It’s an odd position – judging and being judged simultaneously.
The village I live in is running a short story competition and I’m organising the judging. At the same time, my novel has just been longlisted for a national crime writing prize.
Of course, being listed for a prize is great. Someone read it! Someone liked it! Such moments of reward are so few in the writing world (in my writing world, anyway – yours may be crammed with awards) that they need to be savoured and rejoiced in for as long as possible. That small burst of optimism has to last for many long and lonely writing months into the future; a lovely bright balloon of encouragement bouncing joyfully about. Even as I admire it, I know it will drift away or turn wrinkly and flat soon enough.
This has made me so acutely aware of the feelings of the writers being judged in the short story competition that I can hardly bear to choose one over the other. There is genuinely something to be admired in every story. And the range of them is huge; some profound and philosophical, others surreal, others hilariously funny. It’s not just comparing apples and pears; it’s more like comparing apples, Liquorice All Sorts and Chicken Vindaloo.
We’ll get there in the end, because that’s what judges do: compromise.
Today it seemed to me that writing a novel was like constructing a bridge over a deep ravine. There is only one place on the opposite cliff where the bridge can safely attach; that narrow spot must be aimed for with precision.
The problem is that the bridge must be constructed out of tongue depressors or lolly sticks and you, the builder, have to built it whilst standing on it over the ravine, so it needs to be as solid as such little pieces of wood can make it. The beginning is extremely difficult, but with patient practice you eventually find a construction method of sorts and find a way to build something strong enough to stand on. You get used to the height and the crosswinds and a certain compulsive rhythm keeps you at it.
But then there is issue of direction. What keeps happening is that because of a few lolly sticks misplaced early on, the bridge veers to one side, away from the safe landing place on the opposing bank. This means dismantling all the lolly sticks back to the place where the wrong direction began, then reassembling them all – thousands upon thousands of them – until they head in the right direction, or seem to, because it is terribly easy to misplace one or two and very gradually lose the right line again.
I have several times, according to this metaphor, managed to build the bridge right over the gorge, almost to jumping-across point before realising that there is a dreadful mistake way back behind and a huge amount of work to do before the leap will be possible.
For some reason I never think of abandoning the tongue depressor bridge, or of throwing myself into the ravine, or even of staying on the other bank and not bothering to cross at all.
Plot listening comes way before external editing or beta reading. It comes around draft 4 for me, but it depends how you count and everybody’s different. PLs don’t even need to read the draft, they just have to be patient enough to listen as you mangle and chunter your way haphazardly through the ill-formed ragbag of half-formed ideas and rough-hewn, lumpy characters that is the early draft of a book. You can be repetitive and vague, over-specific, longwinded and forgetful about names (Did I say Aberdeen? I meant Nairobi.) yet somehow this patient person sits through it.
With crime writing it seems especially important because the twists and clues and red herrings the genre must have are too much for the ordinary (at least the fairly sane ordinary) human brain to contain all at once. It’s only when you run it past a listener that the awful omission of X or the impossible condition of Y suddenly becomes clear.
The PL sits up and asks something like, ‘But isn’t B in Moscow?/Where did you say he left the grenade?/Shouldn’t A have left with V after Fritz found the envelope, not before?’ and they’re right, and you, the shambolic writer, until then bitter and apathetic, are electrified by this helpful observation and leave your coffee to grow cold on the table, so swiftly do you sprint off in the direct of the laptop.
Hurrah for the patient plot listener! Find one immediately if you can. And reward them well. Jam is good for this, or pizza, but beer and sex* are fine too.
If they write things too, you probably owe them some PL time in return. But sex is obviously quicker*.
A lot of my lovely readers are older and don’t care much for technology. I’m not stereotyping here – my parents, in their 80s, love a bit of tech. and are rarely seen without an iPad – but lots of their contemporaries like paper books best and wouldn’t know what to do with a phone that didn’t have buttons.
Fair enough, I say.
These dear readers, when they like the books, tell me so in offline ways: face to face, by handwritten letter, or in an email their friend has helped them send, all of which I appreciate hugely. What they don’t do is write online reviews, because – well because they don’t come from the review culture. In their day, if you bought something; you just bought it. You weren’t expected to give it stars or tell them the packaging was or wasn’t up to scratch!
But we hungry writers need online reviews. It’s how the algorithms work. So a little plea: if you enjoyed a book (any book!) please leave a little online review. A passing young person, or your nearest tech-savvy great-granny will help.
I loved the “great post-operative” one above.
Oh, and a few copies are in a give-away offer at the moment (see above).