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Sunday, 5 September 2010

Face to Face

With increasing numbers of literary festivals offering chances to meet experienced writing practitioners, I thought I’d look at the value of such one to one events.
I’ve been writing for more years than I care to count, starting with illustrated articles for the photographic press in my late teens before moving on to fiction. In all that time, I’ve repeatedly heard how face to face meetings with acknowledged experts can be inspiring. Until last year, I believed this was all so much hype. However, as part of the Beverley Literature Festival, the organisers made such an opportunity available for the first five applicants, at a third the usual cost. This was an inexpensive chance on my doorstep, too good for a Yorkshireman to miss. One quick phone call and my place was secured.
The brief: to provide the first 3 chapters or 10,000 words of a novel. I’d been editing the first volume of a fantasy novel for some time. It was a large work; standing at 340,000 words at the time. I posted my sample and awaited my date with novelist, Kachi A. Ozumba. I confess to some concerns: would an African novelist understand the genre? Would we get on at all?
I hadn’t read any of Kachi’s work as I wanted to avoid forming an idea of him as a writer that might prejudice my opinion of his evaluation.
The venue, yards from where I earn crusts to feed my family, I knew well. ‘Knock hard’ the invitation suggested, ‘Kachi will be locked somewhere inside.’ He appeared almost at once, beamed a smile of welcome, introduced himself and shook my hand whilst ushering me into the small office of the museum, where his laptop gently hummed on a table.
Kachi understood how important it is to structure criticism in a constructive way. He offered me refreshment and opened his comments with, ‘I enjoyed “Skyfire” (the provisional title – now changed to A Seared Sky) and thought your opening chapter drew the reader straight into the story. So, his first statement had me open to whatever followed. It’s clever psychology to give a subject praise to begin with, as it removes barriers that otherwise might arise when negative comment follows. Already we were on the right footing.
He’d prepared a printed version of his comments, which he handed me to read. His laptop showed my chapters with his highlighted observations, which he later sent me by email. The evaluation opened with a paragraph showing he understood my theme and praising my efforts whilst pointing out areas needing further work. He’d broken this into three headings; characterisation, plot and setting.
He liked my characters in general and found them rounded. But he expressed doubts about a male protagonist, feeling repeated instances of his messianic stance portrayed him as a ‘one-dimensional saint’. I agreed, as soon as he pointed it out. I’ve a tendency to proselytise and Kachi had spotted this example of that flaw very quickly. Clearly I needed to make Aklon-Dji more human. First vital lesson.
On plot, he enjoyed the opening chapter; full of action and conflict, but felt the next two chapters trailed off into sermonising (there goes that proselytising again!). He pointed out that I had Aklon-Dji telling the reader much of what was already known, so that his conversation with another character was largely redundant. I realised I must re-examine the MS for repetition and unnecessary beating of the reader about the head with my message. Second vital lesson.
On settings, he found my created world convincing and rich in detail. But he found my use of invented terms a little distracting, quoting a single sentence containing three such words. Third vital lesson; drip-feed this type of detail to the reader.
Later, when I read his brilliant novel, The Shadow of a Smile, I found something similar. Perhaps Kachi’s familiarity with African names made him unaware how strange they might appear to a British reader. This illustrates a point worth remembering: some genres allow more flexibility. In fantasy, readers are used to absorbing unusual names in quantity, so my inclusion of these was actually less of a problem. But I still needed to introduce them one at a time.
Kachi made a good many comments on the MS, most too long and detailed to include here. Because his written observations were combined with the conversation we had over our prescribed half hour, they had more resonance. Errors and mistakes in my writing, which I had always been vaguely aware of, became blindingly clear. Suddenly, I knew where I was going wrong. It’s no exaggeration to say that the meeting with Kachi changed my writing fundamentally and for the better.
I’m very lucky in two aspects of my writing life. First: my wife has an eagle eye for detail and spots repetition, non sequiturs and anachronisms with frightening facility. She points out those errors I miss by being too close to the work. Second: I belong to a very supportive and experienced writing group. Hornsea Writers (fully subscribed, I’m afraid) has amongst its members; Penny Grubb, crime novelist, university lecturer and Chair of ALCS, Linda Acaster, novelist, short-story writer and professional writing coach, Karen Wolfe, novelist and prize-winning short story writer, Madeleine MacDonald, translator, journalist, novelist and frequent contributor to the Yorkshire Post,
Avril Field-Taylor, crime novelist and short story writer, and short story writer, poet and generally funny guy, Rick Sumner. They have all helped me over the years I’ve belonged to the group but, until I met and talked face to face with Kachi, I never fully knew where my deficiencies lay. And this is in spite of the fact that much of what he highlighted had been pointed out by my writing group.
 
Exactly why that meeting made so many aspects of my writing come together and fall into place, I can only speculate. Perhaps it was hearing these words of wisdom from a stranger who showed that he knew what he was talking about. Perhaps it was his friendly approach combined with a professional attitude. Or, and this is more likely, it was because I had paid to hear his advice. It’s a cliché, but none the less true, that we value most what we pay most to acquire. Whatever the cause, the effect was certainly to make me examine my writing more honestly. And it has resulted in substantial improvements. My first drafts now need fewer alterations and finished pieces are better constructed, free of preaching, tighter and better paced.
 
There are many ways in which aspiring writers can gather constructive criticism of their work. Peer groups, such as writers’ circles and on-line communities, can offer valuable insights into your work. But beware of potential jealousies; not all criticism from your peers will be as impartial as that I’ve had from my own group. Many competitions offer critiques as part of the entry fee or for an extra sum. These are very variable but I’ve found Writers’ Forum short story critiques invaluable, and those issued by Fish Publishing are very good.
The important thing to take from criticism is, of course, the views of a visitor to your created world, someone who sees your construction from outside and therefore has a neutral view. You can either accept such reflections in a positive light or reject them as the ramblings of the prejudiced and jealous. I know which way I lean.
As a result of the many instructive and specific suggestions Kachi made in his analysis, I’ve now turned an MS of 340,000 words, full of authorial intrusions and repetitions, into a fast-paced, page-turning 277,000 word novel, losing 18.5% of baggage along the way. The result is a much better and very readable book.
I don’t kid myself that the reductions and changes I’ve already made will allow ‘A Seared Sky’ to be published as it stands. We all know publishers never produce what the author originally submits. But I now have an MS I can present to agents with some confidence that it will go further.
I was doubtful about the value of face to face meetings before this experience. After meeting Kachi, I happily recommend anyone looking for that moment of revelation to take advantage of the many opportunities that literary festivals and conferences provide
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