Criticism: dishing it out, sucking it up

Recently I’ve been working with a group of young writers, offering feedback on their works-in-progress. It’s got me thinking about critiquing and about receiving criticism. In my writing life I’ve experienced two broad categories of criticism, and lots of variations between: the first kind delivers renewed faith in my ability and energises me to tackle my writing problems; the second leaves me paralysed with despair, questioning whether I ought not just give it all away.

Can you relate to either of these experiences?

In this post I’m looking at tips to consider when giving and receiving criticism. A caveat: I am not a professional editor. I am a novelist and a teacher of creative writing with time spent on each end of the reviewing seesaw. If you’re up for it, join me on this crucial part of the writing journey. I would love your input.

Why have your work reviewed?

I have yet to find anything in the revision process that equals the value of frank, supportive feedback from a trusted reader. Novelist Robert Stone likens the revision process to trying to cut your own hair. You may sense that your story needs improving, but without a clear picture it’s hard to get it right. Stone says that an external reader may not be able to tell you how to style the material, but they can hold up a mirror to help you see beyond your normal range of vision.

Writer’s tip: during the manuscript process, carefully consider who you hope to review your work. Your family and friends may love every word you write, but unless they can pinpoint and articulate your story’s strengths and weaknesses, they are probably not the best means of advancing your story. An independent reviewer, a writing colleague, an astute reader, a teacher or mentor, one whose opinion you respect (perhaps even tremble at a little), may be better equipped to offer practical, productive guidance. This doesn’t mean you are compelled to agree with or act upon every point of call. You are the referee of your own story, free to consider each problem and solution.

First flush

The term first flush refers to the first plucking of a tea plant during harvest season, said to yield the purest tea the plant is capable of producing. A reviewer’s ‘first flush’ reading of your work, free of the echo of earlier drafts, is likely to offer the premium yield. That crucial ‘first read’ invites keen observations and astute queries. Unless you have an unlimited bank of trusted readers vying to see your work-in-progress, be strategic about who you will ask to read your work, and at which stage of the drafting process. If you have the luxury of more than one reviewer, look to each of them as yielding a ‘first flush’ reading. Invest wisely.

Writer’s tip: requesting someone to review your writing, especially a novel-length work, is a big ask, best approached with consideration. Such a review amounts to an extraordinary act of generosity and a monumental undertaking on the reviewer’s part. If the reviewer declines your request, be gracious. If they agree, be sure to acknowledge them for their time and input. Needless to say it would be poor form to expect someone to review your work if you were unwilling to contribute in kind.

Respect your reviewer

The degree of effort and attention a writer puts into their draft is sure to have a boomerang effect. When I read a work that demonstrates care and polish, I know I have been entrusted with something deeply important to the writer. But when a work is riddled with typos and poor grammar, where parenthetical notes indicate incomplete business, the review process feels disruptive, at worst dispiriting. You need your reviewer to be on your side, to see your commitment and to want you to succeed. Author Joyce Carol Oates likens the readers’ role to that of ideal editors: a friend of the text and a friend of the writer. Compare the interaction to any important endeavour: it wouldn’t be in your best interest to rock up to an interview without considering your appearance or preparing as best you can. Recently a writer emailed me their work for review. In the week that followed I received multiple updates with instructions to ignore the previous versions. A reviewer is donating their time and expertise. Enough said.

Encouragement, false praise and brutal blows

Do you remember your earliest days of creativity, when the act of forming letters on a lined page, or making up stories, or drawing or painting or colouring-in was unadulterated fun? Do you remember your earliest artistic creations and the joy you felt at a teacher or parent’s words of praise?

What went wrong?

Well, nothing went wrong, other than adulthood. The downside of developing and honing a skill is a rise in self-awareness and with it the inevitable onset of an inner critic. I respond positively to encouragement. We all do. I suspect so much of the child resides in us all. As I write, and when I review my writing, my inner critic is all too ready to give me a serve of self-doubt. I have to listen to that harsh little voice, I can’t ignore it, but left unchecked, our inner critic holds the power to unravel the positives: creativity, confidence, drive, motivation.

An external voice, one that is measured and perceptive, will look to both the strengths and shortfalls in your work. It will offer praise, encouragement, guidance. That said, is there a place for false praise? And how does the need for encouragement position words of actual criticism?

False praise is about as counterproductive as brutality. As a reviewer you are ultimately doing the writer a disservice not to be up front about areas of the writing that need work. At the same time, a sole focus on the negative does not offer a measured review. I haven’t yet read a piece of writing in which there wasn’t something to admire. Acknowledge those high points. I am mindful when asked to review a work of how far along the writer is in their journey. For some, this will be their first experience beyond school at receiving a review unquantified by a grade. As reviewers, the language we use is paramount. Match the tone and advice to the individual. Be clear. Be kind. Put yourself in the writer’s head and imagine receiving your review.

As for brutality, I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. The objective of a review is never to crush the writer’s confidence, but to enable the writer to see both the strengths of their work and where it may fall short—to offer strategies that advance the work to become the best that it can be. Writing is a courageous undertaking, a commitment of hours and effort, a never-ending school of learning. I’ve always loved this philosophy from my creative writing professor Dan Mueller at the University of New Mexico, back when I was a writing student. Dan’s words introduce a creative writing workshop, but can as easily apply to any writing or review situation:

I believe that every piece of fiction has contained within it the blueprint, or seed, of what it ultimately wants to be. For the author, fully realising a piece of fiction requires carefully listening to what the narrative is telling you during the act of composition, from the first sentence to the last, and at every stage of revision. In this way, pieces of fiction are born.  —Dan Mueller

How will a review best serve writer and reviewer?

Picture this: the writer has completed her third, sixth, thirteenth, nineteenth draft. Whichever number it is, she tells you she feels close to completion and asks for your feedback. Before undertaking a late-stage reading, it behoves reviewer and writer to clarify their intentions. Is the writer being clear (and honest) about what they want from a review? If it came to the crunch, would the writer be willing to discard and rewrite, or have they travelled way beyond that point? You may be asked to review a manuscript limited to word and line-level comments. Does the writer fully appreciate the time and expertise involved in any form of review? I was asked once to review a multi-page grant application. ‘It just needs a light edit,’ I was told. More of a light kidney transplant. Perhaps you’re being called upon because your particular expertise in life fits the subject matter of the work, independent of writing craft. Are you willing to tailor your reading to the request? If not, think carefully about taking it on.

Writer’s tip: isn’t there a part of us all just craving to be told that the work we have produced is genius? Before surrendering your manuscript for review, interrogate your motives. Consider who you are asking to review your work and what you are asking of them. If you are unwilling to receive criticism or act upon it, set your manuscript aside or submit it for publication.

Your thoughts

Was there a mentor who helped you overcome adversity or gave you faith in yourself? Was there an experience that altered your approach to writing or reading? Do you have advice to share? Drop me a line in the Comments box below or email me via this link. I would really, really love to hear your experiences.

Last gasp of a big year

dsc_3874-robyn-gary-at-maatsuykerWith my times away from home, my blogging pattern tends to be feast or famine. This week sees no nutritional lack. Despite spotty attendance I feel great personal reward in the interactions with readers and guests that maintaining a website generates. Imagine, then, a world with no internet, no email and no mobile coverage; then—as daunting as the prospect may be—picture me in that world for the next six months. Shortly, my partner Gary and I are off to remote Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, for a second term as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. While the island remains happily rodent and snake-free, it also remains staunchly internet-free, just like its old light keeping days, minus the carrier pigeons.

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground. ©Robyn Mundy

This has been a mega year for me with the launch of my second novel, Wildlight, a story set on Maatsuyker Island. I feel personally touched to have had many lovely responses from readers who in different ways have been moved by the story, along with the relief any writer feels on receiving favourable media reviews. This doesn’t come without the sting of the odd 1- or 2-star reader rating on Goodreads, but—Man-up, Robyn!—such is the nature of writing and reading. This year I also feel fortunate to be amongst the lucky few to receive a grant from Australia Council for the Arts toward my new novel in progress. Thank you, ACA, for considering the project worthy of support. Those of us who throw our hats into the ring for such funding understand how competitive and slim the prospects. There are so many talented writers deserving of success, combined with brutal slashes in funding for Australian Arts.

Between ship work and writing research, it’s been a scramble preparing for Maatsuyker Island, months in the planning with the need to provide 6 months of provisions for our island time. Imagine running short of coffee. Or wine. Or chocolate! Imagine forgetting to take books to read. It has been the mother of all shopping lists, let me tell you. As seasoned caretakers on Maatsuyker there will be no shortage of lawn mowing, brush cutting or maintenance tasks; thankfully, there will still be ample time to savour the beautiful island surrounds and to make solid progress on my new novel. Novel 3 will not be a sequel to Wildlight, though my Auntie Muriel is keen to know why I refused to write Wildlight‘s final chapter. 🙂 This new story is set in a vastly different wilderness, about as far away from Maatsuyker Island as is probable to venture.

Earlier in the year I was invited to write an article for Newswrite magazine on what attracts writers like myself to wild places. With permission from the New South Wales Writers’ Centre, I have reproduced the article below.

For now and always, keep safe and happy. Keep loving books. More from Writing the Wild in March 2017.

Robyn x

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Writing the Wild

This article first appeared in Newswrite Magazine, June 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the New South Wales Writers’ Centre.

When asked to consider why, as a writer, I feel drawn to wild places and isolation, I initially grappled for an answer, which led to this confession: forget about being a writer; the urge to experience places such as Maatsuyker Island and Antarctica where my novels are set, originates from purely self-seeking motives, from some deep well of longing to experience nature. As a novelist, the fascination for wilderness precedes all else; from immersion in its landscape comes story.

The Nature of Ice frontcov smallMy first novel, The Nature of Ice, draws on Antarctica, the backdrop of my life for nearly 20 years. I have wintered and summered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects that included a remarkable winter on the sea ice with emperor penguins. I am doubly fortunate to spend several months each year aboard a small ice-strengthened vessel, guiding adventure tours to Antarctica, the Arctic, and other wondrous outposts.

While the Antarctic wildlife rates as a huge drawcard, the ultimate spellbinding seduction for me is the ice. Being within it. That is not to imply some trippy state of serenity. If wonder is one face of awe, the other is a guarded caution in knowing how easily Antarctica can turn from beauty to malevolence. You can’t be in a wild place for long without respect for its might.

The first draw to Antarctica began with someone else’s story. As a young adult I read Lennard Bickel’s This Accursed Land, a dramatised account of polar explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Along with the iconic images of photographer Frank Hurley, the story of that thwarted expedition ignited my curiosity and imagination. How might such a hostile place feel, where nature determines everything? I had to find a way to go.

when_the_night_comesAs a contemporary Antarctic novelist, I am not alone in this draw to the frozen south. Favel Parret’s When the Night Comes has its origin in the history of Nella Dan, a former Australian Antarctic supply vessel. I posed the question to Favel: what attracts you to wild places?

‘At first I was drawn back into my childhood memories of the south of Tasmania. Mostly it was the child’s fear of the wild that I wanted to understand. Then at 27 came surfing and the feeling of wanting to be on the wild water, and wanting to find remote wild beaches that were pristine and free of concrete car parks and cars and houses. The clean waters of Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean became vitally important to me.’

Reflecting on the genesis of When the Night Comes: ‘Nella came first. I had to follow her and experience where she went. I had to go to sea and visit the Southern Ocean properly. On my first trip, to Macquarie Island, I found that I was in love with seabirds and could easily spend the rest of my life watching them. That trip was not enough; I had only scratched the surface and I knew I had to go to the ice. It was wonderful to experience Antarctica for the ten-day resupply at Casey Station, but it was the long journey at sea that felt most wild. The moments always changing, the ship always moving, new birds to watch, different whales to see, different swells to navigate. The wildness of that ocean speaks to me in so many ways and I would go again in a heartbeat. It is the wildest place I know.’

chasing-the-lightAuthor Jesse Blackadder also travelled south to understand Antarctica. Her novel Chasing the Light draws on the 1930s history of Ingrid Christensen, wife of a Norwegian whaling magnate. Ingrid and two unlikely female companions are each poised to become the first woman to land on Antarctica. Serendipitously, I recently met up with Jesse and asked which came first, the draw to Antarctica, or Ingrid’s story? Like me, like Ingrid Christensen, Jesse’s personal longing to experience Antarctica stretched back years, driven, in Jesse’s case, by images of wildlife and ice. Place first, story second.

All three Antarctic novels are fictional works inspired by history, yet the authors’ personal experience infuses an undeniable verisimilitude into their sense of place. Similarly, the voyage across a vast Southern Ocean to reach Antarctica is as fundamental to each story’s narrative arc as it is to the writer’s personal quest. For writers where place sits at the forefront of the work, it behoves us to connect with its landscape, to fully know it through personal experience or memory or research.

Wildlight front coverMy new novel Wildlight plays out on remote Maatsuyker Island off Tasmania’s South West. Here, my partner Gary and I spent four months living in isolation as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. The inspiration for Maatsuyker Island was triggered by a childhood at our family shack on the edge of the ocean. Maatsuyker amounted to a dot on the wall map, to a reputation for wild weather and the home of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse. Evening weather reports on Dad’s crackly transistor radio conjured images of light keepers trudging to and from the lighthouse in knockdown gales, of a place riven by storm and fearsome seas. As a child I wanted to know such a place. As an adult, I wanted to write it. Yet I couldn’t—not with credibility—until I had experienced it.

The sheer force of wild landscapes—their capacity to slough away the noise and clutter of urban life, to command our full attention, to beguile us with their majesty then strike with their hostility—preoccupies me as both a novelist and traveller. Each season on polar voyages I see fellow travellers ‘expanded’ by these other worlds. For some, like me, the experience is a form of meditation, the likes of which is largely unattainable in the workaday world. For others, the journey may mark a pivotal turning point. As sites of transformation, places of wilderness offer a bounty of riches for literary fiction.

It feels important to qualify that a love of nature—of any landscape—is not sufficient to sustain a work of fiction. Within the layers of a compelling story lies human conflict. It must. ‘Without the friction of conflict,’ says author Stephen Fischer, ‘there is no change. And without change, there is no story. A body at rest remains at rest unless it enters into conflict.’

Even during the lead-up to being on Maatsuyker, the anticipation of the island performed its alchemy, stirring characters into being and offering potential conflicts: what would months on Maatsuyker be like for a teenage girl dragged there by her parents, removed from her friends and the comforts of home? What if that family were isolated from each other, grieving for the death of a child? What would the surround of ocean mean for a 19-year-old deckhand who fears the sea and holds a premonition that some day it will take him? And the big question: how do I make best use of island and ocean in a story where these lives collide?

I strive to make place dynamic, to function as a fickle, layered character. Landscape holds a capacity to not only reflect the inner turmoil of characters, but to shape and transform. Who better, it seemed to me, than two young people at odds with their landscape, still making themselves up as they go along?

On a recent walk to a wilderness lookout, I happened upon an interpretative sign with this, by author-environmentalist Aldo Leopold: Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The challenge for the writer remains one of language: to fathom the meanings of wild places through the characters that inhabit them.

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Top Shelf: interview with Cate Kennedy

During the 2015 Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival*, I attended a Master Class run by Australian author Cate Kennedy, whose fiction I love, admire and have learned so much from in my own writing journey. I soaked up every minute of the class discussion on writing, along with Cate’s insights in response to questions from fellow writers.

It should come as no surprise that Cate’s short stories have touched thousands of readers. She has won awards for her two collections, Dark Roots and Like a House on Fire. Equally, she was celebrated for her debut novel The World Beneath, with the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ People’s Choice. Her poetry collection, The Taste of River Water: New and Selected Poems, was awarded the CJ Dennis Prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. When I consider that breadth of writing, it’s quite a roll call.

Recently, the gracious Cate eked out time to consider these questions for Top Shelf. Whether you are a reader of fine fiction, an emerging or an established writer, or would simply like to know more about a remarkable story teller, read on.

When did you first realise that writing was something you could excel at?

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Cate Kennedy

CK: At school I recall realising I could excel at ‘composition’ and essay-writing, because I was always such a huge reader, but that excelling is a very different thing to stepping out onto the tightrope of creativity. That feels more like renouncing learned expertise, and admitting yourself a beginner every time you sit down at the desk. I was thinking the other day what a long spell of ‘not-writing’ I had when I finished school and university, and realised it was almost exactly the same number of years I’d spent in the education system – fifteen years altogether. So maybe the more important realisation was the unlearning, and then finding compelling enough reasons to return to it after such a long time of avoiding it.

When you look back on your earlier stories, do you see a shift or development in how and what you write now?

CK: I do see a shift when I look back at earlier stories. I see I was more tentative about just trusting my reader to make connections themselves, based on what I was attempting to show them. This is everyone’s early problem, I think: lack of confidence makes us tentative and hesitant, and we don’t take risks, so our writing seems to lack that boldness and verve we strive for. Developing a voice takes a long time and doesn’t seem, to me, to be something you can do abstractly or by theory alone – you have to learn it through the writing. Now I try to worry less, and not overthink it – just imagine a kind of telepathic conversation happening between me and the reader.

I am frequently touched by your capacity to inhabit a character, and to imbue even the most unlikely character with empathy. Farmer Frank Slovak in Flexion comes to mind. Can you speak about these qualities?

CK: Thank you for that response. There’s a temptation to want everything to be simpler and more coherent in a story than it feels in real life, but I keep finding (both in fiction and in real life, actually) that while dilemmas and predicaments can be clear and cogent, humans (and characters) demand a bit more time and effort. We’re complex. We self-sabotage. We’re fallible. For a sense of realism and empathy, and to create character dimension, I keep returning to this question of human fallibility. If a character seems two-dimensional, recognising their complexity and trying to step into their skin to do it feels like a way to humanise them. Then they feel realer to me, and something occurs to me that I can plausibly make happen to them to make what they’re trying to keep hidden break the surface. This is true of ‘antagonists’ as well. Our first instinct is to make a black-and-white world where people get what they deserve and learn a moral lesson, etc etc, because we’re brought up on fables and myths which work to gratify that yearning in us.  But to humanise an antagonist, to make a reader practise empathy; when I add those dimensions to a character, another layer opens up. I like that quote “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.”

Setting modesty aside, what do you feel is the greatest personal quality you bring to your writing?

CK: If I can render effectively the way an ordinary person deals with the crazy shit life throws at them in a way which shows a core of integrity fighting to the surface, I’m happy with that.

The World Beneath is an award-winning debut novel that plays out in the Tasmanian wilderness. Were there particular challenges in shifting from short fiction to writing a novel-length work?

CK: There sure was. Try spinning a plate on a stick so it doesn’t fall off and smash, and when you feel you’ve almost got that under control, try setting up nine more plates to spin perfectly and simultaneously. Oh, and don’t forget you’re doing it in front of an audience.  Anyone who’s ever written a novel will know how daunting it is, and how much of your focus and mental energy it demands. I’m deep in the throes of attempting another one, though, so in a way it’s back into the wilderness, trying to find my way out.

As an established writer, do you still draw on feedback from trusted readers as part of your writing process?

CK: I do have a few trusted readers, the people who know my strengths and weaknesses and can point out ‘tics’ which are invisible to me, which can be very enlightening. In the end, though, you’re by yourself in a room, relying on your own instincts, pursuing a vision it’s very difficult to articulate before you’ve got it on paper and can look at it yourself with fresh eyes, to see what you’ve accidentally revealed to yourself. After that tricky generative phase, I’ve found the ‘crafting’ decisions are easier, which is a relief. Getting into a ‘generative’ state of mind, though, is harder – it’s a brainwave state, pretty much, rather than a learned expertise – like daydreaming. The less analysis and second-guessing involved in this state, the better. So I like to have something pretty well-drafted before I show it to anyone else for feedback. Otherwise it can feel like a story written by a committee, and I always feel then like I’ve failed to do my original idea justice. Editorial feedback from a trusted reader whose opinion you respect, though, who’s paying your work close attention: that’s gold.

Can you offer reader-writers a single piece of advice based on your approach to these aspects of craft:

CK: I’ll give it a try!

Character: make up someone who wants something but can’t get it, and doesn’t really get why. Just let them pull you around.

Conflict: The engine of fiction. Try seeing it as duress or pressure. Or heat.

Dialogue: We’re not listening to what’s said, we’re listening for what’s not said.

Language: Sensory, specific, and visceral. Read every day and take note of what moves you.

Openings: Show me someone in revealing action, and trust that I’m paying attention.   Set up something you’re going to pay off later, to indicate that you’ve got your hands on the wheel in terms of structure and shape, and I’ll follow you anywhere.

Pace: Here’s a test of the author’s authority – can they control the pace at which their reader is absorbing and comprehending what’s on the page, while making sure they’re completely oriented about why it matters? Can they render ‘blow-by-blow narrative action’ so it feels real and compelling? Can the writing create a physiological response in a reader, like increased heart-rate, tears, or shortness of breath? Is it immersive? Here’s a very simple tip: practise writing good sentences. Vary their length. Let their tone and pace mimic the emotional experience they’re describing. Write so that someone can lose themselves in your subject matter and not be aware of the ‘writing’ itself.

Resolution: The writer, hopefully, has come out of the story a slightly different person than they were when they went in. So, hopefully, has the character. So, if you’ve managed to pull it off in a sort of miraculous alchemical transfer, has the reader.

Closings: Don’t be tempted to tell the reader what you’ve just eloquently shown them. Trust imagery. Pay attention to what happens in life.

Critiquing your own drafts: Read them aloud, in front of strangers. Feels terrible, right? So don’t do that again. Learn to hear your own faults through your own ‘ear’, so you know if you’re in tune, in pitch, or flat, then when they feel as finished as you can make them, share them with someone whose opinion you value, who doesn’t feel the need to shore up your self-esteem.

A favourite recent read?

CK: George Saunders’ Tenth of December is an amazing collection I often dip back into to be inspired by its sheer bravura. Waiting for me on the bedside table is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

Finally, and importantly, what is something you treasure about your life?

CK: I treasure having a private life, and all the friends I have made through struggling on with the writing – other writers who’ve turned me in new more coherent directions, enlightening conversations about ideas, the joys of finding your ‘tribe’. And of course, stories. That’s what it’s all about now for me – the relationships and the stories. That’s become the connective tissue. It’s so strange, isn’t it, how creating fictional stories gets you to something that feels so unmistakeably true?


*The next Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival takes place in Hobart in September 2017

 

 

Fiction, Voice and Vision for Great Nonfiction

A great blog offering tips to writers via Marsha at Writing Companion.

WritingCompanion

TED_Talk_photo_4-330Voice & VisionStephen J. Pyne’s book  about writing nonfiction, starts with the question: Why do we write?

Many unpublished writers dream of garnering fame and fortune. Pyne doesn’t think these aims provide a practical impetus for writing. He suggests that the genuine triggers for writing include our desire to connect with readers by entertaining them, helping them understand a topic, or providing fulfillment.

It’s not enough to come up with a great topic. Many people can think up an idea that could be developed into a book-length manuscript. But few end up with a finished manuscript. Why?

According to Pyne, some simply don’t have time to write. I’d add that some don’t make the time for writing. Others lack the motivation, skills, or knowledge to develop their ideas in terms of a major writing project.

Even writers who succeed in creating a finished manuscript may hit a brick wall when it comes to publication. One can self-publish. But…

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Image of the week

©Robyn Mundy_IMG_0287 ThunderstorMaatsuyker Island–2010-12-06_lowres

Storm front off Maatsuyker Island. ©Robyn Mundy

On a day of screaming winds and rain squalls right across this island state of Tasmania, I am reminded of this rain-bearing front approaching Maatsuyker Island. Within minutes Maatsuyker was deluged. During the writing of Wildlight I frequently drew upon my island photographs; this one helped build a scene for a destructive storm that would leave its mark on a fleet of fishing boats as well as those on the island.

The reluctant writer

Author Annabel Smith, who I interviewed a little while back (just scroll down), has launched a new series on her website called Coming to Writing. Annabel invited me to share my circuitous journey to becoming a writer. I’ve titled it The Reluctant Writer and you can link to it here.

Publishing: getting the word right

The Editor

Thinking back to my debut novel, The Nature of Ice, in truth I found the first phase of editing—a developmental review—big and daunting. I felt I could never fully achieve what was asked of me. (Having said that, I was acutely aware of the editorial ‘critic’ whispering in my ear throughout the writing of Wildlight.) When it came to publishing Wildlight, I approached the editing with trepidation. Could I meet the demands? Would I want to? As fortune had it, the editing of Wildlight turned out to be a gentle and joyful experience. Picador’s editor JULIA STILES introduced herself with a cover letter detailing her thoughts on the story—praise, questions and suggestions, along with this reassurance: I just want to stress that any suggestions I have made are exactly that – suggestions; use those that resonate with you and disregard the rest. Julia’s cover letter, along with the annotated manuscript, assured me of how closely and astutely the editor had engaged with the text. Just as importantly, she seemed to genuinely like and believe in the story, inviting a relationship where I remained ultimate arbiter. I was in!
Here, I invite Julia Stiles to speak about the role of book editor. Her conversation is packed with valuable information for writers and readers. For those like me who welcome practical writing advice, be sure to read Julia’s thoughts on the revision process.
Over to Julia, who begins by sharing something about herself:
JS: When I was in my early twenties I had my palm read. I was about to leave my life in Sydney and sail aIMG_5809 Julia Stilesway on a yacht; naturally I was wondering what the heck I was doing and what awaited me on the high seas. Somewhat unexpectedly, the palm reader told me I would live surrounded by cows. Naturally I dismissed him as a phony but in fact he turned out to be right. Ever since I have been surrounded by cows — up in the Whitsundays for ten years and now down here in Bega on the far south coast of New South Wales. When I look up from my
desk I see rolling green hills and well-fed Friesians. Actually, I try not to look up from my desk too often because a) such loveliness is distracting, and b) I might notice my teenagers running riot through the rest of the house.

How did you get into book editing?

IMG_5647 Bega rolling hillsJS: Oddly enough, when I was about twenty I woke up one morning with the thought in my head that I was going to be an editor, even though I didn’t have the first clue what an editor did. I was at uni in England at the time and the careers adviser laughed at me and told me I should become an accountant. Thankfully I came to Australia instead because I have the sneaky suspicion I would have ended up in jail for embezzlement. In Sydney I sent out my cv to every publisher in town, still completely ignorant of what an editor did. Thankfully James Fraser, then the publishing director at Pan Macmillan, offered me a job as his secretary. Whilst I was proving myself incompetent at that I was given the opportunity to read through the slush pile and then eventually to learn from two very skilled editors – Jane Palfreyman and Fiona Giles – who gradually trained me up into an editing role.

What do you regard as key qualities of an effective editor?

JS: For me the most important quality is to be able to listen very carefully to a writer’s intentions. This means being able to silence your own inner voice in order to inhabit someone else’s words. When I am editing I am not trying to fix anything or to impose my meaning on the text. I’m trying to help the writer to clarify their intentions, to find those areas of the manuscript they themselves are uncertain about, and to explore and trust in their own capacity to find the necessary solutions.

It’s important, too, to be a sensitive and perceptive reader. When I first started editing I had never studied the mechanics of writing but instinctively, having read so much, I understood how stories were put together. I don’t think you can be an effective editor, or writer for that matter, if you’re not an experienced reader.

How important is the relationship between author and editor?

JS: It’s the quality of the relationship that is most important – a writer needs to trust their editor and to know that they are valued and respected. It very much depends on the individual author how significant their relationship is with an editor. I’ve worked with some very successful writers who don’t place a great deal of importance on the relationship — as long as the quality of the relationship is high, they will work with any editor; they don’t need that continuity of care and insight to produce terrific work. On the other hand I’ve worked with writers for whom a personal ongoing relationship with their editor is paramount. One author I worked with for many years said that editing was like taking her clothes off in front of someone and she was only prepared to do that in front of me! The relationship can be extremely dynamic and creative and productive, but I don’t kid myself that an author isn’t able produce great work without me.

I felt that the editing empowered and contributed to the creative strengths of Wildlight. What result do you strive for? Do you have a memorable moment?

Wildlight front coverJS: I love your description of the editing of Wildlight and that was exactly what I hoped for. More than anything I want a writer to learn to trust themselves – as you say, to feel empowered to trust in their own creative capacity. It’s very satisfying when an author says, yes, I knew that wasn’t quite right but I didn’t know how to fix it, and then, simply through the process of having their manuscript reflected back to them, they find exactly the right solution. This is a very enlivening process, for them and for me.

Funnily enough, it’s not the moments I remember that are most significant. Often I will say something quite unremarkable and it will trigger in the writer a cascade of productive ideas. It’s not me doing the work; it’s the writer.

Does it ever happen that an author outright rejects editorial suggestions? How do you overcome differences?

JS: Actually, I’m delighted if an author thinks carefully about my suggestions and then rejects them. (If they reject my ideas without careful thought, well that’s their prerogative too.) I’m not the authority on their manuscript, they are, and if they think something isn’t going to work they need to trust their own judgement not mine. My sense is that differences tend to be minimised and are more easily overcome if you have communicated to the author the ways in which you appreciate their work. It’s easier for them to trust your response if they know you have read their manuscript with care, empathy and respect.

What might surprise the everyday person about the editing role?

JS: Perhaps that the role exists at all. People often seem to think that the writer sits down and produces the work pretty much word for word as it appears in the finished book. They’re not aware that sometimes quite a considerable amount of developmental work has been done, or that in some circumstances the editor has in effect rewritten the book.

How would you define a great book?

JS: For me there’s a distinction to be made between great literature and great books. Great literature, well, that’s endlessly debated and very much depends on your cultural, historical and personal context. A great book, for me anyway, can be defined by its impact on the reader (and it may or may not be considered great literature by other people). A great book shifts something in your internal world; it creates ‘slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious’ (to borrow from WG Sebald). A great book makes you experience the world in a different, more expansive way. It opens you up to life, even if occasionally that opening is savage.

Before ever submitting a manuscript to a publisher, many writers spend a lot of time rewriting. Speaking for myself, it’s never easy to switch hats from writer to self critic. Do you have advice on ways an author can approach the revision process?

JS: Give yourself time. Put the manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can, so that when you return to it, it seems unfamiliar to you. Basically this is what an editor is bringing to your manuscript – perspective. Pay attention to the small voice that tells you something isn’t quite working; invariably it’s right and what is holding you back from listening to it is weariness or boredom. When you get stuck, set the manuscript aside and daydream; walk, swim, garden, dream – do anything but try to find a solution. It’ll come eventually, often in an unexpected way.

Of course saying ‘give yourself time’ is all very well, but time is often in short supply in publishing, not to mention in our daily lives. If you have a deadline I would recommend having a clear plan for your revision process. The following process reflects the way I work; it may not suit you, so find your own way with it.

Firstly, read the manuscript from start to finish without changing a word (this is surprisingly difficult to do). Then try to think about the story as a whole. You’re looking for a general impression, as though glancing at the story out of the corner of your eye. When you come to look at it head on (that is, when you look at it scene by scene, line by line) those initial impressions will fade (or you’ll try to ignore them), but in fact they’re an extremely valuable guide. Think about which parts were satisfying, which weren’t; what didn’t make sense; where the pace slowed; which characters were vivid, which flat.

Once you’ve identified the patchy areas, go in scene by scene and try to understand how each one contributes to the storytelling, or how it holds it back. I like the technique Ford Maddox Ford and Joseph Conrad called progression d’effet: ‘we agreed that every word…must carry the story forward and, that as the story progressed, the story must be carried forward faster and faster and with more and more intensity’. Think about how those scenes might change, and what effect this will have on the rest of the novel.

When you’ve made those broad changes to individual scenes, then start looking line by line at the whole manuscript. (Yes, it’s a long process, but many writers I have worked with say they enjoy the revision process.) Read aloud to someone if you’re not sure whether something sounds right or makes sense.

It’s helpful to show your work to readers whose judgement you trust, but make sure they are prepared to be honest with you, and you are prepared to hear what they say without holding it against them.

Are you able to switch hats, to go from editor to everyday reader? Do you have a favourite book?

JS: Yes, thank goodness, otherwise one of the greatest pleasures and consolations of my life would become confused with work. I read as an everyday reader all the time but I’m very choosy about what I read and I don’t persevere with a book just for the sake of it. I have so many favourite books it’s impossible to choose only one.

Huge thanks to Julia Stiles for this wonderful interview.