Saturday, September 06, 2014

It’s the words and sentences

Recently I went to a poetry workshop with Simon Armitage. While he said a lot of useful things, the one that was still ringing in my ears a few days later was this: “I might redraft a poem 12 or 15 times, and by the final draft usually every word that was in the first draft has been changed – to a better word.” He explained that he wasn’t talking about the words that join everything (and, but, the, etc) but the ones that are doing the work.

It reminded me of another event from a few years ago – four magazine editors talking about what they do as editors and what they publish. One, who had been writing and editing for many years, said when she first started, a lot of people were writing competent or very good stories that would get published. Now, competence or “very good” is not enough. You have to be a “stand out” in terms of character and plot and theme, but also in the actual writing, the craft.

These days a lot of people write and most of them want to be published. In a Brisbane Writers’ Festival session I went to yesterday, Isobelle Carmody said, “Lots of kids and teenagers write. They write whole books. So do lots of adults. But you get published because you rewrite and rewrite.”

So I think the question that comes out of all of this is – what do you do if you are writing and rewriting, and still not getting published? How do you work out what’s wrong, what part of the craft is still lacking? It’s too easy to say there will be an editor out there somewhere who loves your novel, because that means you disregard all those other editors who have said “not ready yet”. A lot of people also say that editors are wrong, or don’t understand what they’re trying to create, or only care about blockbusters, and so they self-publish.

Nothing wrong with self-publishing. If you do it for the right reasons and know what you’re doing (and paying some “publisher” $10,000 to publish your book is NOT self-publishing – you are getting scammed!).
But the question I’m trying to answer here is about what is lacking in your writing that means you are “competent” or “very good” but not yet publishable. You may not want to examine and change every word like Simon Armitage, but then again, maybe you should. Over the years, I have read many, many chapters of novels and some full manuscripts, sometimes for critiquing and often because they are students’ work for assessment. Sometimes it’s a plot issue (there isn’t a plot or it doesn’t hold together), sometimes it’s poor characterisation. But overwhelmingly what I see is a lack of craft at sentence and word level.

This might mean repetitions, redundancies, vagueness, bad grammar. But those are editing fix-ups. What pulls writing down into being something tedious to read are things such as:
·         * all the sentences are the same length
·         * the characters all sound the same
·        *  the writing and POV character have no “voice”, no rhythm, no cadence
·         * the writing is boring – no imagery, no metaphors, no fresh expressions

These things are harder to fix. They take a lot of awareness about the problem existing and acknowledging it is a problem (which is where the writers who realise it head for a good freelance critique or edit). Then they take a huge amount of work. Work at the word and sentence level, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. They take a revision where you might have to replace more than 50% of what you had originally written.

The bonus of this kind of hard work is that you will learn so much along the way that your writing will never be the same again (and it shouldn’t be – who wants to be just competent?). For me, every novel is about learning how to write that novel. Create that voice. Use that particular language, choose those particular words. The work I do won’t magically make the next novel easy, but it will help. And every novel that teaches me more about my own writing will make my writing better. I still think I have a long way to go with that, but the challenge keeps me interested, not just in the plot and characters, but the act of writing and then revising.


Sheryl Gwyther said...

Excellent article, Sherryl! Hope it's read far and wide. :)

Sherryl said...

Hope so! I really do think it's important.

Kristi Holl said...

Boy, you said a mouthful! I resonate with this both as a writer and a critiquer. I think even published writers make the mistake of "resting on their laurels" and thinking they've arrived. We always need to be studying and learning, and it's FUN!!! You know that yourself. :-) For language like you mentioned, a very practical workbook is VOICE LESSONS by Nancy Dean. It's a book of exercises teaching diction, detail, imagery, syntax, and tone, all the things you were talking about on the sentence level. Keep preaching it, Sherryl!

Sherryl said...

That sounds like a great book, Kristi - I must go and have a good look at it!

Anonymous said...

Hi you might be interested in some poems by Geelong poet colin leslie who is Australia's leading erotic poet -his poetry has been archived by the National Library of Australia for being of cultural value

"Gamahucher Press/colin leslie dean was selected for preservation by the National Library of Australia. This title is scheduled to be re-archived regularly. The publisher's site may provide more current information."
You can view/download all his free poetry from\

here is some of his Sufi/mystical poetry all free for view/download