Friday, 25 February 2011

Why I Love Critique Groups

I was surprised to find that I’d never written a post about critique groups – perhaps they’ve become such an accepted feature of my writing life that I don’t think about them anymore. But even though they are everyday, it doesn’t mean that they can’t throw up the most delicious surprises. Just last weekend, my crit group members came up with a whole batch of new ideas that I’m gleefully stealing to improve my work-in-progress. Of course, when I say stealing, these comments are always freely offered – it just feels a little like cheating to have all that writing expertise at my fingertips.

Critique is a concept that I came to rather late in my writing apprenticeship – five years in, to be precise. It’s almost unthinkable to me, now, that I toiled so long in isolation before I took my first steps into the writing community. But it’s a big thing to offer your work for criticism the first time – make no mistake. Our earliest writing is often the most personal, and it takes a certain level of confidence to open your innermost feelings to group criticism.

The sensitivity that makes a good writer also makes criticism a fraught experience, and there are definitely moments when I’ve stepped over the line in my enthusiasm to make a point. I think I subconsciously view group discussion as a bit of a competition and I sometimes find myself desperate to make a point before someone else thinks of it. Yes, I am one of those people who is always “waiting to talk” rather than “listening attentively,” and I do spend a lot of my time in crit groups metaphorically sitting on my hands. Becoming more accomplished as a writer has helped me with this, because I now have (hopefully) deeper insights on plot, structure and character to offer rather than proofreading gripes.

I’ve been in a monthly SCBWI crit group for almost two years now, and I’ve recently set up another in Oxford to run in parallel. So far, this is working out ok – I have about eight pieces of max. 2000 words to critique each month, less if I submit a piece as well. But there is a real pleasure in maintaining a close group of other writers to share work, successes and failures.

Online critique works for a lot of people, but I have to say it was a bit of a failed experiment for me. Firstly, I found the workload difficult to handle – pieces would be posted on the author’s schedule, not mine. In theory, crit pieces would have an average distribution across the month, but in practice people seemed to all post together. I would be instantly seized by my zeal to read and comment quickly, because I knew that otherwise I would have to read through ten other people’s comments before I wrote mine. And they might all have my ideas first! You can see the problem.

I also grew out of weekly groups where writers bring material to read out and others comment on it. I joined and enjoyed one of these to start with, but found that the criticism stayed at a frustratingly surface level. So much of the experience depended on the quality of the author’s reading and their level of engagement with the text. Some brilliant writers were so poor in their delivery that I found it easy to lose interest well before their ten minutes were up. And, unfortunately, the evil competitive streak didn’t help! These groups are a great way to get practice in reading aloud, but I wouldn’t recommend them in terms of feedback. Of course, this may all be sour grapes, because I tried to join a weekly writers' group last year and was told that I was “too good” to become a member. It’s not often you hear that…

Having an agent has definitely changed the way that I approach critique, especially as I move past the first draft. It’s also another strike against the idea of sharing my work freely online, even to a closed group – once you know that your work has commercial potential, holding on to first publication rights becomes a lot more important. In general, once my agent has seen something and commented on it, I won’t take it to a critique group. This is both to avoid upsetting my agent (very important!) and to stop myself being swamped by opinions that will slow down the process. A large part of maturing as a writer is that you know when something doesn’t work, even if you can’t put your finger on the reason. So submitting to a critique group becomes less of a vehicle for showing off and more about improving the weak parts of your book.

So there you have it – critique groups made me the writer I am today. You may take that as a recommendation, or a warning!


If you’re a children’s or YA writer, you can find out more about SCBWI British Isles' network of critique groups here

Friday, 18 February 2011

How Much is Enough?

When I was chatting with another agented writer last night, she cited the example of a self-published non-fiction author she'd met, who'd sold 300 copies and was overjoyed at that achievement. She left a meaningful pause and I replied: "Except neither of us would be happy with selling 300 copies of a book." She nodded, slightly embarrassed and said: "But why couldn't I be happy with that?"

Why indeed?

I think it's understandable that when authors are very early in their careers, they imagine that everything they write will become a bestseller. Through all the editing and submission and rejection, that vision of success is a powerful beacon, a reason to strive. Many writers fail or withdraw from that process, and never know whether they would have become the next big thing - some will continue to harbour resentment towards agents and publishers for denying them their chance. Others - a tiny percentage - fight their way through the obstacles and get a book on the shelves. The vast majority of those won't become bestsellers either.

Ok, I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But with the odds stacked against us like this, why do we keep doing it? It's not enough to say we enjoy writing, because so much of the author's journey isn't about writing at all. Why not self-publish? What is it about a mass audience that makes it so much more attractive than a small group of adoring fans?

Studies have shown that working towards a goal is more rewarding than achieving it, and perhaps this is what spurs us on to bigger and better things. I like to define the process in terms of frustration and contentment:
  • Frustration - This is a feeling of dissatisfaction with our present level of achievement and a desire to better ourselves.
  • Contentment - This is an ability to celebrate our achievements, to see our work with an uncritical eye and take pleasure in it.
Both of these things strike me as being vital to a successful and satisfying career in pretty much anything. But they are also mutually exclusive. I asked other writers on Facebook about how they might balance the two, and got a lot of "hmmm"s in reply. Oliver Burkeman writing in the Guardian suggests that perhaps the way forward is to have many goals and switch between them, not expecting that any one thing will make you happy.

The writer I was talking to likened her own experience of writing to mountaineering, a process that is pleasurable by virtue of its extreme difficulty. And of course, there is that moment when you finally finish a book and stand in the fresh alpine air, looking down at what you've achieved.

The problem with mountains is that there's almost always a higher one left to climb.


Friday, 11 February 2011

Creative Restrictions

Children's writers are a sensitive bunch, especially when it comes to criticism from the more high-and-mighty elements of the cultural world. The recent furore regarding Martin Amis's inflammatory comments is proof of that. What interested me most was not the cheap jibes that Amis was bandying around, but this statement:
"The idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."
The implication was clear. By imposing restrictions on themselves, children's writers are diluting their art. Unlike the poor, starving, visionary artist that is Martin Amis, we are prostrating ourselves at the altar of commerce. I don't need to point out the steaming pile of hypocrisy here - you can smell it from halfway across the internet.

But are restrictions really such a bad thing? My go-to guy for this particular discussion is Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker who has made a career of working with one arm tied behind his back (metaphorically speaking - though if you suggested he make a movie with one arm actually tied behind his back, he'd probably do it.)

Von Trier's work includes such films as Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, Dogville and the amazing TV hospital horror series The Kingdom. His work divides critics and audiences. Everything he does is in some way brilliant, and sometimes brilliantly unwatchable. I have, for instance, had an unopened Blu-ray copy of his recent uber-horror Antichrist on my shelf for about six months, and just the thought of watching it kind of scares me.

In 1995, von Trier joined with three other Danish directors to form the Dogme 95 Collective, which was a movement intended to purify film through the removal of artifice. The Dogme directors believed (or claimed to believe) that great films were only possible by removing all of the special effects and post-production trickery that was endemic in the industry, allowing audiences to concentrate on a naturalistic story and performances. Each film made under the collective's banner had to conform to ten specific rules, or the "Vow of Chastity," which is reproduced below:

  1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.

  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed.

  3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.

  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).

  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

  6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).

  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

  10. The director must not be credited.

You can instantly see how restrictive this was, yet many more filmmakers from around the world flocked to be included in the project. To date, 38 films have been made that conform to the Vow of Chastity. Apart from Festen (which was the very first), none of them have been out-and-out classics, but all were produced on tiny budgets and are full of fascinating ideas. Von Trier himself only made one Dogme film (The Idiots) but the styles of filmmaking he explored have coloured his work ever since.

In 2003, von Trier made perhaps his most provocative and interesting film, the little seen The Five Obstructions. It's nominally a documentary, but like everything von Trier touches, fact and fiction blur, and the whole film is filled with a joyous playful anarchy. The premise is simple: von Trier challenges his mentor Jørgan Leth to remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human five separate times. Each time, von Trier will specify one rule (or obstruction) that Leth will have to follow. The first version, for instance, has to be made in Cuba with no shot allowed to be longer than 12 frames (half a second). As the documentary goes on, von Trier's demands become more and more outrageous, and Leth produces more and more dazzling work. As well as being very funny, it's a great demonstration of how severe restrictions can produce great art.

Leth has to keep an audience in mind at all times, that audience being his friend and nemesis Lars von Trier. My belief is that to create something brilliant, we all need an audience to work towards. A prospective audience spurs us on to produce writing accessible to at least one person other than ourselves, and gives us an expectation of approval. Without that goal in mind, it can sometimes be hard to keep going or to shape the work via subsequent drafts. Our choice of audience sets restrictions on a piece of writing from the very first page.

Something that Martin Amis seems unwilling to admit is that he too – consciously or unconsciously – operates under a whole set of restrictions. Such as only writing for smug, middle-aged, middle-class men.


Friday, 4 February 2011

How Libraries *Really Did* Change My Life

To support Save Our Libraries Day tomorrow, I thought I’d return to the subject of libraries and why they’re important. If, like me, you've signed up to all the relevant email, Facebook and Twitter feeds about the threats to our libraries, you might be starting to feel the teensiest bit of fatigue about the subject. So rather than launch into another polemic about cultural vandalism and short-term thinking (because Philip Pullman has already done that so much better than I ever could), I’m going to take the advice on the exam paper and “give examples.” What follows are three turning points in my life, three ways in which libraries changed me as a person:

  1. Libraries Helped Me to NOT Become an Intellectual
    Like many writers, I had an enthusiastic English teacher at school. Several, actually. But one I remember particularly was a guy in his early twenties who taught me in year seven. To be honest, he was more enthusiastic than technically proficient – the only comment I used to get week after week on my homework was “Good Stuff.” But he was young enough not to have been ground down by the system and ambitious for his students.

    The pivotal moment happened when he took the class into the library to choose reading books. He’d clearly spotted my potential and wanted to get me onto something more challenging than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. I picked up a copy of Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and my teacher was aghast. He implored me not to read such populist material, waving an Aldous Huxley book in my face, talking animatedly about the kind of “important” books he’d read at university.

    But despite his obvious enthusiasm, I wasn’t persuaded. I wouldn’t budge. Being in a library, having such a range of books at my disposal allowed me to self-select – it gave me power over one small area of my life.

    Looking back now, I wonder how much Sue Townsend made that decision for me. By making Adrian Mole look such a gauche fool in his pursuit of intellectualism, perhaps she set my mind against the idea. But I had a feeling that my path was to stay close to popular culture, to give it the same focus and attention that other people brought to high art. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

  2. Libraries Helped Me to Meet My Wife
    It’s true that I didn’t actually meet her in a library, though that would have been cool because University libraries are a hive of sexual tension. All that quiet studiousness and teenage hormones! And I'm not the only one who thought that - check out Tina Lemon’s blog post.

    But in every other way, libraries brought my me and my wife together. She was, after all, studying for a Library and Information Systems degree. All of our mutual friends were librarians. It was inevitable that our orbits would collide.

    Later, after Claire finished her degree, her library job supported us through my final year. Thanks to her and thanks to libraries, I was able to eat, work a 12 hour day at University and get a First at the end of it.

  3. Libraries Helped Me to Write My First Novel

    It’s hard to find time to write, especially when you have a demanding full-time job. A few years ago, when I realised that I wanted to be a writer, I selected lunchtime as my best chance of squeezing out a few words. But then I faced the problem of where to do it. I couldn’t stay at my desk because I was shy, and besides, someone was always going to interrupt me with work-related queries. Sitting outside was an option, but highly weather-dependent. A café would cost money and the nearest one was in the food court of a noisy shopping centre. Luckily, not five minutes walk from my office, there was a public library.

    Every weekday for two years, I spent an hour in that (comparatively) calm environment; writing, researching and watching the world go by. A library is a brilliant place for a writer, because so many resources are at your fingertips. Feel like you’re out of touch with the market? Spend half an hour checking out the latest titles in the fiction section. Want to know common surnames in the Glasgow area? Look at the phone book. Want to get a better handle on human nature? Listen to how people talk to each other, to the library staff, to their children.

    At the end of that period, I had a novel, a whole list of agents’ names (thanks to free access to the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook) and an amazing sense of achievement. One library made all of that possible.

So there you have it – three examples of how libraries changed my life for the better. Tomorrow, I’m going to take my family on a library crawl, visiting and taking out books from many of the threatened libraries in the Oxfordshire area.

Please, please visit your local library too – maybe something will happen that will change your life.


You can see the photographic evidence from our Library Crawl here.

Dave Cousins also made a very similar trip in his neck of the woods - read about that here.