May 3, 2019 at 5:24 pm #5067
I came upon this gem of advice from The Fuehrer at JW:
One of the problem with all those MFA courses, those university diplomas in Creative Writing, the workshops, the peer-to-peer critiquing stuff is that writers end up with style all right . . . but they can all end up sounding the same.
Because we at Jericho Writers do a lot of editorial work with a lot of writers, we end up recognising the flavour. I call it Universal Workshop Style (UWS). It’s not bad, exactly – the opposite, really – but to be honest with you, I always have a sinking feeling when I pick up a manuscript written in UWS.
It’s like there’s something fake there. Like a dancer who has been taught to execute her technique with such ruthless thoroughness that the person out there on stage is just going through her performance with a mechanical accuracy.
Perfect, but dead.
On the face of it, this would seem to suggest that all the stuff he mentions in the first para, all the work we do to improve our writing, all the hanging out we do in places like the Den and, yes, Jericho Wtiters too, is a waste of time.
Discuss.May 4, 2019 at 8:48 am #5068BellaParticipant
The glib answer is “that’s just his opinion”. I think UWS probably does exist and I don’t understand why he is slating it. My impression is that an agent faced with a synopsis they like and an MS written in UWS will say “yippee”. I don’t think real originality is as prized as it should be, at least not when it comes to trad publishing. So we are probably not wasting our time hanging out here trying to “improve” ourselves. But I think we do run the risk of putting ourselves into a UWS box. I find it very hard not to go “OMG I must change everything” in response to comments on work I put up for critique but I learn much more from critiquing the work of others. That forces me to think about what I like and don’t like as a reader. The hard thing is taking that to my own work and having the courage of my own convictions rather than converting my work to UWS. I am also probably being silly because UWS might get me published!May 4, 2019 at 8:50 am #5069BellaParticipant
On the subject of having the courage of one’s own convictions I see that Imtiaz Dharker has turned down the role of Poet Laureate so she can concentrate on her own work.May 4, 2019 at 9:39 am #5070
Sometimes Harry talks a lot of blah. Sometimes he makes a lot of sense. But that’s true of us all, I guess. Agents/publishers do want writers with their own voice but they equally want something that they can sell and that, sadly, does mean it needs to fit into a category of some sort. It’s a difficult balance I think and there’s a lot of luck involved.May 4, 2019 at 11:04 am #5071
To some extent (not that I’ve done any really full-on writing courses, just SE, some reading and building on experience) I do notice that my very early writing has a freshness of approach that more recent, more self-conscious writing does not.
And I do cheer when I come across writers such as Eimear McBride and Eley Williams (both James Tait Black short-listers) who are totally original.May 4, 2019 at 6:00 pm #5072LibbyParticipant
Sometimes professional book reviewers complain that creative writing graduates have a CW style. I haven’t spotted it myself and perhaps am being dense. If any Denizens can describe it I’d be grateful!
I do notice trends and fashions but they seem to apply to most trad published novels.
Re the workshop style, there must be a danger that if you’re a student in a physical group over a year or more there’s a strong group effect. Creatively, maybe many people would drift towards a group signature and approval. My guess is that this would be weaker in an online group. To answer Richard’s question, I don’t think we should be discouraged.
I agree with Sandra – it’s great to find real originality. As I doubt I’d be capable of such creativity whatever I did, I don’t feel too worried by universal workshop style, especially as I don’t know what it is. Maybe innocence is bliss.
For anyone interested, Yelena Moskovich is another original writer. I read Virtuoso recently and it was virtuosic.May 5, 2019 at 7:00 am #5073
I always thought that one of the strengths of the SE course was the range of different books people were working on within each group if they were anything like mine – children’s, YA, fantasy,crime noir, women’s fiction, literary fiction and so on. It made it unlikely that you’d start picking up on each other’s styles.
Thank you for the book recommendations Libby and Sandra!May 5, 2019 at 9:42 am #5074
When I was (a lot) younger I used to snort in contempt when I read in an author’s bio on a book cover, usually American in those days, that they had a degree in creative writing. Hah! I thought, either you got it or you ain’t. You can’t teach it like you can physics or history. It’s not hard and fast stuff like that.
Much later, after discovering the Word Cloud and participating in various on-line and real life writing activities, I thought: how arrogant was that? Certainly I considered myself to be a better writer after the S E course.
Now I believe there’s a grain of truth in both points of view. Peer-to-peer critique, workshops, courses etc can teach you stuff. Certainly they can help you progress from the mistakes beginners often make – and I’m not talking about breaking rules, just about what works for a reader and what doesn’t. But over-reliance on such things will inevitably stultify your style, so Harry does have a point. And it’s still true that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
What it really comes down to is voice, which is what Harry’s blog is about. And voice really can’t be taught. It was the one thing that gave me the most trouble on the S E course, until I realised that. Ask anyone to define it, and they can’t. They can only quote you a piece of writing and tell you that there’s a really strong voice in it, and when you read it you’ll see what they mean. But I still defy you to define it.
I think (hope) I found my voice in my second novel. And I did it by doing what Harry says further on in that blog, something I quoted in an earlier post. I took the brakes off. I let myself go. There have been times in the past when I’ve struggled to express something vividly and exactly in polished, correct English. This time I thought, stuff that, and wrote it just the way I wanted to. And it was so liberating. I struggled with the plotting of that book, but the actual banging of words down was great fun.May 5, 2019 at 9:44 am #5075JonathanParticipant
Regarding this point:
this would seem to suggest that all the stuff he mentions in the first para, all the work we do to improve our writing, all the hanging out we do in places like the Den and, yes, Jericho Wtiters too, is a waste of time.
I’ve not seen the writeup so I don’t know if there’s any more? Is there a link to it or is it members-only? If that’s the whole of it, then to me it’s honestly a bit of a whine but if there’s more – and if it aligns with what I think – then maybe doing only the above might be what results in a case of universal workshop style. Question: what’s missing?
I would venture: voice, personality, uniqueness. I can’t point to any particular example of something that has been bleached with too much workshopping because I don’t happen to have anything in front of me, but I wonder if only sticking to workshop guidelines could tend to yield that kind of style. But personality’s a hard thing to measure, much less deliver in a one-hour class and knock out in an afternoon’s writing. It’s built up over the yonks. That, to me, is why this craft is kind of a soul-searching exercise as much as a simple function of time and effort. Putting yourself to the page like that, expunging your own inner stuff via your characters or narration or what-have-you, is in my view what gives a piece its own special flavour. A blog on that would be very interesting.
Then of course there’s the social apsect of writing sites, which give you encouragement, community, friends. And with that being free of charge as we know, it’s nonetheless worth a very great deal, as I see it.
May 5, 2019 at 9:51 am #5077
- This reply was modified 2 years, 5 months ago by Jonathan. Reason: Hah I just pretty much repeat what you say in the post right before mine!
Ah, Jonathan, you and I (and Harry) are thinking along the same lines. And yes, there is more. The full blog is here:May 5, 2019 at 10:07 am #5078JonathanParticipant
Thanks Richard. I like that “I wrote it like that because I like it like that. And screw you.” I fully support the misuse of craft in the name of creation. I wrote a piece that was full of (intentional) spelling mistakes, probably because I’d recently read The Gallows Pole and I liked the way it conveys voice and place via imperfection, and was striving for something vaguely similar. Will be interesting to see the feedback on it.May 6, 2019 at 7:57 am #5079
I think there is a different approach to writing if you do a degree/Masters in it. It’s almost as though, at the point of graduation, most folk have a perceived idea of what writing should be. Qualifying this because I know a creative writing lecturer, and am in a facebook group for one of the CW courses at a local uni. Some of the stuff I see posted is very…not pretentious, exactly, but it is fairly obvious that for some on the courses, they are still at the experimental and learning stage which means they are sticking to tried and tested formulae in order to ‘make their way’ in the world.
I think every writer needs to find their own style and flavour of writing which suits them, although then you’re battling against agents/publishers who often want more of the same old, same old because it sells. Tied into that, though, will be certain elements that, whether you’re writing something unique or something that fits/follows a trend, are essential in any work that’s going to get published.
The best compliment I ever had was that a reader recognised something I wrote because it was in Squidge-speak. That’s good enough for me, even if it doesn’t suit JW/CW approaches 😉May 6, 2019 at 8:50 am #5080
At the risk of sounding ageist, is it not the case that a high(ish) percentage of those doing degrees/Masters are quite young, and are unlikely to yet have the confidence/experience to ignore publishers et al?May 6, 2019 at 11:38 am #5082
I think some ARE young, Sandra, but what I’ve seen of the Masters, it tends towards a fairly older crowd, often folks who’ve been doing other things in life first.May 6, 2019 at 12:43 pm #5083
Yes, Squidge – soon as I pressed ‘go’ I thought that myself!May 6, 2019 at 1:18 pm #5084
I’m glad someone else does that too, Sandra!May 7, 2019 at 8:25 am #5089Philippa EastParticipant
“Some of the stuff I see posted is very…not pretentious, exactly, but it is fairly obvious that for some on the courses, they are still at the experimental and learning stage which means they are sticking to tried and tested formulae in order to ‘make their way’ in the world.”
This is really interesting, @squidge. Can you describe more what you mean (I’m so curious!)? What kind of patterns have you seen in these works? I mean, I’m assuming we’re not talking about stuff like “have an inciting incident” because any story would fall apart without that!
What kind of things do you tend to find? Particular sentence structures? Particular kinds of language? Similar sort of book openings?May 7, 2019 at 8:46 am #5091
I think it feels sometimes as though it’s trying too hard… The kinds of words used, particularly. I know there’s a place for fabulous language – certain Denizens often take my breath away when I read what they’ve written, for eg! – but sometimes it feels laboured. As if the author thought ‘I must describe this thing beautifully to get across how beautiful it is’, IYSWIM?
Sometimes it is a naivety – an approach of ‘this is what I have to include to make a story’ rather than an ‘I know what I want to write so I’m going to write it and I’m happy with it’ kind of vibe. The latter probably comes with more experience though – I think very few writers are able to jump straight to that step with confidence (myself included!)
There’s also lots of poetry – the sort of poetry where you think ‘what?’ after reading it. Which takes me back to the use of language for language’s sake…
Of course, you have to bear in mind that some of what I’ve noted may be as much to do with me as a reader and my preferences, rather than anything that might be ‘wrong’ with the writing. Bad choice of words there – not ‘wrong’, but ‘recognisably similar’?May 7, 2019 at 4:13 pm #5099TheaParticipant
I think you’ve explained that really well, Squidge. That ‘trying too hard’ can detract from what the writer actually wants to say, and often kills ‘voice’ too. Speaking from experience, many of the sentences I’ve laboured most over are the ones that end up being cut when I go back and edit!May 7, 2019 at 4:14 pm #5100WoolleybeansParticipant
When I see post from people talking about some version of UWS or whatever the letters were, it seems to have a lot to do with being arty with words but without really knowing what they want to say. And not just for the joy of playing in the wordbox, which I think most writers have done at some point or another (gods, but teen-me loved fancy words, and the more the better), but more because of a sense that THIS IS HOW IT IS DONE BY REAL WRITERS WHO WRITE FOR REAL! (But in an arty font which is possibly wearing a scarf.)
I believe learning the craft of writing is important, and so is playing around with your own use of that craft, building up enough words on paper that you get a sense of what works for you, and knowing what you want to say with it. So…both what Harry is saying and what he is saying not to do, because there is a marked difference between being original with a mastery of the craft and its options, and doing things in a non-standard way more or less by accident.May 8, 2019 at 8:21 am #5105Philippa EastParticipant
Thanks Squidge and Woolleybeans – really interesting.May 8, 2019 at 10:56 am #5107RaineParticipant
THanks for the interesting post @richardb. 🙂 I did laugh at Harry critisising the very services that JW offer! I guess their taught courses are less in depth than an MA, but it’s the same principal. As someone said (@janeshuff?) I love that the SE course attracts a wide range of writing genres/styles so there seemed no gravitation towards some homogenous central style. It’s human nature to adapt our language to fit better with the people around us, so I guess there is that inclination on top of any effect of teaching styles, although from my own perspective, I think we writers are rabid magpies anyway – picking up mannerisms, voices, looks etc from everywhere to use in our stories, so where’s the harm in being influenced by other writers? I do wonder though (from the education/location/financial filters) if MA classes are more homogenous to start with. So an MA group starts out non-random already, making it easy to then point at them and say ‘aha, they all write the same stuff’.
(although I read a lot of ‘book group’ books which are I guess the targets of this label, and yes, there is some commonality of tone but isnt that more to do with the post-hoc genre definition than the authors’ own voices?)
I think @sandra is onto something with the self-consciousness thing – having been taught all this tenchnicque stuff, it must then take a while for that to be fully absorbed into your own voice, rather than sitting on top of it like … i dunno, make-up? Personally, I’d LOVE to do an MA, becuase there just seems so much to learn, and MA grads/grads from the prestigious courses definitely seem to have a higher success rate in getting published. Although I put some of that down to simply the direct contact with industry professionals – it’s who you know etc.
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