A few weeks ago I plucked up the courage to share my work at my IRL writers’ group for the first time. I’ve joined writers’ groups in the past, listened and commented on other people’s work, and then fled in panic at the thought of sharing my own scribbles, so this was a big step out of the comfort zone.
The piece I shared was this one which I wrote for #FridayFictioneers last month. Luckily for my fragile ego I got some really nice feedback from the rest of the group, and plenty of constructive comments on how it could be improved. Several people said that my use of the word ‘fell’ in the opening line created confusion, as soldiers ‘falling’ in battle is often used as a euphemism for death. And changing a past tense to a present tense in the second paragraph made the switch to present day much clearer too. So here’s my re-written version:
The roar of machine guns on the ridge dulled as he skidded, feet-first, down the slope. Suddenly he could hear other sounds again. Men’s distant screams. The trickle of a filthy stream, his boots crunching dead leaves as he struggled to his feet, heart pounding in time with his rasping breath. Damn nerves. He fumbled for a cigarette, as a shell wailed louder overhead.
The old front line is just beyond that ridge. People come now in summer, looking for names on memorials. They still find battle remnants – shell fragments mostly, and, once, a cigarette case, blown apart.
Can you spot the difference? The changes are very minor, but it was a really interesting experience for me to read something out loud to an audience, and to get their feedback and criticism. I knew there was something not quite right about my opening sentence, but couldn’t put my finger on it. And I would never have thought to change that past tense ‘was’ to ‘is’ in the final paragraph – but half a dozen people suggested it, and it’s so obviously better. How did I not see that?
I didn’t act on all the feedback I received though. One person suggested that wailing was the wrong word for shells. She may have been right, and thankfully I have no idea what a shell actually sounds like, but I couldn’t shake off Wilfred Owen’s ‘shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’, so wailing stayed.
I’ve realised that coming out of my shell and sharing my work is actually a really useful way of improving my writing. (and a massive shout out to the lovely folk at Leeds Writers’ Circle for making it so painless!) It’s easy to just say we like each other’s work, but sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can see an obvious potential improvement that the original writer is just too close to spot. What do you think? Do you welcome constructive criticism, or is it all just too scary?