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Getting Critical Distance when writing

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.

Photo by Justus Menke on Unsplash.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: Needful Things

Needful Things by Stephen King.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Needful Things is the story of a new shop that opens in a small town in Maine, and the subsequent events that unfold around the customers and the residents of the town as the proprietor of the shop begins to do business.

The setting is Castle Rock, a place many King fans will recognise, and feel at home in. Some of the characters from King’s earlier works make a reappearance, including Ace Merrill (from The Body, a.k.a. Stand by Me), who is one of the main antagonists.

I haven’t read a Stephen King novel for a few years and had forgotten how much I enjoy his work. While I don’t care so much for monsters and spooks, I am a big fan of King’s prose. The way he imbues his characters with amazing depth, giving them wonderful quirks that bring them to life. The short but simple descriptive passages. The suspense.

It’s hard to say what I didn’t like about the book, because it’s down to my own personal taste; as an older man, I admit I now find it more tricky to suspend my disbelief in the supernatural. However, I recognise this, and therefore haven’t let my personal feelings cloud my judgement in this review.

What I loved was the characterisation, especially the main protagonist, Alan Pangborn. The way King shapes him through the course of this novel is truly masterful. I’ll remember that character and his shadow puppets for a long time, if not the rest of my life.

View all my reviews.

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What Type of Fiction I Write

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

Before I thought about writing, I was an avid reader. From a young age I devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction. Like many people of my generation, my childhood was spent reading stories by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and C.S. Lewis. However, unlike many others, I also liked to read Greek mythology. In our house we had an old set of encyclopaedias which contained adaptations of Homer’s Odyssey. I read them word-for-word, fascinated with the tales of adventure.

As I grew up my tastes changed, and in my teenage years I gravitated towards horror and the supernatural, which was fashionable at the time. I used to borrow these books from my local library, much to the concern of one of the librarians, who wasn’t keen on my taste for this genre at such a tender age. I read lots of books that had accompanying films: Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist. My favourite author of the time was probably Stephen King.

The Horror Years

I started writing in earnest in 1994. I had plenty of free time, and after a run of Stephen King novels (including his epic, The Stand), I felt inspired to try writing myself, just to see if I could do it, and what it felt like to write for pleasure. To my surprise, the words came easily, although whether or not they were any good is another matter.

The first novel I wrote was Augustus O’Kane, a story about a haunted computer. It was around 41,000 words in length, landing in that grey area between full-length novel and novella. I enjoyed the experience of writing and felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I completed the project.

Cult was my second attempt at a novel, a tale about a religious cult that carried out human sacrifices in a forest. This was a full-length novel, and once again I found the process of writing easy and enjoyable. I wrote this in 1994, straight after I had finished Augustus O’Kane.

My third novel was Raise the Dead, a story about a trainee priest who discovers his old friend from school is trying to raise the dead from their graves. I wrote this in 1996, with much less time on my hands because I was newly married. The only way I could get through the first draft was by writing late at night or early in the morning when the house was quiet.

The Thriller

Around this time, I was broadening the scope of my taste in books, and had moved away from horror onto thrillers, reading novels by Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Michael Crichton and others. It seemed logical at the time that I should try my hand at writing one.

My fourth novel was Deadly Obsession, a tale about a rich man who would stop at nothing to collect archaeological treasures. I wrote this in 1997 and tried a different approach. Instead of just letting the story develop as I wrote, I plotted out each scene in advance, until I had the full plot. This resulted in me having to go back and complete the daunting task of filling out each scene in detail, a plodding and mechanical process that I didn’t enjoy.

Short Stories

I didn’t write for a long time, mainly because I was focused on setting up a consulting business, commuting up and down the country, trying to find new work, etc.

Eventually, the urge to write returned, and I began penning short stories. My wife also enjoys writing, and the two of us would come up with an idea for a story, which we then wrote over the course of a week. When they were finished, we would do a swap and read each other’s work.

Due to my busy lifestyle and also the advent of the Internet, I didn’t spend as much time reading novels, although I had started to read more classics by authors such as Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Evelyn Waugh, and Leo Tolstoy. (Anna Karenina nearly killed me, but I finished it.)

The stories I wrote during this time seemed more authentic than anything I’d written before, probably because I wasn’t inspired by a particular author or genre. They are contemporary, full of nostalgia with a strong sense of place.

Fifth Novel

I am currently writing my fifth novel, provisionally titled A Different Path. It’s the story of a man in his twenties, single, lacking in confidence and stuck in a rut, who finds his life changes when he meets a well-dressed stranger.

Once again, it’s contemporary, with elements of nostalgia, love, and that same strong sense of place that I enjoy getting across in my writing. I’m reading more novels now, but I haven’t allowed myself to be influenced by other writers or genres.

What works for me

Over the years I have been writing, I have found I produce my best work when I try to be myself and just let the words happen instead of trying to emulate other authors or write for specific genres because they seem to be going through a boom.

Some authors have found great success in following the market and anticipating its trends, and there’s nothing wrong with that approach if it makes the individual writer happy.