Top Tips from Authors: Analysing Your Work

Inspired by the Guardian article, in which they asked several authors to share their Top Tips for writing, I have extracted my favourites (there were lots to choose from. Lots). Contributors to the Top Tips article include Hilary Mantel, Annie Prolux, PD James, Sarah Waters, and Michael Morpurgo. Many of their tips focussed on similar themes, themes that I know will be particularly helpful to me, and hopefully they will be to you too. In this blog I will be focussing on them one by one. To see a list of all the themes, please visit my original post. Today’s theme is Analysing your Work. The key tips from the authors can be seen in the images.
Jonathan FranzenI have always felt apprehensive about letting other people read my writing. Bizarre, I know, since the ultimate goal of (most) writers is to have their work published and distributed to as many readers as possible, so why wouldn’t I want other people to read my work? When my novel was published, I was perfectly happy for strangers to read it – the more the better. But I have always been uncomfortable at the thought of friends and family members reading the things I have written – it fills me with the sudden dreadful realisation that everything I have written, of which I was previously happy and proud of, is in fact rubbish.
Will SelfI thought it was just me, until I read these author top tips, particularly this one from Will Self. At last! I thought. Someone else who looks over their own work and gets that “sickening feeling of overexposure”; someone who is actually well known and successful! And they think the feeling should be cherished! As scary as it is to think that it will always be awkward when you read over your own work (and try to do so objectively), it is also a relief to think that these feelings could also be classed as being part of the writing process. Because really, trying to analyse your own work and make it “good enough” for someone other than yourself to read is never an easy task.
Margaret AtwoodSeveral of the writers who contributed their top tips to the article brought up the problem of trying to read your own work as though you had never read it before. It’s difficult to know when a piece is really finished – and by that I mean whether or not is has been edited to perfection – when you know the story inside out. Will other people find it as interesting, engaging and exciting as you do? What might they find boring? What might they criticise? To have a hope of answering these questions, you need to be a prolific reader as well as a prolific writer. But even then, as Margaret Atwood says, you can never recreate that innocent anticipation that comes with opening a new book when that book is your own. So the only thing for it is to give it to someone else. Ideally, for me, this would be a stranger and not someone I know, though more often and not it is friends or family members that end up reading first drafts etc. Weirdly I would rather take criticism from a stranger, even though it’s likely to be more harsh than when it comes from a friend. Perhaps its because I know I would get the truth, no sugar coating, which is more useful, even though it is perhaps more difficult to hear.

The issue of “knowing” your story was also prevalent amongst the top tips. When I imagine someone else reading the fantasy novel I have written, I wonder whether they will be as absorbed in the story as I am. Will they understand the difficulties the characters face? Will they feel the same degree of love/loss/hope/hatred/fear that they all feel at various points in the story? This is linked to my previous post on top tips for writing (or not overwriting) descriptions. It’s difficult to take a step back from your own work and really appreciate the images you have created with the words. I’m finding it difficult at the minute to distance myself from my work – I can’t seem to work out whether a reader will see the twists and turns in the plot as real twists and turns, or whether they will just be so overly obvious that there are no surprises at all.
Roddy DoyleThis top tip from Roddy Doyle seems to suggest that once you name your work, and own it, the rest will follow. I wonder though if it really was that easy for Dickens to write Bleak House. It begs the question of which should (or does) come first, the plot or the title? I’m not sure it matters, though I’ve never written a story based on a title idea alone. I did know, though, that the first part of my trilogy would be called The 6thIsland – I knew this before I knew it would be a trilogy. But I have been struggling for a good title for parts two and three (one of which is finished and the other is almost). Perhaps, then, this is the reason why they have become progressively harder to write. Perhaps I should stop stressing over it and just pick a title; something that will entice readers into wanting to know more. Does a title always have to be so explicitly descriptive of the contents of the book? (for example, have you noticed the titles of the four Twilight novels have little if any connection to the actual “events” of the stories? They are just words that make you vaguely think of creepy things happening at night time.)
Michael MorpurgoAnd, finally, the ending. Or, how to get there. As Michael Morpurgo says in his top tips, he lives the story as he writes. That is the essence of the difficulty in analysing what you have written.  But is it better not to plan the ending of your book, and to just see what happens as you continue writing? Can you really understand your work if you haven’t got an idea of the full picture? I’m intrigued by the words that Morpurgo uses here about not dictating, and not playing God. Because in theory, that is exactly what writers do; they play God with the characters they have created. But writing is also an organic process – the story changes as you go, and best laid plans can sometimes go awry. As I’ve said before, the trilogy I am currently writing didn’t start out as a trilogy at all. Originally it was just one book, and parts two and three only started to form as I finished the first one and realised the story had grown beyond my original ideas.

Analysing your own work and trying to do so with the eyes of someone who hasn’t read it before will always be difficult, but to have any hope of being successful at doing so, you must read as much as you write. That will be the topic of my next Top Tips post – Read as much as you can.

Zadie Smith


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