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Reaching for the Next Level

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Over the period of the lockdown, I have been taking part in a series of online writing workshops, two offered by the Quebec Writers Federation and the other by Clarion West. The two QWF workshops were originally going to be live session in Montreal, but they have shifted to being online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Although I would have enjoyed the trip to Montreal on three successive Saturdays, I am just as pleased to participate in the online versions (across 6 sessions, 2 for one workshop and 4 for the other) without leaving my home. The Clarion West workshops, however, were organized online from the get-go, although admittedly after the pandemic arrived (another 4 sessions).

The first of the QWF workshops was called "How to Edit Your Own Prose Like a Professional Editor" and was taught by Maria Turner. Although all three workshops have been extremely good, this is the one that has been the most useful to me. Maria is a wonderful teacher, and clearly a very good editor. She has helped me see clearly where my writing needs work and how to go about making it better. Well, maybe not all the problem areas, but some important ones. The experience is humbling. I have known that my writing isn't perfect, that there is room to grow, but she has helped me see my writing in entirely new ways. I asked her why the other editors I have worked with have never given me the same kind of feedback, but she was at a loss to answer. She suggested that if I had asked the right questions I might have got similar advice, but, of course, that meant knowing what the right questions were.

It's hard for me to put into clear words what it is she proposes that I do. This week we were looking at the chapter I submitted to the workshop, which is chapter 2 from my novel "Incarnations of Evil". She noted that my dialogue is not right between what are essentially adult siblings, and she is correct. To fix the problem, she suggested that I go and look at well-known writers who have stories that deal with adult siblings. She suggested Chekov, but also Franzen's "The Corrections". I own the latter, but had never been able to get past the opening paragraphs. Today I made a concerted effort to do so, and I can see what she means. Although I don't actually like Franzen's writing (hence the reason I never could get into the book), there is much here that is useful to understand and perhaps apply to my own writing. In the first session we did, she had us read to the group an opening paragraph from a favourite writer. I read the first three paragraphs of Ondaatje's 'The English Patient', and from that one reading I understood many things that I had failed to grasp until this point. She also noted that I should look at how Ondaatje uses descriptions, and damned if she wasn't right again - I now see how I need to modify my descriptive passages to make them more effective.

Mostly the advice she offered was to read writers I like or who are doing similar things, and pull my lessons from a "close reading" of these texts. This is brilliant. Of course I have always read with an eye to the writing, but not with the specific idea of applying lessons directly from what I read. This is the advice of another writer who she referenced, Francine Prose. The first chapter of Ms. Prose's (yes, that is her name!) book, "Reading Like a Writer' is called 'Close Reading' and proposes exactly that.

Another writer to whom Maria drew my attention was Pat Barker, and in particular her book called 'Regeneration'. Regeneration is the first volume of a trilogy dealing with the psychological trauma of war, based partly on historical events at the end of the First World War. Pat Barker's earlier writing was about working class women, and, indeed, she felt she was being 'typecast' by critics into that type of book. So she decided to break into new territory and explored events in relation to the First World War, for which there was a family tie-in. Her trilogy won prizes and a great deal of critical attention. This is exactly the kind of story that I have been trying to bring to life with my White Shadows Trilogy, and so Pat Barker is, again, a brilliant suggestion for me to soak up.

In addition to these, let us call them 'structural weaknesses' of my writing, Maria has been drilling us on other aspects of writing more sharply. I bought and read 'Dreyer's English', which she recommended, and have now bought and read half of Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Style' as well. Of course I had heard about this book for years but never read it. Maria suggested this now might be outmoded to some extent, but I thought it useful to read the 'ground rules' even if other ideas have now replaced or modulated some of these. I was partly motivated by the realisation, which I would have known if I had ever opened Strunk and White's book, that 'White' is actually E.B. White, the author of 'Charlotte's Web' and 'Stuart Little', hence a writer I greatly admire. Strunk and White's book is mainly about trimming the excess out of text to make it leaner and more precise. Dreyer has a similar focus, but is not quite as unequivocal as Strunk modulated by White. However, Maria is careful to point out that there are books that would seem to break most of the 'rules'. She mentioned 'Ducks, Newburyport', a novel she has been reading. Almost the whole book of over 1000 pages is a single sentence (actually, it appears there are 8 sentences, each about 125 pages long). Furthermore (such a book being irresistible to me, I bought it), the novel uses over and over again the expression "the fact that", which was one of the banned expressions in Strunk and White's book! Clearly this was an intentional choice by the author, Lucy Ellman, a way of thumbing her nose at the Elements of Style! The book is considered to be a chef d'oeuvre by the critics.

Over the past couple of weeks, therefore, I have discovered a whole set of areas where my writing could be improved in substantive ways, and a kind of game plan of how to set about doing so. This will, I believe, allow me to reach the next level in my writing. These lessons obviously apply to my White Shadows Trilogy, but also to 'River of Sighs', and, of course, my 15-book science fiction saga, 'The Ido Chronicles'. It may be too late to do much with 'Plenum : The First Book of Deo', and perhaps also with 'Messioph : The First Book of Ido', as these novels are essentially finished except for final tinkering, but the other 13 plus books are fair game. What I need to do, however, is to determine which examples I should read to learn how to do better for these books. The exemplars are likely to be different for these books than for the White Shadows Trilogy. It will be hard, challenging work, but I am so, so excited about this!

I will leave my comments about the other two workshops for a later posting.

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