A Most Critical Two Weeks?

Anyone who read the post from a couple of weeks ago ‘Out of the Chaos — A Manuscript’ might be wondering, in the style of a minor cliffhanger, what was the verdict on the 174,000 words that I believed I’d pieced together in a somewhat desperate and incoherent dash to meet my reader’s deadline.

The verdict has now been delivered and, to my surprise, it appears I’ve been overdoing the  mental self-flagellation. I received a report on the manuscript, followed up with a face-to-face meeting, that was, overall, very encouraging.

In fact, it was my professional reader’s opinion that with about two weeks of solid work I could craft the whole novel into a shape that would be of a standard to send out to agents – which is fantastic. This ought to certainly silence my inner-critic — the one that must have been responsible for the post dwelling on the manuscript’s shortcomings.

Of course, those two weeks are full-time writing work. This doesn’t include my current day-job, nor the hours sitting on a train I use to travel to it (as I’m doing now) – or family or social life. But, then again, I suppose it’s only seven solid weekends.

Before going into a little more detail I should reveal (now she’s said fairly nice things about it) that it was Emma Sweeney, who ploughed through the huge Word file and reported her findings.

Emma taught us at the very end of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing when Emily had left a few weeks before the end of term on maternity leave.

(As an aside, the Certificate in Novel Writing has now been revised and relaunched as ‘The Novel Studio’ with its first incarnation in this form starting in the autumn — Emily, who’s now Course Director is taking applications now and I know she’s made changes partly based on feedback from alumni so promises to be a great experience. Emma Sweeney is part of the teaching team on the new course.)

Emma also works individually with writers (see link to Emma’s blog). I know a couple of course-mates from City University have used her services as a mentor since the end of the course — Bren Gosling has mentioned this in his blog (see link on sidebar) and his first novel, ‘Sweeping Up The Village’, was recently short-listed for a literary award, the Harry Bowling Prize.

Emma’s blog also mentions that she performs manuscript appraisals.  For me, an unavoidable side-effect of having workshopped the novel in and out of various courses over the past two years meant that most people I knew who might cast an eye over the coalescing manuscript (course-mates, tutors and other very helpful readers) would already have more knowledge of it than they might ever have wanted — and would remember the history of its development.

What I needed was someone to read it with a fresh eye — which Emma was able to do but also with some prior knowledge of my writing (see Onwards and Upwards).

So, after a few delays and postponements, I finally sent Emma the novel as it stood, with all its imperfections. She turned it round very quickly — in just over 6 working days — which is impressive for a manuscript of that length.

Moreover, it was clear, both from her report and from our subsequent discussion, that Emma had read the novel carefully — which isn’t always the case with creative writing classes and tutors. Of course, this reading was a professional arrangement, which has a not insignificant cost to the writer, although this isn’t surprising if one considers the time taken to attentively reading that many pages. It’s very unusual to get more than 5,000 words read at one time by a tutor, even on advertised novel-writing courses.

As mentioned, I was amazed that Emma thought the manuscript itself was in much better shape than my doom-laden forewarnings had suggested. While some of the material was  hastily cut and pasted as rough drafts were re-arranged and intercut and sections that had heretofore only existed in my head were written down in skeletal, first-draft form, the combined whole was adequate (in conjunction with the more polished bulk of the novel) to give a decent account of the plot and characters at least.

But — did Emma think it was any good? Well, yes she did — and said some very positive things which I won’t dwell on here — but she added some significant caveats about issues that have to be addressed in those two weeks of revision. Issues like:

  • Some work making a character a lot more sympathetic (any ideas gratefully received — what about bringing in a 3-legged dog or something?)
  • Aspects of the plot need revising and some sub-plots need killing or fleshing out
  • Characters’ motivations require better development in places
  • Evidence of my tendency (as blog readers will no doubt recognise) to slip into rambling, abstract, academic style prose needs ruthlessly cutting out — this is good because the word count is too high and if this can be lost without abandoning the reader then it’s good news for me
  • Various amounts of copy editing to do in the sections I haven’t buffed up for workshops, etc.

But all the above are within the realms of the fixable and the Emma said she enjoyed the few days that she spent with my characters in the novel’s world. In fact, when we met face-to-face, Emma said she was automatically discussing the characters’ options and decisions with me as if they were real people — which was a very good sign.

Emma also said she enjoyed the humour and the psychological side to the characters and plot — sometimes I’ve mulled over the characters’ dilemmas for hours myself and still not resolved them. She also found some of the sensuous writing to be one of the novel’s strengths, which is very re-assuring. Emma is the first person to have read a lot of the sex scenes. I was in too much of a hurry while editing to think about losing my nerve and coyly dilute them. (There’s a particular scene she thought must have been very hard to write but that she thought I got right. If, dear reader, you ever have a copy of the finished novel in your hand, you’ll probably be able to identify it.)

One of the most encouraging observations was that she thought the nature of the writing — a fair amount of dialogue plus the way the story is told from the perspective of the characters — doesn’t make the novel seem as long as it actually is. She thought it read like a novel about two-thirds of its actual length. This is particularly comforting as I erred on the side of caution and put in the manuscript several sections that I’m probably 80% certain to cut – I wanted a second opinion.

I realise that because someone with a respected reputation has said she lies the novel (pending fixes) that there’s no guarantee that anybody else will who might progress it to publication. There are loads of well-written, unpublished books.

However, I may have a few thematic arrows in my quiver in terms of hitting the current Zeitgeist  — a novel about quitting the City pressure cooker in exchange for a hot pub kitchen with food, art and sex thrown into the recipe along with some interesting settings might have some commercial appeal.

But, that’s all idle speculation without a polished, complete coherent draft. So now I’ve got to go and chisel out that two weeks of writing time and then, perhaps, bite the bullet.


One handy aspect of this blog from my own perspective is that I’ve gradually found many other blogs that I’ve linked to and taken RSS and Atom feeds from (see toolbar on the right). Some are those written by friends and others are some really useful sites written by editors, agents and authors.

I was reading a post of NaNoWriMo on How Publishing Really Works which had a link to a page on This Itch of Writing, novelist Emma Darwin’s blog, about revising and editing. The article starts off by discussing the semantics of what the words editing and revising actually mean but goes on to make some excellent points about the teaching of writing  — some which have similarly occurred to me.

Emma Darwin uses some railway and engineering metaphors to argue the logical point that writing a novel is such a huge undertaking that, even with careful planning, it’s usually inevitable that it does (or should) become evident while writing that there are structural issues (plot problems, characters that don’t work) which will need addressing. Rather than give up and start again, she recommends carrying on with a very rough first draft on the basis that, once at the end, it will be easier to address the structure of the novel as a whole.

Interestingly, this was the advice — plough on and finish a rough first draft — that we received from our tutors towards the end of the City Novel Writing course — and that many of us have realised in practice. However, it’s very difficult advice for students on courses to take for a couple of reasons — one internal and one external.

Most people who can write to a reasonable standard, but who haven’t had the experience of producing a work of about 100,000 words plus are probably instinctively unhappy in writing something that they know can be improved without going back to edit it fairly soon afterwards. There are some comments on appended to the post on This Itch of Writing that suggest writers go back and hone recently written prose because it’s a bit of a cop-out — that’s it’s easier than telling oneself it will be sorted out eventually as it’s more important to continue on with a roughly-written draft that will expose plot, setting, character and so on to greater scrutiny.

I think those comments are somewhat self-deprecating — that sort of close line-editing is actually quite hard to do well and very time-consuming in itself. I suspect that one reason why people do it is that they perhaps lack the confidence that they will ever return to re-write it — that the whole enterprise may be abandoned and, therefore, it might be better to produce a well-written chapter partly perhaps to demonstrate that one’s capable of it and maybe to be re-used in the distant future. Perhaps.

However, the external reason that applies to people on Creative Writing courses is all to do with how writing is taught.   Emma Darwin says in her post ‘I think it’s because so much writing-teaching focuses on the small scale. That’s partly because prose is easier stuff to read and write and teach on in class-sized chunks, than structure is…So writers embarking on their first novel are often quite aware of the micro-work it takes, but much less aware of the macro’. For example, on the City University course the  workshopping is structured into about six or seven opportunities to read 2,250 words — perhaps not uncoincidentally each about the length of the short stories that are assessed on the OU Creative Writing courses.

I wondered after finishing the course what difference it might have made to have given each writer a couple of slots of about 7,500 words each. I can see that practically it might make some students wait a long time for a workshop and also wouldn’t allow much opportunity to develop the work having received feedback but it would give an experience less like writing a short story — both to the writer but, also more importantly perhaps, to the other students offering feedback.

Someone called Sally Z posted a comment after the Itch of Writing post relating her experiences with a writing group. The members would always ask the ‘big’ questions when asking for criticism on a piece of writing (e.g. do these characters work?). But the sort of feedback that was offered tended to be detailed stuff about punctuation and on the over-use of adverbs. (The ritual slaughter of adverbs is a bête noir of mine that seems to be promoted by people who seem to over-evangelise some of Stephen King’s style advice in ‘On Writing’.)

Close attention to the text is certainly necessary before a novel is submitted to a publisher or agent but Emma Darwin argues that a writer who has polished up a section of a novel to publishable standard may be much more reluctant to subsequently make wholesale changes that may be necessary to improve the structure of the entire novel. However, if you participate in a writing course then it’s almost unavoidable that you will sweat hard to make your prose as good as possible as you won’t want your precious feedback to solely consist of other students pointing out passive sentences, repeated words, too many adverbs and similar textual elements. And it would also seem a bit perverse on any writing course to ask someone to circulate first draft work without worrying about typos and errors as other people will get distracted by them whatever — it’s a bit like walking down the street with your flies open.

However, if one does feel capable of creating reasonably good prose given the opportunity to edit later, what’s most important is to discover how the novel works as a whole — which is fairly tough when readers are exposed to small chapter-length chunks, especially if not in sequence, as I tend to have presented mine. I have a slightly perverse theory that if a 2,250 word extract of a novel works perfectly as a self-contained piece and doesn’t raise any questions of context with the rest of the novel then the writer isn’t really producing a novel — because a novel must necessarily have strands and elements that only make sense when read in its entirety.

Another unintended side-effect of over-examining the prose style is that writers may be tempted to concentrate on a sort of  literary ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ — it’s much easier to praise someone’s brilliant imagery or use of metaphor because examples can be cited from the text than it is to praise something more abstract — such as empathy with an emotion or resonance of setting. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some competition spurring people on to better writing but some genres are more suited to the sort of writing that’s easily praised than others.

For various practical reasons, it might be impossible to teach the more structural aspects of novel-writing in a course or to offer feedback in most writers group — mainly because of the investment in time required. What might be better is for novelists to learn from the examples from the canon of literature — this ties back into the much repeated recommendation that ‘writers have to be readers’ (more Stephen King advice like over adverbs that’s sensible in itself but not when mis-applied in extreme). I know one person from the City course who’s considering doing his next course not in creative writing but in English Literature — and this may be a very astute choice.

The Manchester Metropolitan University MA course has so far taken a similar path — we’ve been studying one novel a week from a brilliantly varied and idiosyncratic list but together by the tutor Dr Jenny Mayhew. When we’ve come to discuss the texts, rather than a loose ‘book-club’ type discussion, we’ve largely concentrated on the ‘big’ questions — like structure, character, narration, use of time and so on. The discussion on these points has the benefit of being able to examine finished, published works.

Personally I’ve done something of a mixture of the rough and (hopefully) more polished. I have quite a bit of rough draft that I’ve produced with the aim of ploughing on and just getting it done but, because of the workshopping and, also because I like to get feedback in other ways, I’ve gone back and spent a long time re-working certain sections for the benefit of other readers — partly with the objective of pleasing the adverb police and also a bit of vanity in fishing for compliments on phrases, metaphors or imagery — which is dangerous as it’s an encouragement to over-write.

As is mentioned in the original blog posts, there are two sorts of professional attitude required by successful novel writers — the discipline to plough ahead and get a first-draft finished and then the maturity to realise how much revision and re-drafting that draft needs before you even think about line-editing.

Does anyone else have any thoughts about how to address the ‘big’ issues in a novel while mired in the middle of writing it?

Unearthing Promising Ideas

As I decided to develop ‘The Angel’ during the City course, I’ve not done much bar think about my political novel since a I wrote a piece for a workshop in the spring which could have slotted into either novel.

Leaving it for a while was also a sensible decision in retrospect given the turmoil after the election and extraordinary way that the coalition was formed and has, so far, held together. Mandelson’s memoirs and the increasingly fratricidal Labour leadership election have also served to make the dog days of New Labour seem like an oddly far away era that most people would probably sooner rather forget — especially once the hullabaloo about Blair’s memoirs dies down (to be published on Wednesday).

So where does that leave a novel with a theme that was fairly contemporary about a year ago? Fortunately the way I approached the writing was to make the politics rather peripheral to the plot and it’s mainly the generic issues about politics that apply to any MP or government minister that affect the characters.

I had a run this morning and thought through a few interesting possibilities that wouldn’t involve a huge amount of rewriting and might also make the story very contemporary. Given that I have about 50,000 words already and I can come back and revise these having got months of safe distance away then I have hopes I’d be able to reshape and finish that novel relatively quickly — he said with the most naive levels of boundless optimism.

It may also have more of a hook for agents and publishers too if it’s tuned right to the new zeitgeist. Might need a new title, though.