Tag Archives: Constructive Criticism

The first draft is … a work in progress.

So you’ve just typed ‘THE END’. Whatever it was, and no matter how long or short it was, you’re flush with a sense of achievement . You’ve done it – you started, got past the middle and romped home to the end. Time to stick it on the shelf and give yourself some distance.

Some writers keep everything on the cloud but I like a couple of ring binders and print off every chapter of the first draft as I finish it. Then it’s like a real book when I come to the critical re-read and it’s as though I’m approaching virgin territory. Did I really write that?

At least a month after finishing the first draft, I begin to read.  The way I work is at the beginning of each chapter I insert a page.  At the top I put a heading, ‘First Impressions’  and half way down the page another heading, ‘Narrative’.

First impressions are useful because sometimes there’s a distance of several months between writing the first draft and reading it again and that gives you the brutal honesty you’ll need  to make it better.   You know instantly when something isn’t working, when it’s not dramatic enough, even when it’s in the wrong viewpoint.  And while your spirit might sink at the thought of all the work ahead, your pride won’t let you step away.   You invested so much time in creating that world,  no matter how many drafts it will take, you’ve going to get it right.

The Narrative section is perhaps more important.  Under this heading as you read, you’re going to jot down the precise plot points of what has happened in that chapter.  Even if you think you know it off by heart, when you strip away all the description and simply list the events that move the plot along, you can be surprised to find contradictions and improbabilities, sometimes downright hilarious.

You can also find yourself having to make big changes and it’s important not to fudge around them.  You’ll know when something’s not working and has to be changed.  Grasp the nettle even if you’ll need tons of imaginary dock leaves later.

Happy editing!

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Filed under Constructive Criticism, Novels, Rewriting

Good versus Bad

Ever got into an argument about a film you thought was great and everyone else in the pub thought was rubbish? And you couldn’t defend your opinion? When I first started thinking about writing for the screen, I’d watch loads of films but couldn’t understand why some of them worked and others didn’t. And you need to understand because pub debates are fuelled by alcohol but also mainly emotion that’s been aroused by what you’ve seen.

When I’m trying to discover why something doesn’t work in a film, I follow Paula Milne’s advice:

“Take a bad film and a good film – in your own estimation, not anyone else’s – and apply this to both. Watch the first 10 to 15 minutes, then switch if off and think: What do I know? What have I been told? What’s the agenda of the film,? What’s at stake?  Who are the characters? Do I care? And do that every 15 minutes or half an hour until the end of the film …”

You’re going to watch films you’ve already seen so you have to stay focused but you’ll enjoy the good ones even more and understand why they work and the bad ones don’t.

The rest of Paula Milne’s advice is at http://www.ideastap.com/IdeasMag/the-knowledge/paula-milne-screenwriter

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Filed under Film writing

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