(Or as developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky would term it ‘the zone of proximal development’)
If you were to ask a group of school students ‘What makes a good poem?’ you would probably gather quite a collection of poetic terminology in reply, the focus being on what it is rather than what it does. If you then added a further word so that the question becomes ‘What makes a good poem great?’ the responses would become more wide-ranging and involve the significance of a key individual: the reader.
If we broaden the focus to incorporate writing in general as in ‘What makes good writing?’ and ‘What makes good writing great?’ the distinction still applies and points to an important shift in emphasis: for something to be good, we consider its inherent characteristics; for something to be great, we think less of the naming of parts and more of how the writing urges us to make connections we had not previously noticed – we are both changed and charged by what we read.
This distinction is equally useful when considering the difference between an emerging writer and an established one.
As emerging writers, we know the ingredients we wish to work with – and let’s be honest, there is nothing quite like the buzz of seeing your work in print. But how, having enjoyed modest success with our first piece of writing do we then develop our craft? Many advice pages will talk about plenty of reading and writing practice. Both are important, of course, but I think that there are two areas that are equally relevant although they might not be as readily apparent: position and relationship.
Where have we positioned our readers and what is our relationship with them? Do they matter to us and the characters we create? Do we matter to them? Are we writing for ourselves or for them?
As Editor of ‘The Write Life’, I receive articles that intrigue me in the ideas proposed and the standpoints taken. Some submissions, however, make me think about the direction writers might take next in honing their craft. What’s their next step? Or as Lev Vygotsky would say ‘What’s their zone of proximal development?’
Margaret Kiernan has previously been published on The Write Life; she enjoys creating descriptive pieces of times past that feed on precious memories. Here’s a recent composition:
Fair Days and Fist Fights
Fair days in rural Ireland are now absent. All trading in livestock takes place indoors at the Cattle Market, with rules and regulations set out clearly for business, hygiene included.
In my childhood in the sixties the sale of livestock happened on pre-set dates. The calendar of Fairs was published in ‘Old Moore’s Almanac.’ Close to where I grew up, the village had a fair. First Friday was the local fair-day, each month. On that day, the village had a temporary Bank, set up in the front room of a private dwelling house. Next- door was the temporary Police office.
Rents were usually collected too. Ground rent and some rates. So, a lot of business went on at the fair day.
The scene on the streets was vivid. The noise was remarkable. Shouting men and boys and bleating sheep, with the cattle filling up the chorus. Wild looking men with unkempt hair waved big sticks in the air as the streets descended to bedlam and a state of unkemptness.
Tethered animals pulled and shook at their ropes. Occasionally a hay-bag was tied by string to a cart, where the horse or donkey chewed their way to the end of the day.
Ferocious looking dogs with large yellow molars snouted about the place, snarling at each other, their long tongues lolling for the want of water by evening time.
Nearby, in a doorway, groups of sheep were held hostage by wooden shutters, awaiting a buyer. Men in drab clothes and Dealers in yellow boots and corduroy pants, beady eyed and sweating, they raced about to control their market.
With Northern accents, they brokered no songs. They were carrying cash, or they could obtain a Bank draft nearby. Spitting on hands sealed the deal, usually. Occasionally a neighbour or a well intending third party got involved in the price negotiations. A lot of toing and froing happened. A form of mini drama. Pretence at being insulted by the offer made. And so, it went on until the spitting on the hands. The deal was sealed. Woe betide the man who attempted to go back on his word. Good luck deals and luck penny was done and dusted.
Occasionally, the next stop could be the pub, for refreshments. Drink the luck penny, in the black-stuff, Guinness stout. By evening time, it was not unusual to hear music and song emit onto the street. Summer holidaymakers in the area thrived on those days.
Meanwhile business on the street was brisk. Stalls sold cabbage plants and seed potatoes, some selling clothes, spurious sheepskin jackets, footwear and “jobbers” boots, knick-knack stands with wind- up toys and jack in the box fancy goods. Those stalls were popularly named “cheap jacks”. A form of insult in a different setting.
Wearied women with awkward children traipsed along to buy sea foods like Carrageen moss and Cranach or periwinkles. Herrings were a feature of Fair days. Everyone bought some and they were wrapped in newspaper, their smell alone synonymous with the Fair day. Mucky straw and waste fell into the gulley’s and drains.
It was not unknown to have fights break out on those days. Long standing gripes could bubble up and lead to a fist fight. Broken fences and suspected offences could have their outing in the tribal court. The Police were close to hand to put an end to it before any real damage was done.It was a big task for the householders and shops to clean up the streets and all the front of their premises. The village then returned to its sleepy repose until the next fair day.
Margaret has created a piece that is rich in sights, sounds and shared memory. What’s her next step? How can she make this matter more to the reader? This piece gives us an intense sense of place but what of person? What would happen if a character at the centre of this, not engaged in a shared activity in any way but different from it – even at odds with it – moved across the canvas? How would that person walk: striding, scampering, slinking? What would that person see? Suddenly the scene shifts intriguingly as a short story begins to emerge.
The following piece is by Mark Bayliss. It is his first ever published piece. The writing is lively and has pace; there’s an engaging mix of humour and humility.
Final Disclosure of the Surprising Kind
I had been bottling it up for years and years. It had always been there, but I had suppressed it, locked it away, and immersed myself in my busy work and leisure lifestyle rather than embracing it. My wife had always known about it – although it was never a regular topic of discussion.
It had even occurred to me that this was similar to how the admirable Philip Schofield must have felt for all that time.
Things changed for me last January, long before lockdown or any hint of what was to befall the UK and the rest of the world. After joining a Facebook group I started to pursue my passion, yes, I was going to embrace it.
My wife knew that I had made ‘the big decision’. Then soon afterwards, I told our two grown-up kids, who weren’t shocked in the slightest. But I hadn’t told any of my closest friends – I wasn’t ready.
It’s been several months now since I made the decision and lots of things have happened to me since then. I’ve researched the heck out of it, joined more Facebook groups and emailed numerous potential suitors. I’ve also decided that my close friends, family and anyone else who’s interested can find out in the Autumn – when I publicise it on the internet. Probably sometime in September or maybe even October.
I’m not ashamed of it. Yes, I will officially be coming out as…an author and – a novelist. There, I said it, it’s done, no more need for secrecy.
All those short story competitions, novel competitions, even multiple submissions to each competition. At least my wife knew that my PayPal account wasn’t a secret gambling addiction. Although that might have been cheaper and less stressful for both of us, well she was and still is my Alpha reader and editor supremo after all.
So, here I am, several months down the line, sporting my ‘writing battle scars’ of the emotional variety, plus a headful of knowledge about creativity, genres, writing and the world of publishing and literary agents. An expert of sorts, that’s how it feels after such a relatively short space of time.
Expertise and influence can be easily gleaned from an abundance of sources and have to some extent filtered its way into my work. A nod to Dan Brown’s short chapters, Stephen King’s hatred of the adverb, and his preference for shorter, stylish paragraphs. Not forgetting almost every tutor’s slaughtering of the exclamation mark – I’ve since removed dozens from my book.
It’s an intense, all-consuming business, isn’t it? Even now, I have little to show for it other than a bin full of empty ink cartridges, discarded drafts, and a folder full of literary satisfaction of my laptop. Backed up of course.
I always thought that it was mostly former journalists and lawyers who went on to become successful novelists. But I’ve learned that there appears to be plenty of room for anyone with creative talent, dogged determination and the will to learn and play the long game. Although just as in my previous and successful career in sales, I have found that you might need a little bit of luck sometimes. Yet some will argue that the harder you work the luckier you get – and let’s face it, everyone knows that’s true, a good work ethic is critical in any walk of life.
Some of my luck came in the form of finding some excellent Beta readers on a Facebook group. Following my initial ‘novice naivety’ and ‘Beta stranger reluctance’- I mean I nearly had a nosebleed – I dived in. Some lovely people helped me out and went the extra mile. The kindness of strangers eh, it’s the best there is.
Now I find myself back on my old familiar stamping ground – the world of sales and marketing. Well, self-publishing on Amazon KDP is on the horizon, to be more precise.
Whilst my debut novel is complete at 75,000 words, it’s never truly finished, is it? Constant polishing and tweaking, even last minute re-ordering of a few chapters. To prologue or not to prologue – when will it end? No, not the end of the book, the end of the process of writing it, my secret labour of love.
My book is called ‘The Lucidity Programme’. It’s a scientific mystery with a subtle paranormal thread running through it. Why don’t I simply call it a paranormal mystery eh, what am I afraid of? Have I got ‘genre anxiety’ – is there such a thing?
‘Unassuming farmer’s regular lucid dreams are being interrupted by voices from the past, leading him into a global search for the scientific find of the century.’
Gosh, was that my first bit of sales and marketing for my book and it’s not even published yet. It’s like one of those shameless celebrity plugs whenever they have a camera or a microphone placed in front of them.
My book will be available this autumn, most likely on Amazon KDP. Will my friends and family get to hear about me ‘coming out’ long before then? Probably not. I prefer to be full of surprises – just like my book.
Mark’s use of self-referential irony adds interest. What should he do next? When we first write, we are often so amazed at what we have done, that is inevitably where our focus falls – on us. Why not shift the focus? Why not use Philip Pullmans’s advice in ‘The Writing of Stories’, one of the marvellous essays in ‘Daemon Voices’ and place the camera in a different position – perhaps so that we can view events from the perspective of a character on the periphery, the wife, for example? What kind of article would be created as a result? Would we now have to consider a different genre? A different time frame?
You will have noticed that I have asked questions rather than offered answers throughout this article. My purpose has not been to provide a critique of a writer’s work but to suggest further areas that lie ahead. If we look at our work with a reader’s eyes, we can begin to perceive new vistas on the horizon. That’s when our next step becomes a bold leap into the unknown as we marvel at the creative potential we are about to unleash.
This is the first of an occasional series of articles in which we share and celebrate the work of emerging writers. I am very grateful to Margaret Kiernan and Mark Bayliss for allowing me to publish their articles in full.
Margaret Kiernan’s interests are writing fiction and poetry. She paints in watercolour and other media. Her love of landscape colours her words. Her background of Social Justice advocacy influences many of her poems and her hope to give voice to the marginalised. Entering competitions is her new gatekeeper.
Mark Bayliss’s relaxation and inspiration are sometimes provided by Tour de France alpine cycling climbs, Camino hikes in northern Spain, and getting chased across Welsh mountains by herds of cows. On more sedate days the lucid dreamer and former key accounts manager regularly practises yoga and pilates to help find his inspiration.