by R.J. Harrison
Just the other day, determined to clear out junk before the offspring have to do it, I came across a short story I wrote as a teenager, complete with a typed rejection slip from a magazine that is now defunct. It put me off creative writing for decades.
Back in the saddle, I have rediscovered how much of a craft writing is. My juvenile adventure story had all the passion and no technique. I pretend to others, and sometimes myself, that being an author is nothing more than leapfrogging writer’s block and letting all that creative prose pour out onto the page. When I read posts by other would-be authors, that appears to be their opinion too. Wherever will they get their ideas from, and what colour should the book cover be? Typewriter, laptop, or pen? Nothing about adverbs, Oxford commas or dodgy dialogue.
Personally, I am stuffed with ideas, the book cover is someone else’s problem, and my biggest challenges are point-of-view, show-and-tell, and continuity. How is it that a character I killed off in chapter two pops up in chapter twelve unbidden, and right as rain? Dodgy plotting, too.
The one thing an aspiring writer needs is a beta-reader or two and preferably many more. Your friends and family will not cut the mustard. They’ll be far too fond of you to tell you the truth. They will give you what you and the rest of us desperately want. Affirmation. To be liked, and to have our work enjoyed. They will encourage and support you, but what we need to improve is honesty.
More than that, we need honesty from people in the same boat. Writers who can add to our arsenal of skills and techniques by pointing out not only where our efforts are not working, but who can also suggest ways to put our compositions right.
That’s one reason I joined Writers of Whitstable. For a start I don’t feel so lonely tapping away under the shadow of a lethal pandemic, a bewildering Brexit, and fascism lurking in the wings across America. That’s an Oxford comma. Right there after ‘Brexit’. I look forward to monthly meetings, come rain or shine, with other writers who can help me and who, sometimes, I can assist in return.
A case in point is my short story ‘Taken for a Ride’. That too earned a rejection slip from a competition panel, without the least comment as to why it was rubbish. That’s how it often is. So, what was wrong with it? The Writers of Whitstable licked their lips and got stuck in. Amongst their number are published writers, a dramatist, copy editor and others who really know what they’re doing.
‘Taken for a Ride’ was inspired by a piece I read in New Scientist magazine. It turns out there’s plausible evidence for something called Quantum Gravity. Amongst other implications, one QG concept is the notion that whilst our time is going ‘forwards’ time may also be running ‘backwards’ in a parallel dimension. So, what, I thought, might happen if you met yourself going the ‘other’ way in time?
I wrapped it up with a bit of romance and scenery from Reculver. Lobbed in a few metaphors such as trains going to and fro on the same line and boats going up and down the Swale. Lots of science stuff too. The point at which the self meets the self is called the super-position. Brilliant. Except it wasn’t, as my rejection slip proved and my critical friends in W.o.W pointed out.
I had rather laboured the science bits, and got so lost in the implications and explanations, that no-one cared about the characters. In fact, although it all made sense to me, it didn’t make sense to readers. They were taken for a ride and didn’t like the journey one bit. That is the value of beta-readers. They can be usefully frank. As one of them put it:
‘You don’t need to explain. It’s creative writing, and could be at Reculver, or on Mars if you like.’
He was right, and it was enlightening too. I didn’t need to persuade readers it was possible, or plausible. Fiction is entertainment. It simply had to feel like it was true to the reader, and for that, I had to stay closer to what the main character was thinking and feeling.
That understanding alone was liberating, and looking back over the last year, I suspect my writing has improved not only through practice, but because of the helpful and entirely free feedback from W.o.W members. If you want to write, and you want real support and appraisal, then why not give W.o.W a try?