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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How Reading Can inform the Writing Process

Last weekend I managed to finish three books I had been reading at the same time. I don’t mean Data-like abilities to process information simultaneously. No, I started one book, hadn’t finished it before I started another, and then, just for kicks, thought ‘fuck it I’ll read another.’ Finally they converged to all end at the same time. Quite an achievement (it’s not really – procrastination can surface anywhere).

Books are fuel for the brain. They are not the only source of creative energy. Artwork, music, exercise, healthy food, passion, narcotics (obviously legal ones…) are all means to get the creative juices flowing. Books are great for writers though. They provide so many benefits. Last week, I wrote about the different kinds of books and how they might help the writing process. In this session I am more thinking about their overall benefit in how they stimulated me artistically, but also gave me ideas for my own writing.

AD 500 by Simon Young

This is a fictional mock-factual-historical novel, about a group of Greeks travelling the British Isles in 500AD. It was a great read about the different ways of life in each part of the isles, and decline of the Celts as the Saxons began to take over. At this point in time, there are many influences in the British Isles, leading to a rich description of culture and society.

From a narrative point of view, the Greeks take a winding journey up rom the south, through Ireland, Scotland and then back through England. There’s little over-arching ‘story’ or characters, but the gradual decline of the Celts and the hint of Saxon dominance is the main theme I think. 

From a writing point of view, I don’t think it necessarily aided in structure, but it helped provide some sense of the depth needed in description. The author had done his research, so the descriptions of events and local customs is highly detailed. I actually had an idea for a alternative-history novel set in a similar time, and this book was supposed to be the foundation of the background research. It left me with some pretty big questions about how much research I would need to do first, and the scale of the different cultures even in such a small area of land. 

Starswarm by Brian Aldiss

This was an ageing paperback I’ve had on my shelves for some time. It’s actually a collection of short stories, which are ostensibly given a connecting theme (each story relates to a part of a collection of star systems called the Starswarm). In truth, these stories had little connecting them, and the theme seemed more of a contrivance, rather than serving any narrative function.

As science-fiction stories go they were intriguing and well developed. Brian Aldiss is a famed science-fiction writer, so I expected nothing less. They raised interesting posits about existence, and human life (particularly being set so far into the future). 

I must admit I was quite interested in the micro detail. The structure of sentences and formulation of the action. This is the kind of detail I struggle with, particularly in first drafts. I want to get to a point where this sort of thing is second nature in a first draft, because it’s this detail more than anything else that causes delays and slows me down. 

It also helped with the breakdown of different characters and providing distinctiveness. This is another area I struggle with. Aldiss clearly gave some thought to his characters, even though these were short stories. I wasn’t left wondering about who was who, or felt they lacked an edge or depth. Very effective.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Now this classic was a challenge. Partly on account of the central chacter’s using ‘Nadsat‘ (although easier to understand than you might think), but also because I had seen the film already. I didn’t really like the film, and there was little in the novel that made me want to watch again or reconsider the story. I got the premise and theme, but the story seemed remarkably uncomplex compared to its potential. Then again, maybe I’m viewing it with the reader’s desires, rather than the author’s intent. It’s not like Burgess was trying to showcase a dystopian future in detail and failing, simply that he focused on other matters.

Indeed, that may be a strength, in that the dystopian future is implied, rather than specific. It may even be, that beyond the selfish world of the main characters, the wider world continues much as normal. Beyond that though it left me cold. I had a similar reaction to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Maybe some books do it and some don’t.

In terms of my writing, what struck me was theme and how consistently Burgess applied it. He maintained the narrative without getting sidetracked with irrelevant actions or uncessary diversions. It’s a lesson in conciseness. Some books (particularly fantasy) can become grotesquely overlong and bloated to maintain narrative. Any kind of theme disappears, and even the story telling can become lazy if the author relies on reader familiarity to make the story continue (that is, the story is no longer compelling, just the question of what the character is doing in a particular place). 

Maybe a classic novel like ACO should entice me more, but then again everything is in the eye of the beholder. It was compelling enough that I read to the end, but not so much it has become life changing. Then again, if it helps propel change in my own writing perhaps it will turn out to be quite important.

That may be the power of books. Seemingly inconsequential in many respects, but having an impact that may take many years to come to fruition. I’ve already started on my next novel – The Walls of Byzantium by James Heneage – and I’m a third of the way through that already. It has a nice intensity of story and character without being too complex. An easy read, but very much in the grain of a novel I’m working on. The more I read the richer I become, and after prolonged spurts barely reading any fiction, it’s good to be delving back into it again.