Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Tag: writing: editing

Writing Ambitious Stories and my YA Novel

An excellent blog article that resonated with me is Writers and Ambition, by David B. Coe over at the sadly now defunct Magical Worlds. David writes succinctly about writing ambitious stories, and recently I’ve had to consider this issue myself.

“Creative ambition is what drives us to do things with our story that we’re not sure we’re capable of doing: deeply complex characters, complicated plot twists, non-linear narratives, exotic settings that require that extra round of research or brainstorming. In other words, it forces us to stretch as artists, to challenge ourselves, to risk failure by reaching for greatness.”

I’m reworking a near-future sci-fi YA novel that I originally drafted three years ago. I checked back through my folders and found that I wrote the short story the novel is based on in 2012. Six years ago! I had a small freakout, just for a moment. I’m back in the room now.

The reason I put the novel aside once the first draft was complete was because it didn’t feel quite there. The characters were (and still are) interesting and have motivation, but the plot had holes. Great gaping maws that I could not figure out how to fill. For a while I wondered if the story just wasn’t meant to be. Often, writing involves hard choices, and sometimes it involves walking away from a story permanently if it won’t come together. But that wasn’t it. I never wanted to fully give up on this novel. The idea is strong, and I’m confident that a lot of my themes (social media over-saturation, celebrity culture, technology) would interest a young adult and adult audience. Author Theodora Goss said something years ago that stuck with me:

I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.

Honestly? I don’t think the story was ready to be written. Or I wasn’t ready to write it three years ago. Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed the novel with non-writer friends and colleagues, describing it as on hiatus, and in the process of thinking about it again I’ve changed some key elements of the main plot thread, which leads me to believing it’s time to give it another bash.

The changes I plan to make are more complex and ambitious than the original. All I had to do was give the book some breathing room and give myself enough distance so that I could look at it objectively. That, and discuss it with people I might not have normally discussed it with (non-writers), which helps to approach it from a new angle.

I have no idea if this will work smoothly the second time around. I do believe it will work better than the first time.

Writers don’t have to pull silly tricks to push their creative boats out. You must still write the story you want to write, something you can put your energy behind in good faith. But you can switch things up in small ways. You can weave in a sub-genre you haven’t tried before. You can change one of the bigger elements of the main plot. Or you can write a character who inhibits traits you have yet to explore. If you keep nudging into new territory with every story you write, you will find your plots more ambitious and interesting, and yourself a stronger writer.

The (Vast) Difference Between A Critique and An Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help an author see where a story might still need work when they edit.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1. How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2. Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén