Last Saturday I took part in this year’s Getting Published day, run here in London by the good people of the Writers’ Workshop. I did some book doctoring, and also ran a workshop on How To Write A Sentence (sorry about the tech failure, but maybe winging it with a handout isn’t so bad). It was a lot of fun. There were some really interesting projects (one of them was very exciting and right up my street), and some lovely people in attendance.
Even when people explained that the writing sample I’d read was perhaps a little undercooked/out-of-date/in need of more editing, this often led to a fruitful conversation. E.g., about NaNoWriMo novels usually being rushed and in need of greater emotional depth or layering. Or ways in which a novel with a rather conventional storyline could be given a more interesting twist if translated into a science fiction setting (especially relevant given that writer was a big science fiction fan). Or how, if you are an active and successful blogger, you can use your blogging voice and a blog/diary format to spice up the story you have to tell.
A handful of random observations about common ‘areas of improvement’ in writing, for what they’re worth:
* Fiction that sells (particularly genre fiction) usually needs a clear narrative focus that can be summed up with some sort of hook. This can be as much an editorial consideration as a commercial one.
* Writing usually needs an edge or some spark. It needs to work in the telling. A great high concept or plot twist is rarely enough. Consider how point of view, or withheld information ,or bringing forward a plot reveal, or some other trick of the trade can make the telling of your tale even more compelling.
* If ‘that’s coming in Chapter 2’ (or Chapter 3, or Chapter 12), at least give us something in Chapter 1 that makes us want to read Chapter 2 (and Chapter 3, and 12, right the way to the end).
* Or maybe just drop Chapter 1. You can always restore it for the uncut edition when you become an established bestseller.
* Comic writing is a tough one. It has to be funny. Funny is subjective. Good luck.
* Get some training in writing. You can learn, and you can improve your writing – whatever some experts say. (And here’s a great response to that, and maybe some Kingston University students should be asking for their money back.) More on that another time, perhaps, but thinking practically I’ve detailed elsewhere various ways in which you can construct your own course of studies in creative writing, and you could also, e.g., take a class such as the online course on self-editing your manuscript run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop.
* If you want to be published, think about your writing in terms of what you are giving to a reader.
* Don’t just change something because an agent/editor/friend/I told you to. Make changes that you believe in.
In any creative field the advice given by the professionals on a day like Saturday, which explores a rich range of possibilities, will inevitably present contradictions. We are there to help, and we usually offer suggestions or points of departures, not prescriptions or hard-and-fast solutions. As fellow book doctor Debi Alper says, you have to sift through the feedback and knowledge you gather, and then Accept, or Reject, or Adapt. Make it your own, make it new. Don’t be too literal, and don’t get too grasping after that book deal. But use your imagination.
Stun us with the powers of your imagination!