When I first started writing fiction I read a lot of books about how to write. How to write attention grabbing stories. How to engage emotionally with the reader. How to keep the story moving forward. The inciting incident. The danger of excessive adverbs. Why you should show instead of tell.
I’ve read widely enough to have a fairly well developed sense of taste. I know when something’s really good. I know when something’s bad. I know when it isn’t quite working.
The difficult part though is knowing what needs to change, and how to change it.
Reading the ideas of great writers and teachers definitely helped. What they said made sense. Not that there is a fixed way to do anything, but it gave me a sense of the basics and a foundation to build on.
The other route to educating myself was to start critiquing other writers at a similar level to me, and getting my own efforts critiqued by them.
This improved my writing by leaps and bounds. Not only by getting feedback on my work (it can be quite the eye-opener when you realise the discrepancy between what you meant by something and how it was taken), but also by seeing how others do it and which parts have an impact and which parts leave me cold.
In fact, I would say reading the WIPs of others has been the greatest teacher I’ve had.
Initially I would stick to technical comments, grammar, better sense of setting, use of the five senses and so on. All of which are definitely useful. But I was reluctant to say whether I thought the idea was any good, if it held my attention or if I glazed over.
I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, and in any case what difference did it make what I thought? My thinking was: Look at what they’re trying to do, help them do it better. Keep personal taste out of it.
But as all of these ideas about good writing became more ingrained inside me, a strange thing happened. I began to notice that a lot of the books that were successful did not necessarily follow these tenets.
Even books by writers famous for their thoughts on the writing process (Stephen King and Elmore Leonard both spring to mind) departed from their own advice in their own novels.
In addition, many of the books that were selling like gangbusters seemed to be be very poorly written and edited.
These were books repped by big agencies, distributed by major publishers. I’m not talking about some self-published hit which was then taken up as a money-making exercise. I’m talking about authors that passed all the strict requirements of agents, went through many drafts, got accepted by a big six publisher, were edited by the best in the business, and then released to the public.
And they were awful. But hugely successful.
What did it mean? How could it be so important to follow all these guidelines and jump through so many hoops when that didn’t seem to be important to the book buying public at all?
At this point my own writing was getting a fairly positive response from those who read it. Polished, formatted correctly, clear goals and characters. But something wasn’t quite working or connecting.
I began to realise that as I was afraid to tell people what I really thought about their work, so they were afraid to tell me. So I changed my approach. I started to tell people exactly where I lost interest, what I didn’t like, where I thought it felt like something was missing.
As you might imagine, some people did not take kindly to this. But some did. They were relieved to finally have someone treat their work seriously and hold it up to a standard they’d actually like to reach.
And they also took it as permission to tell me what they really thought about my work and exactly which were the boring bits.
And it was awesome. My writing really started to come together.
That’s not to say all the technical stuff wasn’t useful or important, but I had my priorities the wrong way round. First the story has to be something worth telling a story about.
I know, hardly a staggering insight, but it's not just one of the things that needs to be in place, it's THE thing.
What that means in practice will vary from person to person, but it’s still the place to start. Everything else can be fixed or tweaked.
And it really helps to have someone just tell you if it grabbed them or not. Obviously it’s just an opinion, and different people will tell you different things, but developing a sense of judgement about how others respond is an integral part of the process too.
Does it still sting when someone tells me my new chapter seems superfluous? Of course. But I let it go. I remember how frustrating it was when everyone was telling me everything was great and I was getting nowhere. And then I write something better.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet.
Check out my latest stories for free on Wattpad.