Writing Buddies and the Art of Critique
I am about to test-drive a new writing buddy….
I won’t be saying anything specific about this relationship as we have agreed that confidentiality is all important, but I would like to say something about the idea of sharing and critiquing one’s work with another.
Above is a photo of my regular writing buddy, Spook who often sits obstructing the keyboard, or lies draped over my arms. If Spook is busy, one of the other cats steps up to the mark, usually newboy Barney.
However, today I want to talk about the human variety. I have had some experience with this, and it’s been mixed. It requires a commitment by all parties concerned to read, engage with and be prepared to critique another’s writing. Likewise, it requires one to be able to receive that critiquing in the generous spirit in which it is offered.
The death knell with one such buddy was their repeatedly turning up having not read my piece, but eager to hear what I had to say about theirs. Another was unable to accept that their work was other than perfect because, after all, they’d spent a fortune on a creative writing MA.
I spent a decade teaching creative writing for the University of Cambridge ICE. That doesn’t mean I know all there is to know and it doesn’t mean I’m always able to apply what I know to my own writing…sometimes I’m just too close.
That’s the negatives out of the way – now for the positives.
I used to write in secret. I’d get up in the middle of the night, stoke up the Rayburn and sit at the kitchen table trying to type quietly. Type. With a typewriter – which tells you how long ago this was.
I think because writing is important to me, and I didn’t want to be seen to fail, so if I told no one (not even my then husband, sleeping peacefully upstairs) no one would know if it came to nought.
Then a friend drew me to one side. She needed to tell me something, she said, something that was going to change her life. She was going to write a book…
‘Funny you should say that…’ I said, and in that moment a partnership was born.
We met weekly, read one another’s work and discussed it in depth.
I cannot tell you how nervous I was that first week. I sat facing her across the kitchen table trying to concentrate on her extract but repeatedly distracted by the slide of her pencil as she made marks on mine.
I also cannot tell you how valuable it was. Knowing that I was writing something that she was going to read next week (as opposed to in some undefinable future when I may or may not manage to get published) was transformative. I saw my writing simultaneously through my writer’s and my reader’s eye.
Often the passages (or even the words) she questioned were ones I had a sneaky feeling weren’t quite right. I even found myself, on occasion, thinking that if I type this very quickly then she’ll read it quickly and I’ll get away with it…
Ah, the writer’s delusion. Kill your darlings. No, really, do it…
I think I would have had a longer path to publication without what we called ‘literary Tuesdays’. Alas, it was an intense relationship with a limited shelf-life. I hope she is still writing and wish her well.
So what is needed for a successful writing buddy relationship?
Trust. Clarity. Empathy. The ability to offer and receive feedback in a way that is supportive. For my part, these days I’m not so worried about the detail, I think I’m pretty good at that. Where I do struggle is with the big-picture focus.
See, I have an idea. I start to work on it. It blossoms … but at some point, that delicate blossom becomes a great blousy monster scattering its petals all over the place.
My single volume, high-concept 5th Century novel quickly became a multi-tome epic. My ‘war casts a long shadow’ novel was swamped with ideas and concepts and research and had to be put aside to incubate.
I am now putting the 5th Century epic to one side for a while (I will return to it) and am currently trying to knock the war novel into shape – and it is this keeping on track, keeping focused, that will be my main drive if this buddy relationship works out.
Wish me luck…I wish my buddy luck, and hope we will both flourish