The kind of criticism every writer needs

After a great day’s workshopping in Oxford, I was quite surprised to get my ‘free read’ from The Literary Consultancy this morning, because I had more or less forgotten about it. Actually, to speak completely accurately, I remembered it on Thursday, and then forget it totally in the excitement of teaching.

The ‘free read’ was for a novel that I have doubts about. Again, to be completely accurate, I have few doubts about the novel per se, what I doubted was my understanding of the literary ‘business’ and the wisdom of writing a first novel in one genre and a second novel in a wholly different one. And at the time my doubts were strongest (having completed a first draft but before going to the nitpickery of detailed revisions) New Writing South, my regional creative writers organisation, was advertising the possibility of bursary reads by TLC. It seemed like a potential answer to my slightly nebulous questions and so it was.

The fascinating thing about getting back this kind of structured commentary from somebody who doesn’t know you except as a writer, is just how much they seem able to extrapolate your personality from your fiction. My reader was Sara Maitland, and she provided me not just with sensible, coherent and detailed answers to my questions, but with a more discursive exploration of the nature of genre, and ways to approach the categorisation of writing, which I suspect I will be returning to for years and years. It was almost as if she knew that what I wanted was somebody to lay out the territory for me, so that I could compare my view of the scenery with theirs – and yet, at the time, I didn’t even realise that was what I wanted.

What I find most interesting about my immediate response to the critique, and bear in mind it’s only been in my hands for a few hours, so I’m still responding only to the broad sweep of the commentary, was my first thought, ‘So there is a way to do it that works for me!’ And what that thought meant, when I’d unpicked it, is that I find almost any kind of structured workshopping of novels to be a complete waste of time. For me. Note those words. For me. Not for anybody else. The novel in question was in fact part of a write-critique circle set up by the excellent Louise Halvardsson in which three of us both wrote our own novels and gave immediate responses to the first drafts of the other two writers, at the rate of a chapter a month. And while I loved the chance to read the work of the others, I simply read and forgot everything they said about my draft until the entire novel was done.

What I can’t do is write and revise at the same time. I have to get a whole draft done before I pick work apart, and the idea of stopping to put things right (write?) makes me shiver with horror. So the MA/MFA process of writing a major work as part of a degree would be worse than useless to me, I’d fail to write and probably fail the degree as a result.

But the feedback from TLC was exactly what I needed at exactly the time I needed it. It will be a substantive support to me in fine-tuning the novel, and it in no way interfered with my creative processes in the way that workshopping in the traditional sense would. Like Gold Dust, Jill Dawson’s mentoring programme, the TLC reading scheme could be the answer for those writers who aren’t naturally gregarious and are confident about their own approach to writing, but still want professional support and advice at certain key points in their writing careers. And while it is not cheap, the cost of a written report of this calibre is cheaper than a writing degree and allows the writer to get on with the process of writing, without having to be constantly justifying why they have chosen a certain route or technique on a chapter-by-chapter basis.


  1. Lou
    14th April 2009

    For me workshop-ing a novel is more about deadlines. It helps me finish a chapter a month … It keeps me going and stops me from completely going off track and am also a sucker for any encouragement I can get … But just as you said I can’t really appreciate the feedback at the time either … I prefer to read all the feed back again after I’ve finished the whole thing and then make notes and reflect on them.

    I wrote a 2nd draft of my novel without showing it to anyone while I was writing it and now I’m doing almost what you did – I sent it to one person(semi professional writer and friend)and am waiting for her comments.

  2. Rita J. Webb
    17th April 2009

    I had my husband read my first draft and my friends review other drafts. Writing seems to be like weaving–there are so many strings to keep track of and I often find that I forget about one of the strings I hold. Like description or a particular character thread. And I have to go back and weave that thread back in…

    But like a beautiful pencil sketch, you start with an outline, then add shading, then the fine detail, and then more shading. So it is with writing. You start with a general plot line, add character’s emotions, add detail, some shading. And suddenly you find that your story has depth.


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