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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Rewriting the rewrite

Yesterday I was trying to decide which short story to work on at writer’s club. My choice was made, due partly because the story was already drafted, but also on account of not having other stories uploaded to my cloud…ok, I’ll admit it, the second reason was the real reason for my choice.

So my selected story was the Darken Path, a fantasy horror about a woman who flees into a haunted wood.

The story had already been rewritten a few times, but required some work on the dialogue, passive voice and some repetition. 

The dialogue was quite stilted. I’d originally opted to go for a more formal approach, but this had the impact of making the story seem like a costume drama (to quote some feedback). There were a lot of contractions to put in. There was also good opportunity to clean up pov and give some more description about the main character’s thinking.

I was able to scythe large sections of text that went on about the same thing, giving room for me to work on some sections that are underwritten.

I still have my seemingly endless battle with words like ‘suddenly’, ‘very’ and ‘seemed’. No matter how much I chip away, there always seem to be more.

So I think I’m at a point where I can wrap this one up pretty soon. I’d like to start submitting stories this year and force the pace on some unfinished pieces. With luck it’ll be the start of my publishing journey.

Shaking off cobwebs

I think I have finally recovered from my holiday. Sleeping is back to normal, regular pattern of work restored. I’m back to blogging.

Before I left for my hols, I had aspirations of completing my novel (first draft). I’m still short the ending, and wouldn’t feel sound retreading the earlier sections without completing the story. I have some benefit of knowing how it will end, at least at this stage in a manner that makes sense with the plot. 

I had high hopes to get this out of the way to free up time for other projects, complete short stories, maybe some professional articles as well. There are some personal priorities coming up – university resuming, probably moving house – that will inevitably draw my attention away. So I really need to bring things to a close. 

I don’t anticipate any NaNoWriMo acts of writing heroism this time. 500 words a day or so should do it. I just need to make sure that gets slotted into my routine, and then I can move onto other things and get a little distance from the novel before starting on the rewrite.

On the face of it this might look a little burdensome, but the truth is it’s a commitment I made to myself last year and it’s ongoing. I’m looking forward to doing all this stuff. The enthusiasm makes it less daunting. Up and at ’em I say!

The Rewrite – Style

I have no style. Really don’t. Ask my hairdresser. I hate my hair. I really, really hate it. I half wish we lived in THX 1138 world where hair doesn’t matter…and the state hands out free drugs. Everyone’s a winner.

I reckon when Robert Duvall reached the top of that giant shaft (still in THX 1138, keep track) the first thing he thought was ‘I’m going to grow my hair how I want.’

I bet it wasn’t. It was probably more along the lines of ‘I have no survival skills whatsoever. No idea how to make food much less gather it. I don’t know what safe plants look like compared to unsafe. Are there animals up here? Is there civilisation? I’m also about to go into withdrawal from the large doses of narcotics the dystopian society handed out, because there are no drugs here. This creeping metal cops were right. I should have gone back down.’

I guarantee you, Robert Duvall’s character dies after the events of the film.

Now, getting back to reality. I am on the the 5th stage of rewriting, 5th out of 6. Remember the others? Understandability, structure, characters, and dialogue. Polish is the last one.

Style. What is it?

Well, it’s how you write. Part of it is the voice of the author, but that’s a little nebulous. The main part, for me at least, is consistency in how I am writing my piece. Have I kept the same tense? Is the point of view consistent throughout? Have I maintained the right vibe? Is an emotive piece about a mental breakdown interspersed with off the wall Monty Pythonesque escapades that completely car crashes the sense of what the story is about? You get the idea.

I have been using the example of a short story I wrote, the Darken Path, as a focus of rewriting. This is a story of a woman being chased, and then she gets eaten by a daemon. That’s pretty much it, with some window dressing. Most stories are like that I guess – complex interweaving of story, plot and character summarised in a simplistic one sentence description. The difference between spin and substance.

So, in this short story, the pov is the woman being chased. I know without looking that a lot of sections have omniscient storytelling – a narrator looking over it. It takes away from her voice, and that isn’t the type of story I’m after. 

Another characteristic is an over use of analogy – ‘She ran. A white wraith through the woods…the men chased, shouting after her, like wild dogs yelping at their sport’. Some of this works in sections, but overuse is problematic. As my dear old mother might say, it reads like a private detective novel…except, fantasy horror and daemons I guess. It’s more important to get a sense of what she (the character in the story, not my mum) thinks it sounds like – it can sound like yelping of wild dogs to anyone, but it has to sound like that to her.

It’s an important part of the story then, to establish a set style. Sometimes, that voice of the writer – a gravitas if you like – can carry the most mundane of plots. Take Hemingway’s The Old Man and Sea. I really have to say, I am not enamoured by a story about a guy going fishing. Yet I persevered, because Hemingway’s voice – his style – in the story kept me going. It makes a big difference.

Kerouac’s On The Road is another good example. When I got to the end of the book I felt like I had gotten to the end of a drunken joy ride, and really gone no where. I won’t deny, as much of a road tripper as I am, the lack of story was disappointing. Maybe that’s the point though, writing beatnik style. Either way, Kerouac had a way of writing that I loved throughout. The people and places were real, even as I was nearly begging for a story to appear. Maybe I need to re-read it one day, to get a better idea. 

I daren’t place myself in the place of the likes of Hemingway or Kerouac. I have a long way to go. All I’m looking for is consistency of style, and make sure my ‘voice’ comes loud and clear. 

Reading out loud is good too. I’ll try that.

Short post tonight, as my battery fades away like a distant dystopian society and fading hair line…

The Rewrite Рunderstandability 

After a brief malaise I have finally got back into the swing of writing. Having set out some targets for the rest of the year, I can now resume in earnest.

My first focus is on a short story. The first draft is done. I have feedback from other writers. Time for the rewrite.

I’ve split the rewrite into two broad sections. The first is more analysing my work. Feedback can support that analysis, but the change has to come from within (excuse the cliche). That is, I have to take ownership for the changes I make. 

The second part is actually crafting the second draft. Having identified the shortcomings or changes needed I focus on actually making those changes. 

I found a reasonable guide about breaking down rewrites into 6 distinct parts: understandability, structure, characters, dialogue, style and polish.
So my first stage is understandability. This I reckon should be at both the macro and micro level. Is the story coherent? Even if you read a draft would you get the premise? Then, are individual passages understandable? Does it make sense it’s writing?

First then, the story. It’s about a woman; she’s running. She’s being chased. She chooses to flee down a haunted path to escape. She falls into a river and is carried away deep into the forest. She meets a mysterious stranger. They wander for a while. She grows suspicious. Her pursuers return. The forest attacks them and the stranger. She is trapped by the forest.

I would say my story has some coherency. It’s deeper meaning comes later.

I then have the job of nit picking every sentence and word. I actually do that as part of my work, albeit in a very different context. I tend to be harsh (but fair, I like to think). I have to exercise the same strictness on my self – quite masochistic. The problem is it is a little subjective. This why you need feedback.

One thing that was highlighted was that I use the passive voice too often (no doubt a product from my more clinical day job). I provide insight by telling rather than showing. There are phrases like ‘She felt…’ Or ‘She was…’. There’s also repetition and duplication – ‘She felt hot. The Sun was bearing down on her…’ (You get the idea).

I also found some strange passages that really don’t mean anything. One particular one is ‘A beauty of haste.’ With some feedback there was the comment ‘poetic, but what does it mean?’

In truth, some of those passages are very much lacking in meaning. I recall the ‘beauty of haste’ one from the very first rough draft. I think I meant to write how she looked beautiful in her haste, but the line stuck. It’s lines like that I need to be most wary of, because they might seem to mean something without meaning anything (at least to the objective reader).

So understandability needs some working on, reshaping each line to be ‘on message’ for the reader. I don’t really want them to stop dead in a stir and left scratching their head about a confusing passage.