Network News: Mixed-genre critiquing in the North-West

By Gill James 
The events room at Waterstone’s is even more mysterious than usual. There’s just about enough room to set out a long table for the six of us. We can’t find the light switch. The sky is grey, which isn’t unusual for Manchester. Screens block the little light that comes through. The room feels chilly.
We realise that we’re tripping over furniture that’s had its day and has been replaced by better in the café.
And then some magic happens.
The lights snap on.
And we start to critique.

This critique group is slightly unusual in that anyone in the North West network can come along and it is not genre specific. Every meeting is different and has a varied mix of people. We send work in advance but this time only one person has submitted.

“Bring work along on the day,” says Steph, our network co-ordinator. “We’ll still meet and we can have a bit of a social.”

She’s quite right: members asked for more meetings, we’ve booked the space and it’s good for writers to socialise.

As it happens we have three pieces of work to look at.

A unique selling point

We discuss the beginning of a story that has characters we’ve met before. The writing is lively. There is a disabled person in it but the story is not about disability. We think this is a good selling point. We debate who might be the target reader. The characters are 16-17. The story is light-hearted. We decide it’s aimed at younger teen girls. That’s about right; children / young people like to read “up” about people who are going through the next stage of growing-up. We point out a few tiny typos and grammatical mistakes.

Less is more

Next we look at a picture book text we’ve seen before. The writer has cut back. It’s another case of less is more. It works so much better now, we think. There are plenty of anthropomorphic animals, plenty of that repetition so enjoyed by young children and a sound but simple story. The rhythms and rhymes are becoming much more polished. There are just a few weaker parts that now need tweaking. We’re fascinated by the writer’s hard copy – it’s absolutely covered in notes in all different colours. That’s what I call serious editing. Also, perhaps this is proof of how hard picture book texts are to write.

Finding the third way

I bring along excerpts of a novel that has been seen by this group before and that now has a publisher. Edits came back the day before. I have agreed with 70% of what the editor said. I want some more opinions on the rest. The group agree with the editor that all the letters in the third strand of the story should be no longer than a page each but that they should still contain a mixture of domestic information and examples of how World War II is impacting on some German teen girls. And yes, the reference to the black SS uniform should stay but the editor is right; it is clumsily expressed here. Collectively, we rephrase.
On the same page we notice that one word is used three times. This is after the author has edited eighteen times and the editor twice. Agatha Christie, research tells us, says everything three times. The rule of three rules. Is this why? Or is this a sign that we never finish but merely abandon?

Useful cross-fertilization 

I actually like the cross-fertilization that happens at these meetings. I write mainly for young adults but looking at a book for younger teens reminds me about pace and character development and looking at a picture book text helps me to work out how to write tightly.

We chat easily at the end of the session and we don’t notice the Manchester greyness anymore. Only as we step outside into the warmth of the shop do we remember that the events room was a little cool. We’ve all benefitted from sharing ideas about writing.

A good way to spend a Sunday afternoon 

Waterstone’s has a buzz about it on a Sunday afternoon. Yes, it’s a big chain and it’s hard to get and maintain shelf-space in there but it is a book shop and they are incredibly generous in allowing us to use their events room.

I have to have a look around before I go home, though I refrain from buying two books I see – I have over fifty at home waiting to be read. All in all, good use of a Sunday afternoon

Gill James writes fiction for children and young adults. She lectures in English and Creative Writing at the University of Salford. Her novel, The House on Schellberg Street, will be published by Crooked Cat in Spring 2014.  

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