I’ve recently been contacted by a former student, asking if I’d like to read the novel he was getting ready to submit to an agent. As I’ve been going through the process of finding an agent myself and frequently call upon the support and advice of my own writing community I wanted to offer him a bit of encouragement. And so I said yes.
This situation has happened plenty of times before so I have no excuse. I should have known better.
Normally, things pan out like this:
The budding novelist (either student, former student, or friend who has a story to tell) will ask me to ‘glance over’ their project. They’re excited that they’ve completed their short story or novel and they want to share it with someone who can appreciate it for what it is – a soon to be discovered masterpiece. Then, the moment I open their document or turn to the first page my editing instincts kick in. Things generally go downhill from there.
Ten or twelve years ago, a neighbour gave me the manuscript she had written. It was a memoir of sorts, telling of her youthful struggles with her sexual identity and a crush she had had on a teacher. It was a story which was difficult for her to write on many levels, and it was deeply, deeply important to her. What she wanted, I realise now, was validation and empathy. But that’s not what I gave her.
The memoir recounted her growing awareness that she was attracted to ‘the wrong gender’ and the confusion and domestic trauma which resulted. It was an honest portrait of how she came to be the person she was. But I only saw the poor narrative structure and the lack of tension and the awkward syntax. I hyper-focused on her incorrect use of semicolons (writing the rules for their use in the margins so she would know better next time) and pointed out inconsistencies in verb tense. And I helpfully crossed through lengthy passages which served no narrative purpose or repeated information already given.
I scrawled my corrections and suggestions all over her story in bright red biro, then handed the manuscript back to her, telling her that more work was needed. Much more.
And she never spoke to me again.
It is not my intention to go squashing the hopes and dreams of budding writers and even less so, to hurt the feelings of someone who has worked up the courage to share their personal journey with me. That experience with my former neighbour taught me to distinguish between ‘serious writers’ and people with a story to tell, and to treat them differently when it comes to providing feedback. And I have learned to sandwich my constructive criticisms between thick slices of wholemeal praise.
When I was teaching Creative Writing, I put a lot of emphasis on the need to ‘craft’ a story. The first draft might come swiftly or it might need to be wrestled onto the page, but in either case it will – without exception – need to be reworked to some degree to get the imagery and the characterisations right and to ensure the pitch and pacing suit the overall narrative. Raymond Carver, I told my students, regularly did 20 to 30 drafts of a story – and that was before handing them over to Gordon Lish. And Alice Munro claimed to do as many as 80 before she was satisfied that a story was finished. I impressed upon them, in Hemingway’s words, that ‘first drafts are shit’ and that ‘good writing is rewriting’. Writing is not easy, I told them. It’s graft. Hard graft.
So when my former student sent me his novel recently, I knew he’d been taught about the process of writing. I also knew he had a gift for creating vivid and fantastical worlds and that he was highly prolific. Since graduating from university three years ago he told me, he’d written four novels. Four. Novels.
I began making notes almost as soon as I opened his document and started to read. ‘The voice sounds too young for a sixteen-year-old boy’ I scribbled onto a notepad. Then moments later, ‘now he sounds far too old – would he really use a word like “curmudgeon”?’ I soon switched to using Tracked Changes so I could make annotations right on the script. And then I really got going. I began changing the syntax and substituting words. I highlighted whole paragraphs which contained too many, too long and complex sentences, and commented about the benefits of varying sentence length and structure. I reminded him that short sentences helped to create tension, and asked whether it was important the reader should know what the character ate for dinner last night in such precise detail. And I corrected one comma splice after another. By the time I’d finished the first chapter, I was exhausted. And when I looked back through the pages I saw there was more red text on the screen than there was black.
I tried to be gentle with my feedback. I apologised for my pedantry about semicolons and assured him the story itself was ‘great’. I told him that this, the third draft, was ‘almost there’ and that he should ‘keep going’. But more work was needed. Much more.
To his credit, he took my comments well. He’s developed the necessary thick skin to protect himself from being mortally wounded. And he agreed with many of the points I'd made. But still, I know he was disappointed. He’s worked hard on his novel and he’s ready to move on to the next.
After seven drafts of my own novel, I understand that. I'm ready to move on, too.