By Amber Hall
I’ve always written. It’s my way of processing experiences (good and bad). I didn’t always have an agenda when I sat down to write; it used to be that my words were just for me. And that’s fine, to a certain extent. It’s a great way to develop a voice and start to think about what makes you tick as a writer, but – and this is where I currently find myself – if you want to start taking your writing more seriously, it isn’t enough. You need to learn to be OK with the vulnerability that comes with sharing your work and be open to the feedback you get.
That’s really what this whole process has been about for me. I want to become a better writer and learn how to tell stories people want to read. I want to go beyond writing for my own pleasure or as a means of catharsis; I want to connect to the world through my words.
Now that I’m able to share my work more openly, I’ve started challenging myself by exploring forms and genres outside of my comfort zone. It can only be a good thing if the end goal is to connect to the wider world. If I want to improve as a writer, I need to give myself the space to experiment with different styles. I’m drawn to short stories because they’re time efficient. I’m working on a few different projects at the moment, so it’s a nice way to keep one eye on fiction. In this sense, I think Claire Buckle, a fellow Write On! team member and successful short story writer, with a focus on commercial women’s fiction, is the sort of mentor I need right now. She’s got a wealth of experience and is well-versed in the short story form, so I knew that any feedback she gave me would be invaluable.
The main issue I have – and it’s something Claire mentioned – is that I’m a character-first, plot-second kind of writer. This may not be the best approach, but it works for me. Ultimately, my characters drive the plot, because I’m most interested in what makes people behave in the ways they do. I try to explore this in everything I write, be it fiction or non-fiction. This, Claire noted, gave the piece a ‘literary’ feel, which may be better suited to publications like Scribble or Granta. I’ve always had a hunch that my work – as it currently stands, at least – might be a good fit for these kinds of journals, so it’s encouraging to know there are options out there for me, even at this stage.
I wrote the story after watching a documentary, Keep Sweet: Pray And Obey, on Netflix, which is about a religious sect in America. I had wanted to write something from the perspective of a cult survivor for a while because I often wonder how anyone would be able to process that kind of trauma, or even exist ‘on the outside’ after being in a situation like that. I was also thinking about behaviours or beliefs that play out in “normal” society that are cult-like, and how someone coming from an actual cult would respond to these systems. On top of that, I wanted to explore the relationships between women in an overtly oppressive space.
Reflecting on it now, I think I tried to explore too many ideas, without giving myself the time to develop them properly. As Claire pointed out, there are two characters jostling for the limelight in my original draft and this is probably why.
In the end, I did away with the cult idea altogether, although I may return to it at a later stage. It’s still a fascinating concept to me, but I do think this kind of story would work better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I took the very last section of the story – whereby my narrator hits a male diner over the head with a milkshake glass – and worked backwards, weaving in scenes taken from my own life, and the lives of my female friends and my mother.
Comparing the two opening sections, the latter (which is the re-draft) feels much closer to my own narrative voice:
Twenty-four years, nine months, 12 days. That’s how long it had been. And, although I am a grown woman in the physical sense, the limitedness of my experience has left me infantile in many ways. I recognise this, and I feel silly, always. Indoctrination is a funny thing. But the more I exist here, on the outside, the more I’m convinced we’re all indoctrinated in some way; cults exist everywhere.
A vinegary odour hung in the air and clung stubbornly to the timeworn carpets. It was my third date with Andy and, still unsure whether he actually liked me or not, I had made more effort than the place warranted. It was only our local, after all: an old working men’s club that sat slap bang in the centre of town. The townspeople made nightly pilgrimages here, to drink away their troubles in the dense and dimly lit fug.
In fact, they read as two completely different stories – which, I suppose, they are. Now, the story feels closer to the sort of thing I’d usually write. It’s set in a working-class community in the north of England, for a start. Having largely stuck to non-fiction over the past few years, I’m still developing my fictional voice. And whenever I stray too far from the things I know, I lose my way a little. I suppose I sometimes wonder whether it’s of any interest to anyone, these humble beginnings, but I realise there’s no other way for me to do it.
I’m still learning to take my lived experiences and dramatise them in a way that feels authentic. I get bogged down in the details; I get too concerned with narrative arcs, and where to insert dialogue and then, how to make the dialogue realistic. Often in fiction, I keep speech to a minimum or avoid it altogether, preferring instead the intimacy of first-person narration. I think one of the main reasons I love personal essays so much is because the content is already there. They work like an internal monologue, so I’ve had no trouble finding a voice for that kind of writing. You can meander through them, to some extent, without worrying too much about Aristotle’s theories on narrative structure.
I think community is vitally important for writers, and mentorship can help build this. By simply giving me a space to be vulnerable by showcasing my work, Claire reminded me how crucial writing communities are. Writing can be a lonely business and it’s all too easy to get lost in your own thoughts. This can be a real hindrance to your creativity, because you just end up berating yourself and your work. If you look at something for too long without having a fresh perspective, it’s tempting to give up altogether. You need some kind of community – whether it’s one mentor or a handful of like-minded creatives – to pull you out of the slumps you can find yourself in.
I’m extremely grateful to Claire for giving me such detailed, insightful and constructive feedback. There’s a lot I can still do with this story and that potential is exciting. This process has enabled me to see the story from a different angle, which is what I’d hoped for. Sometimes, people read between the lines in ways you simply can’t when it comes to your own work. In getting feedback, you experience your writing anew.
Connect with Amber on Twitter: @amber_marie_123 and Instagram: @amber.marie.123
Don’t forget to read next week’s Friday Feature when Claire Buckle explains her feed-back, why she mentors and what she was looking out for.
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You need to learn to be OK with the vulnerability that comes with sharing your work and be open to the feedback you get.