Tag Archives: London Writers’ Cafe

An End to the Tyranny of the Anti-Story Snobs

Wednesday night saw the London Writers’ Café meet near Marylebone for one of their new intensive workshops.  This involves four writers reading a passage of their work, followed by analysis and comment from the rest of the group. The format gives each writer half an hour to split as they wish between reading and discussion – a considerably longer segment than the usual meetings.  A side effect of this excellent idea, however, is more air time for one or two of those people who remind you that there’s a stereotype of writers as bookish, eccentric types who have to put their words on paper because they’re incapable of interacting with people one-to-one without causing offence.

The offender on this occasion – and I use the term advisedly – was sat next to me, muttering and sighing his way through other people’s readings, making snarky remarks about the quality of the discussion and generally making himself a royal pain in the arse.  The convenor put a stop to his worst excesses by challenging him to comment constructively (and had a word with him afterwards, so let’s hope the performance isn’t repeated) – but a couple of his comments stuck with me because they chimed with a rather unattractive phenomenon I’ve observed elsewhere: the tyranny of the anti-story snob.

I should have known it was coming: my muttering friend introduced himself to the group as being 92,000 words through his novel (I can’t remember how he described it, but it involved a lot of syllables and almost certainly the use of the word “post-modern”). He then noted that he was approximately half-way through.

He didn’t think much of the first reading – it didn’t “cohere” apparently – but he was much more keen on the second, the first chapter of a novel featuring a chap with missing limbs and a drinking problem. This was indeed beautifully written – and equally beautifully read – but nevertheless, running to eight A4 sides of tightly packed prose, without so much as a line of dialogue, I found my mind wandering.  By the time we got to the end, I was breathing a guilty sigh of relief.

This point was raised in discussion: as a first chapter, perhaps we needed more of a sense of what was actually happening to this character; what the story would be about?  Mr Mutterer wasn’t having a bar of it: “My problem,” he said, “Is with the criticism, rather than the writing!” Indeed, he suggested, the only thing that might be improved was the length: it could do with being a bit longer. He cited Faulkner with approval, noting that he wrote twenty pages on a character walking down a path. “Nothing happens,” he said, “But it’s absolutely gripping!”

Now I confess I haven’t read any Faulkner.  I suppose it may be possible to write twenty gripping pages about a person walking down a path; but in all honesty, I find it hard to imagine.  But it made me think: why is it that this kind of impenetrable writing gains so many plaudits in arty circles? Why is it that, to so many “serious” critics, the relationship between accessibility and virtue is considered to be inversely proportional?

Googling Faulkner I came across a review of The Sound and the Fury by Guardian writer Sarah Churchwell.  This describes the novel as “notoriously, intransigently difficult”.  It says it “turns inference into an extreme sport” and notes that attempting to write a summary of its plot would be “an exercise in futility”. Interviewed in 1956, Faulkner was asked what he would say to people who complained they couldn’t understand his writing, even after reading it two or three times.  His answer?  “Read it four times.”  It hardly needs adding that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 2011, Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize for his novel, The Sense of an Ending.  One of the panel of judges had the temerity to suggest that they had been looking for “readability”. Uproar ensued. The judges were criticised for being overly focussed on plot.  The Booker was being dumbed down! The end of the world was nigh!

Julian Barnes bringing about literary Armageddon by winning the Booker prize for a book with a plot.

Julian Barnes bringing about literary Armageddon by winning the Booker prize for a book with a plot.

All this seems to me symptomatic of a particularly BDSM approach to reading: the greater the pain involved in getting to that back cover, the greater the pleasure to the critic. In fact, to enjoy a novel is positively a mark against it. Even worse, having lots of people enjoy it means it must be trash.  I recently heard of a literary agent who claimed as a matter of “principle” never to read anything on the Times bestseller list.

What arrant nonsense!

What, I ask you, is wrong with wanting a book both to be populated by interesting, three-dimensional characters, and wanting something exciting or frightening or otherwise stimulating to happen to them? Surely one doesn’t have to be at the expense of the other? Jane Austen didn’t seem to have a problem with writing a story.  Nor Charles Dickens. Nor Anthony Trollope. Nor George Eliot, nor Thomas Hardy nor any of the Brontes. Should we be re-evaluating their worthiness because millions of people still read and – heaven forbid! – enjoy them?

An end to this stupidity.  We should stop pretending that storytelling isn’t important. Getting to the end of a book shouldn’t have to be endurance test.

My campaign starts here: Susan Hill for the Booker!

Over, over, under

Monday evening was spent at the brilliant London Writers’ Café with a talk from Scott Pack, publisher of Harper Collins imprint The Friday Project.  As well as enthusiastically promoting Harper Collins’ online community for writers, Authonomy (authonomy.com), Scott gave loads of really clear and practical advice for would-be authors.

For anyone, like me, dreaming of one day seeing your name facing out from a bookshelf, his observations on the most common mistakes made by unpublished writers are worth thinking about.  Reproduced here for your entertainment and edification…

Common Mistake 1: Over-writing

In other words, using six long words where one would do, cluttering up your prose with tautologies and other unnecessary verbiage, and… better stop there.  Scott surmised that writers’ tendency to do this stems from a wish to impress: we all know how many people are out there scribbling away, desperately trying to get the attention of someone in the industry, so it’s not surprising that we sometimes go a bit OTT trying to ensure we stand out from the crowd.

Scott gave a couple of pieces of practical advice on how to exorcise your over-writing demons:

Pick up a book from an author you admire and type out a passage of their prose.  Then type out a passage of your own.  Unless you’ve picked Salman Rushdie or Martin Amis (clearly not favourites of Mr Pack),  you’ll almost invariably find that the work of the established author is simpler in language and style than your own.

Re-read your work and do ten sit-ups every time you come across an adverb.  You’ll either de-clutter your prose or get great abs. What’s to lose?

Common Mistake 2: Over-explaining

What it says on the tin – spending too much time telling your reader things they either don’t need to know at all or should work out for themselves.  A close relation to both “telling not showing” and…

…Common Mistake 3: Underestimating your reader

Looby Loo, Andy Pandy and Teddy: for the avoidance of doubt, they were all great friends who loved each other very much.

Looby Loo, Andy Pandy and Teddy who, for the avoidance of doubt, were all great friends who loved each other very much.

You get what I mean, right?  I don’t need to tell you that Andy Pandy hates Teddy for running off with Looby-Loo when he’s spent the last two pages carving AP 4 LL on tree trunks and doodling pictures of Teddy with his stuffing coming out of his neck.

Don’t patronise your reader.  It’s rude and, worse, it’s boring.

Right, I’m off now to look again at draft three.  My abs need the workout…

Losing the Armbands

How do you exercise your writing muscles?  And how do you know if they’re getting stronger?

This weekend, I watched my sister compete in her first ever open water swimming competition.  She finished in the top third of men and women for her distance, and third in her age group of women (30-34 years old, in case you’re wondering).

Like me, Little Sis learned to swim at the age of four or five.  She swam at school and sometimes went to the local pool on weekends.  On family holidays, she mucked about diving over waves or trying to get onto lilos in the sea (have you tried this? Don’t bother in Britain’s choppy waters unless you have an hour to spare and no concern for your personal dignity).  In recent years, our occasional visits to health spa pools involved looking up occasionally from a book or magazine to watch a lone swimmer thrash up and down a few lengths.

In other words, swimming wasn’t a serious pursuit – until the last year.  Little Sis started going to the pool several times a week.  She started timing her swims and telling me about stroke length and body rotation.  She bought a proper swimming costume.  Then she bought a wetsuit.  Last weekend, I watched her swim 1500 metres down the river Thames in 34 minutes and come out at the other end fresh as a daisy.  Being impressed doesn’t come easy to older siblings, but impressed I was.

Okay, it’s not news that practice improves performance – but it made me think: am I practising my writing with the same degree of discipline my sister showed in improving her swimming?  What does that even mean for a writer? And how do you know if it’s paying off?

In the first month after I left my job, I was focussed on finishing the first draft of my novel.  I made sure I wrote a minimum of 2,000 words a day.  Some days it was easier than others.  I don’t think what I wrote in the last week of the month was any better than what I wrote in the first.  I’m not sure it was any better than what I wrote when I first started the manuscript, two years ago.floating rubber ring

I’m now struggling through the editing process.  One third of the way through, I’m no clearer than I was at the beginning on whether my edits are improvements or just changes.

Before I go and slit my wrists, I’m going to ferret out a few positives.

I have at least written regularly.  My own stuff, that is, not the policy papers or letters or emails I wrote in my job. I think the creative process now comes a bit more readily.  I’ve always been able to string a sentence together (feel free to take issue with that)  but my imagination doesn’t need quite the prodding it once did to stir into life.  Sometimes it used to refuse to get out of bed at all; these days, it only gets to hit the snooze button once or twice before grumbling into consciousness.

Thanks to my writing group, the excellent London Writers’ Café, I’m slowly reclaiming my critical faculties. I find I have things to say about other people’s work. At some point, this has got to (surely?) translate into being able to critique my own writing.

I know I have a lot more to do.  I subscribe to some great writers’ prompts and fail to do anything with them.  I read other blogger’s short stories and don’t get beyond telling myself I should give flash fiction a go.  I faff about reading other people’s tweets when I should be editing the bloody manuscript.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? And if it does, have you found any techniques to help? And any ways to assess your progress?

One thing’s for sure: I might not be a stranger to the swimming pool, but I’m not ready for an open water swim just yet.

Yakety Yak (or The Joy of Writing Groups)

It’s a lonely business sometimes, this writing malarkey.  Sitting there day after day, struggling to make characters that seem to have developed minds of their own follow the damned plot; plodding away for ages, typing, then deleting, then typing again; checking on the word count and discovering the tragic truth that, whilst you haven’t even looked at Twitter all morning, you’ve still only managed 200 words.  Keeping going on your own – especially if, like me, you’ve been used to working in an office surrounded by busy colleagues – can be a bit of a challenge.  So I was both excited and intrigued when I met a former colleague for drinks recently and he told me about the London Writers’ Café.

This, it transpires, is a group for unpublished writers that meets regularly to discuss each other’s work.  It turns out there are a lot of these groups – you probably know this already but this is still a whole new world to me, my friend – but, unlike many of the others, the LWC requires would-be members to complete a short questionnaire before they’re admitted to the group. The questions aren’t difficult – tell us about your current writing projects, what you’d like to get out of the group, and so on – but the message is clear: this is for people who are serious about writing and prepared to make a real contribution to the discussion.

Finding a picture of talking yaks isn't as easy as you might think...

Finding a picture of talking yaks isn’t as easy as you might think…

I dutifully filled in the questionnaire and waited anxiously for the response.  A day later, it came: I’d passed! (I’m not sure anyone actually fails, to be honest, but I’m not dwelling on that.)  I felt inordinately pleased as I added the details of the next meeting to my diary: look! A real, honest-to-goodness appointment for me-as-writer!

Well, the meeting took place yesterday and I can say it was inspirational – genuinely inspirational.  I’d been a bit nervous about it, to tell you the truth: I mean, these were clearly serious people and I’m a complete novice; but there was that appointment in my diary, and I’d been so proud of myself when I wrote it in – there was no way I wasn’t going. I did my homework in advance, of course – there’s still quite enough of the civil servant in me to make sure of that – looking at the summaries of each of the members attending, checking out their blogs and tweets. And, despite telling myself not to be ridiculous, I did spend ever such a little bit of time trying to decide on the perfect I’m-very-serious-about-writing-but-that-doesn’t-mean-I-take-myself-too-seriously-and-I-really-really-know-how-much-I-have-to-learn-whilst-at-the-same-time-hoping-I-have-something-helpful-to-contribute outfit.

I only got changed twice.

But to the meeting: in a nutshell, it was two hours spent listening to group members who’d volunteered to read their work, following by a discussion full of insightful, constructive criticism.  It was the kind of experience I’m pretty sure I’ll go on learning from for some time, but here’s what I think I’ve taken from it so far:

  • yes, there are a lot of writers out there who are really serious about what they’re doing…
  • …but that doesn’t mean you’re all fishing in the same pool.  The five pieces I heard read out yesterday were completely different from each other;
  • some of the points of criticism were the kinds of technical things from which I know I’ll really benefit – thoughtful comments on structure, voice and tone.  I’ll be reflecting on those as I go through my own editing process;
  • others were matters of taste – and even in a group of twenty or so people, the kinds of things some people took issue with were exactly those that appealed to others.  That’s helped me realise that expecting everyone who reads my writing to like it, or even to see good qualities in it, is an exercise in futility – it’s just not going to happen.  That’s not to say it isn’t valuable to hear what people like and what they don’t, just that I don’t necessarily need to take every comment as gospel;
  • literary criticism is a skill and it’s one that I’m very rusty on.  I need to brush up if I’m going to be more useful to other people.

Finally, what I’ve learned is that I really, really love identifying myself as a writer and being surrounded by people doing the same.

The next meeting is on Monday and I can’t wait.  I’m not ready to read at that one – which is just as well, because the reading slots get taken up a long time in advance – but I’ve put myself down for a slot at the September meeting, i.e. the one that’s sufficiently far off not to feel too real or scary just yet.  Watch this space for signs of nerves as the date gets closer…