The Juror Weighs In: Take Two

February 11, 2010 at 1:24 am (Uncategorized)

Wouldn’t it make you sick? It certainly makes me sick; I still can’t believe yesterday’s post vanished. It was sooo deflating. Of course it couldn’t be a post that’s taken no time or effort to compose, of course it couldn’t be one of those posts where it’s all a bit of a lark, something I dash off without pausing for breath, tra la la la, never to be thought of again. Of course it couldn’t be one of those. I felt yesterday’s lost work so deeply because I put so much into it, and because it’s irrecoverable. The words are gone. The drive to commit them spent. I’m going to attempt to salvage something of it in today’s post, but that’s what this is, a salvage operation, and things that were whole – thoughts, sentences – are now in pieces. Shattered, in fact, which is exactly how I felt yesterday when I realised it was gone.

Oh well. Lesson learned: I am currently writing this in a Word document; I’ll copy and paste it into WordPress when it’s done. I should have been doing this all along. And at a certain point in my wallowing last night, I sort of slapped myself around and thought, “If this is your biggest problem, then what the fuck are you complaining about?” and that gave me some much-needed perspective on the exact scale of the crisis…

So let’s try again. Among this post will be the 222 words that weren’t obliterated, and the rest will just have to do.

Llew may have been excused from official jury duty again, but he was still my private juror on Saturday night, when he handed down his verdict on my manuscript after lengthy deliberations. It took a long time for him to wade through the evidence, and then he retired, with his notes, to consider the case.

Juries are supposed to reflect a reasonable balance of society, a good solid mix of citizens from all walks of life, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea for writers to view potential readers of their work in much the same way. For me the question goes something like this: it’s fine giving your writing to people whom you suspect think and read much as you do, but aren’t you almost more curious about those whom you know don’t? It tends to be the divergent views and totally unexpected responses and insights that fix my interest most in the numerous critiques I’ve received; those surprises open new pathways back into my own work, and I like exploring alternative routes. This reflects absolutely the way Llew and I like to travel: we always go great lengths to avoid backtracking; we hate retracing our steps. What’s down there, or there, or there, let’s go this way instead, let’s see where this leads. You see more that way. You stumble across unexpected things.

Of course, everyone’s different, and I know from experience that our ambles drive other people INSANE, but it’s a preference that goes some way to explaining why I like seeking the opinion of people whom I expect will engage with my work in a completely different way. You’ve got to keep your eye on the jury, right? You’ve got to make sure it’s really mixed.

I won’t spend any time here repeating the nice things Llew said about my manuscript. Writing out secondhand compliments to myself strikes me as more than a little weird. Weird and sad. There was positive feedback. And yet it’s also true that the whole time Llew was giving it, I was leaning forward, waiting, waiting for that word I knew was coming, waiting, waiting, waiting, until finally Llew paused and the moment was upon us, and I couldn’t wait anymore so I said it for him:

B-u-u-u-u-u-t? Because there’s a ‘but’ isn’t there? Just say it! But, but, but what?”

Llew paused and took a deep breath.

“But…”

Don’t you just hate that word?

I should say that Llew was very worried – excessively in my view – that he wasn’t qualified to give me feedback. What qualifications would he need, exactly? He’s an intelligent reader, a critical thinker and someone whose opinion I value highly – what else is there? Honest feedback from Llew promised to be important not least because he’s predominantly a reader of non-fiction. He likes reading when he learns something. He likes Dan Brown because there’s often cool, interesting bits of historical fact worked into the story. He loved Ransom because David Malouf revealed something not only about male relationships, but also about the Trojan War: definite Llew territory. Battles, armour, myths, ancient symbols, cryptic codes, secret societies; he loves all that. And yes, I’ve already suggested he would enjoy Wolf Hall.

So when Llew said, “But… I don’t feel like I’m learning anything about drawing, I don’t feel like I’m learning about what it’s like to be an illustrator,” I could well and instantly imagine that this counted as a significant negative. The first-person protagonist is not the illustrator, so this is something of an oversight on my part, because it’s not her occupation so it hasn’t been my chief concern, but illustration is certainly a key component of the story.

Llew’s the first of my volunteer readers to so clearly identify this fundamental gap in the landscape of the novel, and perhaps it’s because every other reader but one has been someone who writes fiction. Llew’s primary reading objective, on the other hand, is to learn something, not to admire the prose or get caught up in the story, so in reading what was there, he mainly located what was missing. And that’s invaluable to me.

I can do something about that problem; it’s a question of research. In truth, it’s something I should have already done. I need to know what kind of paper real illustrators use, what pencils and inks they prefer, whether they listen to music or work in silence, operate best in groups or alone, how long it takes, how much technology is involved, on and on it goes. I imagined my illustrator’s studio, and I have equipped him with certain materials, but I didn’t succeed in bringing that space to life for Llew. I didn’t convince him, and readers want convincing.  As a reader, I always want convincing, and I’m always ready and eager to be convinced. But the writer has to take me there. It’s not too much to ask.

The second problem Llew identified is much, much larger, and also relates back to this question of learning. My heart sank when he said it, because it’s uncannily similar to something that came up in my very first MS assessment over two years ago. I’ve applied myself ever since to fixing this flaw, and to have Llew say, virtually word for word, that it’s still alive and well, refusing to die, in fact, well – that was more deflating than I can say. My flesh prickled in recognition: this again. This again.

Fuck, not this again.

“As it went on, I never felt like she was learning from her mistakes,” Llew said.

I already know the effect of this. The reader loses interest, grows impatient – angry, even – before utterly losing sympathy for the character until finally the reader starts hoping, really fervently, for someone to please, please arrive to shoot this fucking pain in the arse and put us all out of our misery.

In cases such as this, the jury accepts the plea of self-defence.

I do know the source of this flaw if not the correction. I’ve been thinking about it since the juror’s verdict was delivered on Saturday, and I am sure I do now know the root of the crime. When I started writing this MS, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a clear story or even a clear character in mind – I just had a need to write. The resulting first draft was little more than a series of vignettes; some were based on my own experience, some not. It was highly episodic, but this was not an accident. I wanted my novel to be more like life, and life is more like that. But some of you have been visiting me here long enough to know that the question of the manuscript’s missing narrative arc has plagued me ever since.

Oh, how I’ve tried. I have worked so hard to fix this. I have jettisoned literally tens of thousands of words, invented fresh characters, explored entirely new themes, trailed after tantalising wisps of possible story. The MS is now unrecognisable from that first draft, and it’s gone places I’d never dreamed it would go in terms of its own imaginary space and the characters that inhabit it. It’s a better book now. But this problem remains.

I like to think I can fix it, but it may be a terminal condition. I truly don’t know yet; only time (oh god, more time!) and effort will tell. You’ll perhaps be relieved to know that MS #2 doesn’t have this problem, because its two main characters arrived in my mind before I’d written a word; they came first. With MS #1, I believe my recurrent, pervasive problem is this: I’ve continually tried to make the developing story fit into the writing I’ve already done.

I’ve never isolated those lately arrived elements of story – those characters and concerns that have emerged over these many drafts – and removed them from all the writing that was required to unearth them. I’ve never yet dusted them off, pulled them clear, cleaned the residue, dirt and blood from their faces and said, “Ah, now we’ve a start.”

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12 Comments

  1. Grad said,

    Well, it seems to me you have this under control without my advice (as if I could advise anyone about writing. Stick to what you know, is my motto.). But, I have seen something of your writing – even if only on this blog – and I find what you write worth reading. Llewie is probably your best and most honest critic. What he said rang true to you, and now you know what you need to do. Go do it, my dear, and give me something to use my Barnes and Noble gift certificate on!

  2. doctordi said,

    Thanks, Graddikins, although ‘in control’ is about the last thing I feel. I think the title of yesterday’s post extends to more than just the lost draft – I am stunned in general, stunned by the magnitude of work still left to do. Now it’s dawned on me that this is a problem that won’t go away until I make it, it makes my mouth go dry, because I think I’ll be left with a whole new book to write.

    If this were an episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye would be sitting by the side of my bed gently breaking it to me that they didn’t just take off my toe after all. Nope, they’ve had to amputate just about the whole lot. Actually all I’ve got left is my head, rolling around the bed like a big dumb marble.

    When does that certificate expire??!! I fear you’re going to be waiting a good long while yet! But thank you, dearest. You do know just the very best things to say. xx

  3. Grad said,

    Hopefully, it will expire before I do. Which reminds me…I really must check my shelf life sticker.

  4. doctordi said,

    I can’t ever see mine – I think it’s stuck to my bum…

  5. davidrochester said,

    You’ve got a good man there — it takes guts to be honest with a partner about the ups and downs of a creative endeavor. While I know how overwhelming it can be to realize, once again, that there’s still a lot of work to be done … what struck me most about this is what an incredible life partner Llew is for you — personally, intellectually, emotionally, and even creatively. To simultaneously love and give good critique … well, that’s a feat not many can pull off.

    • doctordi said,

      David, I know, I think he’s really, truly THE perfect guy for me. Absolutely my “soulmate” – which is of course another reason why I was so very interested in his feedback. We’re very honest with each other because we both believe honesty is an inseparable component of being supportive. But it can be tricky, of course all good communication still requires a great deal of care, and in this instance he really managed that difficulty exceptionally well.

  6. Pete said,

    I liked Llew’s critique. Now that you mention it, learning from a novel is a damn good idea. I’ve been thinking about photography and how I want to write about it and reading your comments on illustration made me realise how little I know about it. As for learning from mistakes, shew, that’s a toughie. Sounds like you’ve got a lot to work with. Will be cheering you on from here.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Pete. As cheerleaders go, I’m really glad and grateful that you’re apparently tireless!!! Yeah, I liked Llew’s critique too, and as I reflect on this more and more, I realise how much I too like learning factual things while I’m reading fictional stories. Photography would be a good one too. Just those real elements, embedded in the story to give it the authenticity any novel undoubtedly needs.

  7. piereth said,

    Does she need to learn from her mistakes? Is it relevant to the plot?

    Despite the fear that the reader will lose interest or sympathy with the character, I wonder if you need to be so concerned. If her eventual apotheosis as a character depends on her learning new tricks, well, ok. But if it’s indelibly part of who she is, then you ought not to change her to please the crowd.

    Llew is streets ahead of me cause he’s actually read the manuscript – but I like characters to be who they are and for me to try to keep up! The character is alive and moving through her own story, not trying to make me like her. The character should be unconscious of the reader, in many respects.

    Just my four penn’orth, and good luck with your changes – is your character you, or like you? Are you writing her from what you know? I find this whole creative and editorial process absolutely fascinating, and I want to thank you for letting us all watch you go through it.

    xxx

    • doctordi said,

      Yeah, thanks Piereth – I’m definitely only concerned about this because it is important for the character and the story; I think the structural changes in the last draft stuffed up some of the ways in which I’d achieved a better balance between her mistakes and triumphs. I think if I tried to write her and this novel to please others, I would be in a whole lot of trouble, but that’s not what’s going on here. The entire time – like from day one – the one thing I did know was that it’s about prevailing, so I have to get this right.

      No, she’s not me. But she’s like me – more than anything because she undeniably *sounds* like me, in terms of the narrative voice – but no, I’ve never done or experienced many of the things she goes through, and I have made very different decisions throughout my life. I guess that’s partly how things started taking shape, in that in the beginning she represented an alternative life of mine, those paths not taken when multiple paths appeared. But more and more she breaks away from any traceable connection to me or my reality, she’s got her own stuff going on now that has nothing to do with any crossroads throughout my own life.

      It is really my honest pleasure sharing all of this with you guys, I’d have despaired long ago were it not for your support, interest and encouragement. Letting you watch? Hardly! I’m so hugely grateful any of you give a shit.

  8. litlove said,

    Intriguing commentary from Llew. I’d let it all sink in a bit first before you do anything. Your first instincts may not be the ones that you would go with when you’ve had a chance to think it through. Remember that every reader will come to your book with their own particular preferences. Some one else may read thinking: I hate these trite moral journeys authors force their characters to go on, it’s so untrue to life. All I’d suggest is that you decide what you really want your story to be, and make that as clear and as vivid as you possibly can. This is not to say that Llew’s critique is wrong, merely to suggest that you only take from it what you want. That’s every writer’s prerogative.

  9. doctordi said,

    Thanks, LL, I agree, and I’m definitely planning to let it sit until the next Darkling writing retreat.

    There’s a whole long list of things I’m completely rubbish at in this process, but one thing I do feel competent in is exactly as you say, taking what I want from any given critique. I always follow my gut, I have a very intuitive filter for feedback. I know when I want to take something on and when I respectfully disagree, and I back myself absolutely on the final decision because it is mine and mine alone. Writers have to back themselves on this, I really believe they must, but I also think writers need to be open to constructive criticism, and I am always open to a good idea. I think most writers know them when they hear them, and personally I’ll grab ’em and run.

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