Refresh the plot

Like kill your darlings, refreshing your plot is just as vital. In this post I cite two examples, a draft novel and short story. The novel received feedback that led me to rethink sequence of events and reinforce particular themes in the story. An indirect result was that I rethought a short story, and had the insight to reorganise a stagnant plot. This highlights the importance of critiquing and feedback, and particularly taking that feedback as a positive opportunity even if it appears negative.

Embracing criticism

I’m a social worker, so by the very nature of my practice I should embrace critical thinking. In reality, I don’t like accepting fallibility, so I hate having new perspectives introduced, even though I aboslutely need them. It’s very much a love/hate relationship.

So it is with writing then, that I need to get new perspective, put myself out there. I have written about the power of critiquing before. It’s a process that can be awkward and difficult, but so rewarding. 

Recently I sent out sections of my first draft novel to a critique group. Their feedback was in depth and thorough, and provided me with the external, from-the-outside-looking-in perspective I needed. There were many errors I made – some I might never have noticed, others schoolboy type errors (two characters with names so similar the critique group thought they were a typo and the same person!).  Nonetheless, after giving myself a kick in backside I needed, I was also pleased to get the responses. It energised me and gave new direction.

Here’s the interesting thing though, not only is critique in itself a useful process, but it’s a type of writing exercise that I have found I can develop over time. What I mean is, I am becoming more conscious of common errors I made in the past, which inhibit the story, and I’m able to correct these before the work ever comes before any external perspective. It helps minimise errors, and provide focus where it is needed, on the finer detail. 

This doesn’t negate the need for a critique of course – this process is VITAL for writing – but it does help develop my writing, so below I give two examples. The first is the lessons I drew from the novel I put forward. The second is a short story that, having reflected on the critique process, I have begun to rewrite extensively.

Bastion

Bastion is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year. It’s story about a group of hunters that live with their tribe in the desert. There are lots of these tribes and they are ruled over by floating fortresses called Bastions. After witnessing a devastating attack on these once seemingly indestructible castles, and the resulting destruction of their tribe, the hunters are forced to flee on an adventure that opens a new perspective of their world and a fresh understanding of the Bastions and the reality of their lives.

The chapters I put forward for critique were the first chapters. This was a deliberate choice. The first chapters set the tone and the story to follow. They also contained some of the most pertinent moments to introduce the central characters. 

The feedback I received from my writing companions boiled down down to some standard themes – too many characters introduced too quickly, unclear motivations for the characters beyond simple survival, too much repetitive actions and sequences, staid dialogue. Although it wasn’t mentioned so specifically, I also took from it that the events themselves weren’t effective at moving the story forward (or boring, as people might say.

The benefit of this, so early on in the process, is huge. As I start to rewrite I can measure against expectation throughout the whole book. I’ve gone back to basics in many respects, trying to sift through what makes a story interesting and distinctive, against something prosaic and cliched. Rethinking whole sequences can be difficult, but it’s a necessary way forward. I think of it like drawing a map from memory, and forgetting the various pitfalls and challenges that you take for granted, but an external observer would not know about. THey travel the path using the map, but find all kinds of delays and deadends. When you think about it, it seems natural that these are issues, but over familiarity breeds contempt as they say. 

Darken Path

An indirect benefit was to reconsider the plot line for a short story I wrote (which has now been three years in the making…ugh!). 

Woman being chased by a mob, flees into haunted forest, trapped by daemon – simple plot. 

This story suffered from too sharp a contrast between early fast paced flow, and then sudden stop and slower pace in the second half of the story. Taking on board the feedback for Bastion helped give me focus on this short story. Now I’m in the middle of re-writing the whole middle section, to give a greater flow to the plot and drive the characters forward a bit more. Maybe I might have realised this change in the future, but it was the critique that set of my train of thought. 

Hopefully as I review other work and start new stories, this will become more second nature. Think about the basics early on, rather than writing something at any cost. It pays to take time to think about what is happening, what I’m doing, and why. With hope, my writing will become stronger, and it will be because I’m willing to take critical feedback to improve my work.

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The Art of Rest: the importance of rest and healthy working principles for your writing

Writing is a rewarding art form, interest and activity, but it is susceptible to stress and tensions like anything else. There are some simple strategies to help recharge your batteries, find an environment conducive to productive writing, and importantly give yourself permission to rest once in a while.

Stress isn’t just work bound

I took a long weekend off the other week and pretty much did nothing the whole time, including writing. I opted for a cruisey weekend to replenish my batteries and relax. To rest properly I needed to detach myself from anything looking like ‘work’. I did very little the whole weekend. I didn’t feel guilty about it – I just wanted some rest and that included from writing.

Writing, like many outside interests, can be like work. We can take it for granted in many respects; usually with artistic ventures you are your own boss, no team to worry about, choice of working environment. In truth though, the application of work principles applies just as much to artistic ventures.

Stress isn’t work bound. It can occur anywhere. Writing might be a side interest or it might be a full time gig, but it’s just as prone to stress, tension and fatigue as anything else. In fact, there’s some speculation that writer’s block is the product of the depression. The importance of looking after yourself is just as applicable to considerations of writing as it is work.

If you’re into writing, you won’t just consider it a chore. It must serve a better purpose. It certainly needs emotional value. The problem though is that its potential is utterly dependent on yours. If you start to flag, for any reason, chances are the writing will flag too.

Getting rest is important to recharge and rejuvenate. It helps provide creative fuel. Of course, you need to be disciplined about it. It’s all too easy to say that you’re resting when in fact what you’re doing is procrastinating. That shouldn’t detract from the need to take a break, just be mindful of it.

Self-awareness about your stressors and triggers helps immensely here. Be conscious of how you’re tracking and the warning signs. You might even find that these indicators appear through leisure long before they manifest at work. This all helps keep your writing on an even keel, and get rest when it’s needed.

A healthy environment 

Rest isn’t the only consideration here. When writing, consider the factors that make for a more positive work experience. You’re in a fortunate position because you have a great deal of control over your time, planning, priorities and environment. 

Choose a place with lots of natural light. I can’t over emphasise this enough. Where I work, I am stuck in a windowless office with virtually no access to natural light. I have to leave the office building to get some. I would give a lot for a window, even if the view was relatively mundane.

Keep yourself warm. You don’t want to be stifling, but make sure you are comfortably warm to work without distraction. 

Speaking of comfort, make sure you’ve a comfortable chair. Keep moving and stretch periodically.

Break up your work – Pomodoro technique is fantastic for this. Have a separate activity for those spare moments, so that you are not distracted. Keep off the internet for the duration of the whole session. If you write something and realise you need to research something to make the scene work, take a note and move on. You can complete that research another time.

Set the tone of the location as to what works best for you. What this means is, if you know you work better with classical music over, say, pop music, then that’s what you play. If you know that you get too distracted with music don’t play it. Work to your strengths, not a romantic ideal. Coffee shops are interesting ones – I hear lots of things to say that they conducive to good writing because of the background noise. For me, I’m not so sure, because it’s not the type of background noise I savour. I also find the coffee very strong in coffe houses and I’d feel compelled to keep purchasing things to justify my presence there, so it would be quite expensive. All in all I find coffee shops exhausting because they’re so busy. I guess my point here is to ignore the romanticism that is often applied to the idea of the writer, and instead apply what works best, for you. If you love coffee shops for writing then go for it.

We all get ill

People get ill. It’s a fact of life. We suffer from physical and mental illness. The reality though is that as a society we are really poor at managing illness. There’s a long standing stigma associated with mental health, and many misconceptions about how we can simply shrug these things off. Even with physical health though, we apply poor standards. How often do we have colleagues coming into work with a cold, potentially infecting the whole office? Many employers don’t offer paid sick leave, forcing low paid workers to struggle into work even though they are clearly unfit.

The point I’m making here is not to allow this societal form of employment masochism to impact on your writing. If you’re ill then recover and rest. Don’t force yourself to write because chances are you won’t be that productive. Give yourself permission to lay off the writing. 

If you’re worried about getting your grove back, then consider a set plan to re-build momentum. We suffer lots of unintended setbacks or delays of one kind or another, so having provision for delays in general is a good thing.

Ultimately, writing is a process like any other. You benefit from organised routine, and have the right environment to work in. Being aware of the impact of stress, and taking appropriate action to minimise it, will deliver benefits. Most of all, give yourself permission to rest, recharge body and brain, because in the longer term you’ll gain more for your writing.