When I studied for my Masters in Creative Writing years ago, there was a module called Paths to Publication. For this module I wrote an essay about the industry that had sprung up geared towards helping unpublished writers get published. I looked at writing courses, like the MA I was on, mentoring services, manuscript editing services, how-to books, online forums and writing workshop groups.
The would-be author industry was big then. It’s even bigger now. Every day I’m bombarded with emails and notifications about some new resource or some new avenue of feedback. But there is a danger inherent in such a plethora of advice.
I recently came across a passage from Little Women, about the character, Jo’s, response to early criticism of her first novel:
So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing every one, she took every one’s advice and, like the old man and his donkey in the fable, suited nobody.
If you don’t know the fable of the old man and his donkey, you might want to check it out. It’s a good one. It doesn’t end well for the donkey though.
My first novel, like Jo’s, is a dismembered creature, a coagulated mess, hacked to pieces to satisfy all the conflicting advice I received from writers, agents and editors. It simply doesn’t make sense any longer.
This is the great danger of availing yourself of too much feedback. The would-be author industry is supposed to help you improve your writing. Which is great. Which is all well and good. Except that this is predicated on the notion that there is an objective gold standard of writing. There isn’t. A huge amount boils down to taste.
There are two key, but apparently conflicting, skills a writer must learn: to judge when advice is sound and will improve the quality of their work and to judge when they should follow their own conviction and reject advice in favour of personal vision.
It may seem hypocritical for me to say this, seeing as I run my own manuscript editorial service. But, my professional opinion is just that: an opinion. The work and the final edit belong to the author.
Taste is often a slave to fashion. I’ve lately been enjoying reading some quiet, brilliant works of fiction by twentieth century authors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym.
For a long time Pym went out of fashion because her novels of staid middle-class lives didn’t reflect the hip, sexual revolution vibe of the 1960s. Thankfully, after many years writing in the wilderness, she was later rediscovered and then her novels were treasured because she had remained true to herself.
So, as I get back to writing after a dry spell, I’m switching off all notifications of seminars and author talks and guru workshops and writing do’s and don’t’s and I’m just getting back down to me, the page and the donkey.