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The art of questioning your plot, and finding friends to help you

There is a very fine balance between questioning yourself too much, and not enough.

At the start of January, I vowed to 'just write' and keep on writing because I felt that, in the past, I had spent too much time going back over things and editing them rather than concentrating on progressing the story. As a result of this, I started the week with 10,000 words and a firm idea of exactly where my plot was taking me. A couple of questions were niggling away but I pushed them to the back of my mind, intent on powering through and addressing them later.

However (!) a few days ago, I decided to take the plunge and share my work with an outsider. Being a sensitive and self-deprecating soul, I was seeking reassurance, so I emailed my sister – confident that she would be honest and tell me if I was on the path to producing a pile of absolute tat.

Trusting someone with the product of your imagination is a scary thing to do, especially in the early stages when you know you still have a long way to go. It opens you up to criticism and, let's be honest, you run the risk of feeling completely deflated if the feedback you get isn't in line with your own inner-critic. But, if you choose the right person, it can be one of the most helpful, challenging, and affirming experiences you will have on your writing journey.

As I said, at the start of the week, I already had some questions and concerns. My main worries were:

  • Pace: am I moving too quickly?

  • Suspension of disbelief: is my 'big reveal' moment horrendously cheesy?

  • Quality: can I actually write?!

My sister's responses were very detailed but, in summary:

  • Pace: 'Yes, it feels a little hurried. I wanted more of each section.'

  • Suspension of disbelief: 'A little, but probably because it moved quickly, perhaps too keen to get to the action?'

  • Can I actually write? - this one is a direct quote) – "Yes you bloomin' well can, so stop worrying about that. It's going to be brilliant."

She also asked me a couple of questions that I can't share with you because they would lead to spoilers, but which made me realise that, although I knew the answers, I hadn't shared the knowledge in my brain with the reader.

I have to admit, before she emailed me back, I was terrified that I was going to react badly to criticism and become despondent. But actually, I felt the exact opposite. Most of her questions echoed my own, and spurred me on to find answers, rather than motor on regardless. And the questions that I hadn't thought of have already made my story better, because they challenged me to do more than just 'make do' and go 'yeah that's okay' – they made me really push my brain into working for its living!

So, some advice if you have decided to ask a friend, or family member, to read your work:

Firstly, try to choose someone who will be honest with you, and who will phrase their criticism appropriately.

I mean, it would be fantastic if you showed your first draft to someone and they said, “My god, that's the most amazing thing I've ever read, it's perfect.” But it wouldn't be very helpful. Nothing is perfect, let alone a first draft. What you want is someone who will sensitively, and honestly, appraise your work and highlight areas you need to work on.

Secondly, it helps if 'the chosen one' knows a bit about the genre you are writing in.

If the friend who reads your work is familiar with your chosen genre, they will be better able to tell you what you're doing right, and which areas need to be improved. For example, my sister reads a lot of YA and did a Masters in children's literature, so she can read my book from a critical perspective and as a casual reader, which is super helpful.

Thirdly, if you don't have a friend or family member who fits the bill, learn to question yourself.

As you're writing, jot down questions that pop into your head. Keep a notepad with you when you're out and about so you can write things down and refer to them later. And, although this might be really tough, take some time out at a convenient point to distance yourself for a few days. Then, return with fresh eyes – you'll be amazed what pops up when you take time off from yourself!

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