Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Guilty confessions and the art of critiquing and writing good stories

The Shop Around The Corner
I have a guilty secret....I watch the X Factor auditions....there it is out there now. I love seeing the moments when unexpected beauty falls out of a contestant's mouth and those other cringe worthy times where you wonder why hasn't anyone told them they can't sing. It was whilst watching it this weekend that got me thinking, a contestant was singing her heart out and in the total belief she could sing. You could see it her face, she had no doubts in her ability. She couldn't, not even close. Off stage her mother and aunt (I assume) were swaying happily, saying how wonderfully she was doing. She wasn't but she had obviously been told for a very long time how brilliantly she sang. It was a brutal way for her to find out that her singing wasn't quite as good as she thought. I admire her guts totally, I could not go on stage and do what she did. But there again I won't sing anywhere in public because my mother told both my sister and  I that we cannot sing at all and therefore mustn't ever. It must be possible to achieve a balance between these two extremes.

What has this got to do with writing? Well, it goes back to having your work critiqued. Don't give it to family. I would be a rich woman if I had a pound for everytime someone has said to me 'I have written a brilliant story. I know it is good, my children (grandchidren/niece/nephew - delete as appropriate) have told me.' Of course they have, they're your children, very few children are going to tell a relative their story is not working. You need to find a group of people that you can trust and will be honest with you. (the SCBWI has great critique groups) Critiquing is not about someone patting you on the head and saying 'that's very nice dear.' It is about offering constructive criticism, working out together what works and what doesn't and it is mutual thing. You can learn so much from critiquing other people's work too. It is where I learnt to trust myself, if my gut says something is not working invariably it will be picked up by others. I now change anything that the gut gives the slightest hint of a grumble at.

I can also hear you ask why is there a picture of the Shop Around the Corner from You've Got Mail in the corner. I was watching this at the weekend too - a prevarication technique to avoid doing the final bits on the review essay and also I was shunted in my car and was feeling very sore and sorry for myself. It is a feel good film by Nora Ephron. But there was a point when Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) said something to Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) that really struck home. She was talking about how her mother 'wasn't just selling books, she was helping people become who they were going to be...Reading books as a child becomes part of your identity unlike any other form of reading in your life.' For me this summed up the importance of children's books and something that I worry I lose sight of sometimes amongst all the academia.  As a writer I need to remember I am providing a vicarious experience for my child/teenager reader and something I write might just have an impact on a decision they make. My stories have got to be good and strong so the readers can get lost in the narrative. I am sure we can all remember those times as a child when you got so involved in a book  that you read continuously from cover to cover because you couldn't bear to stop. You were so totally engrossed in that world that everything around you appears to stop. I want to write stories like that.

Ok enough of my witterings, I have unashamedly pilfered this from a friend's blog because I have fallen in love with it and its sentiments:


  1. Loved this post Vanessa. I realised how mean I was being to my family a few years ago so I stopped asking. However I must have started something in motion as my husband has just got a degree in Creative Writing and my daughter has a better knowledge of how picture books work than I do.
    I sympathise with your plight, I've just had an enforced rest too (broken wrist) and I was lucky to also have a 'film' moment - Cold Comfort Farm. It's one of those books I have been meaning to read for years but not got round to. It's like a gothic Pollyanna. Loved it and definitely going to read that book, possibly even try my hand at a comedy gothic novel myself. When my WIP's finished.

  2. How wonderful that your husband and daughter have picked up on your interest. To be honest
    my daughter does do some proof reading for me, but she's in her twenties and I don't count her as a child. Ouch! to the broken wrist, hope it is better now. Enjoy having a go at the comedy gothic novel, would be really interested in reading it when it is done.

  3. This is a very powerful post, Vanessa - a huge prompt for me for a journal entry - firstly, because I have guilt-ridden memories of often telling my Mother 'oh, Mam - STOP singing' when she was happily humming around the house (what a cow I was to quell the small moments of happiness she had in an otherwise bleak existence) - and secondly, because i feel such huge buckets of sadness whenever I hear comments around 'losing oneself in a book' as a child - because I never did,. The simple fact was that we did not have boks in our house. I can remember four or five...'They Also Serve' (wartime working animals - my father was a dog-handler in the RAF), a 'Big book of Nature' - that had a fearsome photograph of a moth with two spots on its back that looked like eyes, and three or four am-dram plays. Apart from that - nothing. I was givien a copy of 'Little Women' on that terrible, post war grotty paper and remember even then - i was about seven or eight - felling totally snotty about the quality of the book!
    You've opened up a real can of worms/cauldron of memories for me - for which, as always, many thanks - more later! xx

    1. I know I was very lucky to grow up in a house full of books. My parents were both great readers as were my sisters and brother. Getting lost in a book was actively encouraged. Interestingly I have a house full of books yet my youngest son won't open one.