Once a month I get together with other Somerset writers, all of them published, and all of them women, and we discuss our work. We spend the morning poring over each person’s latest oeuvre, then we have lunch, and then carry on until about 3pm. It’s convivial and inspiring, but most of all it’s useful. Many of us could – and do – pay a fortune for this kind of objective, unbiased editorial input. As a sideline I edit manuscripts for the Writers’ Workshop, a sort of front-line for (mostly) first time writers, and I charge several hundred pounds for my time and effort. With my writers group I give my time for free – but I’m repaid in spades with the invaluable comments that I get in return.
Most of us writers spend our days staring at words. After a while it becomes impossible to see what we’ve written – there’s a curious blindness, in which you see what you think you’ve written, but not what’s actually there. Painters have the same problem – they often can’t objectively see what’s on the canvas – but they have the solution of looking at the image in a mirror. The distance this creates can be enough to let them see what’s gone wrong.
Writers don’t have this useful tool. Sometimes we can see our work more objectively if we print it off in a typeface or font that’s different from the one we’ve been working in. Seeing your latest short story in Blackadder or Gautami can make it look almost like someone else’s work, and that can be enough to allow you to see your mistakes.
Another technique is to read our work aloud – preferably to someone else. Then you get a feel for the rhythm; you notice a clunky sentence that would otherwise have slipped by. If someone else is listening, you begin to hear the story as if through their ears, and that helps you to pick up on what’s good and what isn’t. But how many loyal friends or partners are willing to sit and listen to us droning on, hour after hour? An alternative is to read it to yourself – advice I always offer to students, but which I have never followed myself. It just seems too ridiculous for – well – for words.
Usually the only reliable distancing device is time. It’s extraordinary how a couple of months away from a story that seemed to work brilliantly can reveal the most absurd plot-twists or a character so badly drawn that no one would take him seriously.
My writing group is the solution. A week before we meet, we send each other our latest chapter – it’s polite not to send too much – and we read it closely and mark it up with our comments. We then sit down together over a cup of tea, and take turns to go through each person’s work with a fine tooth comb. We are always positive and encouraging, but we are also honest, and if someone takes offence that’s too bad. We don’t take a day out of our work schedule simply to give each other a pat on the back: we are there to make our work better. I recommend it.
Helena Drysdale is author of Strangerland : A Family At War and several highly acclaimed travel books, including Alone Through China and Tibet, Mother Tongues, Dancing with the Dead and Looking for George. She has just finished a history of Tibet, due out soon on Kindle.