It's coming up to that time of year when I have three classes worth of writing assignments to mark and give comments on. Around 100,000 words worth of short stories, about 100 poems (which can take as long as stories to comment on), and probably 30-40,000 words of children's chapter books.
We've been through the workshop mill. Each student has workshopped their piece and received comments. But what happens in the rewriting? It can be difficult to sort out which comments are useful, and sometimes people go off in the wrong direction. I often think the purpose of workshopping/critiquing is simply to develop your gut instinct - that thing that tells you when a story or part of a novel is not working.
John Marsden said once that he reads through a draft quite quickly, marker pen in hand, and just highlights anything that doesn't 'feel right' as he goes. He doesn't stop to analyse, but comes back later and looks at each marked sentence or paragraph (or even word) and tries to work out where the 'not right' feeling came from. It's a good way to work on your own.
I have a couple of students who are having to start their stories all over again. Editing and fiddling is not going to fix the central problem, which is nothing happens. We all do it. Get carried away with the writing, the character, the voice, the pleasure of putting down lots of words. But the story still needs to be about something, it still needs movement forward, in most cases it still needs plot and story questions to keep the reader engaged.
I talked to the class a little about epiphanies and revelations, and it seems to me that many short stories these days focus on those two things. Not only 'something happens to someone' but whatever happens leads to an epiphany for the main character. It may only be a small epiphany, but that's what the story hangs on. Even genre stories can work this way, weaving revelation/realisation into plot.
I have finished reading 'Leadbelly' - the book about the doings of Melbourne's underworld crime figures. A scary book. With scary photos. But it did give me good background information and ideas for something I'm working on.
At the moment, I'm reading Marlena Marchetta's new book 'On the Jellicoe Road'. And I just can't get into it. I'm up to page 100 and ... and ... I keep thinking it must be me. Maybe I'm not paying attention so that's why I don't understand half the time what is going on, who the characters are. I feel like she has been so deliberately mysterious that she's left me almost completely in the dark. I will persevere (because I paid $$ for this book) but by page 100 I expected more!