I spent the weekend at a Guardian Masterclass and I am exhausted.
The masterclass, run by award winning author Tim Lott, focused on manuscript surgery. In short, it was about helping you turn your first draft into something good enough to send out to agents.
I knew it was going to be a bit tricky for me, because I always picture this kind of course as being full of people who are writing literary fiction.
That we’ll go around the room listening to several potential Booker winners discuss their books, which focus on the essence of the human condition – and then they’ll be me – the one writing the book about an interdimensional war set in the afterlife.
I needn’t have worried. There were a couple of people like me, who were writing books that wouldn’t sit in the literary category, but the course was useful for both kinds of writers. It left me with a lot to think about.
The course made me think about the differences between genre and literary fiction. I’m well aware that genre fiction isn’t as well regarded as literary, but it’s also very popular with readers.
Some say that genre fiction is plot driven, while literary is character driven, but I don’t think that’s always true. I do think that genre fiction has a certain structure on which the writing it built, while literary tends to be more free form.
The truth is, I had an idea for a story that just wouldn’t go away. I kept having ideas for worlds, characters and histories. I noted these ideas down, and soon had a shelf full of files and scrapbooks bursting with notes and maps. Before I sat down to write the first draft, I had a pretty much knew who the characters were, how they would develop, and how the plot would progress.
I fell into writing genre fiction, because I’m a fan of genre fiction. I’m a sci-fi / fantasy / dystopian fiction geek. Although I enjoy some literary fiction books, I always prefer the ones with more structure, more action and conflict.
Writing genre fiction wasn’t a choice for me, it’s part of who I am.
What is my genre anyway?
After a lot of research, I found that the best term for what I was writing was speculative fiction. My book has elements of fantasy, sci-fi and a kind of spiritual fiction, but it can’t be classed as any of those three genres.
At one point, it was suggested that my work may fall into the Young Adult category. For some reason, the Young Adult label doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe the story will attract a Young Adult audience, but it doesn’t focus on Young Adults in any way.
I’m going to stick with the term speculative fiction – it works for me.
The course taught me, that as a genre writer, you’re better off focusing on agents who specialise in your genre, than seeking representation from those who focus on literary fiction. It also confirmed that self-publishing is a legitimate option for genre writers (although it is a lot of work and usually doesn’t make as much money as traditional publishing).
But money isn’t the motivator for me. I’d be more than happy to publish my own stuff and keep doing my day job. It’s not a get rich quick scheme. I have to write. If anything comes of it, then that’s great, if not…who cares? I’m having fun.
This masterclass was the first time I’d discussed my WIP with a stranger. I’m not into the idea of revision by committee. Writing groups and most creative writing courses give me hives (introvert klaxon).
But the opinion of strangers (the teacher and the other students) offers an objectivity and clarity that I can get from me. I’m too close to the story.
As a writer, you know everything that happens in your world, and sometimes you assume that the reader will be able to see same thing as you. You need to find the balance between describing the world in your head to the reader, and providing too much information.
Had I managed that?
We didn’t go through our entire manuscripts, but we did have to write:
- a few words describing the theme of our book
- a 25 word summary of the plot
- a synopsis
All of us were tired when we did this. We didn’t have much time, so we couldn’t do that traditional writer thing of sitting and pondering over it for hours. I found it an effective way to see if you knew the essence of your own story, and if it would hold up to the scrutiny of others.
I still prefer the idea of writing the first draft on your own, with a collection of writing books to help you along the way. Tim recommended Write a Novel and get it Published (ISBN 9 781444 171198) the latest edition is by Nigel Watts and Stephen May. I got the latest edition in a great deal from The Book People earlier this month.
Tim also recommended creative writing courses run by Faber and The University of East Anglia. These courses look impressive, but looking at them, I get the sense that they are designed for those potential Booker winners, rather than the oddballs like me, whose idea of ultimate success would be the book being made into a blockbuster movie starring Chris Hemsworth.
The first draft is all about passion. There’s a brilliant story in your head and you have to get it down on paper. When rewriting, you have to be much more pragmatic. Does this character serve a purpose? That sentence of perfect prose may be stunning, but does it add anything to your story or is it just you showing off?
You only have 80,000 words to write your story, and every one of those words has to serve a purpose (even a multiple purpose). No wonder it’s so hard to murder your darlings.