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Northern Lines

June 9, 2011

Between graduating from university in 2005 and moving to Manchester in 2007, I found writing extremely difficult. Actually it wasn’t the writing – it was the finishing. I would sit down and do some writing – maybe a short story, maybe some of the novel that would become The Leaping – and then I’d stop. And then the next time I sat down, I’d re-read it, and spot a few things that could be improved, or that didn’t make sense, or that I simply didn’t like any more. So I would redraft what I’d done. And then my ‘writing time’, for one reason or another, would have run out. Next time I sat down, the process would repeat itself. And the time after that. Then I’d get disheartened and take a break for a few days. Then I’d come back to it, and re-read it, and think what is this shit? And then, despairingly, I’d start something else. Something that, I promised myself, would be ‘semi-decent’. But of course the process would just repeat itself.

As I say, I wasn’t finishing anything. I was floundering really badly.

It seems obvious, in retrospect. I’d moved from an environment (university) where I had a lot of time to write, deadlines, and frequent, regular workshops to an environment (flat in Whitehaven, with full-time call-centre job) where I had none of those things. I did have time to write, still, but less time, and when you have less time, the pressure to turn out semi-decent/decent material is much greater. You don’t feel like you’ve got time to make mistakes, to write crap, to learn. And so it’s a much bigger deal when you end up discarding something, or something gets rejected. Of course, that learning process – writing crap – is a vital part of the writing practice (for me at least), but that’s little consolation when you’ve spent every night for weeks on a piece of work that, by the end, feels more like something to be ashamed of than proud of.

Anyway – the most important thing that I was missing was real, critical feedback. Which for me is vital. Not just because other people see weaknesses that you don’t, but because they see strengths that you don’t. (A scribbled ‘haha!’ in the margin of one page can make a world of difference to how you feel about the whole novel you’re writing). And of equal importance – the fact that, once the piece of writing is in somebody else’s hands, you can’t touch it. You can’t tweak it any more. It’s too late. It’s not a deadline as such, but it’s a cut-off point – that handing-over to a reader – that marks, for me, the end of the first draft. Or the second. Or whatever it is that you’re getting feedback on.

Which brings me to the point of this blog post, really. I wanted to just discuss, briefly, why receiving feedback is so crucial to me. It helps me improve my writing, but first and foremost it enables me to write at all. And the way I get that regular feedback now is via a writing group – The Northern Lines. We’ve been going just over a year, and meet in either Preston or Manchester every three weeks, and we discuss the work of two of the group members. (There are six of us in total). So we take it in turn to discuss our work. In effect, this means that we each have a deadline every nine weeks, and every three weeks we have a workshop that is invariably illuminating, whoever’s work is being critiqued. It’s fun, as well as helpful. And it’s in a pub. The other members are Andrew Hurley, Zoe Lambert, Sally Cook, Emma Unsworth, and Jenn Ashworth. (Thanks all!)

The point is that if you write, and sometimes you find it difficult and/or lonely (personally I think it is often both of those things), try to seek out feedback from other writers, who know how to deliver it in a helpful way. If you can’t find other writers close enough to you for regular meetings, try to set a group up online. The internet’s full of writers. I can’t overstate how important and beneficial regular feedback is for me, anyway. I suppose everybody’s different though. I never know how to finish blogposts. Jesus.

From → Writing

  1. PS – I’ll be adding a page to this blog with links to the sites / blogs of other members of the Northern Lines.

  2. That’s the funniest ending to a blog post I’ve read for a while.

    I know exactly what you mean. I have a full-time job, but I treat my writing as a job too. On top of all the other things I do. I’ve taken encouragement from this though: I’m about to embark on my first writer’s group with a few friends, which will be the first feedback I’ve had for a long time (other than trying out my stories at reading nights).

    • Excellent – I hope you find it as useful as I have!

      And yes – I agree, reading stuff out in public is also really valuable in terms of getting feedback. I should’ve mentioned that. A good audience response can really provide the impetus to carry on.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. Very insightful post. My first job was as a business writer for a U.S. B2B communications media firm. I hated having my work looked at in my first few weeks (and after that) – criticised and pulled apart, damned and damned some more (such was the editor/snr analyst at this firm). Then slowly I actually began to invite critical feedback, and found more of it positive, and then actually noticed the difference between copy I’d written weeks before, and how I’d improved. Feedback really is crucial, and I definitely recommend it in many circumstances.

    That said, I think that sometimes maybe it’s better to finish an entire work, than have too much input at some stages – it may be that someone else cannot ‘gel your ideas’ together as well as you can, or missed seeing the entire canvas upon which you’ll paint your piece. Maybe they’ll introduce the element of doubt where there was previously none – these may be things that can be overcome though, certainly.

    • Thanks, Will!

      If I submit part of a novel to the group, I then tend to take all of the feedback and make notes on it – but not actually redraft the extract I submitted. Instead, I’ll carry on going, and then incorporate the feedback when I redraft – if my ideas are still the same, if the feedback gels with the rest of it, etc. You’re quite right about getting feedback at the right / wrong point in the process though. We tend to be quite relaxed about what we submit to each other – it’s whatever the writer whose turn it is feels would be most useful for them at that juncture.

      Your editor / senior analyst sound pretty scary… there’s certainly a knack to delivering criticism!

  4. Couldn’t agree more.

    I’m part of the Manchester Speculative Fiction Writing Group and its been invaluable so far. More than anything else its taught me how to sit my arse down and rewrite/edit something that isn’t working. All too often I abandon old writings for new stuff too hastily. Having critques from people I trust makes the whole re-editing process so much easier and so much more vital.

    Incidently, I did not know that you were part of that group with Andrew. Messr Hurley is my cousin on my mother’s side. Small world.

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