The Guardian/UAE creative writing course I began in September has finished. My sabbatical leave in Suffolk is well underway; I’m ensconced in the caravan with laptop and acres of time to write. I’ve begun work proper on the third draft of my novel. So, how’s it going?
Not bad, is my tentative conclusion so far. Finally, after all the lessons of the course, I have time to sit down, quietly, to put them into practice. One of my fellow students put it well when he said that the course hadn’t exactly given him the answers he needed for his book – ‘but I have a better class of problem’.
I’ve learned an enormous amount, courtesy of tutor Gillian Slovo and the other students. The first lesson was not to confuse story-telling with plot. My first draft was heavy with plot; characters had conversations simply to exchange facts that I wanted the reader to know, and their motivation was driven by the requirements of the plot, rather than their own wants and needs. Not surprising – when you write a first draft, you don’t know your characters. They don’t come into focus until you’ve lived with them, written them for a while. You start to know that your protagonist would react in a certain way to a certain situation, however inconvenient that might be for the writer. Then you need to go back to the beginning and start again, with that knowledge.
The second lesson was to listen hard to criticism. Not always to accept it, but always to listen, weigh it up, think about it. Even if I disagree with the point being made, the reader has identified a potential problem, a snagging point that bothers them. If I don’t address it, I’m doing any future reader a disservice. As someone said, easy writing makes for hard reading, and vice versa. There have been times when I wonder about the usefulness of peer criticism in the context of creative writing classes. But with this class in particular, the thought that went into the critique meant it was foolish to dismiss anything anybody said.
Finally, I learned that I need to take time with my writing. After a career in journalism, writing to a deadline with the editor breathing down your neck, that doesn’t come easily. There’s a point with any article when you think: ‘That’ll do.’ The trouble is, when you’re writing fiction, it probably won’t. I was told time and again to stay with my characters, let the reader know what was happening in their heads, how they felt about the events happening around them, why they took the decisions they took. I have a tendency to cut to the chase, sketching out a set-up, then racing through to what I think of as the exciting bits, without establishing the reality of the situation. As I was told, there’s no point in me knowing that a character behaves in a certain way because 0f his back story, if I omit to get any of the back story onto the page.
So, I began the course with a first draft of 80,000 words – and I finished it with a third draft currently standing at about 13,000. There’s a long way to go. As I keep telling myself, there’s no hurry, no editor waiting, tapping his watch. Only the knowledge that, come 29 July, I’m due back in the office. That still sounds a reassuringly long way off.