Is feedback on a Work In Progress good for you as a writer?
I think the short answer is that it depends on the length of the piece and on what the feedback is. It’s certainly important to provide some kind of context. A novel is long, some 90,000 words. Flash fiction has a beginning, a middle and an end in some 500 words or so. If you have a piece of writing that relies upon previous scenes for context, or sets the scene for a denouement, then you probably will be wasting your time in reading it out. Or worse, it will be commented upon by helpful listeners and the points raised may be like speed bumps or diversions on your writing journey.
Take this example:
The other night, in a restaurant I overheard the following,
‘He’s a right slime ball.’
There’s no denying that it’s been taken out of context. After all we don’t know:
Who he is
What he’s done
His side of events.
Who is imparting this judgement – their shared history and back story.
By the way, do you know what a real slime ball is? It is snail vomit. Now, no-one wants to be that . . .be they writer, reader or listener.
When reading out a chunk of writing to others in your group, do yourself a favour and choose something that you think is reasonably self-contained, something that others can follow and hopefully be hooked by.
When it is your turn to listen and you don’t think the dots are quite joined up, consider the effect your words could have. If you have the time, ask to read a little more in private to garner context.
When you have a piece of work in front of you, yours or someone else’s, perhaps consider the following:
What happens in the story?
Summarise the plot (the gist of the happenings). Think about what this précis leaves out.
Is the story told in chronological order, or are there flashbacks or flashforwards?
On re-reading, what foreshadowing (hints of what is to come) do you detect?
What conflicts does the work include?
Obstacles and ways to overcome them are the lifeblood to many a great piece of writing.
How does the writer develop characters?
Is character revealed by explicit comment or through action? With which character(s) do you sympathise? Are the characters plausible? What motivates them? What do minor characters contribute to the work?
Who tells the story?
Is the narrator a character, or does the narrator stand entirely outside the characters’ world? What does the narrator’s point of view contribute to the story’s theme?
What is the setting?
What do the time and place of the action contribute to the work?
Are certain characters, settings, or actions symbolic?
Do they stand for something in addition to themselves?
What is the theme?
That is, what does the work add up to? Does the theme reinforce your values, or does it challenge them?
Is the title informative?
Did its meaning change for you after you read the work?
Above all, remember feedback is like fuel to a car. Put in the wrong type and the writer won’t get far before spluttering to a stop. Or worse still, they will have to clean out the tank and start again.
I’m not a gambler, but with the top 5% of writers earning almost half of everything, it’s a safe bet that if you’re a writer you don’t earn much and, because of that, writing is not your main source of income, even when you spend most of your time doing it. Is it time, then, to change the job description from ‘profession’ to ‘vocation’?
The Great Pretender
These days, there is not such a wide gap between paid and unpaid. Profession or Vocation. In practice it is no more than semantics. Don’t shelve your dream to get something out there, if that’s what’s been stopping you. After all, most people like to see what they’ve written in print.
If you’ve yet to publish, remember you’ve already done the hard part. We invest a lot of time and emotion when we write something, and taking the next step can seem almost unattainable. Publishing puts it out there, but you are the one who has created the piece of writing and its your feelings on the line. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)
The point is, if you write, then you are a writer. And, there is nothing stopping you from getting published – not only a tweet or blog page, but a full blown listing with ISBN number. (If only all of life were this simple.) Vocation or profession, get it out there.
Vast Majority Can’t Live Off Writing Alone
In Britain, in 2005, 40% of authors earned their income solely from writing. By 2013, this had dropped to just 11.5%. This is despite being in the throes of a digital revolution. Digital is currently the third most important financial sector for writers – below books and magazines/periodicals, so print still wins out. According to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, (ALCS), ‘Digital opportunities may be out there but authors are yet to receive the full financial benefits of this growing sector.’
Not Yet Published and Wanting to Change that Stat?
Should this influence your decision of which route to take when you seek publication of your work? Broadly speaking, options available are:
The Mainstream Big 5 Publishers, (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster)
Independent Publishing (Indie), or
On offer is (i) traditional offset print and digital, (ii) print on demand (POD) with digital or (iii) digital with an option to take up POD at a later date.
The Mainstream Big 5
The Big 5 publishers very much dominate offset printing and are assuming a more commanding position in digital output, too, with their own e-book ventures. They are always striving forward. (Take for example Penguin Random House’s partnering with Oyster or Simon & Schuster’s deal with digital content platform Playster). The main point to take from this is that they do not decide whether you get published, just whether they get your book or not.
Indie, as its name suggests, is smaller and more flexible. Being independent it can also be more Maverick or entrepreneurial, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are Independent Publishers who reserve the right not to publish your book in printed form, but still define themselves as print and digital publishers. (Although your work may not be sufficiently popular to warrant a print run, other writers on their books may justify the taking of this next step.) Small businesses scale down what they offer in order to survive, as they grow they can afford more risks. If it guarantees their success and creates a respected name by staying digital and you are one of their authors, everyone wins.
It is a curious hedging of bets, to keep the gambling metaphor going, because with POD you arguably need to inform people of the option in order to get the demand and without the orders you have no idea how to predict future sales. Putting your money on the favourite, rather than each way, does reduce your stake and your risk. Then again, how much does it actually cost to publish digitally?
The answer probably depends on the amount of Marketing you commit to. An indie Publisher with a well oiled marketing machine can help a newbie quite significantly. On the other hand, if an Indie Publisher does no more than what you can do, charges you and keeps your ISBN number, then, this may be a Vanity Publisher dressed in Indie Clothing. As in any market, buyer beware.
Indie Digital versus Digi Self-Publishing
The key differences between going with a digital publisher who may never put your books in bricks and mortar stores and doing it yourself are: Digital Book Cover Design, Know-How and Marketing Reach.
(i) Digital book cover design
This can be as simple as selecting a free template from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Their Cover Creator lets you make one based on an image you provide or a selection from their gallery of customisable stock images. After all, how difficult can it be? It’s not going to be printed.
Also potentially as straightforward as following the instructions from KDP. In the past you might have assumed that it would also include editing skills. Not these days. Some digital Indie Publishers do assume editing responsibilities, but not all. Perhaps that is the practical difference between a traditional author/publisher relationship and a hybrid author/solutions provider. Some solutions providers charge to edit the work, some Indie Publishers refuse to accept work that has not yet had that final polish. The overlap is clear. Perhaps the rule of thumb that separated vanity publishers from independent publishers should again be used: Do you have to pay?
(iii) Marketing Reach
This could be the deal breaker. It is something that all publishers now expect their authors to participate in. For example, a Social Media Platform which incorporates FaceBook, You Tube, Twitter and a blog page is apparently de rigueur. Naturally, this can imposeseeminglyinsurmountable barriers for the uninitiated and technophobes, but once set up they can be very easily managed.
The third way, self-publishing, is attractive. To quote an online advert for an accumulator, ‘Sometimes you’ve just got to take the money and run.’ And if you are brave enough to assume command and Self Publish you may surprise yourself by your winnings.
The ALCS says, ‘Just over 25% of writers have self-published a work, with a typical return on their investment of 40%. Unsurprisingly, 86% of those who had self-published said they would do so again.’
Smashwords founder Mark Coker says in Publishers Weekly, ‘In 2015, self‑published authors are learning to think and act like professional publishers. They’re embracing best practices, and learning to use professional tools of the trade such as pre-orders, professional cover design and they’re hiring professional editors.’ Yes, professional editors are a must.
Leave ‘Never Never Land’.
Seemingly, it all depends on a marketing platform rather than technical turf assessments or crossed fingers and a determined look in the eyes of a thoroughbred. Still, what is not known is how much of any platform is random. If you have published once you’ll do it again. If you’ve never tried it yet, now’s the time to join the ranks of published authors and it’s never made more economic sense. All you have to do is press and be pressed.
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: DAVID FRANKEL ON THE POWER OF SUGGESTION IN THE SHORT STORY
“In the short story there is no slack. Everything is a clue – a glimpse that hints at something larger. Often, a great deal of the plot is implied and this intensity requires more of the reader. It is a world in which it is impossible to be a passive consumer.
Graham Greene once advised that writers should ‘keep in mind the question the reader is asking.’ For writers of short stories this is doubly important. The tools of omission and implication are not only necessary because of the obvious constraints of length, but can be instrumental in providing the intrigue that keeps the reader involved. This can be especially effective at the beginning of a story where omitting backstory can engage the reader immediately, drawing them into a ‘live’ situation and prompting them to ask questions: why is this happening and what happens next?
Hemingway was a master of this. In many of his stories (two that spring to mind are ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘Hills Like White Elephants’) we are pitched straight into the action mid-situation. Description is pared down to a minimum and dialogue is sharp. ‘The Snows Of Kilimanjaro’ opens mid-conversation .We read on, at least to begin with, in order to discover who is speaking, and what is going on:
‘“The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
“Is it really?”
“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you.”
“Don’t! Please don’t.”
“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it the sight or is it the scent that brings them like that?”
The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick moving shadows as they passed.’
In ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the subject of the story (an unwanted pregnancy and prospective abortion) is never made explicit. This story is a particular moment in time, convincingly rendered with sparse but vivid detail and dialogue that makes no attempt to explain what is occurring for the benefit of an observer. The real theme is implied subtly. This has the effect of turning the readers into eavesdroppers as the protagonists skirt around the issue. It is our nosiness that makes us listen.
I often think of a short story like a low-budget film where characterisation and a limited number of sets are all that the director has, to evoke a whole off-screen universe. As though we are watching the protagonists through a single camera lens, and from that limited observation we must form an idea of the rest of their lives, projecting out into the world.
A great example of this is ‘Jesus’ Son’ by Denis Johnson. It is a collection of stories about people ‘passing through’, all seemingly at the end of a particular chapter in their life, or at the beginning of one. The collection follows an un-named narrator through a kaleidoscopic series of encounters, each with someone we will never meet again. Because of this, every action they take, every word they speak gains more weight. These glimpses become the evidence on which we will build our impression not only of them but also of the narrator’s world. Even more so than Hemingway, Johnson’s stories pitch the reader in mid-situation, forcing them to piece together what is happening. Unlike Hemingway, Johnson keeps the reader off-balance, never quite giving them all the information they need about the situations the narrator describes. The reader is prompted to imagine scenes that have happened off-screen, as in the story ‘Two Men’.
‘I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light.’
What this ‘misunderstanding’ might be is never made clear. Nor, strangely, do we meet the second man promised by the title and the opening paragraph. This feeling that we are not quite being let in on everything makes us want to know more. His endings cut off mid-action too, as if the author is afraid to write what happens next, or the narrator too ashamed to tell. ‘Two Men’, for example, ends with the narrator in pursuit of an adversary.
After breaking into the man’s flat he finds that his quarry has escaped and in the final scene he holds a gun to the head of a woman he finds there:
‘I took two steps over to the living-room window and looked down into the parking lot. I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked like Thatcher’s car was gone.
The woman hadn’t moved. She just lay there on the rug.
“He’s really not here,” she said.
I knew he wasn’t. “I don’t care. You’re going to be sorry,” I said.’
It is a powerful ending precisely because it leaves so much to the imagination of the reader. A short story often works best when it signifies something bigger, when it asks us to imagine the shadow cast by what has happened on the page. In doing this, the short can get away with something that a novel rarely can – it can leave a question hanging, a life unexplored, an idea unresolved, inviting us to extrapolate from what we have read. In the hands of a skillful writer this gives short stories the ability to haunt the reader long after they have been read.”
David Frankel is a writer and artist. His stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including The London Magazine and Lightship Anthology. His work has been shortlisted for a number of prizes, including The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and the Fish Memoir Prize.
Some incidentals to start with: My Mistress, She Who Adores Me, is always telling everyone that Labrador intestines are the most robust in the world and should be thoroughly and scientifically investigated. Why? Because these studies would help find the answer of resistance to the most violent of indigestions or accidental poisoning.
I have to admit that the odd good old vomit has always been my answer to all that life can throw at me in the way of my rather disgusting, yet splendidly greedy eating habits. People tend to forget that we are like the newly overweight and no longer nomadic North American Red Indians*, in that we, like them, no longer have to search and forage endlessly all winter long in the icy and inhospitable weather of, in my ancestors case, Labrador of the Far Northern reaches of, um l’m not quite sure of its exact geographic location, can anyone help me out here?? Canada?
Anyway here we are, and I am, in the warmer climes of Europe. We remain nevertheless programmed to instinctively be always on the lookout for the slightest morsel which will add to our fat reserves. To cope with and to survive long cold winters in the land of our Sires of yesteryears. Subsequently we eat copiously and, some would say, greedily the slightest tit-bit which comes within our range whether it is our allotted meal time or not. (The indigenous** North Americans have given it the marvellous term “snacking.”) Thus, whether I have just eaten 5 minutes ago a huge meal of meat and veg and juices, the instinctive need is to carry on snacking. That is before She Who Adores Me yells and yanks me away from whatever delectation I have had the good sense to sniff out and attempt to devour without it touching either side of my mouth. Does she not realise that I may not get to eat again until the spring when the snow melts? Who could argue with the Labradorean logic of it all? Well, I ask you, who?
To tell you a little about myself is to impart that my breeding is ancient and impeccable. Simply tons of my nearest ancestors have come from Queen Elizabeth 2’s own breeding lines (Sandringham). Thus I have the most robust hips, quarters and a rather fab, though I say it myself, sprinter’s backside. (Oh you know, muscular and round). To the utter delight of She Who Adores Me, who has been a racehorse owner and knows a good rear end when presented with one i.e. mine! My cousins are various shades of black, yellow and chocolate. I am of a deep black. I started life in Wales, with my sister Mason. Oh by the way I’m called Fortnum. I do apologise most profusely for not introducing myself to you. And your name is?. . .
Excerpt from THE LIFE OF FORTNUM (LABRADOR, FEMALE AND GORGEOUS) by Deborah Camp-Simpson
* Political incorrectness from Fortnum.
** Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Good girl.
Images: Dog Biscuit by Tommy Kronkvist, “BlackLab2009” by Erikeltic at English Wikipedia.
It turns out Infographics, not Orange, are the New Black. It also transpires there’s a knack to their creation. And it is something that Writers, Designers and Marketers should all learn. CopyPress does a great infographic guide where we learn how to turn boredom on its head, with the same stats that caused us to yawn in the first place.
Look at this article graphic on the right here, now, that’s clever.
The data visualisation on the left’s not bad, either.
So these infographics things, aren’t they just graphics and charts?
So, haven’t they been with us since before the Flintstones went to school?
So isn’t this just putting a spin on things?
The answer is a resounding ‘No, No, No’. And here’s why: It not only simplifies, it captivates and brings the information to life. It creates in us an interest that pushes the information into the brain. That’s right, we learn, we acquire, we curate for the cycle to begin again. And we enjoy it. We beg to be allowed to pass it on to someone else.
Oh, I almost forgot, search engines love infographics! They tick the boxes and rock the boats of those word-thirsty robots crawling for interesting topics stated in a unique way.
Have you heard the one about the SEO expert who walked into a bar, grill, pub, public house, Irish, bartender, drink, beer, wine, liquor…, (but I digress).
Once we understand what infographics are it comes as no surprise to learn they are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles, that Publishers’ who use infographics grow traffic on average by 12% and that 40% of people respond better to visual information than to text.
Be it data visualisation or an article graphic, infographics are here to stay. Enough said.
There is a MOOC being run by the IOWA Writing University and Jonathan Lethem gave a talk that I have abridged below. The full version is available at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QOnEumMvjk It’s all about how when work loses Fizz just add causality.
‘First of all… a lot of the stories that interest us, a lot of the novels that interest us, fundamentally take two unrelated things, two autonomous ideas, situations, possibilities, and shackle them. And in many ways this initial impulse can seem quite arbitrary, because what you’re taking are things that aren’t necessarily related, and you’re placing them together, that’s the juxtaposition. What takes this operation from being something…sort of abstract or absurd or pointless is the second term of my concept, and that’s the causality.
So what’s causality? Causality is basically the word “because,” … the stakes of the story are going to relate the two things urgently and extensively.
So what do I mean by this? I’m going to give you an example from my own writing. When I conceived the book Motherless Brooklyn, which is a novel about a private detective who has Tourettes…it’s also very much about my own childhood in Brooklyn and growing up in a certain neighborhood at a certain time and place. In some ways it felt as though two different books were announcing themselves to me simultaneously. But rather than resist that, or sort the two out, or think they were incompatible, it seemed to me my funny, sort of willful, post-modern conceit about the detective with Tourette Syndrome, and my intimate, confessional, passionate love letter to the city where I grew up could be combined, and ought to be combined, and not only shouldn’t I do them at the same time, but that I was going to make it seem necessary…I was going to make it seem urgent and obvious in a way that the only place that this detective with Tourettes could tell this story, the only place he could have come from, was Brooklyn. And, you know, once I make this assertion…so I’ve got my juxtaposition, right? Tourette Syndrome, hard-boiled detective story, and the autobiographical material, this really involved setting, time and place, that mattered enormously to me…the public schools I went to, the streets I walked, the slices of pizza I used to eat on Smith Street…the things that reminded me of growing up in that place, and that I suddenly wanted to say a lot about.
So there’s the juxtaposition, I mean, you could even argue that it was a triple juxtaposition because, you know, what are hard-boiled detectives and Tourette Syndrome doing together? But anyway, so I smashed these things into one project, and then I’ve taken the next step, I’ve inserted the causality, I’ve said… he becomes emblematic to them of Brooklyn, he seems to them to exemplify something that’s already true about this place, which is that language is exploding everywhere, that because of the varieties of classes and cultures and races that were all living together in Brooklyn, and the kind of frenetic, sardonic, intense, and sometimes very insulting street language was typical…that his Tourette Syndrome just seems like Brooklyn raised to the nth degree.
things that you wouldn’t think of as being compatible or coexisting or related to each other have been electrified, like the parts of Frankenstein’s body by the bolt of electricity.
I’ll give you another example outside my own work, one of the most grandiose, of course, is totemic book of modernist genius, is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes Homeric myth, takes Odysseus wandering home after the Trojan War and relates it to the events of a day in a neighborhood in Dublin. Now, you know, we take this for granted now…of course, well it’s Ulysses, those things belong together, but when Joyce conceived this they had no relationship, it was the bolt of electricity that he flowed between them that made them into one unified thing forever…and now we take it as a commonplace thing that these things are married together.
Where do writers get their ideas? Was it the character or was it the setting? Did you think of the voice first or were you more concerned with the plot and set pieces? Were you thinking about a theme or were you thinking about things in your life, people you wanted to write about? The answer is almost always, when you press a writer and they have time to expand on what they were doing, the answer is always more than one, it’s always both. And I think that you can seek this doubleness, … in your own… unfinished stories, … if moved into a conjunction with these other things, it might suddenly become something.
…I want you to look around for things that … haven’t become stories…aren’t active on their own, and try taking more than one of those and just relating them. …juxtaposition…causality.’