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.
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 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.
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.