Yesterday, in the Saturday-afternoon feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing. We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work. That is because we are all in it together. Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open-hearted acceptance. Everything you put on the page is acceptable.
Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’ But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring? Don’t give up your day job? It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing. It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is. All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.
The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.
As we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:
‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’
First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece. Where did the writing come alive? ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said. ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’ It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it. ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.
Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness. It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page. Keep writing. Something new will come up. You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring sentences.
I hope these suggestions are useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.
Below is the first page of my new novel-in-progress. I jump cut from scene to scene. Hopefully this technique is not too confusing. Have you read other novels that use this structure? At the front of the book I’ll be adding a Character List and a Character Map to show how the major characters are connected, to help with the confusion issue. The working title is ‘Missing in Cooper Park’.
The tennis courts at Cooper Park were flooded in the night. One and a half hours of non-stop rain and hail caused a landslide down through the gully. Gypsy, a Golden Labrador came along and splashed in fast-flowing Cooper Creek. Later, the sight of the ruined courts covered in mud and stones, leaves and tree branches like a murky swamp was to shatter Steve’s morning.
Kingston (Carol’s ex) turned up again on the morning after the storm. He stood on the doorstep looking unbalanced. His cigarette was burned down to the filter. His unshaven face was flecked with grey and white. Carol wouldn’t let him in. She’d taken his key back.
Carol didn’t tell Steve about Kingston being back but Steve told Carol about the flooded tennis courts.
The moon was high in the darkening dusk as Rosemary puffed past the tennis courts at Cooper Park and continued on up through the steep incline of the gulley swinging a curved stick with tennis ball.
‘Gypsy,’ cried Rosemary. ‘Gypsy, Gypsy, Gypsy! Come here.’
Rosemary had purchased Gypsy after overcoming her husband’s resistance. They were still in mourning over having to put Buddy down.
She’d promised Philip she’d make sure Gypsy didn’t jump up on the newly-cleaned couches.
He knew Rosemary slipped into depression if she didn’t have a dog to love, even though she was the mother of three children.
They’d bought a puppy who looked just like a baby Buddy. Rosemary would have liked to say it was Buddy re-incarnated but didn’t. This was precisely the kind of talk that made her husband go red with anger.
It was he who had named the Golden Labrador Gypsy. The day would soon be night.
Steve lay in bed waiting for Carol’s alarm to go off. Outside someone had slept all night in a car.
‘Don’t let anyone in,’ demanded Carol in a dream.
Every once in a while, when I’m scratching around for something new to write, I make a list of the things I obsess about. Thankfully, some of them change over time, but there are always new ones to fill the gap.
It’s true that writers write about what they think about most of the time. Things they can’t let go: things that plague them; stories they carry around in their heads waiting to be heard.
Sometimes I get my creative writing groups to make a list of the topics they obsess about so they can see what occupies their thoughts during their waking hours. After you write them down, you can use them for spontaneous writing before crafting them into stories. They have much power. This is where the juice is for writing. They are probably driving your life, whether you realise it or not, so you may as well use them rather than waste your energy trying to push them away. And you can come back to them repeatedly.
One of the things I’m always obsessing about is relationships: relationships in families, relationships with friends, relationships with lovers. That’s what I tend to write about. I think to myself, Why not? Rather than repress my obsessions, explore them, go with the flow. And life is always changing, so new material keeps presenting itself.
We are driven by our passions. Am I the only one who thinks this? For me these compulsions contain the life force energy. We can exploit that energy. The same with writing itself. I’m always thinking and worrying about my writing, even when I’m on holidays. I’m driven.
Not all compulsions are a bad thing. Get involved with your passions, read about them, talk to other people about them and then they will naturally become ‘grist for the mill’.
What about you? Do you find yourself writing about the same topics over and over again?