How raw is too raw?

This is (another) post about Smut Marathon, but it doesn’t start with Smut Marathon. It starts with a project the other me – the real me – is working on. A novel.

Early in 2017, I finished the first draft of a novel I’d been writing, on and off, since late 2015. This weekend, I was on writing retreat, chomping through a few more chapters of the rewrite. It’s slow going, but writing is slow going, especially when, like me, the reasons why you’re not sure if you ever want this particular project to be out in the world threaten to outnumber the number of chapters in the book itself. Also, I’ve written first drafts before, but a second draft of something? This is new.

I’m a sucker for a creative writing course. I love the company of writers, their passion, their opinions, their willingness to talk books for borderline unhealthy periods of time. What I wanted, desperately, when I moved onto Draft 2 was a rewriting course, or an editing course – was something that would tell me what the hell it was I was supposed to be doing. How was I supposed to know where to start? But also – how would I know when it was done?

It turns out that nobody can teach you that, or, at least, it’s a lot harder to teach someone to rewrite than to teach them to write in the first place. It’s a pretty personal thing – one great editing course I did do, lots of which I’ve put into practice, suggested that, when you  get bored of editing, you should rewrite any bits you know aren’t working from scratch, to give your creative brain a look in.

It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m a very linear writer – I go back and tweak, sure, but major rewrites of sections, especially when taken out of the context and order of the whole piece, are a disaster for me. I can’t write scenes and then retrospectively impose a structure.

Another thing I’ve considered, but abandoned, for reasons that will hopefully become clear later in this post, is rewriting from scratch. In some ways, I like this approach. You read the scene/chapter/story/whole fucking draft/whatever, then you go away and rewrite it in a separate document.

The advantage? You don’t cling to anything just because it’s there on the page already.

But my fear? You lose something this way.

So, how does this link to the marathon? In a number of ways, I think.

Firstly, there’s the very sensible tip that Marie sends out with each round:

Start writing your piece as soon as possible after receiving the assignment. Let it rest for a while, then start editing, deleting, rewriting. Never leave it until the last moment to start. 

What’s great about the tip, in my opinion is that ‘editing, deleting, rewriting.’ You have to find your way – we have to find our way – and you may find it easiest to do one, two or all three of those things.

But there’s also something to be said for leaving the damn thing the hell alone.

A lot of writers in the Smut Marathon, myself included, have been picked up on our use of grammar, and I’m afraid that’s something I don’t have a lot of time for. Grammar matters. Spelling matters. But when you’re telling a story, what matters most? The story.

In the last round, I voted for pieces that had a distinct plot, because that, to me, is the real challenge of writing something in a hundred words. Do you have a beginning, middle and end? Can I feel your story in my gut? Because, unless your sentences are so long that I have to revisit them to make sense of what you’re trying to say, unless your grammar and/or spelling are noticeable enough to pull me out of the story? I’m going to let it go.

I’m not a judge of the SM, obviously, so maybe it’s not my place to say, but I worry about the number of writers who’ve taken the grammar feedback – and seemingly little else – to heart.

In real life, I’m an editor. I’m trained and I work for a company that takes itself pretty bloody seriously. I don’t edit fiction, which is why all of this comes with a proviso, but I do know how to break a piece of work down and prioritise the right stuff.

I’m not paid to look at grammar and spelling on my first pass through anything. No company wants to spend its money having someone get this stuff perfect until the structure, the body of the thing, is in place. The same goes for fiction. I’m not saying spelling and grammar don’t matter – they do, they’re what make work look polished – but the idea, the plot, the characters? They matter so much more.

On Sunday, I shared At Peace, the original micro fiction I wrote for round two of Smut Marathon and ended up not submitting. Maybe I made the wrong choice, maybe I didn’t (Little Pyromaniac, my alternative piece, did absolutely fine), but two things struck me:

  1. In general, people who follow my blog, rather than the Smut Marathon, preferred At Peace
  2. There wasn’t the huge gulf in opinion between the strengths of the piece I edited to death (LP) and the one I barely, if at all, touched (AP).

Which brings me to the key point of this post. I said, after round one, that I wanted to take more risks, and Little Pyromaniac is the riskier of the two stories, in method, if not in content. It’s a perfectly fine story but I interrogated every word to the point of exhaustion. At Peace is the story that came from my heart, so maybe it’s no wonder it’s more raw, and seems to resonate more.

That rawness has a value. It has an energy. It’s drenched in you as a writer. Don’t clean your writing up so much that you wipe all the you off it.

I wanted to end with something I’ve been sharing on Twitter a lot recently, a piece of advice given in a writing workshop by an author whose work I love, Garth Greenwell. He said, ‘No good comes from listening to the opinion of people who are unsympathetic to your project,’ and it’s the most sensible thing on feedback I’ve ever heard. People who sympathise with your project will criticise it, as they should, but they’ll have good to say about it too. You’ll know.

In the early rounds of the Smut Marathon though, I feel like it’s harder to know. The challenges are fun, but they’re short – who knows what your bigger project is? (Although shout out to the judges who pointed out where they could see the potential for one).

All any of us can hope for – in the next round or any of the remaining seven – is that out there, among the voters, there’ll be people who are sympathetic to our projects.

Listen to them. And the rest? Let it go, and keep writing.

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Sex and communication

One of the conversations I’ve been involved in on Twitter this morning has been about sex and ‘feedback’ – which everyone involved seems to agree is a terrible word for it. Basically, the question, as I understand it, is: should we be open to talking honestly with our partners about what does/doesn’t work for us in the bedroom?

On paper, I’d say yes, we should. But what works on paper doesn’t work for me in practice.

Let’s take a different example. Ever since a few months back, when Exhibit A wrote on sport, I’ve been meaning to blog my own thoughts on the matter. It seemed more sensible that commenting on the original post: I needed to work through my feelings on the matter and they’re so bloody complex I knew they’d probably run to longer than reasonable comment length.

On an intellectual level, I know that exercise isn’t something you get to opt into or out of in life, although despite that knowledge I still do very little. I asked my parents if they’d consider paying for gym membership as a Christmas gift. Initially, they thought this was a great idea – they’ve been hassling me to be more active for years. But then they had a little chat overnight and decided that they both agreed that a personal trainer (obviously a much more expensive option) would be better.

I’m ashamed, but not particularly surprised, to say the whole conversation collapsed into a tearful row. I cried. I made my mum cry. My dad, normally a staunch ally, took my mum’s side. I’m not interested in a personal trainer: I can’t bear to catch sight of myself in mirrors when I exercise, the thought of *paying* someone to stand there and watch, especially if that someone was male, sends me spiralling into immediate panic.

You’re not listening, I argued. What might be objectively best for me won’t work for me, because there are other factors getting in the way. I’m looking for compromise: you’re telling me it’s your way or the highway.

And that was my experience of sport pretty much all through school, as well. When I was eleven, and had come home from double PE in tears again, my mum lost her temper. ‘*Everybody* has something they’re bad at,’ she argued, ‘What about the kids who can’t read or add up?’

She had a kind of point there, but again, the comparison wasn’t quite fair. I’m young enough that I went to school at a time when humiliating kids with poor reading or maths ability by getting them to read out loud in class or to come up and work out an equation on the board had gone out of fashion. Sadly, the same wasn’t true for sport. The focus of sport was at best on teamwork (I don’t like letting people down), at worst it was ‘Get into groups, design a dance/gymnastics/aerobics routine and perform it in front of the class. High jump was one at a time in front of everybody else. So was rope climbing. Hurdles. My PE teacher ironically ultimately won an MBE for services to sports education – I don’t once remember her asking what she could do to help or make me feel more comfortable.

Her younger colleague on the other hand, obviously came from a different school of thought. She cornered me after a trampolining lesson and asked if I’d consider coming to trampolining club early on Friday, before everyone else arrived. ‘Bring a friend,’ she said ‘And you can have a go while there’s nobody else here. Would that be better?’

There’s a limit to how much of that special treatment – great, and kind and appreciated that it is – that you can expect when you have a disability – you kind of do have to just get on with life the best you can. But I don’t think that’s a reason to make it unnecessarily hard on yourself – to go against what comes naturally.

On the subject of feedback, I had my mid year appraisal at work yesterday. It was, much like the job itself, paper heavy, insular, more like a (endlessly long) cosy chat than an appraisal. It’s another of the things that tells me I’m in the right career: nothing about the pushy, competitive, bullshit-heavy, male-dominated worlds of consultancy or the city, for example, appeal to me. I wouldn’t be good at those jobs. I’m too soft, too emotional. I don’t think that makes me a bad person or a failure: it’s just about recognising that I have a different skill set.

The point I’m trying to make is that although, obviously, we’d communicate with our partners often and sensitively and constructively in the bedroom, in practice I think that’s harder to achieve. Good communication is something to aim for, but I don’t think it comes naturally to many couples, whether they’ve been married for years or are just friends with benefits.

Since I started having sex, men have said all of the following to me:

‘I don’t care if it’s waxed or not as long as it’s tidy.’

‘We’re not friends, we’re just two people who fuck and get on fairly well.’

‘Use your hand as well.’

All of those have stung a little bit, for one reason or another. My body confidence is low – is my bikini line neat? Does it meet his standards? Probably not – it’s not as neat as I’d like it to be, but I don’t know how to do a better job of it. Why aren’t we friends? What’s wrong with me? Are you ashamed of being seen out with me in public? And ‘Use your hand as well?’ To me that translates as ‘You’re shit at giving head.’

A lot of this is fuelled by issues that I have to address. I know that – it’s just one of the many reasons I see a therapist. But as relationships become more complicated – as more and more of us are in friends with benefits arrangements, or just having regular one night stands – what qualifies someone as having the right to give ‘feedback?’ I wouldn’t, for example, be open to receiving comments on my technique from someone I picked up in a night club and wasn’t planning to see again.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the trust necessary for giving constructive feedback on sex, and for it being well received, extends far, far beyond the bedroom. With me, you’ll win that trust by showing that you’ve thought about how things affect me that perhaps don’t affect you – you’ll hold my hand if we’re crossing an icy road for example. Or, if we’re out having dinner, you’ll squeeze my shoulder when you come back from the Gents: little signs of affection that show that you care about me even when we’re not naked.

If you’re not that invested then I’m sorry, I’m not particularly open to hearing what does/doesn’t work for you in the bedroom.