Initial Criticisms: Three Questions of Flow

Here we are then – 2018: Part 2. The post-Solstice blues and sure, Summer was a nice break. I let myself relax just long enough to stop worrying about the book, but by exhaling in relief I’m now out of breath. The next step, the event that should have snowballed into my life on the heels of the pre-Summer momentum, has simply petered out. Entropy has taken hold and the ball has stopped rolling…..

Oh dear. Instead of results there’s a stasis, and I hold my hand up and say yes, I know, what did I expect? The reality is, as many successful writers will no doubt tell you, that even if you’ve finished your book you’re still only half way there. You can’t just wait for the universe to drop success in your lap without putting in the hard work.

Acknowledged, but…… how does one get that momentum rolling again. It’s not even writers block, more that I’m just not writing what I want to write. Instead I’ve tried to focus on typing up interviews for a biography that I’ve been commissioned to write. Whilst it’ll be nice to get paid (i.e. yeah, I’m not much of a materialist but….), it’s not really what I want to be doing, nor is it particularly satisfying (even if I have discerned the narrative structure linking my client’s disparate sub texts – yes, there IS a pattern hoorah!).

So with my first (near) fully fledged novel languishing in a state of semi-preparedness, and the beta readers are at the task, I’ve been given to thinking about how to break the stalemate.

And the best way to do that is to throw away all the serious considerations and get down to doing what I actually enjoy…..

GET THE BALL ROLLING: OF SEQUELS AND BLOGS

Yesterday I set about writing for the fun of it and sketched out the initial elements of the next book in the series, lovingly entitled “Local Talent” (strictly WIP!).

And it worked. The creeping stasis was dissipated and I got a sense of enjoying the act of plotting and envisioning the way that the characters are going to interact, in working out what the pay off for the narrative will be and how it ties up to the next book. The key experience was to enjoy progressing instead of waiting around, and although I wont be committing to the full writing until my son starts school, I think there’s room enough to start sketching. It’ll give me something to do until I can get the final edits done for Red Star Rising.

What it allowed me was the feeling that I enjoyed working. For those who write, we know that working on our projects can be hard work, but it’s enjoyable in its outcome. Instead I was working hard on transcriptions, and it had taken me over a week just to do three quarters of a two hour interview. Not fun, and the kind of thing that you put off doing. Nor had I written for my blog, but now I was feeling the old magic coming back I felt more like sitting down and writing to the wider world about something.

Thus was the question begged, what shall I talk about today? In the past I’ve written with little notion of a specific demographic; should I focus on articles regarding fantasy or sci-fi? Should it be personal? My first posts were a way to explore procrastination, and then I wrote about the writing process. So why not turn our attention to exploring some of the thought processes that have come with the first round of feedback?

AND THE GOLD STAR GOES TO…..

A big thank you to Mike and Sasha (who got the gold star) for their initial feedback, and Chris who was very positive on the initial chapters. Also thanks to Dan who only had time to read the prologue but was enthusiastic about the style.  I’ll be drawing on these initial reports in the following, as well as one or two others who are in the middle of reading.

Firstly, the initial feedback has been very positive. I might be overstating here, but I think I can say that I’ve written something that people are taking seriously as a professional work. Secondly, there hasn’t been any real complaints about the narrative itself. Therefore, assuming that the narrative functions to deliver a story which is a). not riddled with holes and b). provisions the reader with a satisfactory experience, there are the considerations of how the narrative is delivered and whether or not this delivery flows. The the skill of the narrator lies in conjuring the world without dislodging the reader from their immersion in the flow of the story.

To break it down, we might frame these considerations as three questions:

#1 Exposition (or how much do you spoonfeed?)

The challenge of informing the reader without writing a wall of text is often tricky. Too little and the progress of the story is hindered by a lack of understanding. Here we have the issue that the characters take much of their immediate world for granted and so we must be sparing in the use of text to explain things. Too much and it bogs down the narrative with unnecessary details and can make the author look amateurish.

So, just the right amount…… easier said than done.

This task is arguably made harder in fantasy and sci-fi where there are often many more things that are regularly taken for granted: aliens, technology and magic. However, I would argue that one of the appeals from these genres is the explorations of new worlds, that they provide a sense of discovery as you uncover the layers of reality within them. This exploration is what heightens the sense of adventure. Therein lies the skill of giving the explorer just what they need at each stage of the narrative. Given that this will be a series, there will be plenty of time to explore the wider world, so for now I will have to follow my own advice and investigate this flow of information.

One final note: additional solutions to fleshing out the world might include a glossary of popular terms (perhaps rendered as a pamphlet for new city visitors), a map of the city and its environs, and the oft used trope of exerts from imaginary academic journals, historical documents and mythological quotes.

#2 Description (can you see it/them in your mind?)

The flip side of explanation is the more direct appeal to the reader’s senses via descriptive language. We use the senses to conjure up the feel of a scene or the representation of a character, and again, too much description slows the pace, but too little and it’s just a vague sketch. To keep the pace we must perform a balancing act once more.

What is important is that the reader can get a good sense of a place or character in their mind. One of the criticisms that I received was that I was overly sparse in some of my description, and here I think it’s important to distinguish whether it’s the environment or the characters.

Typically I like to focus on a characters key points with only a brief description because the reader should be able to see the character in their mind given that the palette of character types is usually a replay of similar tropes.

But where I suspect I have been ovelry sparse is with some of the descriptions of the environment, and this goes hand in hand with the explanations of those places. It is the city as character that has not been given due exploration and I’ll be paying special attention during the next round of edits to colouring in those outlines just a little more.

#3 Text (do you need a dictionary? (because my ego doesn’t))

As a writer it might be nice to use sophisticated words, but you’re asking for trouble if your readership isn’t….. ahem, as literate as you are. But seriously, unless you’re writing a philosophical essay, it’s just not needed because if there’s one thing that jars the flow it’s having to whip out the dictionary in mid sentence. You want your reader to be immersed, and those long words are just obstacles.

It’s a criticism that I’ve had from a few people, and every time someone has told me that they needed a dictionary there’s one word that instantly springs to mind: “Mordaciously” (adjective: 1. biting or given to biting, 2. sharp or caustic in style, tone, etc.) No doubt there are others but this one is the one I recall. 

Remember, it’s not necessarily what you’ve got (a giant vocabulary) but rather how you use it (did the reader understand?). If the reader didn’t understand then you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You’re writing can still be artistic, poetical and edgy, and in this it is likely better served by keeping it simple.

And don’t forget, the reader isn’t going to remember every little word, but rather the overall feel and experience of the narrative. It’s best to eliminate the lumps and keep the final product smooth.

THE FINAL PRODUCT (results may vary)

The end result of these initial criticisms has therefore been a nice little framework for looking at the overall form of the narrative, and as writers all over the world know, you will not succeed without constructive criticisms. By taking a step back, putting the manuscript out there and opening yourself up, you should be rewarded with the knowledge of just where you need to focus.

It shouldn’t be too much longer before the rest of the beta readers finish the manuscript, and with the framework outlined above, I have a structured means to interrogate them. No doubt that there will also be things that fall outside of these three categories, but I feel that these are probably the most pertinent to moving forward. So I hope that this might have been some help to those of you out there who are writing.

That about sums it up for now. There’s plenty more to be addressing but for now I’ll leave you with a little video from a series I’ve been enjoying. Please feel free to comment or make a suggestion. Until next time, stay cool.

DJC

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Author: David Cambridge

Writing modern pulp fantasy from the wild wood of Mogador.

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