New Writers Beware - or at least be very, very careful...by Catherine Czerkawska
|The bird that almost didn't fly.|
Even then, I was an experienced and well published/produced writer with a good track record. And although I'm always very happy indeed to talk about my writing, what inspires it, how I feel about it, how I work, and so on, I made it clear that I didn't want detailed editorial feedback. It had already been through the editorial process several times. I was putting the finished book out there a chapter at a time, as a gift to potential readers. This was a few years ago and eBook publishing wasn't yet the option it has since become. But I wasn't looking for helpful advice about my writing style.
With hindsight, I must have been very naive (stupid, somebody rightly said!) Because people immediately started to tell me what I was doing wrong and what I should definitely be doing to remedy it. After a couple of chapters, I deleted the whole thing and filed it away until the advent of Kindle Direct Publishing gave me another, better option.
The book had needed work, and I had already sought editorial help from somebody whose judgement I respected, and who asked the right questions - lots of them - rather than telling me in minute detail what I 'ought to be doing.' The right questions had made me think again, made me question and revise the novel - but I did this on my own terms and in my own voice. It was still a mid-list novel, so it was always going to be hard for it to find a conventional publisher, but I'm satisfied with the book, (or as satisfied as any writer ever is) and a number of readers seem to agree with me. Of course not everyone will like it, but that's fair enough. Why should they? Not everyone likes every kind of music, or every kind of art. But isn't it odd how people who would never tell a professional: 'you should have composed your piece of music like this', or 'you should have painted your picture like that', will still say 'you should have written it in this way.' An experienced artist friend has just confirmed what I have always suspected - that they would get a very dusty answer if they did!
It's because hardly anyone can write music, only some people can paint - but almost everyone thinks he or she can write. I heard a newsreader say, only the other day, that he was going to write 'the novel' when he retired, and couldn't help muttering at the television, 'yes, and how about me becoming a newsreader then?'
I'm slightly phased by the number of sites I have come across where people with few credentials presume to tell other people what is wrong with their work, and how they ought to change it.The burgeoning of Kindle publishing has only encouraged more of them.
Most experienced writers are wary of doing this because we know that there are ways of going about it which don't damage the new writer's search for his or her own voice.
Don't get me wrong. We all need help. We all need an external perspective on our work. In fact there are some wildly successful writers who would clearly benefit from the services of an editor, but who have become too successful for their own good. Nobody dares to point out that the king is semi-naked.
But I've news for new writers: words of wisdom from somebody who has been through the mill. There is no easy way. There are no shortcuts. You have to try, try and try again and any help has to come from somebody with proven credentials, with experience, and perhaps most of all, somebody who understands what you as a writer are trying to achieve. Otherwise, it's like trying to learn brain surgery from a plumber. Or, for that matter, plumbing from a brain surgeon.
If you have to pay for this kind of advice - and you probably will - then so be it. It's hard work, it's far from casual, it's a very definite skill, and altogether, a good editor is a pearl of great price.
On the other hand, a string of contradictory and confusing comments, however well meaning, is worse than useless. If you ignore them you'll still feel depressed by the criticism. If you try to take them all on board, your work will eventually implode under the strain and you'll be left with nothing but a heap of miscellaneous words and ideas.
By all means, go online to find an editor or editorial help - but do be prepared to check credentials. There are reputable editorial agencies out there where you can get feedback on your manuscript for a fee. Some of AE's own authors offer this service, and they know what they are talking about, but you'll find others, some of them recommended by respected writers' organisations. Word of mouth is probably best of all. If an editor comes recommended by a writer whose work you admire - or possibly is a writer whose work you admire - you can be pretty sure that they'll offer a good service. I'm not touting for business here, because this isn't something I do now - although I have done it in the past, primarily for the Open College of the Arts but also as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow, and had the satisfaction of seeing some of my students through to publication or production.
But I reckon writers ought to be wary of those ad hoc feedback sites where everyone weighs in with an opinion. You may disagree with me, and if you do, I hope you comment below because this is something we should at least be discussing.
I've tutored writing groups in the past, and although people are happy to read out work, and accept feedback within a real group, this generally involves small numbers in a sheltered environment where a certain amount of trust has been established. Even then, as a tutor or group leader, you have to be careful to organise things so that the advice offered doesn't become too prescriptive. All groups tend to have a few forceful personalities who will try to impose their opinions on the others. But sometimes, the best writers are also the most unsure. The trick is almost always to ask questions rather than offer solutions, thus allowing the writer to find the answers for him or herself.
I think I first became aware of this when I was writing for radio. With radio drama, studio time is always at a premium, and the writer is generally expected to be at hand to make any changes and adjustments to the script. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the work, loved the challenge of rewriting on the hoof. But it struck me that most of the time, where a director or an actor might query lines, even when they offered an alternative, that was never what I went with. I would make changes, but they would invariably be my changes. The few occasions when somebody made definite changes were disastrous. And it wasn't just me who thought so. The critical consensus agreed with me. As time passed, and I found myself working with people who had become close friends, that changed a little. Some actors, some directors, I knew I could trust implicitly to get it right. We were on the same wavelength. And that was even more of a pleasure.
Most of all, you have to read. It never fails to astonish me how many so called 'creative writing' students or aspiring writers don't read widely. Find out those writers whose work you love and read it intensively and mindfully. Some of it will rub off. A year's good reading is probably worth ten years of editorial help.
But the essential trust had to be established first. Trust in a writer to inform you. Trust in an editor to ask the right questions. You can't have that kind of trust with the whole world. New writers should always beware of strangers.
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or my blogs at http://wordarts.blogspot.com and http://theamberheart.blogspot.com
I'm always happy to hear from my readers - honestly.