Friday, 4 September 2009

Grow your own little demon

Socrates claimed he had a little demon on his shoulder, whispering in his ear, telling him what to do. No, he hadn't been reading too much Philip Pulman. Nor been watching too many horror films. It was actually the birth of the idea of conscience, that little voice we know we need to listen to that so often gets obscured by all the flatteries and temptations of life.

As human beings we all need a decent conscience. As writers, the Bohemina in us likes to think we can do without. But we all need to cultivate one of those little demons, the quiet voice of the inner editor.

When I first took the plunge and joined writers' critiquing site Youwriteon, about the only thing I knew was that as a writer I needed a thick skin. And the way to show you have a thick skin is to listen to criticism - and you show you are listening by following advice. Besides, what did I know!

Result? What most cynical writers I know call editing by committee/consensus. Only there never is a consensus, so you end up with draft after draft after draft. And eventually you end up with...

You've got it. A headache. And a bit of a mess. And probably writers' block because you're terrified what'll come next.

After a few months, and some success on Youwriteon, I joined what I still think is the best critiquing site in cyberspace, The Bookshed. I was cock-a-hoop because you ahve to apply to get in. And with cock-a-hoopness come cockiness. I went in looking for a fight (as much as a big soft hippy ever goes "looking for a fight"), and my fight of chioce was "the rules". We all know that one, right? From "you need to know the rules to break them" to "rules are there to stifle creativity". So I'd take comments about my plotting and structure. And I'd do the opposite. And I'd rail about the stupidity of rules.

And the result? Well, at the time I thought of it as a postmodern masterpiece. Others saw the 6 narrator, no timeline "thing" that was the first draft of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall as "a bit confused." And guess who was right!

And then, when I got my critique from Harper Collins after successfully getting to "The Editor's Desk" on Authonomy, something happened. I read the crit through, and thought "you know what, that's right." (the editor had very politely pointed out a "certain amount" of introspection on my protag's behalf). And I looked back at other critiques, and started thinking, "that's right" and "that isn't".

I'm a long way from honing "my voice" or, indeed, actually knowing the first thing about this writing business. But I've started hearing that little voice inside every time someone says something about my work. I'm sure it's mostly wrong at the moment, but I hear it and, as with our conscience, we can only go with what we sincerely hear.

The key is to keep listening - and to train it by keeping on submitting ourselves to scrutiny, and to let those external voices and that internal one spark off each other in a dialectic that leaves your little demon a little louder and a little wiser each time.

So my advice. Ask advice from everyone. Consider everything. Listen to everyone. Hard. Until the voice you hear loudest is your own.

All of which is rather like what psychologists these days say about conscience - that we begin in ignorance, grow up dependent on rules, as teenagers rebel against the lot of them, then finally develop oour own take on the world. If there's one thing we need to do as writers, it's take a good look at where we are on that continuum, and keep kicking ourselves in the backsides till we come out as the fully mature end product. Only then will we begin to get to grips with "voice" and "style" all those other questions.

Go on, nurture that little demon, and see where it takes you!


  1. Ah, the buttholes that know not of what they speak. Having been in this thing for over decade and some studying and communication and all of the other quintessential components of learning how to write, I can tell you: some people do not know what the fuck they are talking about.

    I apologize for the vulgarity, but it is nonetheless true. Some just do not understand what goes into writing-much less, what to look for. Sometimes it feels like you are caught in a room full of pompous morons that had better keep their trap shut, but they are going to put their two cents anyhow.

    I, myself, am not an editor professionally, but, when I edit, I look for what the author is trying to say and convey and help them bring it out instead of administering unnecessarily harsh criticism.

    I hope you have better luck in the future in your dealings with people criticizing your work.

  2. Hi. I don't actually think the experience was negative at all - just confusing when you're new to it all and you assume that everyone else knows better - and then you find they're saying diffeernt things!

    The fact is there are always some gems of advice in there - and you never know where they'll come from. So it's essential to keep listening.

    It's not the harshness that's confusing (upsetting, sure - but not confusing). It's the fact everyone says something different

  3. Do you know the HL Mencken one? Conscience: the inner voice which warns us someone may be looking.

  4. I like to think that everyone has a valid point to make, even if they are reacting to the symptoms and not the illness. A great many people can say "your characters are unlikeable", but it's a sign that your style or dialogue is too mechanical. A few slight adjustments later, and you've made progress. So I try and look at what they say they mean, and what they might not realize they mean. And then I can clump comments into "types" and decide if I want to listen or not. In a lot of cases, I've already heard those issues in my own mind, so I have my answer. It's the ones that are unexpected that make me pause.

    That said, one comment that I got (once upon a time) that I still remember is this: "This will not sell. You are 30 years too late for this formula". I ignored it completely :)

  5. Yes, it's the unexpected ones that really make you think. The first person to give my last novel a proper review said he thought too much happened. I'd thought there were many types of slow-moving water that carved out canyons quicker than the novel, so I really had to take a close look. He was, of course, right in a way.

  6. And don't forget to feed the "imp of the perverse", either! I love your critic's "certain amount of introspection" because it resonates with me personally. The criticism I receive most often is "nothing much happened" ;)

    Having said this, however, I think you hit on a solid formula for encouraging engagement and useful criticism with Agnieszka's Shoes: keep content short and granular. If someone tells you they found your characterization dull etc, that's harder to work with than when they tell you that chapter 17 was less excting than chapter 16.

    In software, we call these tools "surfacing often" "code reviewing" and "modularity" - I don't think writing is that different. I still haven't found much use for "multiple inheritance" or "polymorphism" in writing, but I'm working on it.

  7. Wowsers, Piers, there's some things to put in the keywords! Blogging is probably the perfect example of what you're talking about (but not very helpful with our fiction!) - we get lots of instant feedback.

    It was a Harper Collins editor who said that. The full critique is at:

    It's the one under the thick brown line.

    The problem I've found with Aggie is that people who come to it lata and read to catch up have a totally different experience from those who read as it goes. It's going to be a job and a half turning it into a "book".

  8. Yes, it seems like there is difficulty bridging the gap between serialization, novella and novel. I mean, if you publish a short story in a magazine, everyone reads the same thing. If you serialize a complete work electronically, and then offer a full version (PDF or paper) part way into the serialization, you have two audience groups, with a straightforward path from one to the other. Are novellas better for electronic publication because, basically, what else can you do with them?

    The direction I am trying to push right now is towards annotations... basically, my idea is that you serialize a relatively short novella-length story, allowing your audience to tag chapters and ask questions, which you then answer annotatively (probably in end notes, apologies to David Foster Wallace). Of course, most genres don't support end-pages (SFF does to a point, and post-modern monstrosities like Infinite Jest).

    What I find appealing about this approach, if it is successful, is that you could take the same story and re-serialize it, adding layers of annotations to deepen the back story, while leaving the basic narrative intact.

    Harness your critics, then attribute fake obituaries to them!

  9. the irony of course is that endnotes and annotations are better suited to the electronic format than the paper one. But yes, I think there's an awful lot to be said for an enhanced version in the print copy (the paperback of Songs has two presentations I've given about it, plus the various opening chapters it's been through with commentary). I think the idea of a literary equivalent of a Special Edition DVD is a winner.

    Infinite Jest is an interesting one. Everyone I know who talks about reading it (I won't say who's read it, because I don't know anyone who's actually finished it) uses the words challenge or project. I'm not quite sure that's what I want for my readers.

    The other book people talk about is House of Leaves, which was going to be the start of a craze, but didn't turn out to be. I wonder why.

    I love novellas. I think high-quality small run publishing means they will finally get the readerships they deserve (you only have to look at teh "in translation" tables to see there is actually a market for them). Chapbooks are all the rage, I believe

  10. House of Leaves and Infinite Jest: tl;dr. "too long; didn't read" - I dip back into IJ to reread the bits I loved, though. Same is true of Finnegans Wake, for what it's worth. This sort of writing is inherently satirical, but what they are satiriziang is, in part, the print novel.

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