Any writer with aspirations to call themselves ‘author’ hits a point where they have to start thinking critically about their own work.
I don’t mean ‘critically’ in the sense of disliking it, thinking little of it or holding it up to the very unrealistic expectation that the first draft will be anything like the polished work of our favourite published authors (it won’t be, of course, and you can be certain that the novel you’re despairingly comparing your own work against probably only vaguely resembles its own first draft). I use the term to mean the process of dissecting and analysing one’s crafted words to find out why the left wheel is a bit wonky.
Let me say up front that I don’t like the process. I don’t know many people who do (but I have heard such writers exist).
But what I do love is when I find something wrong about my writing that I know I can fix.
I was lucky enough, recently, to be introduced to a film that I now quite love. It’s a love story, I suppose you could say – a story about finding it, losing it, fearing it gone. It has some of my favourite actors in it and covers a few aspects about life that I think are perhaps lacking in many stories nowadays.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly & Beautiful) was released in 2011 and has an almost intimidatingly talented line-up: Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel and the ever-brilliant Dame Maggie Smith. Based on a novel I haven’t read called These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, the story follows seven ageing English people who – for a variety of reasons – find themselves heading to a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India to spend their sunset years in what they think is going to be a lavish palace but instead turns out to be a dilapidated and poorly-run building owned by Sonny, the young Indian manager.
I won’t spoil the movie for you. If you’ve seen it you may understand why I enjoyed it so (Dame Maggie Smith’s performance only one reason of many, though certainly a compelling one). If you haven’t seen it then I heartily encourage you to do so.
The reason I bring it up, however, is that it made me think.
As a brief overview, the seven principal characters are: Evelyn Greenslade (played by Dame Judi Dench), a newly-widowed housewife who also serves as the occasional narrator; Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy), an optimistic but hen-pecked husband; Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton), pessimistic and hard-to-please wife of Douglas; Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), racist and intolerant retired house-keeper being ‘outsourced’ to India for a hip replacement; Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), a newly-retired High Court judge who lived in India as a boy; Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup), an ageing Casanova who desires to recapture his faded youth; and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) who, sick of being a glorified babysitter to her grandchildren, is looking for new love – preferably of the rich and handsome sort.
Each of these characters has a history. Every one of them has issues to face, realities to come to, wake-up calls to… wake up to. Some of their stories are more thoroughly explored than others but the fact remains that they all have stories.
I’m currently writing a story about a girl in London (a city which, I hasten to point out, I have never visited). There are friends, dangers, trials, triumphs, misery and loss. It’s not quite half-way through and it looks like it’s shaping up to be quite a large book already.
The main character is also the principal focus. It’s written from a third-person perspective but the action specifically follows her. The reader sees the world largely on her terms rather than following the other characters about. I might change that aspect but for the most part I’m largely happy with it.
Nonetheless, something has nagged me about it. It’s a sense of wrongness, of artifice, that some writers can’t tolerate and others associate directly with treating writing as a craft as much as an art. It’s a sign, the latter group says, that you’re treating your work as a work-in-progress, a made thing rather than your precious special baby. I take it largely as a warning sign; if the activity within the story seems somehow forced or stilted then it rings false to me.
I was in bed last night musing all of this over when I had an epiphany: I write single-growth stories.
One of the things that I’ve discovered I love about Marigold Hotel is something that I haven’t realised I’ve been in love with for a long time. All of the characters have a story to tell, a lesson to learn, something to teach, personal growth to go through. This is true of more than the principal characters, too – Sonny and his girlfriend Sunaina have growing to do, as does Sonny’s mother. Even Sunaina’s protective brother has a realisation or two to come to terms with. Growth is everywhere in that film. It’s a regular forest.
In my writing, however, the growth is generally restricted to one character – the character I’m placing at the forefront of the tale.
This isn’t a unique issue. I’m sure most – perhaps all – writers go through it. Some published authors seem plagued by it (no, I’m not going to point the finger – you’ll spot them on your own) so I know this isn’t something that I alone suffer from.
But it is something I can address. It’s not a symptom, it’s a cause. I can work with that.
That’s the part I love and, though this post seems largely devoid of advice or even wisdom, that’s the thing I hope readers might take from this: yes, the process of analysing your own writing can be a pain in the backside at times. It can seem like a dull chore and it can even scare you into thinking that you’re going to end up hating your own writing as much as you (probably) hated writing book reviews in high school.
Don’t let that stop you from doing it. Don’t let it prevent you from appreciating, enjoying, loving when you find an issue with your writing that you know you can work on. If you can’t see a way to work on it, look deeper.
Maybe you’re looking at a symptom.