Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Trusting another’s instincts


Where is the best bar, do you think?
I imagine that working with a creative writing mentor is going to be a bit like going on holiday with them. Hurrying through the streets of a half-familiar city, I will spot a bar that looks promising for cheap wine and a chat with a local; she will point out another one up the hill that she recalls gives away free nibbles with its cocktails and has a superb view. I will jump in the first bit of sea I can scramble to down the rocks; she will point out that the water is clearer and the beach sandier just around the headland.

As a writer, there is a constant decision-making process which I find extremely hard – choosing between following my instincts over a word, a phrase, a plot, or accepting the judgement of a constructive critic. There are lots of reasons to take on board another’s point of view. They may simply have a better perspective on a story, not having just laboured over it themselves, and they can therefore point out the darlings that need to be killed. Or they may be armed with many years of experience in editing their own and others’ work. In the moment, when perspective is always lacking, accepting the instincts of another involves trust. Does this person understand what you are trying to achieve? Have they got a ‘feel’ for your work? If not, should you trust their instincts anyway and turn your story into something different but better? Do they have good judgement on all writing?

Yesterday I heard Michael Grade, ex-chairman of the BBC and ITV talking about creative decisions in broadcasting on Radio 4’s Front Row. My ears pricked up when he described a scenario in which his judgement diverged from that of a colleague, but, to paraphrase, he trusted his colleague’s instincts and decided to run the show in question. It was Father Ted; with hindsight he was very glad he didn’t go with his own instincts. Of course, the stakes are pretty high when you are commissioning shows for the BBC, but I wondered at the amount of trust that decision took when he didn’t believe in the show himself.

I’m about to embark on a mentoring process with a writer I don’t (yet) know. She is reading my novel manuscript and the idea is that, with her professional advice, I can turn it into something more publishable. This is an opportunity to be relished; her own novels have been well-received and at first glance appear to have a lot in common with my own in terms of setting, themes and intended audience. When it comes to understanding what makes a publishable novel, she is clearly well positioned.

But what I wonder about when it comes to trusting another writer’s judgement is how broad – or narrow – their understanding is of what makes ‘good writing.’ In order to be good in their eyes, does a novel have to become more like their own? If not, how do they know whether a very different kind of story, and style, has the potential to sell? Of course, being ‘good’ and being ‘sellable’ are two different categories with some overlap in the middle, which is naturally where I would like my novel to be. If our instincts clash over the changes that will put my novel in that sweet spot, will I be able to trust her advice and do it? I have experienced tutoring before that was all about writing in the ‘sellable’ category, and it tortured me because it went against my own instincts around good writing. I’m hoping that in this instance, I’ll have a mentor with a feel for the ‘good’ that I can trust.

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