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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