I read thirty samples and met thirty writers during book doctor sessions at the weekend’s Festival of Writing in York. Some people were at the start of their adventures in writing, and some writing was further along and ready for some shaping, or at least focused and encouraging direction. Certain pieces just needed a few tweaks before testing out on agents or editors and finding someone who likes – loves – their work. And one submission was raring to go, and in fact came from an author who already had an agent by the time of the festival (yay! and I could see why).
Everyone was enthusiastic, and everyone was open to the idea of improvement (even the one with an agent already). It was great to meet and greet and discuss various ways forward.
Some of the most common ‘areas of improvement’ (or if we are calling spades spades, ‘weaknesses’), plus other observations:
* Overwriting: overdescription, overcooked prose, clutter, too much explanation that was not really needed – sometimes just pruning one word makes a hell of a difference.
* Pacing: see overwriting above, but also, above the level of the sentence, the ordering and timing of aspects of content.
* A lack of mood or atmosphere, or a lack of personality within the voice and narration. Maybe it is a bit too overwritten, or flat …
* Or too linear: And then … And then … And then … Every little detail is not usually necessary. Single out what’s important, and make sure it’s not drowned out.
* Info dumps, aka expository lumps, which can feel stilted or clunky.
* An unpersuasive voice or point of view, or more changes in POV than a few pages can easily handle. Let us rest in the world of that character, and really experience it.
* An over-reliance on foreground action. Of course we prefer Showing over Telling (usually), but do invite some depth and perspective into your work as well. A novel is not a film, and sometimes you can pull back the focus and use a bit of narration, i.e., Tell Me A Story. Voice helps too.
* A lack of storytelling craft and technique in general. A story concept might be fine, but the telling lacks an edge. Gone Girl is a super, fast-paced novel; its concept is simple and even unexceptional (a missing spouse), but what’s important is its telling: compelling characters, clever use of point of view, well-crafted sentences that help in building tension.
* I sometimes wanted more of an emotional connection with a character.
* I sometimes wanted more texture in the writing, e.g., specific and concrete details of setting or character, maybe delivered in specific and concrete verbs and nouns, or through action rather than description, or done with greater authority.
* A number of books opened with people waking up, sometimes from dreams. Which is fine, because sometimes books need to. But when maybe a quarter of the writing samples opened with a scene of this sort, I’m thinking this might be a bit of a cliché. Is there something fresh and unique from your world that you can give us?
* Quite often, when I was discussing some lack, I was told it was ‘coming in the next chapter’. Hmm. Maybe think about starting with the next chapter. Or at the very least foreshadowing it somehow. Just think about it (yes, go on, really open your heart to the idea).
* If more than a couple of readers are halted by the same thing, really think about some sort of change (again, just thinking – you might decide not to act on the thinking in the end).
* If a couple of readers have contradictory responses to something, rejoice! For this might be a real crux in the work. Pause a while with/at that point, and consider what else might need doing here; there’s clearly something happening there – can you do more with it, go deeper?!
* Page numbers lacking. I had to count and pencil in page numbers on some scripts in order to have page numbers to refer to on the feedback form. I’d not have done this if the scripts had been longer. Make life (work) easy for your readers. Nag nag (that really is a nag – and if you don’t know how to use autopagination, check it out).
* Take time to integrate feedback. And if it ain’t broke after all, don’t fix it.
* Don’t run before you can walk. A very wise writing teacher once had a conversation with me about the idea of ‘pride’. It was done in the most abstract of ways, but the P word was mentioned, and by the time I got home and licked my wounds I knew exactly what she meant, and exactly where my overextensions weren’t working.
* But going back to walking and running: have faith that with the right approach you too can be Mo Farah. Or maybe a good marathon-finisher. Or even just have the skill and energy you need to make it to Waitrose to buy lunch.
Before I go: sometimes I hear people say during or afterwards that they do not ‘agree’ with things I was saying in my feedback, and then I wonder 1. if I’d been too heavy-handed in my feedback, or 2. if they were really listening.
Points made are rarely matters of agreement or disagreement (unless I’m talking about the spelling of my name – and even then I’m usually forgiving, as it’s a funny name with a funny spelling, and hey, none of us are perfect). Points made by myself are not usually solutions, but surfacing issues in the writing, and often there might be something there that needs a bit more mulling.
Yes, sometimes things are misread, or misunderstood – and sometimes the reason for that is lurking, and needs addressing. Feedback I offer is usually a matter of impressions and suggestions, and things to think about or try out. And sometimes we need a little pushing … Don’t be afraid to push back, either – the process of pushing often gets you where you need to be.