About six months ago, I joined a writer’s group. We meet once a month and critique each other’s work, all prose fiction: sometimes an extract of a novel, sometimes a short story, sometimes a whole novel. The group read my novel (all 105,000 words) and gave me feedback on Monday night. Seven different opinions of my work.
It is easy when you are in shock to absorb only what is negative – a little like trailing through reviews of your book and only seeing the bad ones. The good takes a while longer to trickle through.
After a day feeling tired and disillusioned, fighting the half of my brain that told me: Right, this is it – the END. I’m never writing another novel in my life! Get your priorities right: Do the washing. Tidy the house, for God’s sakes! I slowly thawed. I had an important party in the evening – my literary agent’s 50th anniversary, with lots of publishing types and authors. I was tired. I was grumpy. It was not good timing. But actually it was, and it was the best ending to my day, as I spent much of the night comparing notes with other writers about their writer’s groups, their dramas and pitfalls, and I felt normal again. We all agreed how important it is to have intelligent readers, and indeed how lucky we are. I slumped into bed and my brain processed it all, not just the conversations I’d had, but also some of the suggestions that had been made by my group. And in my sleep I found my solution.
This morning, I awoke to be reminded of the magic of writing. Last night, on coming home, I logged into Twitter and a fellow writer Julia Bell had posted this quote, by Susan Orlean:
‘[Writing is] private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.’
This private element of writing is what can make having a critique of your work-in-progress so painful. So often the work you present exposes parts of yourself: you have been struggling over it for many years, thinking, reworking, slashing and burning; delving deep. But most of us want an audience. And perhaps good writing comes from this process: making what’s private, into something public.
The other element of this quote that I love is that so much writing happens invisibly. Due to pressure of time, I try to stick to my quota each day, but sometimes that can be counterproductive. I couldn’t work yesterday – anything I attempted to write would have been a mess. But after a relaxing evening, my brain eased, and, while I slept, it sorted out my problems for me. During the course of the night I woke with a thought about plot, and said to myself: Ah, I must remember that; that’s important. I turned over and searched through the dark for my notebook, but then reassured myself that my subconscious would be good enough. I even had two new ideas for a title. When I was woken by my children and had to engage with their needs, clothes, breakfast, shoes and coat, off to school, I tried to recall all the wonderful ideas I’d had in the night, but my mind was blank until I closed the front door and crawled back into bed. Then I wrote it all down, and found the solution to a problem I didn’t realise I had until my writer’s group pointed it out, and my clever brain ticked away as I slept. I may not have struggled over new words at the computer, but I have done much more besides, and now feel ready to give my novel one final push.
I am reminded of this Ali Smith quote: ‘I want to make a book so strong that you can hit it with a hammer and it doesn’t fall apart. That’s all.’ And very few writers can get to this point without the help of clever people around them: readers, agents, editors. That is all.