Category Archives: Constructive Criticism

Right brain, left brain, no brainer.

Pre-1980’s research into the brain appeared to show that people fall into two distinct camps – left brainers and right brainers. The left brain was  supposed to be the logical, problem solving side and was claimed by people who were good at maths and unemotional, whereas the right side was for all those airy fairy, creative types.  I rather liked the idea of being right brain – I was bad at Maths and good at dreaming.  Now I had an excuse for failing my Maths “O” level.  I wasn’t stupid – I was a creative genius but apparently not.

Smugness always comes before a fall.  Recent research shows that to be good at Maths, you need to use both sides of your brain.  Then just as us so-called right-brainers consoled ourselves that we were still better at language, this too has been blown out of the water, with the identification of a large language centre in the left brain that interprets actions and the world around us

Twenty years ago, I did a study with a class of Creative Writing students on their preferred learning styles – did they learn best from seeing, hearing or doing.  The younger students had very distinct preferences for a certain style, but the older the student the more likely they were to use all of the styles, not showing a preference for any particular one.   The conclusion I drew was that the older you are, the more used you become to accessing all areas of the brain, probably through a process of trial and error.  Humans will usually find the easiest way to do anything.  There was one older student though, who was a visual learner only.  He was the best writer in the group and his novel was very visual but he found it difficult to edit.  He couldn’t see the structure of his work.

So how can we as writers access all the areas of our brains?    It depends how you write.  Do you have an outline or do you,  like Francoise Sagan with “Bonjour Tristesse”, pour it all out verbatim on the page as you go?  If you have an innate sense of structure and drama, then possibly you don’t need an outline.  For anything other than a short story, I do.   If nothing else, it stops me repeating myself!

It also helps me to have a clearer idea of the whole story, so as I write I can ‘see’ it in my head and know what bit is where and why it’s there.    It’s helpful to know about structure –  a bit more than beginning, middle and end – where one ends and the next section begins and what event marks that ending/beginning – three act structure and not only for scripts – you can use it for any story.

And most important of all character biographies – and we’re not talking about what they like to eat or what size shoes they wear, unless it’s crucial to the plot.  It’s the psychology of your characters – what drives them, what are their fears, what are their nightmares?

Here’s a short exercise to get you analysing – write a one page synopsis of something you’ve read or watched in the last couple of days or something you’re working on yourself.  Three paragraphs, okay you can have long ones, one each for beginning, middle and end.  To do it, you have to identify the key points that tell the story – and only the key points and identify when each section ends and the next one begins  and what action causes it.  Happy whole-braining!

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Constructive Criticism, Novels

Digging up bluebells

Forty years ago my front door bell rang. It was my next door neighbour bearing a bulging shopping bag.

“Fancy some bluebells,” he asked, knowing I was on the lookout for anything to go in my new garden. I was only too grateful and spent the next hour planting them and looking forward to the coming Spring. I wasn’t disappointed – the bluebells sprouted and suddenly my barren garden had been transformed into a magical woodland – well almost. Yes, I know, I knew very little about gardening but I have a vivid imagination. It was just a pity that I didn’t know a little more about bluebells for these lovely, nodding heads held on tall stalks were quickly followed by long, green, glossy leaves that swamped everything within twelve inches. Never mind, I reasoned, they can be quickly pulled up and tidied away, not too big a job.  I’ll get round to it some time.

Then I rented out my house and went to live in Canada. Four years later when I returned with my small son and my cat, I looked forward once more to spring and the bluebells. It was just in those four years they had taken over the entire garden. They were everywhere – they didn’t behave like well mannered daffodils and just stay in one place. They forced their way between paving stones, sprouted out of the foundations and hid in the middle of bushes. “They can’t get much worse,” I told myself, ignoring the fact that they’d colonised my neighbours’ gardens as well and they were not best pleased.

You’re probably wondering what bluebells have got to do with writing, well there is a tenuous link, because if all that time ago, I had dug up those dratted bluebells when I realised my mistake, I wouldn’t be faced with the monumental task I now have to shoulder. My bluebells are Spanish, and in the mild British climate, are romping away, threatening the native English bluebell, a smaller, more beautiful, to my British eye, and sweetly perfumed plant, which fits into the British landscape and doesn’t look out of place. So now I’m spending hours digging up these foreign invaders and consigning them to the bonfire.

And the tenuous link? A third of the way into the children’s novel I’m writing, I made a decision to have my two characters time travel and arrive together and in order for them to meet their antagonist, took them on a long, convoluted route through the story. The whole structure creaked but I persevered, determined it would work but it didn’t and impacted on all the other characters and on the plot.   It took my daughter to say “I don’t believe this bit,” to make me take a long hard look and agree.   I’d taken the easy way out like I did when I turned a blind eye to the bluebells.  I thought I could just tweak my story here and there like I thought I could control the bluebells by pulling up the leaves and leaving the bulb to work its way further and further into the ground.  It was time to rewrite – time to dig up the tortuous plot that had no business being there.

I know writers who’ve pressed the delete button on far more words than I had to, so I’m not awarding myself any medals. I’m going to make sure in the future though, whether I’m writing or gardening that I’m planting the right bluebells.

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Filed under Characters, Children's writing, Constructive Criticism, Novels, Rewriting

Feedback: Give and Take

Feedback is what I dread receiving and dread giving but I keep on asking for it and saying “yes” when someone asks me.

Anyone who doesn’t write won’t understand that gut wrenching, stomach falling, palpitation inducing moment when you realise your next draft isn’t going to be a few tweaks away from winning the Booker Prize or grabbing you an Oscar.  Instead you’ll be back at square one or at least that’s what your self-defense mechanism is telling you – well it would do, that’s its job – to stop you from getting hurt by sitting back down at the computer and starting again and failing again.  Your self-defense mechanism doesn’t want you to get hurt so it tells you success is so far away, you’ll never get there.  Why not give up now?  But who’s in charge here and why did you ask for feedback in the first place?   Hopefully because you wanted to get better at this thing you’re driven to do every day and get withdrawal symptoms when you can’t.   However, in that complicated cocktail of desperation, insecurity and expectation we call our egos, we’ll be satisfied with nothing less than praise and success.

If you want to avoid the mistake I made the first time I asked for feedback, don’t tell that person the story of your script.   It’s what I did when I asked my husband to read my first screenplay.   I steeled myself for what I knew would be fair, accurate, analytical criticism  and received a puzzled response.  “Are you sure you’ve given me the right script? ”   He was looking for everything the natural storyteller in me thought was on the page,  but wasn’t there at all.  When you read your own work, you ‘re seeing the characters as you created them moving in that fabulous world that exists somewhere in your head.    Don’t tell anyone your story if you want feed back from them.  Their job is to tell you what they’ve read, which is how you’re going to work out how to make your script better.   If they don’t understand anything, they should be asking you questions.    It may well be the brilliant sub plot that’s overshadowing the main plot  or that subtle reference to a key part of the story that’s so subtle, no-one notices it.

It helps if the unfortunate friend, colleague or acquaintance you’ve picked on, has some knowledge of the accepted structure and format of the genre you’ve given them.  It’s vital that they should ask questions like “Whose story is it?”; “Who’s the intended audience?” or even if it’s a film script, “What size budget did you have in mind?” ; because if they can’t or don’t, then the feedback they’re giving you is unlikely to be helpful.  And if you don’t know the answers, then you’ve learnt something very useful straight away.

Even if you pay for your feedback, buyer beware,  check out the C.V.s of the professionals giving it and try to find someone who has experience of the genre in which you’re writing.    It’s not unknown for professional script readers to give contradictory advice but if more than one person is telling you that something isn’t working, you should be looking at it with an objective eye.  However,  if there’s one lone voice criticising something that your gut feeling tells you is right, go with your gut.  You haven’t the experience to do anything else at that moment and it was your gut that likely gave you the inspiration in the first place.

People will tell you that the first draft is always “s**t” – which isn’t exactly fair and does nothing for the self-esteem of the writer or any artist for that matter.    Remember you’re the person who started with the blank page; the one who burnt the midnight oil;  who ran into imaginary brick walls and had eureka moments in unlikely places like the supermarket queue and then lost your flash of inspiration scrawled on the back of the weekly shopping list in a windy car park.   You’ve sacrificed a great deal to come this far so read the feedback, decide what you believe and start the next draft.   And forget the Booker and the Oscar – they’re just prizes that people receive.  Far more valuable is the one within your own gift – to produce the best writing you can.

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Filed under Constructive Criticism, Film writing, Rewriting, Writing and rejection