Thursday 15 April 2021

In praise of writing communities & how they saved Chapter 3 - Rowena House

On Twitter last month, inspirational children’s author Sophie Anderson asked, ‘Writers, what is your one most important goal, right now, as a writer?’

            Her question stimulated a fascinating thread of more than a hundred answers, plus side conversations, as writers shared their angst and ambitions – great and small – their hopes and lockdown challenges, and sent support, compassion and understanding to each other.

            The thread began on 27 March in case you missed it and want to read in and experience  that uplifting knowledge that wherever we are as writers, we aren’t alone.

            I thoroughly recommend you do check it out, in fact. Right now, if you like. You’ll find her @sophieinspace.

            And then, if you aren’t diving straight back into your own deep reading or creative space, come back here for a bit of focused rumination on the relationship between chapters, what I learnt during last week’s Arvon At Home historical fiction course, plus more thoughts about the immense value of writing communities in general.

            [Welcome back if you popped over to Twitter. Good thread, huh? Anyway...]

            My answer to Sophie sat at the pragmatic end of the spectrum: I wanted to draft the next chapter of my seventeenth century ghost story-cum-political drama.

            In the intervening weeks, no actual word contributed to that goal, but I did get chapter two polished (well, rewritten) and signed off by two professional authors, the Arvon tutors Manda Scott and Robert Wilton, both of whose books are now high on my TBR list.

            I also learned a great deal from them and my fellow attendees, whose stories are so wide ranging, and their abilities and determination so great, that last week felt like the start of a new and better beginning for my own work-in-progress.


            Thinking about why this should be so, when I’ve been working on this story for more than a year, led me to several conclusions.

            Firstly, it doesn’t matter a hoot that I didn’t write chapter three during the course. Fiction writing isn’t a race nor, sadly, is it a job in my case. So, while taking writing seriously is good, deadlines are for people who are paid to meet them.

            Second, chapter two, which I submitted for the one-to-one tutorials, only worked after a lot of thinking, rethinking, and rewriting: line by line, word by word, which eventually transformed, ‘Well, that’ll do for now’ into, ‘Yup, there we go. Ye-ha.’

            It turns out that having professional readers really made me up my game.

            On the whole, I tend to believe that simply being critiqued by writers I trust is sufficient motivation to get it right. And there’s no doubt that kind of feedback is fantastically useful; it’s how I got chapter one done.

            But the Zoom meetings with Robert and Manda added other layers.

            For one things, there was the fear of wasting the opportunity for top-notch feedback. I already knew the chapter wasn’t up to scratch, so why pay to be told something you already know? Also, I didn’t want to come across as an amateur; no one is paying for this manuscript yet, but one day...

            Combined, these factors gave the whole business of getting it right a far sharper edge.

            Editing on the days before the course began felt like being back on the MA’s manuscript mentoring scheme, or awaiting that meeting with a yearned-for agent or editor back in my pre-published days.

            The time, effort and focus that went into editing chapter two, knowing it would be seen by a pro, demonstrated once again a fundamental element in my own writing process: if it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough. So change it.

            And that means planning.


            Okay, it can be planning after an intuitive few weeks groping towards a scene with an authentic character doing something significant in a realistic and relevant place. Which, roughly, is where I was before the Arvon timetable came through.

            But it was the act of reframing the entire chapter, rethinking its function, its structure, its conflict, which made it come alive.

            Interestingly, it was restructuring that also solved another nagging problem: the voice of chapter two had been wrong. The language and tone had been too similar to chapter one, and since the WIP is a dual narrative, told in alternate chapters, the voice of each strand has to be distinct.

            Discovering a separate voice for my second lead character, Beth, brought the necessary elements of the voice for the main protagonist, Tom, into sharp relief. I knew, consciously rather than instinctively, what his next scene had to sound like: its rhythms, its lexicon, its nuances and psychic distance.

            (Note to self: a theme of social hierarchy is already emerging in both strands; make it subtle and discrete for each.)

            Nailing chapter two also clarified the sorts of things that should happen in Tom's story as opposed to Beth's, including their underlying preoccupations and the nature of the consequences of events, so that the all-important because of that feels organic and in-character to a reader, not arbitrary and plot-driven.

            And since, in chapter one, Tom internalises his conflicts, coherence suggests that his introspection ought to have knock-on effects in chapter three, raising plot tension or foreshadowing greater jeopardy ahead.

            And with chapter two now driven by Beth’s manipulative interpersonal conflicts, a kinder style of interpersonal conflict in chapter three could provide another contrast between Beth and Tom, while still ringing true for Tom’s more empathic character.

            In other words, getting chapter two right narrowed down the choice of devices to take the story forward, while at the same time making each chapter compliment and contrast with its neighbours.

            This sort of planning isn’t for everyone, of course. I suspect it would drive most intuitive writers into the fridge or the gym.

            But it is in line with advice I read somewhere – John Yorke’s Into the Woods, perhaps – that if Act III isn’t working, you probably went wrong in Act I. So go back and find out where. The hold-up with chapter three might be this same process working at a smaller scale.

            On the other hand, another wise writer once said, Get it writ, then get it right.

            For me, the first time I heard this advice was from the marvellous Sara Grant during a BookBoundUK weekend a shocking number of years ago. Ever since then I have tried to follow her guidance, but have stumbled so often that, deep down, I know that I have to get a scene right-ish before moving on.

            For which purposes, feedback like Manda’s and Robert’s is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

            Sadly, it is impractical to go on an Arvon course every few weeks (what a dream!) so it’s brilliant news that last week’s cohort of historical writers wants to keep in touch for mutual support, as so many who’ve experienced Arvon courses do.

            [MA buddies from Bath Spa have kept me going for years, and continue to be a fantastic support, along with Scoobies and Golden Eggers, Sassies now, too, and the Twitterati.]

            What I’m saying, I guess, is something we mostly know, but is still worth celebrating: other writers are motivating, energising, helpful and insightful, as well as being role models for shared anxieties, essential sounding boards and welcome listening posts.

            All hail, writing communities everywhere.

            How would stories ever get written without them?


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