Writer’s woe

*Updated and edited for clarity*

I have decided, with a typically male lack of need for scientific, or indeed, observable, corroboration, that I have writer’s woe. It’s a bit like tennis elbow, or runner’s knee, but much more French.

In the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about, listening it and reading around a lot of professional advice on how to get published. In particular:

  • The LBF Masterclass that I’ve already posted about – although the more I think about the £40 plus travel, for two hours of informed, but ultimately neither specific nor novel (no pun intended, I already own @caroleagent’s excellent From Pitch to Publication) advice, I do think this was incorrectedly advertised as a ‘class’ and consequently overpriced;
  • The slightly odd experience of winning a place (via twitter) on the current London Writers Club Fiction Masterclass – on the strength of my revised pitch for the novel, itself revised because of something Carole Blake said at the event I’ve just been slightly sniffy about, so in some ways I’m £57 up on masterclasses at present. Strictly speaking I think this is the first thing I’ve ‘won’ as an adult fiction writer.
  • Meeting one of my heroes – Ian Rankin – nutching about the quality of Highland Park and on writing to instrumental music. I listened to him being interviewed at LBF (and then repeat the same anecdotes on a comics panel later that day) – and I thought ‘here’s a man who doesn’t care what his hair looks like, drinking a free pint, telling stories about himself and the people in his head.’ Yes, dear reader, there was a wistful sigh at this point.

The LWC Masterclass is a series of tele-conferences – one a week. Initially, this felt a bit odd, as it reminded me a little of my old job – but Miranda Glover’s lecture was delivered in such soothing and polished tones that it was occasionally difficult to remember I had a handset on loudspeaker, and that I wasn’t listening to the radio. It’s a testament to the amount she packed in to her initial slot that I filled several pages with notes – she covered a lot of the basics, but also went into quite specific details as to process and her technique, using examples from her own career to back up her points.

I’m always impressed by authors who give something back – Glover not only runs a writing group, she has also set up her own Press. I was really impressed by the way she addressed the Q&A bit, being both highly specific and making people feel that she was interested in their work, their issues and genuinely trying to help. Not all authors I’ve met or paid to hear have been so magnanimous.

More importantly, perhaps, is that unlike so many other bits of advice I’ve read/paid for/ listened to or simply been on the end of in the pub/facebook/twitter (just as everyone thinks that they have a book in them, lots of people also have an opinion as to what you should be writing, or how, I’ve discovered), I put some of what she said into immediate action. I was also helped by something Jacqueline Burns, who co-runs LWC, said – suggesting I approach my imminent readthrough of the novel with one very specific question in mind (doing several if needs be).

Sadly, the net result has been writer’s woe. I currently hate – ooh, 90% – of the novel, I’d say. Having put it in a drawer for a few months, I’ve since discovered that the lead character spends most of his time drunk, grasping people’s shoulders, tracing outlines of text or pictures. Pigeons always bob. Computers always mechanically wheeze into action. And various things are constipated. It is the fate of all artists to struggle with their creations, I suppose.

And Glover again came up trumps for this scenario – declaring that the drafting process was only finished when she felt ready to move on to another story. When there was nothing left.

Without mentioning the shape-shifting dogs, random cliff-hangers, and the very obviously episodic way I’d written it. The embarrassment is that I really thought this was good enough to go out to people – and it so obviously isn’t, now that I read it as a whole, on paper, and without the rose-tinted glasses of finishing the damn thing.

Because I haven’t. Finished, that is. As she said, the end of the first draft is a momentous thing, but it’s only the start of the next round of the process.

So much of all of this process stuff is subjective – when it makes sense, it just makes sense… others will disagree wildly. One of my – perhaps male, perhaps not – criticisms of a lot of seminars I’ve attended, creative writing and otherwise, is that people aren’t specific or detailed enough.  The initial talk / lecture therefore gave me plenty of material to chew over, and made me feel that Miranda was genuinely interested in improving the writing / process of others.

In particular I loved three things she said which I hope I captured correctly:

– writing a novel is a commitment, like joining a gym. (My extension – I go through regular gym-fixations, but equally months of gym-avoidance. I need to make the most of my short-term focus). Because:
– you have a relationship with your novel (and within the novel with your characters and your readers); which in turn explains:
– you’re finished only when you feel ready to move on (again, my analogy – I’d fallen out of love with my novel, but the relationship is worth saving).

I liked that she wasn’t afraid to give advice, could back things up from personal experience, and did so with grace and enthusiasm. I’ve yet to meet or listen to an author that I haven’t learnt *something* from, but it’s rare to get so much in such a short space of time – without feeling patronised or naive or ‘why the hell didn’t I take this more seriously earlier’.

The next class (Emma Rose, out of sequence) was on the publishing process, something that I am sadly already intimate with, having started my grown up career as the web ‘guy’ for a major academic publisher. Funny how little has changed over the years, and how much the textbook and ELT markets (ruthless, in all senses) led the way. Little did I imagine that I would ever picture myself as an academic monograph, waiting to be found and filed in some dusty library somewhere.

And tonight I am attending the LWC Live event with Lucy Luck. Let’s see how grim the market really is for ‘London commuter belt Iain Banks-esque family dramas’.

Woe, indeed.

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