Writing Tips

5 Ways To Get Feedback On Your Writing

So you’ve written your thing? Hurrah! Now what? Get feedback, that’s what!

But how can you get it, and how do you decide which would be the best option for you? Let’s take a look at the main routes:

1. Friends & Family

It can be surprisingly difficult to get effective feedback from friends and family; not least because they love and care for you and don’t want to say anything mean…and because you love them back and want them to think well of you. Their good opinion matters. Nobody wants to fall out  or have things taken personally – and writing , however much we like to pretend we’re all dead hard and so A-grade we can take anything, is just so personal. 

This can make things tricky.

Feedback from your friends and family can often be frustratingly vague. Your mum’s  “That was lovely, darling!” is NOT helpful feedback for your work. We’re not doing this for a pat on the head. That said, you don’t want the opposite. If you’re going to share work, you want to ensure you remain on speaking terms with your nearest and dearest.

When Can Friends & Family Help?

I’ve found there definitely are times that it is helpful to get feedback on finished work by someone you are close to. Just an ordinary reader, usually not a writer or armchair critic (definitely avoid those!), but someone interested enough to want the best for you and your work to succeed. After all, especially if it’s a novel you’re writing, it is ordinary readers who are ultimately going to be reading and hopefully buying your work. Your ultimate reader is probably only going to read your novel only the once. If you have someone in your vicinity who is part of your target market and who might be willing to give you a bit of a heads-up on likely reader first impressions, why not ask them very nicely to help?

  • Is your mum perhaps a lover of crime thrillers and detective stories? (mine is!)
  • Your best friend’s kid a devourer of Young Adult sci-fi fantasy?
  • Your colleague a slipstream literary fiction afficionado?

Bear in mind, it’s risky. If you are going to go this route and there is someone willing, make sure you pick your person VERY carefully, and be precise about what you want them to look for. I’d avoid the “well, did you like it, or not?” question. DON’T choose anyone insensitive or who might have a cross to bear, or someone you’re trying to impress. You don’t need to prove your worth to anybody. Make sure it’s someone from whom you could take any honest but less-than-stellar feedback. Criticism, even mild, can often be harder to hear from someone you know than a dispassionate outsider, whom you can curse in the privacy of your own mind, with no  danger of real-life comeback.

2. Beta Readers & Critique Partners

Technically, beta readers are supposed to be a live test audience for your work. In other words, target market readers who read your manuscript as if they are the eventual reader for your book, allowing you to test for likely responses so you can make adjustments and edits as necessary. The friends and family examples I gave above are really beta readers; it’s just the relationship side of things that can make getting useful feedback tricky and has to be carefully managed.

These days, however, you often see the term “beta reader” used interchangeably with what I’d more accurately call “critique partner.”  In practice, these will often be particular writing friends with whom you’ve connected in the past and developed a mutual bond and degree of trust. They tend to know you and your writing style well and understand your writing process. They “get” you and what you are trying to do and are often used to your particular blind-spots and flaws. Often, they will be well-versed in writing craft and techniques, and are usually pretty good at feedback.

A good critique partner is a valuable asset – if you are lucky enough to have found one, look after them and nurture that relationship! Do make sure it’s mutual, and remember your critique partner does not exist merely to service your needs. We are all busy people with lives, and reading takes time. Make sure you regularly swap work and return the favour. Treat their work with the care, thought and attention you’d want for your own. Learn from one other. You’re looking for someone who is sensitive enough not to personalise any criticism but at the same time isn’t afraid to be honest and tell it like it is in a way that helps you improve your work.

Group Beta Readers

You could of course, also set up a group of proper beta readers to test your stuff out. Members of a book group, perhaps, or a mix of writers and non-writers. A good test reader should be specifically from your target market.  Someone who’s not is likely to give you information that is irrelevant and, unless they are truly objective, their personal preferences often get in the way. You don’t want your high literature types sneering at your YA Fantasy; likewise, Fifty Shades fans aren’t going to be interested in your riff on Infinite Jest. Again, be specific about the feedback you want.  Not “I want to know it’s marvellous and going to be a bestseller and how very clever I am.” (Even though that’s what we all want to hear, obvs). Prepare direct, specific questions about the characters, understanding of certain plot points, pacing,  if it was predictable or confusing in places, for example.. What you want to get from your beta readers is a grounded understanding of whether or not your piece is working. Is it doing what you intend or not?

3. Writing Groups

Writing groups are for some people and not for others. And of course it depends on who you get in your group. I’m lucky enough to be a member of two writing groups – sometimes three – and they are great in different ways.

The most important thing when choosing a writing group is whether or not it is a good match for you and your work. Are group members generally at a similar stage in their writing lives? You ideally want a group where people are at a similar stage as you or just a little ahead of you in their writing careers. Is there a variety of genres people tend to write in or is everyone in the group into the same type of work? If the latter, is it your type? How is discussion conducted and how respectful is it of all members? Are there rules about how feedback is given, what sort of feedback is appropriate and what isn’t?

When Writing Groups Go Bad

Horror stories abound, of course. A woman I met at a workshop the other day told me she’d been rounded on by a clique in a new writing group and her worked ripped to shreds with not one word of positivity or constructive criticism. Essentially the leader of the group decided her work was worthless and it went round in a circle with each individual telling her exactly why this was so. Apparently one man put his hand up and said he’d rather liked it, but was shouted down and his views dismissed by the rest. Another friend, writing tentatively about the lesbian family relationships she’d grown up in, was told by the squirming members of her writing group that they didn’t want to hear about things “like that”, and that she was shoving “her politics” down their throats.

Again – you need to pick your people. Groups, especially where there are one or two very dominant personalities, can get very cliquey. (And of course many have the Guy-In-Your-MFA types lurking in their midst. Good for a laugh but can be quite frustrating.) Make sure yours is respectful of all members and their work. A variety of writing styles in evidence is helpful, as are signs that people give each other constructive feedback which gives the writers something to work on.

4. Free Online Critique Sites

What if you want the variety of views that a writing group can bring but don’t have anything local to your area? You could always join an online critiquing circle.

Be prepared to give and take. The best of these sites operate through “karma points” – you feed back on other people’s work, and earn enough karma points for your work to be read and commented on in return. Do note though that often you only get the basic service for free so it can take time to build up points – if you want all bells and whistles on the sites, you’ll sometimes find you have to pay for it.

The advantage of this approach is that it is fantastic practice and highly instructive to have to read a lot of others people’s work as well as writing your own. Seeing other people’s strengths and weaknesses can help make you far more aware of what your own particular talents and blind spots may be. And of course you’ll get a wide range of comments, just like in a writing workshop or group. Disadvantages are that obviously reading others’ work takes time. You’ll probably get a number of comments that don’t seem relevant and that you discard. And there are often limits with regard to how detailed you can be in your feedback, and also on the lengths of the pieces you can post. You need a thick skin, too; but that is something probably worth building up. Join one up for free (see links below) and check out the sort of stuff that gets posted to see if this might be the route for you.

https://www.scribophile.com

https://www.critiquecircle.com

5. Paid Consultancy & Reader Services

Ah, last but not least. And not just a plug for yours truly – these services are not right for everyone, and as with every choice you make as a writer, it should be a case of picking what really works for you. I’d suggest trying the freebies first and then if you want something more, consider paid assessment options such as mine.

Look at what the different services offer, try to see sample reports if you can and think about what you need to take your writing forward. It may be the kudos of having a big-name author read your work (not me, sorry). It may be the window of possibility of having your novel recommended by the service to an agent (nope.) You may be after in-depth editorial  and proofreading services (no); you may be at the stage where you are looking more for a detailed analysis of the big picture structures of the work (hello! *waves*). You may be looking to send a whole novel; you may be wanting in-depth notes on a couple of short stories. Think about where you’re at with your work, and what you’d like to know in terms of moving it forward. Be totally honest with yourself, and you will find you get more out of whatever service it is  you choose. You need to know what you want so that you can ask for – and get – it. Exactly what you need.

 

So there we have it. Five ways of getting feedback on your work. Have I missed anything crucial? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 Fiction writers and screenwriters; totally different animals, right?

Screenwriters and fiction authors. One group writing to meet the often harsh demands of the film and TV industries, the other striving to create Booker-winning literary masterpieces. Different markets and forms, different audience. In other words – with about as much in common as cats and dogs. Or so you might think. What could one group of writers possibly have to teach the other?

Different Forms, Different Requirements

The difference in form certainly makes an impact on focus. Since film is a visual medium, screenwriters deal primarily in visual imagery and dialogue. This is then translated onto screen and into the final creation by directors and actors. Fiction writers, however, get to invoke all five senses in the imagination of the reader, using just words on a page. Because it is relatively free-form, fiction also has far more structural possibilities. Prose fiction allows, I think, for much more playfulness and a wider range of styles when telling a story.

So what’s the problem? Is there one?

Having worked in both forms, I was very surprised when I came to fiction groups, books, and classes and realised few of us seemed to be being taught the basics of Story and Story Structure. Or not in the way that most screenwriters would view as pretty fundamental. There is nothing about writing prose that should mean the story is less important than it would be in a script. But in  the fiction-writing world, there seems to be an over-reliance on the idea that once you have the characters and a few scenes, structure and story will just magically emerge by itself. As if even talking about it will destroy some sort of mystique.

I’m not sure why that is.

Maybe it’s arisen out of a certain snobbery about books versus films.. Indeed, choosing your “genre” is far more of a necessity in film which I guess aligns it in many people’s minds with commercial fiction.

Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the distinction between Plot – the series of events that happen in a story – and Story itself In other words, the combination of multiple elements to create a complete piece that is meaningful and says what we want it to say. That the art of something as ethereal and poetic as “literary” fiction could not possibly be subject to the more workaday structural approach screenwriters take to achieve this.

And yes, I have noticed this cultural difference between working fiction writers and screenwriters many times in person. I’ve often found it frustrating that tools that could be made available to budding fiction authors rarely seem to be, and that they’re essentially left to muddle through alone.

 

5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters

 

1. It’s All About The STORY

I get why sometimes the kinds of “systems” advocated by some of the screenwriting gurus can seem frustratingly restrictive, dictatorial and “uncreative”. I get that overanalysis, overplanning and picking work apart can sometimes be destructive to creative flow. And I get the fear of producing generic work, or a seeming over-reliance on plot over character – although, as I said above, I don’t believe that “Plot” is what “Story” is all about.

Here’s the thing. I’ve seen far more instances where a greater understanding of overall story and the elements that pull them togethe  would have been useful for the prose writer. I believe that whichever form you choose to write in, you are using it primarily for the purpose of conveying meaning to your reader or audience. And that, for me, is what “Story” is all about.  I’m unsure how new writers are meant to create great stories without getting to grips with ways to build them and the materials needed to do so. For screenwriters, Story is everything. Its principles tend to be taught and discussed quite overtly. This is rarely the case with fiction writing. Everything I’ve learned about the fundamentals of story, I’ve learned from screenwriting. And screenwriting teaching is streets ahead on this front.

(If you’re interested in learning more, you might want to check out my review of screenwriting guru John Truby’s Anatomy of Story here)

 

2. Tell A Story in Scenes

Remember “show, don’t tell”? That basic rule we’re all told to abide by in fiction-writing? Screenwriters have it way easier than fiction writers in this respect. The restrictions of the form means they can’t do anything else. Unless they make extensive use of voiceover (not cool), what they write is what the audience will see and hear. Visuals. Dialogue. And when you think that way, it’s easier to start thinking about what scenes you’ll need to use to get your characters and story across.

When you’re writing fiction, how easy is it to slip into an authorial narrative voice? Telling us for paragraph after paragraph about a character’s history and so on. Now imagine you no longer have that option. If you were writing this character for the screen, if you were going to move this part of their story along, what scenes would you use to show it?

You’ll often find thinking this way forces you into a more effective method of conveying what you want to say.

 

3. Structure Is Not A Dirty Word…

In fact, it’s crucial. Structure is the foundation on which the successful telling of the story rests. Your building blocks. The way you choose to structure a piece of writing feeds directly into how well you are able to convey your story’s meaning. Rather like someone building their own home – it helps to know what you’re doing. An understanding of what story structure is and does, rather than just bumbling along blindly hoping it will work, can make the process of writing a lot easier

That isn’t to say that there is only one structure possible. Not all will stories follow the classic Three Act Structure, at least not overtly. That said,  I find it is often helpful to understand such a longstanding structural form and its rules and conventions before you try to break them. Sometimes it helps to know what works and why or why not, and Three-Act is a classic dramatic structure for a reason. You will often also find that even those who encourage the breaking of the old Three-Act stranglehold recognise the debt their structural analyses owe to classical structural forms.

I think fiction writers have far more options in terms of overt structures to play with than screenwriters. But it’s important that you have a grasp of the basic principles that underly these. If a key structural element is missing from your story, you will often find that the story as a whole fails as a result.

 

4. …And Neither Is Genre

Which is not to say that all stories have to be old-school generic, or even plot-driven, which I suspect is at the heart of much snobbery about any discussion at all of genre and its many forms.

But if you think that, say, literary fiction isn’t a “genre” of sorts, with its own conventions and expectations (and no-no’s), then you are very much mistaken. It is true that commercial fiction tends more towards the old-school genre conventions used by the film industry, and that publishers often reflect that in their marketing. But that isn’t the complete picture. (See my more detailed post  Genre and Why It Matters here.)

Genre isn’t just the old-school categories. It’s more about the fundamentals of type of story – the expectations of the reader,the reasons you are telling it, the tone, whether something “fits” or not, even if the writer is consciously using a specific genre to subvert expectations. You’d be surprised at just how often I’ve fed back on a draft story that doesn’t “work” precisely because there are significant issues in the story with the muddling of genres. Or the writer doesn’t quite seem to have control of the type of story they are telling or a grasp on its conventions. Genre in its widest sense, is about “the type of story you want to tell” and why. A clear understanding of genre and the purposes and history of different types of story can be a powerful tool.

 

5. Writing Is Not Some Mystical Thing. It’s Work.

If I had a pound for every time someone has inferred to me that Fiction Writing is somehow analogous to Relaxation, I’d be a rich woman. It’s not a hobby , it’s not painting watercolours, and frankly, if I want relaxing Me-Time, I’ll go to a spa or just run myself a bubble bath or something.

I’d certainly agree that creativity and the act of being creative is pleasurable, can be profoundly satisfying. And that sometimes we make it harder for ourselves than it needs to be. But creating a satisfying piece of work, telling the story we want to tell in a way that others will want to read, is not all lounging around in scarves on chaise-longues, being poetic and getting some minion to feed us grapes, I can assure you.

If you want to finish your short story, or publish your novel, you’re going to have to work at it. Exercise some discipline to get it done. This can be a long hard slog, especially on longer projects.

A lot of people dream of writing a book; far more, I suspect than those who dream of writing a screenplay. It’s always one of the top fantasies, isn’t it? Yet very few achieve it. Why? Because ultimately, it’s such hard work, that’s why. Drafting, editing, painstakingly rewriting, over months or even years.  Many screenwriters I know, including those who are budding, seem to take a far more pragmatic approach to their writing than those who just dream of being fiction writers. This is possibly because those who dream of screenwriting tend to be closer to the realities of the industry – they know people, they get involved, get their hands dirty. I think as fiction writers,  we have to be prepared to do the same.

 

So what are your thoughts? Have I missed anything off my list? Are the forms so different that they can never meet? Feel free to leave any thoughts and comments below.

 

 

 

 

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My Journal Writing Creative Practice

I’ve had a regular journal habit since I was in my teens. Journaling is the way I work out problems, get things out of my system, discover what I really think about  the world. But my journal writing creative practice,  in the deliberate sense , has been a long time in development.

At first, possibly inspired by Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, it was just the usual teenage diary. It mostly consisted of my day-to-day woes, major news headlines , friend and teacher sagas, longstanding and hopeless crushes. OK, so I didn’t write to the BBC as Adrian does with embarrassing frequency, but these ancient records of my former self are no less cringe-worthy.

As I got older, I found I just couldn’t stop putting pen to paper in one form or another. At college, pre-internet and email, and when I travelled, and worked all over the world, I was well known among my friends  for my epic letter-writing. A 12-side probably unreadable letter from me was not at all unusual.   I also made the discovery that whenever had a problem to sort out, putting pen to paper and “writing through it” privately often seemed to lead to a solution. The process of journaling itself  seemed to have an almost magical effect, a path through any problem.  Little did I know then that these unofficial scribblings would turn out to be one of the most effective creative practices there is.

Types of Journaling

Obviously, there’s a distinction between “recording the external in detail” and “self-expression”. Both, of course, are hugely useful for fiction writers.

Reportage 

Detailed note-taking – about places, things, people, events. The aim is to capture exact detail, much like a photograph. It is factual, although the ways you record and what you pick up on can often be revealing about your own writing territory, preoccupations and truths.

Try taking your notebook and pen to a particular place to observe and describe exactly what you see, what stands out to you. People-watch and eavesdrop and write down what you hear. Deliberately try to capture the essence of a particular place, or building, or backdrop, focusing on all the detail. You can journal for detail wherever you go, as long as you have something to write on and with.

If you want to go deeper, there are some fantastic writing exercises you can do that directly tie the reportage of place to the personal; the exercises in Julia Cameron’s Right to Write, for example, or Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography. (I’ll be reviewing both of these books soon.)

Diarising

Old-school and essentially linear, driven by date, just as I did as a teen.  Your thoughts about your day-to-day, news stories, anything on your mind. These entries can seem quite unremarkable at the time – they don’t have to be Art – but are often fascinating to look back on.

I actually have in my possession my late grandmother’s diary from 1936,  which was the year she got married and moved  into the then newly-built house that she would live in for the rest of her life. It’s a pocket-sized burgundy-coloured Letts Diary, the endpapers printed with details about postal rates to the various countries across the-then vast British Empire. Train timetables up “to town” , measurements for hats, gloves and shoes. The entries probably seemed quite mundane to my grandmother, detailing her wedding preparations, her cinema dates with my grandfather, and their numerous spats. But these are interspersed with the news events of the day. The funeral of the King, the saga of Edward VII’s abdication crisis playing out on the wireless, and of course, ominous signs of the impending war.

Diaries can provide important details and nuances about a particular time or era, either for ourselves or others. They can be great prompts for pieces of fictional work. It’s interesting, too, to note the formalities – what people choose to reveal and convey of themselves or exaggerate in their “official” diaries – and what they don’t.

Project Journaling

 This is something I do regularly now. It involves gathering material and thoughts on specific projects or topic areas, and keeping them together in one place. I often keep entirely separate journals for different projects. These are great when you are in the research stage of a project, allowing you to make detailed descriptions of settings, characters and so on. You can write about related news stories, or your own personal thoughts about the issues and themes at hand. When I start a big project, I also like to track my project progress in a journal. The things I am thinking and worrying about at different stages, the problems to resolve, what I feel is succeeding and isn’t. Currently for example,  I am journaling about the novel I am working on.

Free-writing

A completely different type of journaling, freewriting is entirely about self-expression: whatever comes out, unedited will come out. The best forms of freewriting, I’ve found, rarely involve going back and looking at what you’ve written ; writing perfect descriptive prose is not the purpose, although you may find the odd gem if you do go back and look. I often use freewriting as a “warm up” before starting my writing proper, with the purpose being to completely turn off my inner editor. The most common form is to write for a certain number of minutes (it could be on a topic, from a prompt, starting from a first line etc) without stopping, and without taking the pen off the page.

Morning Pages

A form of daily freewriting, as advocated by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way and a very similar idea by Dorothea Brande before her.

Essentially, it is three A4 pages of freewriting, to be done every morning as soon as you wake up, and it’s a central part of my creative practice. Again, you write without stopping, you write anything that comes into your head, and you don’t take your pen off the page until the three pages are done.. The purpose, again, is to completely turn off your inner editor and critic and reconnect you with your creativity. Which all sounds very woo, but I can honestly say that including regular morning pages in my daily practice substantially deepened and improved the quality of my work. I have about thirty notebooks now, all filled with my unreadable scrawl, most of which I’d never reread, but which I know are responsible for most of my writing successes so far.

It’s certainly a method I can highly recommend.

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The 5 Key Components of a Strong Story Premise

5 Key Components of Story Premise Header

Will your idea make a good story?

What do we mean by a good story? And what factors make up the story premise?

A premise is ideally a one-sentence summary of your entire story. Would you be able to distill your idea into one or two sentences?

Be aware that nearly all unsuccessful stories fail at the premise. Premise is the foundation of your story, on which all the decisions you make during the writing should be based. Within your story premise are a number of key elements you need to be able to “hit” so your story is strong enough to be able to fly. Having a weak premise at the outset will lead to an even weaker story in execution, so it’s worth taking the time to ensure all the following are present.

The 5 Key Components of a Strong Story Premise

1. Protagonist

Who is your main character? What can you tell us about them? It’s important to make sure that you actually have the right “main protagonist” – it’s the one who the themes and conflicts of the story are really about. You’d be surprised how often final stories turn out to really about someone other than whom you might think at first.  NB even at the premise level, make sure you are specific about who your main protagonist is and their role in the story – just a name on its own won’t be enough or tell you what you need to know.

Do we have to like our protagonists? No, I don’t think we do, although some other writers would disagree with me. I do think we need to be able to relate to them in some way, though. And we need to make life hard for them. Think about the worst possible thing that can happen to this character – and then make sure you throw it at them!

2. Conflict  – with stakes that a reader can identify with, and that your main protagonist is living out throughout the course of the story.

Story is conflict – without conflict, you simply have a list of events. What are the internal conflicts your character is battling with? The environmental ones? The situational ones? What are the choices that your protagonist is torn between? Are they choices that are universal in some way, that would be relatable to your readers? Make sure that the conflict matters, that your reader has a reason to care, regardless of genre.  What is it that your protagonist stands to gain or lose once a choice is made? What exactly is it that they are fighting about at core – and who are they fighting?

 3. Desire/goal that the protagonist has

What does your protagonist want to achieve at the outset? How does that relate to what they need? Will they achieve it or not by the end of the story?

Often, what protagonists want is directly in conflict with what they need to make life better by the end of the story. It’s always worth thinking about, not only their desires, but the things that are preventing them understanding or realising what they actually need if you want to deepen your story.

4. Antagonist or Force of Antagonism

Remember, sometimes what can seem to be an antagonist for the protagonist at the outset of the story, turns out not to be “the real enemy’” at all. Think about all the things that are stopping your characters get what they need as well as what they want – or what they think they do. Who or what is the real enemy? How does that relate to the overall themes and message of your story?

5. A set up that will illustrate the conflict

You need a place, a time, a scenario that makes sense. Where are you going to place your characters to best illustrate the premise you have? What about that set up will accentuate the conflicts and themes you have identified?

 

 EXAMPLE PREMISE BREAKDOWN:

 Story: Don’t Look Now (Daphne Du Maurier)

Premise:

In Venice with his wife hoping to help her get over the death of their young daughter, a father ignores the pleas of two apparently psychic elderly sisters who claim the spirit of their dead child is warning him to leave.

Set up: A married couple away in Venice, who happen to meet two strange sisters at dinner

Protagonist: John, loving husband, rationalist, and recently bereaved father of a dead girl

Conflict: Wanting things to be normal again versus the reality of grief, reality vs false hope, life versus death, ignore the warning or be taken in by it?

Desire: John wants his wife to be her old self again, he wants things to be ‘back to normal’ and the Venice trip is supposed to be part of that

Antagonist: Grief, death, the fact life can never be the same again, seemingly the sisters, their idea of the ghost and John’s wife’s reaction, but in reality, something much darker entirely. John wants to stay in Venice, but he needs to leave.

 

How To Isolate Your Story Premise

 Personally, I’ve always found the following specific questions the most useful when really trying to get to the bottom of my premise:

  • Who is my protagonist and where/when are they?
  • What do they want?
  • What is stopping them getting that?
  • What do they need to realise or understand?
  • Why aren’t they able to realise or understand that thing?
  • Is there a main event that changes everything? What?
  • Where will we find them at the end of the story compared with the beginning?
  • What does that ending imply about life in general?

 

 It’s worth referring back to your basic premise often, while you are in the process of writing. Finding you need to tweak it is fine, but remember if you do, to you rework any key elements so they are all tying in together. You could even keep the premise visible to you as you write; I recently was given the tip of putting it in the header of your piece, so it comes up on every page, and you always have it as reference.

Taking the time at the start of a project to hone a strong premise is time well spent. It will make sure that the story you are writing stays on track and says what you want and need it to say.

 

Looking for feedback on your story? Check out my reader’s reports here!

 

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The Ten Most Common Story Problems To Look Out For

I read a lot of draft stories as part of what I do, as well as from being a member of writing groups. What are the most common story problems I see again and again? And when you’re assessing your own work, what should you be looking out for?

So, so, often, in classes and writing groups, I have found that in the very early drafts of a piece, feedback to other writers still gets focused much too heavily on the minutiae – close, line-by-line editing of the writing – rather than the key elements of the whole reason for doing this in the first place: THE STORY YOU WANT TO TELL.

There is a time and place for close editorial work and red-penning – and it’s way after the first draft.

Close editorial work is about perfecting and polishing a piece of work until it shines. So, it’s  a very good thing – when you are about to submit the piece of work for publication. But close editorial work is not about the big structures and is not what you should be doing the first time you assess a draft. Trust me, if the big structures aren’t there to begin with, no swathes of beautiful description or exquisite phrase-turning or line-editing is going to make the piece stand up or resonate with its readers.  Or at least, not by itself. It risks the work being pretty, but hollow; a bit of nice handwriting, that actually says very little.

Of course, it’s worth noting any glaring grammatical errors or spelling mistakes or awkward phrasing if they jump out at you at this stage, but there WAY more important things to be looking at before that in the early development stages And by “early development,” I mean, for our purposes, the first full draft at least.

The story summary, or synopsis, we talked about in the previous post is a hugely useful at-a-glance look at your entire story from beginning to end. As a synopsis, it should include the most salient features of this piece of work – which means it should start to become obvious where there are gaps or something major is awry.

Questions to ask yourself based on your story summary

  • Does the story have a clear beginning, middle and end?
  • Are the key structural elements in place; the inciting incident, the midpoint, the major plot/turning points at the ends of Acts I and II?
  • Is it clear what genre – if any – the story is or is trying to be?
  • Do we know where and when the story is set?
  • Can we see who the main protagonist is and their basic story arc? Do things change for them by the end of the story?
  • And the antagonist (or other form of opposition)? Is there one? Is it strong? What is the main conflict?
  • Can we see what the basic premise of the story is? Does it seem muddled or vague?
  • What about the theme or themes? What ‘message’ might the current ending convey?
  • Are there any details of the story you thought were in there but that now you look at it, you don’t actually seem to have written?
  • Are there vital questions arising that you seem to have left unanswered?

Go through the list above and make a note of any areas that you think you need to address. As a reminder; you should use the summary to force yourself to look at what you have actually written, rather than what you intended to write. You are giving yourself the information to be able to plug the gaps and what you’ll need to focus on in the next draft.

 The Ten Most Common Story Problems

  1. No clear beginning, middle, end. Most usually,  a LOT of beginning, a flat middle, a rushed, weak or unsatisfying ending
  2. Unclear or confused genre.  I don’t mean hybrids, like literary-sci fi, or romantic-horror. I mean your heartfelt domestic drama randomly turning into an action-adventure halfway through. Intentional? Hmm…
  3. Unclear or split premise. Story meanders or is confusing
  4. Missing theme or point to the story. Who will care about this story and why?
  5. Major  plot points missing
  6. Crucial details missing. (“I want to create a mystery” is not an excuse for not knowing a key part of your own story! And yeah, I’ve used that one too.)
  7. Unsympathetic, unrealistic or un-engaging characters.
  8. Story perhaps told from wrong point of view (obviously, multiples are fine – if intentional.) Or – too many points of view
  9. No real force of opposition
  10. Protagonist doesn’t change (unless that is intentional and a point in itself)

  And of course, you may spot others, depending on your story and your writing practice and style.  Naturally, we all have strengths and weaknesses as writers; that is totally normal. As you may have gathered, I’m a big picture girl at heart. So I can be a little “detail schmetail”, especially in first drafts.

Personally, I have the most problems deciding on endings, which I’ve learned is because I often struggle to really isolate what the core of my story is really about (I often develop stories from individual scenes I’ve written, and end up on a journey of discovery – often with many wrong turns and ill-advised decisions) and therefore can get lost in indecision.

So – make a list of the problems you’ve identified in your piece that you think you’ll need to address. Oh, and pat yourself on the back for the things that you think are working well! It’s good to remember your strengths.

In the next post, we’ll start getting  into more detail about the specifics; and more importantly, what you can do to resolve, including the various resources that are available to get you learning more about them in depth.

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