Getting Critical Distance when writing

Photo by Justus Menke on Unsplash.

It’s very difficult for writers to get true critical distance from their work, especially when the work in question is a novel that has consumed almost every waking moment for months. Unfortunately, critical distance is exactly what’s needed in order to view a piece of writing objectively.

First draft

After completion of the first draft, one approach is to put that novel away in a drawer for a couple of weeks and forget about it. I did this after finishing my most recent novel, A Different Path, and it was an effective technique. The first draft took three months to write, so some of the earlier chapters were already unfamiliar to me, and this extra two week break gave me some much needed distance from the work as a whole.

Subsequent drafts

That first distanced read-through is a crucial one because it gets progressively harder to obtain any real critical distance after each pass. I’m currently trying to get a couple of weeks of distance after making changes for my second draft, but this will be the fourth time I’ve read the work through, and I’m worried I’ve now become so familiar with it, a two week break won’t be enough.

As I write this, the second draft has started calling out to me from inside the leather portfolio case it’s been trapped in for the last ten days. I’m now tempted to unzip it, caress the pages, let some light fall on them for a few minutes, maybe even read the first sentence…

Work on something else

A possible solution to the problem of diminishing distance might be to put every second draft away for six months and work on the first and second draft of a new idea instead. Six months is a good chunk of time, and that should be enough distance to bring back the objectivity.

Twenty six years of distance?

I recently re-read a novella I wrote twenty six years ago during the winter of 1993/94. The story was about a particularly dangerous type of computer virus, hence the image at the top of this post.

Reading it back after so long was a wonderful experience in many ways, but the critical distance I managed to get from the writing was unbeatable. I was able to come back to it purely as a reader, without remembering anything about the writing process, the plot, or the characters, apart from one or two names.

How I Write Fiction

Photo by Sneha on Unsplash.

Part one of a three part series on how, what, and why I write fiction.
(Jump to: Part Two | Part Three)

Before diving into the details of how I write, I thought it would be a good idea to share a bit about my writing background and what I have done to-date.

Writing ‘CV’

My first published story was called The Lion Tamer, hence the photo above. I wrote it when I was at primary school, aged ten or eleven, and it ended up being printed in one of the local newspapers. That was a proud moment for me. I wish I still had a copy.

The next piece of fiction I remember writing was the answer paper for my ‘O’ level exam in Modern World History. I was sixteen. I got a ‘U’ for my efforts, which I thought was unfair. It wasn’t historically accurate, but I do think it showed great imagination.

I then took a break of eight years, and read a lot. Nineteen-ninety-four must have been a good year for me creatively. I started writing again and penned a short novel/novella in the first half of that year, then went on to write a full-length novel in the second half.

Over the following four years I wrote two more full length novels, and lots of book reviews for computer industry magazines. Then I took a long break of about ten years where I concentrated on other things.

After that hiatus, I came back and went through a phase of writing short stories for a couple of years, and produced a few that I am still really pleased with. I will occasionally open them and think about that time in my life.

For the next six years, I wrote academically, and focused on completing an Open University degree course, which was something I had always wanted to do. I had no headspace for reading or writing fiction at all during this period.

Three years later, I am writing my fifth novel, and feel more productive and creative than ever. I won’t try to predict the future and prophesy what happens next. That would be foolish. Besides, one of my characters is already doing plenty of that.

My approach

There seem to be two camps of writers: those who research and plot everything out in minute detail before they begin writing, and those who have an idea summed up in one or two sentences which they then drop onto one or more characters.

I’ve tried both approaches over the years, but now sit in the latter camp. If I plot out the whole story, I have little motivation to write it because I know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. On the other hand, if I have an idea and throw a couple of characters together, I can watch them and the plot develop. I want to carry on writing because I want to know what happens next.

The mechanics

When I’m working through a first draft, I write every day unless there is an unshakeable excuse not to. I set myself a target of seven hundred words, which usually equates to one scene, and try to write it as well as possible.

After that first cut of a scene, I will read it back straight away and fine tune the prose, simplifying and rephrasing things that feel clumsy or unwieldy. Depending on how much writing time I have left in my day, I might do this again, and will usually end each day with a clean piece of writing.

The next day, I repeat the process, writing then polishing another scene. This daily practice continues until I reach the end of the story.

Feedback

At some point, I will ask trusted people to give me feedback. My wife is usually the first person to read what I’ve written. I might do this when I’ve finished the very first chapter, or the first three chapters, or the first part. While I wait for feedback I press on with the writing so I still make my daily number of words.

Depending on the feedback itself and who it’s from, I will then make a decision to either continue, or take a step back and make big changes before proceeding.

My experience in the technology business has conditioned me into getting a ‘Minimum Viable Product’ in front of the end-user as soon as possible. Seeking feedback early allows me to either validate I am going in the right direction, or correct my course before I waste a lot of time and effort.

Do what works

There is no right or wrong approach that can be applied to everyone, but I do believe there is a right approach for a given individual, at a given time.

I do what’s right for me, and as long as it seems to work, I’ll keep doing it.

Book Review: On Writing

More than just a memoir.

On Writing: A Memoir by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Writing is exactly what it says in the sub-title: a memoir. But it’s more than that. While the first third of the book recounts key events in King’s life that perhaps make him the writer he is, the second two thirds attempt to describe how he goes about the craft of writing.

This is the third time I’ve read this book, and I’ve given it five stars so it’s obvious I like pretty much all of it. The advice King offers is priceless, and I believe it will make most people who follow it much better writers.

The parts I didn’t like were those describing the grisly medical procedures he underwent as a child and as an adult following the road accident that almost killed him. The reason I didn’t like these was not because they were badly written or unnecessary, but because I vicariously experienced them.

A recommended book for anyone interested in Stephen King, or improving their writing.

View all my reviews.