’s rubbish’. The tutorial in question has been an odd, long-drawn out affair as it couldn’t take place in person due to illness and we exchanged e-mails instead (Emily now being on maternity leave). I also talked about the issues with Alison last night in person.

There were lots of things that Emily didn’t like in the extract I’d sent — plausibility issues about James’ behaviour, not really seeing into what motivated the characters and so on. In some ways it’s a bit of a Catch-22 in that she said she thought I needed to know my characters better — but the best way for me to do that is to write more and to live with them, which is more difficult to do if your motivation is ebbing away partly because a tutor has said you need to know your characters better.  I think I do know my characters pretty well but perhaps they hadn’t come over that well for a couple of reasons. One is stylistic — I do tend to write much more from an exterior perspective than interior so I only infrequently inhabit the characters’ innermost thoughts. The second is the structure of the novel which starts with two people flung together in crisis and then develops from there. There’s a huge amount of back story that comes with both the two main characters and I’m finding it very laborious to drip feed into the first chapters. I’ve done about 15,000 words and they’ve not really found out much about each others’ backgrounds. I’m tempted to just write a couple of scenes from the past and show them in flashback and be done with it.

On Saturday night I got pretty downhearted — not because I thought the novel was no good — but because I thought I might need to totally overhaul the way it was written. I considered crawling into a hole and not bothering to emerge until after our end of course reading. However, once I’d mulled over the feedback I found it quite inspiring in a way. This is because Emily seems to have high ambitions for the story and characters — possibly higher than my own. Once I’ve got to the heart of the dilemmas and decisions facing both characters then the novel could say an awful lot that is relevant to readers in the modern world. I do think I have thought this through in my head in terms of concepts but it perhaps has to translate to the characters. It was suggested that I place my novel in the bitter-sweet human relationship genre defined by Anne Tyler’s novels. I was flattered that it was thought I operate in that difficult genre myself.

I’m also probably guilty of treating my characters as tools to be pushed around to achieve my own ends in terms of writing. For example, I thought it would be a good scene for James to turn up to see Emma at work to tell her he’s been fired (she won’t answer her phone). I had him bring Kim along principally because I wanted to write a bit of Emma, Kim and James having an argument, which is something I enjoyed doing — lots of conflict and dialogue. However, in reality, even if James had gone to break the news to his wife in a five-star hotel then he would have left Kim in the lobby while he did it.

It seems I’m in a very uncomfortable position but one that is really of quite profound significance as getting this feedback shows that I’ve created characters who demand my respect — it’s their story now and I have to let them get on with it. I can’t force a situation on them just because I want to write it. This is really odd. I’ve seen many authors describe this process but even so, it’s quite disconcerting. This perhaps re-inforces the strong views that have been expressed after my readings on the way the characters have come over.

There were also straighforwardly positive comments in the feedback — strong sentences, good description, good dialogue (when it’s serving a purpose) — and it’s re-assuring to have the quality of the actual writing re-affirmed. I’m very self-critical of my prose as I think I write too quickly — beginning sentences without thinking how they’re going to end. In fact it’s been concerns over my self-diagnosed clunky prose that has put me off attempting a novel before.

In the end I e-mailed Emily back and said that I’d taken the comments on board and on reflection they were very helpful and motivating and she e-mailed back saying that being able to act on feedback, particularly if it’s not all glowing and telling you how wonderful it is, is a mark of a ‘true writer’.

As for the ‘Is it any good?’ factor, I’m reminded of the famous Stephen King story about ‘Carrie’ — that he’d thrown a draft away in despair into the wastepaper basket and his wife fished it out, read it and persuaded him to finish it. 50 books later he’s still going strong.

4 Replies to “‘Is It Any Good?’”

  1. It can be incredibly hard getting to know your characters – particularly if you’re trying to create someone who is very different from you.
    One thing I did when writing a screenplay was to spend a lot of time ‘hanging out’ mentally in the company of each of my characters.
    Obviously to do this you have to have a super-overactive imagination but it really helped, particularly when writing the dialogue.
    The other thing is when reading back, do it several times from the various points of view of each of the characters.

    And as far as your story being any good goes, you will know when it is because you’ll want to keep on writing – just as you want to keep on going when you read a good novel by someone else.

    I always found it helped to draw a rough map of my story and break it into scenes. Somehow it didn’t feel quite so daunting because I knew where I was heading. And you can always rewrite bits once you’ve reached the end.

    Don’t worry so much about it. Try to enjoy it.

  2. Good advice Lindsay. The weird thing about writing is that it’s hugely enjoyable once you’re actually doing it but writers tend to procrastinate a lot before actually getting down to it.

    Interesting point about reading from the perspective of each character. I’ll try and give that a go.

    I’ve done the breaking down into scenes using post-it notes and sticking them on a conference room wall. I even posted photos of them somewhere on here.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. I can identify with lALL of these issues – I had a similar downer over Easter, remember ,Mike – not becuase of any particular comments or feedback but becuase I think I’d farmed it out to far too many critiquers…also I had a v short lived downer follwing the last piece I workshopped at City because the feedback wasnt I suppose what I wanted to hear – after re reading all the feedback comments and suggestions before I went to bed – and slept on it – I got up with a different take on it all – I needed to hear all the criticism , that part of how a first draft, no matter how accomplished, ends up discarded as it doesnt work OR ends up a more sophisticated second draft. Sometimes I find I go off on completely the wrong track . The great thing is as its all made up I can just go back and make it all go another way completely. Thats what Ill be doing with the material I read last time.It will fit the story I am trying to tell much better.

  4. I had a downer after the feedback I got from Emily. Because of the cancellation of the tutorial I ended up, by accident, getting detailed comments on the piece from both Emma and Alison so I was in the fairly unique position of having three tutor’s views on the same piece. They seemed to run one liked it a lot, one didn’t really express a value judgement and one thought I could do better. Very interesting.

    There were certain elements that all the tutors thought were problematic but also ones where they had radically different opinions — had comments like ‘this is really funny’ and ‘this should be cut’ about the same line.

    All goes to show how subjective it is.

    I still need to blog about my reading last Monday and how I’m feeling that the writing is well worth persisting with after the end of the course.

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