Feedback Frenzy

image credit unsplash.comI recently went to my regular writing workshop. A couple of us meet every 2-3 months, to critique each others stories.

My initial reaction to my feedback was positive. Okay, so I had a plot problem. But at least now I knew, I thought to my myself. This will be great. Knowledge is power.

But then something strange happened. It was as though all those grey tubey-looking parts of my brain starting twisting around themselves, and I realised that fixing this problem was a mammoth task. How would I fix it? And if I did fix this one piece of plot, how would it affect the rest of the book? I had smugly thought the book was finished, ready for submission. But now here I was with a significant problem smirking at me, like a steamy eyed skull.

Hello feedback frenzy.

One little plot problem. A tiny bit of the story that didn’t quite work. If I’m honest, I knew it didn’t work. Every time I thought about it, I had a niggling feeling in my bones, that this was lazy writing, that it wasn’t age appropriate, that it needed to be fixed. The problem was, I didn’t know how to fix it. So I ignored the tug of the alarm bell-string in my chest, and kept on writing.

But when a room full of people (who know things) said that this needed to change, I had to listen. I had to stop seeing the problem part of the plot as a weak area, and start seeing it as anti-plot. But how?

When faced with calamity, I always go back to the basics. First, I thought about how I would fix a problem with something small, like a sentence.

For example, if I wrote this:

“The moon sparkles in the sky.”

I would quickly realise that I have a problem. I’ve written a cliché. If I try to fix it by altering what I already have, all I can think of are similar words;

“The moon shines/ twinkles/ glimmers in the sky”

The cliché remains, and so does the problem. So instead, I delete the whole sentence and start from scratch.

“Moon-rays frame the sky like bleached rainbows.”

It is much easier this time to come up with something original, because my brain isn’t trapped into the old phrase. Make sense?

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to fix a cliché, than a plot problem. I deleted the anti-plot from my text, and spent three days with no idea how my story could progress. Eventually  I stopped trying, and that’s when the Bing! moment arrived. On a long car journey, with a Roald Dahl audio-book sparking my imagination, I worked out how to progress my plot.

However, by starting from scratch and inventing a whole new reason that A led to B in my story, I caused untold havoc to the rest of the book. I didn’t just unleash a can of worms, I also chopped those worms in half, and had to watch as their tails wiggled off in the opposite direction to their heads. One tiny plot change, affected every chapter in the book. It led to two chapters being deleted, and one new chapter being written. It led to the entire sequence of the story being shuffled around.

Hours of work.

Hence the frenzy.

But now it’s nearly finished. I’ve spent a week editing and can honestly say that the book is ten times better now than it was. Feedback may send an earth-quake through your text, but at least you know that all the good bits get left behind. And what you build after the earthquake is a stronger, firmer story.

So bring on the frenzy.

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Outside Opinions: On Writing

This month I had a writing revelation. I was at the Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) conference, and the theme was “Better Together”. Everyone was talking about collaboration, and how projects can come to their full potential when people work together. There was talk of illustrators working with writers, writers working with editors and agents, etc. There was also talk about how authors pull and play with ideas during the writing process, getting ideas, joining ideas, smashing ideas, but most importantly to me, asking for an outside opinion.

Now, I’ve always known that writing at a professional level means getting outside opinions. I’ve read plenty of editor-feedback horror stories, with writers pulling their hair out (sometimes even teeth), because the editor wants a different ending or middle or entire story. If you have an agent, or pay for a Reader’s Report, that will also bring a whole pile of opinions and changes. And I’m fine with that. In fact, I embrace it. But I always felt like they’re allowed to change it, because they’re professional, they know what they’re doing. And your book is already at a fairly advanced and organised stage if you are handing it to an editor. Your idea is well formed. But the thought of getting an outside opinion on a young and fragile idea hadn’t really occurred to me.

At the conference, there was a very amusing and awe-inspiring panel titled “An Abundance of Katherines”, where Cat Doyle asked Katherine Woodfine, Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette, at what point do they share their story? Katherine Woodfine answered that she discusses as she goes, working out the plot and history, often with her husband’s ear (marrying a writer should come with an “I’ll use and abuse your ear warning”). While Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette hold their ideas close, for fear that telling someone will take the magic out of it, and they only show their story when it’s all worked out. But they both then share it, and take on board suggestions and make changes, even if it means huge plot changes (including alternative endings).

You sometimes hear of writers who don’t need to think about what they’re writing, that the story gets channelled through them. I’ll admit this happened me once, for a kid’s early reader. The idea just popped into my head and the short book flowed out of me in about 4 days. I thought “This is it. I’m a writer now. What’s the next story?” Alas, it was a one time lucky sort of thing. And so, I regularly get stuck on plot. But for some reason, I didn’t know I was allowed ask for outside help on a first draft. Now that I think about it, I realise how ridiculous that was of me. I mean, it’s not like there’s one rulebook for writers, and everyone has to follow it. More like there are loads of rulebooks and you pick which style suits you. A little bit from this, a little bit from that. Similar to becoming a parent and realising that all the parenting books give you conflicting advice, and the only way to get through it is to follow your gut and that’s the end of it.

I’m the kind of person that sorts out my thoughts by talking to people about them. My husband gets the brunt of this thinking jumble. But when it comes to my writing, I’ve always held back a bit. I’ll throw the main points at him, explain what I’m writing about and why, and occasionally bounce around the kitchen in excitement when some whacky idea arrives that I know will fix a big plot hole. But I don’t normally toy out my plot with him, because my diaphragm gives a little twist if he suggests a big change that I know will make my story better. In fact, I usually pretend I didn’t hear him when he does that. I want to play with my ideas, get an opinion on whether it will or won’t work, but I ultimately want the solution to be mine (my precious, baby!). More of a “Should I do storyline A or storyline B?” I absolutely did not want my husband (or anyone really) to have a brain-storm moment about my book. Because is that allowed? Can I call it mine, if someone else had an input? If he suggests an alternative ending, can I even use it, or is that a big juicy lie? Would I have to write on my submission letter, “This is my novel, but my husband came up with the ending.”?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I remember the first time I handed over my first daughter to be minded by someone else. The panic, the what-ifs, the “no-one can be as good as her mother” notion that swam around my under-slept brain. But as my daughters grew, I realised that they thrived from outside input, that it brought out new sides to them, and took the pressure off me to be superwoman. Being too closed off, up on a high pedestal with your writing, can give your book cramp. This “Better Together” conference taught me that you don’t have to be the one and only creator of your book, that the end story is the most important thing. And if that means calling in the village, then so be it.