I have always been more a solitary writer than one who actively seeks a community of the like-minded. The reasons for this are manifold:
Firstly I haven’t found a strong community of like-minded writers. Possibly (almost certainly) this is a bit of a chicken/egg argument, as I haven’t really actively sought one out. When I have, and I was for a short time part of a group of writers, the ‘like’ in like-minded was quite strained – incorporating everything from Hard SF to Paranormal Fiction to Epic Fantasy – and didn’t really fit within the genre niche I was carving for myself.
Secondly I have (until recently – more on that to come) been quite guarded about what I was doing. It was really only when I finished the ‘Exile’ manuscript (I’ve posted excerpts from the prologue here before) that I felt I had something I wanted people to read. Sharing scenes, excerpts, even chapters felt a bit false because they were so de-contextualised.
Thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly, I was just in an utter state of fear that it would all be rubbish. I had this thing I’d been building and crafting and drawing forth from my own creative energies for years (over a decade). How could I risk putting it out there and having it savaged? How could I risk being told that all that time and effort was wasted? Wasn’t it safer to keep my work of genius locked safely away from the harsh judgements of those that would seek to judge it?
Of course not.
And yet it was a prevailing mindset. I recognise it sometimes when I think of my boys growing up. My eldest is off to school next year and I’m excited for him, but at the same time some part of me wishes I could hold him back – hold him locked in time – so he wouldn’t have to go out there and get bullied and fail at things and have his heart broken and risk all the myriad tragedies and tribulations of a life lived. That’s fair enough isn’t it? I’ll just keep him here in this happy (mostly) state of early child-hood where I can enjoy the beaming smile I get when he sees me and he will never tell me he hates me and storm out, and no one will be able to say a bad word about him?
Of course not.
We know lives need to be lived, despite – or perhaps because of – all the inherent risks in the living. Books need to be read for the same reasons (I just compared my manuscript to my son. How droll. Forgive me.).
So I sent my book out to some (highly) trusted readers. Close friends. Family. People who have read and enjoyed the books I believe inspired me in the writing of ‘Exile’. The feedback I got was positive, and in some ways and in some cases constructive, but really it was a comfortable and familiar blanket in which to wrap myself. I mean no disrespect to my readers in saying that – they performed their role perfectly. My point is I needed someone to play another role.
I needed the harsh, but fair, critic. I needed the bald-faced truth. I needed someone to cast aside the flatteries and the positive reinforcement and to go straight to the heart of anything in the novel which didn’t work. I needed a critical eye to find the faults I had been denying to myself: the faults I most needed to fix before I pitch this tale.
And I found my man, and recently he gave me what I needed. I’ll give you all more detail on what that is in a series of subsequent posts. It’s a work in progress. Suffice it to say that some fairly drastic cuts are recommended and some significant changes to characters and characterisation. That in itself doesn’t amaze me (though to be honest I was amazed by the extent of the recommended cutting). What amazed me most was how well the advice I was getting struck those loose nerves that I had been soothing over. Almost everything which was identified for me aligned perfectly to some sense of uncertainty I’d been feeling, or some concern about the manuscript which I would occasionally glimpse and turn away from. It had become a ‘wilful unseeing’ of the faults in my work, and I’d gotten so fixated on looking at words within a scene that I hadn’t asked myself ‘does this paragraph need to be here?’ ‘does this scene?’ ‘does this chapter?’ ‘does this character?’.
I feel the answers may be difficult to nail down, and maybe all these alterations will take something away from the manuscript which will be lost forever. This is the risk involved in following these recommendations, but I’m at least now at a place with my writing that I have the courage to take the risk.