The third rule

The third rule:

Thou Shalt Join a Writing Group. And Thou Shalt Take Time to Find the Right Group for You. And Lo! Thine Words Shall Flow.

Ahem. Yes. The third rule is that you get feedback on your work before showing it to the people who matter.

It’s certainly possible to become a good – nay, great – writer on your own, in your room, beavering away in silence with only your MA in Creative Writing for company. The annals are littered with the names of the illustrious who’ve done such a thing – or many such things. And there’s no reason you can’t either. But take it from me, getting feedback on your work is a surefire way to get better quickly.

Writing groups seem, to my ignorant eyes, to be a fairly new phenomena, but the idea is as old as the hills. Wasn’t Frankenstein first performed in such a circle, sheltering huddled in an Alpine fastness? What was the Bloomsbury group but a way of exchanging ideas and feedback in a London ripe with zeitgeist? These examples – and I’m sure you can add more – can perhaps be seen as the prototypes from which a proliferation of groups have exploded in the last decade.

Seriously. Go on the internet. Type in ‘writing groups [name of town/region]’ and see what comes up. Even if you’re living in a cave in the Bora Bora mountains you’ll be able to find lots of groups that ‘meet’ online and all of whose interactions are carried out on the intraweb. You can barely escape the buggers. Don’t like the internet? Well, I’d be curious to know how you’re reading this, but anyway – just go into your nearest bookshop (indie for preference – they’re better about things like this) and ask. Simples.

When I first started writing seriously I joined a group based around people from my local Ottokar’s. That folded after a few months and I seriously considered joining a bigger one. But I didn’t. And that’s because I couldn’t really see what such a group could do for me. I bet that’s what you’re asking yourself now, isn’t it? Be honest. Why should I give my time to join a group when I already know how to write – when I’m at home with my craft?

It’s a fair question. And to some extent the answer depends on finding the right group for you. Because all these groups might be called something similar (the words ‘Writing Group’ is a clue), but the way they operate might be completely different. But here’s a quick outline of some of the things you can gain from joining:

Confidence

Technical advice

A reason for writing

Support

Contacts

Feedback on your work

Friends

A different perspective

A deeper understanding of ‘foreign’ genres

The Ottokar’s group I mentioned earlier mainly revolved around writing exercises – given out one meeting, reviewed the next. This was great fun, and in my memory I produced some really nice stuff – now sadly lost. But that’s not the best way to go about it, I think. A year and a half ago, when I moved to Abingdon, I joined the local group in part to give myself something to do in this curious little town. And in that year and a half my writing has improved greatly.

The format of the meetings is this: each fortnight we meet up in the proverbial church hall – pubs work well too – and any of us are free to bring an extract of our work; around 1,000 words. We then take it in turns to read this section, and then the rest of the group will provide feedback. And then we move to the next person.

The group is made up of eighteen people, and average attendance is somewhere from eight to twelve – the ideal number. Four or five people will read in a session. As with Fight Club, new members have to read .There are drawbacks, which I’ll get to later, but for now let me spell out the advantages.

First of all, feedback. Instant, unvarnished feedback on the section you’ve read. What works, what doesn’t. I still remember my first reading; I took the opening of Chivalry and saw it criticised for being too confusing, for not having a real sense of ‘here’. This can be painful. And the critics might, of course, be wrong. But it’s always a good idea to listen, to hear this, as they’re usually right.

Other readers are also excellent at picking out what you’re not good at, be it technical issues such as punctuation or formatting or aspects such as dialogue, It took me some time to realise that my dialogue was lacking, and since that was pointed out to me (twice) I knew I had to work harder on it. The result? Rapid (I hope) improvement.

It’s also incredibly good for you to give feedback to other people. This is a massively under-explored area, I feel. It’s really beneficial as a writer to look critically at the work of others, to see what’s working and what isn’t – and why that might be. It’s especially interesting to look at other genres or forms such as poetry and scriptwriting. I can’t overstress how helpful it is to push out of your comfort zone a little; even if you never write their yourself, to think about things in a whole different way can set you down roads you never knew existed.

I’m lucky to be in a group that’s good at balancing criticism with encouragement. It’s pointless to surround yourself with people who say everything is brilliant – that’s no help at all. Neither is it helpful to face a constant barrage of disparagement. Take your time, try out different groups, explore. You have to find a group that’s right for you, and that can take a little time. At this point I guess I’m supposed to say ‘if you don’t find one, set up your own’, but if you’re anything like me you won’t be bothered. So I won’t waste my breath.

The big disadvantage of the setup I’ve described? Well, if you’re a novel-writer you’re working with small extracts only. So, unless you read your whole work in bite-sized chunks, there’s no real feel for plot or character arcs. There’s no real answer for this – but there’re often people in the same position who’ll be willing to do novel-exchanges. And, if there are enough, you can form your own little spin-off ‘Fiction Action Group.’

And the Lord Spaketh: Go Forth and Multiply Thy Words. Take Communion With Thy Brethren in Letters, and All Shall Reap The Rewards.

Amen.

*          *          *

Just a quick reminded that next week I’ll be hosting the finale of Marissa De Luna’s ‘blog tour.’ Her novel The Bittersweet Vine is being launched on Monday (28/10/13) in London. The previous instalments of her tour can be found, as she describes…

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog.http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from Hockey player to author.

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on the 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog.http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

And finally… Stop 6 will feature the last part of the author interview on Robin Triggs blog, A writer’s Life on the 31st October.  Robin is another talented writer. I have read two of his manuscripts and can’t wait to read the third. The minute you read his blog – even if you don’t write – you will want to pick up a pen. Witty and insightful it’s a great read!

(Marissa’s words, not mine – thanks Marissa!)

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Let’s talk about sex

Sex. Yes, dirty word, sex. I’d like to thank the geniuses behind some of our biggest e-book retailers for inspiring this weeks’ column. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24491723.

The Well of Loneliness, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Delta of Venus…Classics? Well, I’ve only read one of them (I’ll let you guess which) but certainly they’ve all come in for plenty of flak in their time. They’ve all been banned. They’ve all been accused of encouraging (or exemplifying) ‘moral degeneracy’.

As I said, I’ve only read one of them – but I’ve read a lot in my time, read a lot of sex, and I think I’m moderately normal and no more degenerate than the rest of the herd. In fact, my first encounter with the adult world was through books. Of course, I’m not talking about the sort of things that’ve caused Kobo to temporarily suspend their entire self-published list. But take another look at the titles I’ve listed above: pederasty? Check. Homosexuality? Check and check. Public masturbation? You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think books about incest should appear on the screen when someone enters the word ‘daddy’. You have the right to be offended by this. But the stupidity lies on the fault of the companies, not the authors. Especially not by authors who made no attempt to hide the nature of their works.

Which leads me ask: why is it so notoriously hard to write a good sex scene?

Sex is one of the most natural things in the world. Most people who are looking to put out books will have had it at some point. It’s been depicted in the cinemas for decades, either via insinuation or full exposure and all degrees in between. So why do authors struggle so?

There are, I think, two aspects to good sex. One is the mechanical pleasures – the fleshly sensations of squishing together with your partner. The other is the emotional: the reading of the senses, the instincts for touch, for whispers: that which bonds you (or not, if you’re writing a different kind of scene) to your partner and has very little to do with sticking it in and wiggling around a bit.

I’ve never written a sex scene – not what I’d call a proper full-on graphic account of hot hard rumpy-pumpy. I was planning on putting two in Chivalry, but when it came to it I ducked out. This is partly because I believe that the most vital images are in the readers’ head and, with a good enough set-up, the reader will create anything better than I could. In this regard I’m influenced heavily by American films from the 40s and 50s, when the Hays Code was in force and film-makers were severely constrained as to what they could show on-screen. The response was to insinuate sex: oh, Lauren Bacall! Those classic films noir; never more than a kiss, but the subtext…

The other main reason for not writing sex – and, indeed, it can stop people writing at all – is that someone’s going to read what you’ve done. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? It may seem obvious – of course it’s obvious – but you’ve got to show what you’ve done to other people. Writing is a terribly personal thing. It’s so exposing. You’re putting your heart and soul into every word; the characters are a part of you – and not necessarily a nice part. It takes courage to present others with what you’ve done; you’re exposing your naked flesh to the world.  And sex – especially anything even faintly ‘other’ – can be a step too far for an author.

I’m a member of a writing group. Every month or so I’ll take an extract of my writing and read it out. I’ll then get instant feedback from a disparate group of people (alright, not that disparate. I do live in Oxfordshire). I’ve never tried a sex scene out on them. I’ve never heard anyone else try it either. It’s not at all as if we’re prudish (I’ve dropped a few ‘c’-bombs and an ‘mf’-bomb in my time to a complete lack of flabbergastedness) but still – how comfortable would I be about this?

And then there’s the fact that my parents read my work. Hi, Mum, if you’re reading this.

So why should you write sex? Why even try? Well, for one thing, sex is normal. Lots of people do it. It can very quickly look as if you’re a bit strange if you constantly skirt around the edges. And it’s popular. Who doesn’t like a good sex scene? And it can be comic, or threatening, or boring…

And that’s the real reason. And it’s why a good sex scene is one that shows how people are thinking: not only is it more involving, a good sex session can tell us far more about the novel’s protagonist(s) then almost any other type of scene. It shows us if they’re happy, dull, adventurous, dangerous… It can set up a novel (disappointing sex showing us the character is at the start of his journey), or be the big game-changing valedictory fuck in the middle. It is an incredibly useful tool for letting us know the dynamics of a relationship.

So why do authors get them so wrong?

The two main sins, I feel are to either be too mechanical (‘I did this. She did that. I cried out in joy…’) or to get all poetic and ‘literary’. I suppose this happens because – well, it’s what writing is, right? To find new, true, ways of saying what we all know; to describe events – ordinary or extreme – with subtlety and insight. That’s the aim. And a lot’s been said about sex over the years. How many new ways of describing the act can we come up with? ‘He ploughed her fertile delta, wondering – always wondering, dreaming, delighting, fearing – whether this time, this time, his seed would find purchase in her soil.’

So: problems technical and personal. That’s why so many people duck sex or write it badly. My advice? For what it’s worth, always keep in mind that these aren’t robots you’re describing (unless they are) – they’re people and have reasons for wanting – or just having – sex. And those reasons tell us a lot about the person you’re inhabiting.

My favourite sex scene? Actually, I don’t think it’s that erotic, but in the context of wonderfully drawn romance, my props go to Jane Fletcher and The Walls of Westernfort.

That is all.

Feeling the draft

Well, it’s been a rollercoaster. Hopes raised and dashed; nice words concealing harsh truths. And where has it left me? Exactly where I started.

But that’s life. That’s what people say. Riding high in September, shot down by slightly later in September. That’s how the song goes, right? So I’m back scouring the Writers’ and Artists’ for agents and publishers, and in the meantime trying to get on with some proper writing.

Except I’m kinda not, at the moment. I finished the first draft of New Gods last week and I’ve rewarded myself with a few days off. Not like me – I hate not writing. But it’s important to take a little time out, to taste something of the real world and remind yourself that there’s more to life. A couple of beer festivals and a first-aid course (not concurrent) have helped the time pass.

Shortly I’m going to fire up Australis and give it the going-over it badly needs, but in truth I’m putting it off a little. I’ve said before that the story’s not working; it’s hard to face up to one’s own failure and wrestle with demons of your own making. Much easier to push on with something new. And it was suggested that, as I’m not happy with Australis, it might be best to leave it on hiatus indefinitely. Unfortunately, New Gods is built on its back. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the second and third books are much closer linked than the first and second. To scrap Australis would be almost like scrapping New Gods, and that I ain’t gonna do.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Hopefully I’ll find Australis much more welcoming than I currently fear. It happens sometimes: the mind creates problems where there are none. And a little time will provide solutions to problems you never knew you had. It’s odd that authors can be the last people who know if what they’ve done is good or not, but it’s true.

In the meantime, I wondered if you, dear reader, might be interested to here a few reflections from the world of first-drafting. When I was coming up to the end of New Gods my partner asked if I was happy with what I’d done. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer; and that got me wondering…

A few points, in no particular order:

  • A bad opening is better than no opening. Getting started is perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel, and it’s much better to have something you can change than to sit wondering why everything you’re doing is crap
  • In fact, bad writing as a whole is better than no writing
  • Accept that you’re going to have to change things. Okay, you’re not human if you don’t re-read the occasional paragraph and decide the proverbial red pen is needed – but no-one (except possibly Mozart, and he’s in no position to give advice) plucks perfection from the air. Write words, move on, change later
  • Plots are difficult beasties. Make whatever notes you need to help you keep it all together. In terms of plot, New Gods is probably the most ambitious work I’ve attempted – I have about eight different threads to weave together. My technique? List the threads on a post-it note and wherever I get to a crux, glance down at it – remind myself what every character has been doing whilst I’ve been focusing on this one aspect.
  • That last point isn’t advice, by the way: find your own way of working. Make as many notes as you need. At this stage, no-one’s judging you except yourself
  • Balance isn’t going to come obviously and evenly. I‘m sure I’ve neglected Weng Fu, for example. I’m not sure if Lewinskiy has enough depth. All these characters need time to breath, but the first draft isn’t the time to worry about all this. Assure yourself that you know what you’re trying to do. When you’re done you can get feedback and revisit and rebalance
  • Ditto for pacing and rhythm
  • Words don’t matter at this stage (see previous blog entry the word myth)
  • I’m an embittered old fool who’s done this too many times to get overly excited about finishing a single stage in the process. You’re not. Finishing a draft, even if it needs massive work to make it readable, is a major achievement. Celebrate it. Tell people – go on Twitter and Facebook and indulge in a little boasting. Have a drink. But don’t show it to anyone. ‘Cause bucks to bullion it ain’t ready yet.
  • Characters grow and change over the course of writing a novel. You’ll have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with after you’ve finished than you did when you began. You’ll have inconsistencies, you’ll be able to sharpen the early depictions with your new knowledge and insight
  • Have fun. Be wild and ambitious. Be mad. Later drafts are serious hard work, but first drafts are your chance to go nuts, to put in wild sex parties and inappropriate off-colour humour. Fly kites, see where they drag you. Even if you have to excise wild digressions like tumours, the very process of writing helps sharpen your skills. Be free – you’ve nothing to lose save a little time

So am I happy with New Gods? Yes, yes I am. Not because I think it works as a story, but because the bones are there. I’ve got the elements pinned in place; and whilst a lot of surgery will be needed, whilst there’s a lot of writing which is simply bad, it’s there ready to be improved. Cuts will be made – whole sections might be scrapped as I send my wrecking-ball into the skyscraper of supposition. And all the ideas I didn’t consider will pop up in their place. It’s remarkable how easily a writer can overlook the obvious: ‘But why doesn’t Mr X just do this?’ ‘Erm…’

And that’s why getting feedback on your work is so important. But not after the first draft – please, not after the first draft. No point showing the world what a fool you are just yet.

Plenty of time for that later.

Humbug

After the giddyness of last week’s blog, a more sober entry this time. On Sunday night – which shows how hard editors work – I received my rejection from the publishing house who’d asked for the full manuscript of Night Shift.

This is no surprise. Some publishers only put out half a dozen books a year, and every author knows that they’re up against pretty stiff competition to be one of those releases. And the rejection itself was nicely phrased:  ‘I found the basic concept of a “base under siege” in the Antarctic in the near future to be very attractive. Unfortunately, I found myself always looking for the “monster” or something that gave a sense of the “other”. The thriller elements of the novel meant that the real antagonists were “off-stage” and, while I liked your main character, I kept on wanting more of a Science-Fiction slant – and I’m aware that is my own personal view.’

So, no hard feelings. And, intellectually, I know I’ve lost nothing. But every time you get your hopes up (no matter how much you tell yourself you won’t) and you get rejected, it’s a blow. And you start to ask yourself – where now? I’ve approached most of the agents who take SFF (as science-fiction & fantasy is referred to in the Twitterverse) in the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook and got nowhere. I’m running out of publishers too.

Just keep swimming…

As an aside, I know I’ve made mistakes with the marketing of my work. I sent it out too soon. My covering letter is constantly evolving. I fear I blew my chances with the publishers and agents I initially submitted to by being too hasty. Live and learn.

And now I fear that once again I’m going to be caught in a cross-genre trap. Melding sci-fi, murder mystery and psychological thriller seemed like a great idea when I was doing the actual writing, but how do I sell it? Can’t be crime – it’s set in the future. But is it sciency enough to get in with the SF crowd?

Grumble.

But let’s be positive. I’ve written a book that I’m sure is of publication standard. My cover letter/pitch is getting me attention (and I’ll blog about submissions at some point in the future). And all the while I’m learning, learning, learning – and also cracking on with new writing. New Gods should be finished this week, possibly even today. And when I say ‘finished’ I mean the first draft, which does not mean ‘finished’ at all. Not that I can do anything with it anyway: as the third in the trilogy, there’s no way of selling it on its own…

I realise that you may be saying ‘but if you’ve got all these problems with publication, why not go out and do it yourself?’ Well… not sure if I’ve got a good answer to that.  Go back through the archive to see my previous posts on self-publishing. The simple answer is that I still want to be published properly. But I’m not sure why – maybe just because I’m a people person. I like the idea of co-operating with editors and art designers and of having deep, involving conversations about books and business with professionals. And it all being about me.

My ego may be uglier than yours, but at least I know when it needs feeding.

You can see why writers get reputations for being a little strange, can’t you? Can you blame then for going a little crazy when, after years and years of being told you’re not good enough, they finally get their moment in the sun?

Anyway, back to the matter in hand. I’ve decided I’m going to keep on going ‘trad’ at least until I’m happy with Australis. If nothing’s happened by then I’ll sit down and have a good long think about bunging it out myself. In the meantime I’ll keep shoving out submissions, haranguing agents and publishers until one of them gives in and, in a desperate plea for mercy, agrees to take me on. My dad had a good attitude to this sort of thing: he says that whenever he got a rejection (he wrote for children, more history than fiction but with the occasional toe-dipping) he sent another three submissions on the same day. Kept him going, and certainly that sort of resolve is what I need right now.

Incidentally, does anyone know if it’s a good idea to resubmit work? How long should you leave it?

Prepare to be harassed once more, all you industry professionals!