This year I’ve read and adored The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. Reading an interview with her, I learned that she has a group of people who read her drafts and comment on them.
Now in the traditional school of creative writing, it is bad juju to reveal what you are doing at any stage. I’ve always believed this, even though I can’t stop talking if someone asks me the right question (e.g. ‘how’s it going?’). Given MDR’s success, especially with structure and plotting, I thought I’d try it.
There is a reading group in that geographic location called Wessex which features on no map (Wessex people all know who they are). As my work-in-progress is set in the Iron-Age in proto-Wessex, it seemed apt to approach them for help. They agreed and my writing life changed forever.
I send them 30 pages a fortnight. In that fortnight, I strive to get it right. I can no longer put off decisions (as to whether she is red-head or brunette, he lives or dies) but must make up my mind now. With these mini-deadlines, I feel like a professional. Back pain limits the time I’m at the computer and, with 15 minutes before the wolf howls (see the Howler app), I use it to propel the work along rather than twisting back and forth on my typing chair saying ‘Ummmmmmm…..’. Or, worse, doing online jigsaw puzzles. Emails are building up horribly, like the dust. But this is how the writer should be: writing.
At a car boot sale recently, I bought a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. (There were several books of interest on that elderly lady’s bench – I wish I’d paused to talk to her, as she sought to rid herself of her life’s enthusiasms). In that excellent book, King recommends the same thing, saying that early drafts should be done with the study door closed but there comes a time to work with the study door open.
Not quite sure how to put the process into action, I wrote to MDR to ask her advice. Here is the answer:
When I’m sending a ms. to a new reader, I usually say, “I can’t fix things if I don’t know they’re broken, so I need you to tell me when something doesn’t work for you, whether it’s clunky dialog, a tangled sentence, or a confusing paragraph. If your eyes glaze over and you stop reading, mark the spot so I can edit it down or cut the passage entirely. At the same time, it’s important for me to know when you liked something, or you laughed, or thought, Hmmm… Never thought of it that way. If one reader hates a passage and another loves it, I will shorten it but not cut it altogether.
I look for different things from different readers. I need some people who’ll react emotionally to the characters and plot. Others help me more with prose, still others are experts on some aspect of the story — legal, medical, technical, etc. I’ve found some readers especially helpful and enthusiastic about reading for me (you can tell who they are by looking at the Dedications to each book). They may well end up rereading a dozen or more times. Other readers may only read once, and I don’t abuse their patience. You can tell from their comments who really enjoys being part of the process.” MDR 2/4/14
I’m beginning to find it difficult to get comments out of my Wessex ladies. Some are too shy for the process, perhaps, too self-conscious or self-effacing. I shall prod them by re-sending that message. Meanwhile, however, and enamoured now of ‘coming out’, I’m forming a second group, comprising those who are experts in the field (Iron Age archaeology, prehistory, geography etc.) or who write and know clunky dialogue when they see it. I shall be limiting the group to 6 for the sake of sanity.
Anyone interested in joining in? Let me know, along with your lit creds (if I don’t know you already). You can reply here or, if you prefer, email me via Godstow Press (info at godstowpress dot co dot uk).