Sunday, 17 May 2015

Missing layers and depth to story writing – an example.

Dear all,

Being a novice writer you can easily generate a lot of excuses when you get things wrong. Most of those excuses are justifiable... I think. The one major difference of opinion people have which sets the route of whether or not you accept those excuses as valid is: the legitimacy of self publishing. If you believe that self publishing is not a serious endeavor and should not be classified as a professional path to writing then you are likely to be more forgiving when self published materials do not come up to the standard we expect from established publishing houses because you are not anticipating it in the first place. Hence a few excuses such as I am not experienced enough, I did not have access to resources, and so on, are accepted without too much admonishment, you are prepared to shrug your shoulders and say better luck next time. If you however, consider self publishing and independent writers to be a valid platform, and on an equally legitimate standing as mainstream firms, then you will be less set on forgiveness with errors and poor quality.

I have argued both sides because I am of course, committed to self publishing, but also terrified of self publishing, so I want to have my cake and eat it. I want to protect myself from criticism while at the same time promoting myself. There are dozens of aspects to this that I could talk about, ranging from book cover design, use of grammar, limits of vocabulary, marketing and many more, but what I wanted to touch upon today is one specific recent issue I had which I am still kicking myself for and goes to the heart of what it is I want to be: a good writer.

I recently self published a short story titled "Three Minutes". It follows the struggle of a young man who cannot find the courage to quit a boxing career that he has allowed himself to believe may happen one day in order to focus on the things he already has and is at risk of losing, most importantly his girlfriend. I went through the process of drafting, editing and publishing as normal and although I wasn’t one hundred percent happy with it - there are always improvements I know I could make to every story I attempt - because I don’t want to spend too much time on one project, there is simply so much to do, the amount of time required to rewrite it was too much (an endless proposition) and doesn’t justify the reward.

Once it was out, I had someone who I respect hugely come back to me with his feedback and even though it is weeks ago, I still feel like slapping my forehead, as amongst the minor grammatical editing suggestions there was one really significant thematic criticism. That is what I want to talk about today, how I missed something that would have made the story better and the reason it is so important to me is that most of us can learn new words and improve our vocabulary, most of us can spend an increasing amount of money on hiring editors, designers and so on, however, if it is connected to our most basic ability to construct a story then that goes to the heart of whether or not we have what it takes to be a writer.

It was devastatingly simple. Out of the locations I had in my story, there were two main settings, a boxing ring, and a pub. I realise this won’t be familiar to you as you won’t have read it so I don’t want to bore you with setting out a long exposition but what it comes down to is that there was a way of connecting the two settings - and the two main characters that were in those locations - by use of mirroring language.

If you imagine a boxing ring and the boxers taking part in the contest, think of the descriptions you need to include: The moving around in the ring, the shouts of the crowd and your corner, the wiping down of sweat and blood in the corner, the ringing of a bell to signal the rounds, the heightened states of emotions, to name just a few...

Now think of a pub or a bar: The cleaning of the glasses, the wiping down of the bar with towels, the loud shouting on a busy night, the crowds, ringing the bell at closing, heightened states of emotions (due to alcohol), etc.

Now compare the two… to contrast the situation the two characters find themselves in you can use these descriptions! But I didn’t! I overlooked this key technique! I’m very upset at myself! I'm using lots of exclamation marks! That's how upset I am!

I normally do look at this as part of my drafting, I think of how I can connect the various strands of the story together and I actively try and sow themes and undercurrents to enhance the story, add layers as is often called. So why on this occasion did I miss this? What does that say about me as a writer?

Why didn’t I subtly compare the bell ringing when my character gets up in the ring for the next round to get a beating, to the beating my other character feels she's had when the bell rings to signal the end of the night and she knows she has survived another shift. I won’t carry on, but just imagine the amount of connections and way of threading those connections between those two settings. It really would have added a great layer ot the story by increasing the emotional connect/disconnect they are feeling with their lives and each other. 

So, can I use the excuse of being a novice writer and say, it’s self publishing, it doesn’t matter as it's not meant to be as good as mainstream publishing? No, of course not. I should be striving to make my stories as good as they can possibly be and my target is for them to be high quality works and therefore by that standard should be works that a mainstream publisher would consider good enough for their organization (not that I have any intention of sending them anywhere, just in principle).

Yes, I am inexperienced, yes I am a novice and yes I have a very long way to go. But I can’t use those as excuses not to get better. I am extremely annoyed at myself for overlooking this and so I must be more conscious of it next time. I must work harder and examine closer. I must not rush. I have the feeling I am going to have several more self-face slapping moments in the years to come as I self publish more and in many ways this was a good lesson. You just have to keep going and the one thing I will keep in mind when these moments occur is what does it say about me as a storyteller and a writer? I never assumed that my first short stories or my first novels would be good but I had better learn these lessons quickly as I hoped my fifth, six and seventh would be…

Take care all,


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