My short story On Valentine’s Day appears in the September Quadrant available now in newsagents and good book stores. It took two years of rewriting before the story was accepted for publication. In Friday’s mail I received my contributor’s copy and a generous cheque. My name is on the front cover. Always a thrill. It took many years of my stories appearing in Quadrant before my name made it to the cover 🙂
The first paragraph of On Valentine’s Day reads:
You had to get out of them occasionally, those Australian country towns with the funny names: Wagga Wagga, Wee Waa, Woy Woy. Once, after a devastating week wiped out more than $4 trillion from the global stock exchanges, one of the local papers boasted a banner headline: WAGGA WAGGA WOMAN WEDS WOY WOY TOY BOY. You had to make an effort from time to time to get out, even if it meant flying all the way across the Nullarbor to go to a Valentine’s Day party.
My critique group will recognize the first paragraph. We meet weekly at the New South Wales Writers Centre to give and receive feedback on two pages of our writing. I brought sections of the 4,000 word On Valentine’s Day many times to the Women Writers Network at the Centre. Two dear friends also read the story and commented. Very much appreciated. More than once my two friends read the whole of On Valentine’s Day and offered constructive criticism. I couldn’t have got the story to a publishable standard without my writing group and my two friends. Lucky me.
Quadrant is a highly regarded literary magazine: http://quadrant.org.au/september-quadrant-now-sale/
I can’t emphasize enough how useful it is to have a weekly writing group. I work to that deadline. We take a couple of pages each and have 12 minutes to read and receive feedback. I think of it as ‘off Broadway’ and ‘on Broadway’. Famous comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen say they test their material out on an ‘off Broadway’ audience before performing ‘on Broadway’.
What about you? Are you in a writing group? Do you find it useful?
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.
Yesterday afternoon 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 was because we were 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.
Yesterday, 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 stuff.
When I used to teach classes to beginning writers, it was good. It forced me to think back to the beginning to when I first put pen to paper. The thing is, every time we sit down and face the blank page, it’s the same. Every time we start a new piece of writing, we doubt that we can do it again. A new voyage with no map. As people say, it is like setting off towards the horizon, alone in a boat, and the only thing another person can do to help us, is to wave from the shore.
So when I used to teach a creative writing class, I had to tell them the story all over again and remember that this is the first time my students are hearing it. I had to start at the very beginning.
First up, there’s the pen on the page. You need this intimate relationship between the pen and the paper to get the flow of words happening. A fountain pen is best because the ink flows quickly. We think faster than we can write. It needs to be a “fat” pen to avoid RSI.