Welcome to the third in the series of blog posts I’m writing during my time as the 2022 Hysteria Writer In Residence. You’ll notice it’s a bumper post, that’s to make up for the gap last month – life and Covid overtook me! Pheww!
Over the last two blogs I’ve talked about submission guidelines (and why they matter), and things to do to help you get stuck in to a new piece of work. Last time, I promised this blog post would explore how we can develop a piece that we’ve already begun.
Sometimes, a piece seems to arrive close to done, and hurrah for those ideas that spark, fly across the sky and burst into a satisfying cascade of light and glory. Sometimes, though? What turns up on the page is more of a damp squib. As an editor for a literary magazine and regular competition reader and judge, I read a lot of pieces where the central idea is fantastic, but the execution isn’t there just yet.
If it’s a story, sometimes the opening goes on too long, sometimes the ending is undercooked, or the twist hasn’t been ‘earned’, sometimes it’s a beautiful description but nothing seems to have happened, sometimes the external events of the story don’t match the internal needs of the characters, sometimes the plot just feels unrealised.
If it’s a piece of flash, it can feel like someone has tried to write a very short story extra short, without some of the characteristics that make flash really shine. Again, the opening might be too long, it might finish too abruptly, it might feel flabby in the middle, the language might be lazy, the characterisation flat, and so on.
If it’s a piece of poetry then it can feel as though the core themes are shaky, the language is untidy, or the form isn’t fitting the thrust of the piece.
I think about this a lot. In the last blog, I made lots of suggestions about how to do some initial revisions and tweaks, but what if there is a more fundamental issue with a piece? Sometimes, with even the coolest eye and fabulous levels of detachment we won’t see the exact problems, just be aware something isn’t quite right.
As an editor (or reader, or judge) I often wish I could get in touch with the writer/poet and let them know which parts might usefully be given a bit of attention. Of course, lots of folk don’t want revision suggestions or developmental encouragement. But if we really do like some parts of our work, and also know it’s not quite landing, what can we do?
I think there are four things:-
1. Ask someone else to read it and give honest feedback. But! Be honest with yourself here, only ask for honest feedback if that’s what you really want. Sometimes we think we want honest feedback and then feel inclined to shoot the messenger. That being said, really solid, constructive feedback can be exceptionally helpful. When we can bear to look at it.
(It’s worth knowing that people often have a feedback ‘style’ or focus and it can take a bit of time to find someone who works for us. That’s ok. I tried half a dozen people before I found the right fit, partly because I wasn’t sure what kind of help I needed, or what kind of feedback would be useful. Bit of a chicken and egg situation, if I knew what the issue was, I might not need to ask about it.
Eventually, I realised I wanted someone who would spot any repeat weaknesses and who would offer developmental suggestions geared to those issues. Knowing what to ask, moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence if you like, was a big aha moment for me. But until then, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
A few rounds later, I found the person. Other people had given me really helpful general feedback, but this person nailed the wider issue. Hurrah! It’s made all my work better. Not just the few pieces they reviewed.
Overall, when we do find someone whose style or focus works for us, it is wonderful. Some people will do this kind of feedback for free. Some will charge for it. It is completely legit to pay for feedback. If you’re lucky, it will be relevant for all your work.)
2. Put the piece away for six months and then come back to it and revise. This isn’t much use if the deadline is next week, but, early on in my writing life I was advised to build up a number of pieces of different lengths and themes in my WIP folder, and this instantly helped me stop fretting over a piece that wouldn’t be ready for a specific call. I can honestly say there will be another, similar call in the not too distant future. So, rather than wasting your submission fee on something you know isn’t really cutting it, put it aside.
(The reason for putting it away is that after six months we’ll have written more, read more, and generally improved in lots of ways. When I come back to things that didn’t place or get accepted with about six months’ distance, I can nearly always see why.)
3. Start over, maybe reusing the best turns of phrase, the structure, the theme, the central plot and so on. Sometimes, with even the keenest eye, the kindest and most helpful editor, or the most ruthless of edits, that piece isn’t going to make it in its current shape, form, or being! But there’s some great stuff you can excavate out. Do it. Save those bits, keep what’s working, and don’t be afraid to discard what’s not!
(In other words, don’t keep flogging a dead horse, put the energy somewhere else.)
4. Read through the R&D questions below, answer them honestly, and then act on them when you revise. Fair warning? Some of your answers might lead you back to points 1, 2 or 3 above.
I teach a regular workshop on revision and development and I always start with two crucial and linked questions.
- What’s your piece about?
- What’s your piece really about?
Most revisions and development can start from here. In workshops I encourage people to think about their answers to these two questions by doing the following exercise:
Write out the following sentence…
‘At the heart of my piece is a simple message about…’
Now fill in the ending of the sentence.
Repeat this six more times, so you have seven different endings to that sentence. Go on, have a go. What’s the best that can happen?
Now answer those first two questions again – what’s it about? What’s it really about?
Ok. So. Once you’re sure of what your piece is about then it’s a good moment to answer the following 20 questions. It can be helpful to set aside a decent chunk of time to think about and answer these questions. I know it’s an old saw, but a lot of writing a piece to completion is about revision, and if we really want to get to the heart of the story we want to tell, or the response we want to create in a poem, we may need to make some radical changes.
- Is there enough petrol in the engine? (i.e. are you trying to tell a 100-word story in 1,000 words? Conversely, are you trying to cram 5,000 words into 1,000?)
- Does the form fit? Is it the best fit? Have you played it too safe?
- Are the parts balanced? (You might not be using a conventional western story arc, but you’ll have some kind of opening and conclusion, with something in the middle. Are any of them going too long?)
- Is it in the right narrative voice? (First person, second, third, singular, plural)
- Is the point of view the best one to convey the core of your story?
- Is it in the right tense?
- Is the language robust? Precise? Too fiddly? Too archaic? Too purple?
- Are there extraneous details or descriptions which add nothing except words?
- Have you started too early? Have you ended too late?
- If you’ve got dialogue, is it helping the piece? If you haven’t, would it?
- Do you have too many characters? Too few?
- Does it feel cramped? Or does it feel padded out?
- Is it actually a story/flash/poem? Or is it playing dress-up?
- Are there parts you skip over when you re-read? Is it because they’re actually a bit dull/unnecessary?
- Is it internally consistent? Tone, idiolect, tense, world view, voice
- Have you too much backstory? Are you over-explaining at any point?
- Are there any stakes? A prose piece doesn’t have to have a big crisis or major conflict, but stakes help. Likewise, with poetry, does it require investment on the part of the reader?
- Have you overwritten the start/any part? Can you cut the first paragraph/verse?
- Have you spent a decent amount of time on the title? Is it serving the story/flash/poem?
- What question are you glad I haven’t asked? Be honest.
It’s a lot, but these twenty questions are a distillation of pointers from a dozen editors and competition readers/judges about the problems they see in stories or poems that don’t make the cut.
Back to a reminder about the big things you can do if you think it’s not landing –
- Find a beta reader to give you feedback
- Put the piece away and come back to it in a few months’ time
- Start over
- Be your own editor and ask yourself the kind of revision and developmental questions a good beta reader might raise
After considering some or all of these four possibilities you have a choice. You can either act on them, knowing you will probably have to rework your piece. Or you can have a flounce. I usually have a good look at a piece I know isn’t quite working, then have a flounce, then do one or all of them. Sometimes I have an extra flounce when my beta reader tells me the issue is exactly the thing I thought it was but didn’t want to address (again!).
This is the moment, as I drink a cup of tea to steady myself for the work ahead, that I remember that revising doesn’t mean going backwards, it means going forwards with a piece. The additional consolation, in all this revision stuff, is that over time you will get better at spotting what’s not working and why, and have the capacity to address it.
Consequently, even if you think the piece is close to done it can be really helpful to do a review of a piece and ask these R&D questions so that you are clear about what is working and why, as well as what isn’t. I have thirty pieces or so (out of almost 200) that have placed in competitions or been published, that I think are real crackers. I have notes on all of them that I wrote after the piece was done, submitted and either won, came second, or was nominated for something. This reflective process has helped my work enormously, and I’ve come to think of the reflection period (and the time it takes) as part of the life of a piece from inception to post-publication.
But. And I won’t kid you about this. All this revision and development is hard work. You might feel quite content with a lighter touch. I offer these suggestions, just as ideas, to help you work on a piece that you think might not be quite there but that you want to work on. When you submit a piece to a journal or competition the organisers/editors encourage you to submit your best, I hope this blog helps you get one step closer to landing your piece, so that you’re confident when/if you submit that it really is.
Brilliant. You’re ready to click send. Sure? Let’s just have a quick look at number 19 of the R&D questions again. Hmm. Is your title working its hardest for you? Not sure?
Good news, next month it’s all about titles, why they matter, and how to come up with a good one.