Writing exercises often focus on the initial act of creation: here is the blank page, what will you write on it? But let’s assume that you have a piece of fiction with a start, a middle and an end. What do you do now?
Two things are helpful at this point. Firstly, critical acuity: the ability to see into a piece of fiction, under it, through it; to understand what it is doing, and also how it is doing what is doing. Secondly – this is the tricky bit – the ability to apply this acuity to our own writing. Otherwise, it can be hard to know if a story is finished. Or what to do with it if it is not.
Reading helps develop our critical abilities, of course; but it did strike me, as I made my first forays into writing fiction, that whatever I had been doing with books had left me curiously ignorant of what was required in order to write one. Well-crafted fiction presents itself with a kind of inevitability. It answers its own questions. It paints over its own steps. It pulls its ladder up behind itself, folds its arms tightly across its chest and deflects our tiny arrows.
As we learn the craft of writing, then, there can also be value in reading the work of peers – work that is imperfect, unfinished, still taking shape on the page. What is the impact of the point of view the writer has chosen? What would happen to the work if it began or ended at some different point? If the narrative was condensed or stretched (is this a novel cramped awkwardly into the frame of a short story, or a story that has lost focus and become too novelistic?) Were there points at which the writer seemed to try too hard? Were there particular images that resonated? Did the story touch you? How did the writer achieve that? There are a thousand questions we can ask of a piece of fiction; our first task is to formulate the right ones.
This sharing of work is best done in an environment of trust. When I did the MA at the IIML, prior to each workshop we wrote individual feedback to our classmates in the form of letters. This, we were told, would help us find the right tone: respectful, truthful, intimate. We were instructed always to include something positive (“if you can’t see something positive, read the work again until you see something positive”). At first I thought this was merely a matter of diplomacy, but later concluded it was not. We were being taught look for the energy that is driving a piece of fiction. The possibility in it.
We learnt, too, what to do with feedback on our own work: to hear it well, but hear it in silence. The impact of the story on the reader wasn’t for the writer to debate. We did not need to justify our work to anyone – only (only!) to let ourselves be open to seeing it afresh. Which is not to say that being workshopped did not sometimes feel like having your skin peeled off and being dipped in a salt bath. But I found that I was less flayed by the judgement of others as my confidence as a writer increased. Tellingly, some of the most useful feedback I received mirrored things I knew deep down myself, or was on the cusp of recognising. The aim of the process is not to create a dependence on the opinions of others, but actually quite the reverse. It is to close the circle between giving and receiving feedback, so that – unlike in old-fashioned games of hunt the thimble – we begin to sense for ourselves when we are cold, and when we are warm.
So, the exercise: take a story you have not looked at for several months. Read it and walk around with it in your head for a few days. Read it again. Then write yourself a letter. You are not writing it for an audience: whatever you say is between yourself and yourself. When you have finished, read your story again.
Now rewrite it.
Emma Martin grew up in Dunedin and has lived in Melbourne, Manchester, Edinburgh and London. She lives in Wellington with her partner and two children. In 2012 she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the title story of Two Girls In A Boat, her first collection. The book is launched at Unity Books, Wellington, on 2 May.
Emma will appear at Bats Theatre, Wellington, in The Exercise Book Live on 14 June.