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Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

Today was my first Fiction Workshop, which was two hours of discussion about three people’s stories.

Birmingham Writers’ Group do Anonymous Manuscripts sessions, when unnamed manuscripts are circulated in advance of a meeting, and the pieces are discussed without knowing who wrote it. A lot of submitters would write a small paragraph at the beginning, stating what type of work it was (short story, novel chapter, etc) and asking any specific questions they might have, such as whether the narrative voice was strong enough, if BWG members could recommend any submission locations, or even how a story should end. I thought this was a useful addition to the process, but this course has a different approach.

The writer isn’t allowed to ask any specific questions about what they want the readers to look for when they’re reading. While the piece is being discussed, the writer is not to talk or defend their work. As I said in my last post, they want the reader to ‘go in cold’.

To me, this makes complete sense now. The tutor said that in the future of that piece, you will never be able to say to a reader or editor “no, but you see, you don’t get it – that bit means….” etc. I.e. a piece of writing needs to stand alone for the reader as well as the writer. What do you think to that?

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After a couple of years of listening to people moan about how terrible The Twilight Saga was, I caved last year and borrowed my sister’s copy of the first novel. I read it within 24 hours, ostensibly to that nobody needed to see me reading it in public. I was interested in why it was so popular, when people said the writing was so bad.

So, I read it cover-to-cover in a very short space of time, and yes, it’s full of clich√© and awkward sentences, the protagonist is irritatingly self-obsessed, completely stupid, moany and selfish… and most of the criticism you’ve heard about the books is probably true.

BUT… I read the second book. And then I watched the first two films. And I read the online pdf of Midnight Sun. And, next time I go home, I will probably borrow the third book from my sister. And I know exactly why.

Stephanie Meyer has demonstrated a couple of things to me. One is that a fantastic idea sometimes trumps excellent writing. Another is that people absolutely relish a story of forbidden love. As an example, here is a little summary of why I enjoyed the first two books:

Bella and Edward love each other but aren’t able to act upon it (unrequited love – tick, unresolved sexual tension – triple tick). When they’re finally able to start a relationship, things happen which get in the way (barriers to love – tick). Edward spends a lot of time trying to resist temptation, and eventually abandons Bella, so they’re both unhappy (more unrequited love). Jacob comes along (yet more unrequited love, AND a liberal dash of will-they-won’t-they). At the same time as all this is happening, Bella keeps getting herself into stupid situations, and Edward has to come and rescue her (damsel in distress, heroic Byronic hero unashamedly inspired by Mr Darcy).

I mean… come on! Meyer’s a genius. If I want something mindless, romantic and comforting to read or watch, I would probably consider The Twilight Saga.¬† She’s cornered the market on modern romance novels by putting everything we could possibly dream of into the books.

And although people are still criticising the books (often rightfully), there is a slow trickle of articles heading the other way. An article in the Guardian today suggests that some of the criticism of the novels is unfounded, and one of my favourite writing websites, The Blood-Red Pencil, has a blog post about how we can learn from techniques in Meyer’s writing, and which says everything I’ve tried to say here a little bit clearer.

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People have been posting a lot of Activities on the A215 Cafe forum. This is great, as giving feedback is helpful and I think contributes directly to why most of the people doing A215 are here. A lot of people (me included) have very quiet Tutor Group forums, so it’s helpful.

However, particularly with this week’s chapter (Character Development), I can’t help but feel people may have been missing the point slightly.

The Activities mainly involve creating and developing a character, which is a great exercise – really important. The problem is that a trend has developed on the forum: everything seems to need to be faultlessly written as a passage of prose fiction.

So instead of this style of activity:

“He has brown hair and a small mole above his eye. When he’s nervous he sometimes covers it with his hand, a legacy of some cruelty from his school days.”

People are writing things like:

“He glanced up at the mantlepiece and ran his hand through his thinning hair, wondering why she’d left him.”

These are both valid ways of writing, but I don’t think the second example directly engages with these particular activities. Unfortunately, I guess because people are influencing each other, the latter example is now the norm.

The critiques for these exercises also reflect the current posting trends, which I also think may be unhelpful.

This kind of critique would be helpful:

“I love the character you’ve created – she’s well-rounded and believable. I wonder if you’ve questioned why she seems uncomfortable in her own skin – what might have caused that?”

For character development exercises, this kind of critique is not:

“I enjoyed reading this and would like to know what happens next. The first sentence doesn’t draw me in enough – perhaps you should change the wording of the second half, maybe substitute “called” for “shouted”.

Because of these reasons, I haven’t felt able to share my activities for Chapter 5 on the forum – I fear that the wrong aspects of my activities (the language, structure and wording) will be critiqued, when the important focus should be the development of a character for use in later writing.

I’d love to know what others think… but I don’t know whether my opinions on this would go down very well on the forums. Any opinions?

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