CRITIQUE

Have a read of the second addition to our weekly article section. This time round our web editor James King suggests that, in the world of the aspiring writer, failure is king.

The folly of a reticent writer.

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Billy-Ray looked the part. Now he just had to think of something to write about.

“HONESTLY JAMIE, WRITING ABOUT WRITING IS OVERLY INTROSPECTIVE.” He’d said politely, and watched me for a response.
I bobbed my head as though I knew what he was getting at. “But there’s nothing wrong with introspection. It can be quite therapeutic, can’t it?” I asked carefully.
“Not if you’re sharing it as entertaining fiction.”
I folded the 400-word story and slipped it into my back pocket.

Two years later (today in fact) I came across the story when clearing out a drawer; lost beneath expired hay-fever tablets, scratched sunglasses, empty packets of Rizla and copies of old work-do Go-Karting lap-times. I read it: the story wasn’t gripping, the characters (including myself) weren’t compelling, and the writing certainly fell short of wonderful. I suppose that doesn’t serve as the best case study to illustrate what I’m about to propose because no one but me read it, and therefore no one actually critiqued it, but I sought out an opinion from someone I respected and I got an honest answer. Because what really benefits the amateur writer is his or her willingness to be open to criticism and, perhaps even more so, alternative ways of working.

The most common practice for those starting out is to hide their work away from the bullies who threaten its confidence and stem its potential. It’s because that work is a little piece of you, maybe even the most vulnerable piece, and more than anything it wants to be appreciated, or even praised. Or perhaps it just wants someone to tell it it’s not worthless, and does have merit. We learn more in failure than we do in success, which is an apt observation when applied to creative writing.

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Billy-Ray’s mother called his work “trash.” A fair assessment.

What I’ve come across in my own writing is that, unless I am supremely confident that what I’ve written is gripping, compelling and wonderful, I tend to force the words onto the page in the hope that they’ll reveal a completed picture. And it’s not until someone else reads it that I’ll know just how much rewriting it needs. I’ve got chapters of that kind of material: chapters I’ve assigned to character development and historical context with a forced narrative to drive such parts of the story along. Some, when I reread them a month later, blend in seamlessly with my more imaginative efforts, while others stick out like they’ve been written by a sixteen year old schoolboy inspired to write a crime story based on his first experience of James Patterson. But self-analysis can only take you so far. How can I truly judge the merit of my own opinion unless I’ve measured it up against that of others?

This is where the friends come in. Of course you must be selective in your recruitment; most mothers don’t make good critics. My ever-encouraging mum, more than anything else, just enjoys the fact that I’m applying myself to something interesting, so will flash a broad grin at anything I put in front of her and declare it to be “absolutely lovely”. At a stage in my teenage years it occurred to me that she wasn’t exactly challenging me to improve my writing, so I demanded criticism from her. Rather forced, I think she said something negative about my meat-cleaver-wielding butcher character, to which I replied with something in the tune of “you don’t know what you’re talking about”, before purposefully turning on my heels and stomping upstairs to my room. So, at least, my mother is out. Spouses, partners, boyfriends and girlfriends are probably unadvisable as well, though really it all depends on the type of relationship you share. Someone who has encountered similar issues in their own critical searches would be ideal. Someone who writes, someone who has put their own unsolicited work out there for all of its weaknesses to be judged. For me it was about finding a number of people who are like-minded and susceptible to my encouragement for honesty in their reviews. A brief note on the project, and a warning of an unpleasant reaction on my part in the guise of a bad joke can also go some way to diffusing any qualms they may have about handing out criticism.

Being overly descriptive, and failing to recognise that shorter and sharper sentences would serve well in moments of tension and excitement. Overusing a recognisable tick to help a character standout more in a scene. Relying too heavily on successful and well-rounded characters and letting the underdeveloped aunt Bessie go on as such.

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Turns out the guy Billy-Ray was really trying to be was actually that good looking guy from Hollywood who took a few tablets in that okayish film.

The plot is there, I’m sure of it. I’ve even got some decent characters that can carry the story along, and most of the other ingredients too. It’s a story I want to write, one that I’m enjoying developing, and it’s just about getting the right pieces in the right places, then dusting it off and making it presentable. A helping hand will go a long way in shaping my story; in making it more suitable for my targeted demographic, in breaking me out of my tunnel vision. And that is perhaps the greatest gift criticism can give you: a new way to approach your work. Take a step back, read some more, study the classics, study the demographic, remember what you had learned before you started your project, and then go back in refreshed and refocused. A different approach to dialogue can reign in those meandering scenes that slip in and out of relevance. A new perspective on a character can teach you that one significant incident might tell you more about them than pages of history and context ever will.

Read and be read. It’s quite a gross oversimplification. William Faulkner can summarise: “Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out.”

So what if it is just absolute shit? (This is me now, not William Faulkner.) The least you’ve got out of it is a lesson, and now you’ll be able to add a few more lines to the columns of mistakes that you won’t be making in your next work.

By James King

To read more of James’s writing visit his blog at writingwithrunning.wordpress.com

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