Thursday, December 18, 2008

Standing Back From the Words

My friend K and I have just swapped manuscripts this week, and are currently reading and critiquing. We'll talk in a day or two about our feedback - so much better than trying to do it all on the page - but both of us are asking for a critique that focuses on the big picture. Fiddling around the edges, copyediting, strengthening verbs, smoothing out sentences - these are all things we can usually do ourselves, although it does help when someone points out the clunky bits.

It's one of the hardest things to learn as a writer, I think. The ability to be your own critic, to see what is not working, to pinpoint plot holes, inconsistent character stuff, stilted dialogue ... and then to know how to fix those things. We get too close to the words we write, we fall in love with them when we re-read, or else we are so self-critical that everything sounds like rubbish and we want to throw the manuscript in the bin. Some of the other things that can happen are being too nice to our characters, because we love them and we don't want bad things to happen to them. The result is no conflict and no tension. Or we confuse real life with fictional life, and include a whole heap of detail and action that has no purpose other than filling up the page.

I've been working on this particular novel for several months, and have just completed an intensive rewrite. While I was rewriting, I was right up close to the characters, and trying to get closer. At times, this meant the plot changed, and I know I didn't always keep track of those changes. And I also left some threads hanging, plot elements that were unresolved. I couldn't think about those things while I was focusing so much on character.

But once the manuscript went zapping off into cyberspace, via email to my critiquer, it gradually retreated from me. I had no desire to go back and read it again. Instead, I have been mentally reviewing the story - from a distance. I've been thinking about those plot holes, about those hanging threads, and about the minor character whose role was one I couldn't work out. I knew I didn't want to lose her, but neither did I want to build her up into a bigger role. Why was she in the story?

I'm keeping a notebook by my side, and every time a new question about the story, or anything else that I think is a problem, pops into my head, I write it down. And sometimes (it might take two minutes, it might come two hours later) I can see a solution and how to fit it into the narrative. I'm also thinking about character arcs, about how the main character changes or grows, and whether I've shown that strongly enough. I'm thinking now about theme - what am I really trying to say with this story? Have I shown it, or is it still vague and unsatisfying?

Distance is the key for me. Finding a way to stand right back and just consider the story with a critical eye. The overall story, not the actual words. If you're facing a busy Christmas period where you're not going to get much writing done, maybe you could keep a notebook handy and do some daydreaming/thinking about your novel while you're stirring food or washing dishes or slumped in an armchair, recovering from over-eating. Don't watch the same old horrible Christmas shows on TV - give your brain some writing work to do!

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