Coping with feedback

In the last blog I wrote about “MacGuffins”, which are a device used in stories and films to drive the plot. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a MacGuffin: the characters chase after it and only really get their hands on it near the end of the film. The blog also covered issues of failure. planetfall had a series of MacGuffins, some of which initially failed, causing me to develop the storyline further – only for one of the original MacGuffins to go underground in the story (literally) and surface as a sub-plot.

I want to carry on with the failure theme in this blog. Failure is a very important factor in success. The fact that planetfall was started, written and (almost) finished is a testimony not just to my perseverance, but to the many, many failures I encountered and made and caused along the way. The point of course is: use failure, learn from it, and keep going.

The failures I’ve talked about so far are failures that I’ve spotted and come to accept myself. Failed storylines, failed characters, failed MacGuffins, failed structures and failed sub-plots. Now I’m going through a separate set of failures: those spotted and communicated to me by those friends who are proof-reading book 1.

For politeness’ sake we call this constructive criticism and feedback. But in reality, it’s another failure.

So far feedback on planetfall book 1 is good and positive – people like it, they enjoy the story and reading it, they like the characters, they want to read more. All very pleasing. And it’s very important to know, as a writer, what I’m doing well and right – then I can do more of it, gain some confidence that those things I did, those things I wrote, those risks I took have paid off, were worthwhile.

Yet it is the bits that don’t work, the parts where people feedback the “Ooh, um, see this bit?” where we learn more. And ultimately it is addressing those failures that will strengthen the story.

The most consistent failure to date has been that of character development. There are six principal characters in planetfall book 1: Daoud, Sophie, Verigua, Kate, Win & Djembe (plus four minor characters, Masjid, Peter, Huriko and Kiran).  Daoud is mysterious, his intentions cloaked, and his character is developed enough to create, I hope, this air of mystery. There is little background or insight to his thoughts or feelings precisely because he needs to remain mysterious (though if I ever get there, the final book and the prequel stories will reveal more of his character). Verigua, as previously mentioned, was a fun character to write, and invented itself as I wrote, based on the Cheshire Cat and Haruki Murakami’s black cats, plus a bit of Iain M. Banks’s Minds.

Which leaves me with three characters where feedback consistently asks for more.

The character Sophie Argus is also mysterious. She is Daoud’s right hand, the implementer of his whim. The text contains hints to a long history and background with Daoud, yet this is never explored. Events later in the story (no spoilers) also hint that there is more there for the reader to access. In short, feedback says: tell me more about her. The answer is simple: no. Sophie has a much longer story arc than book 1, although this is not immediately apparent from the text. I have 3 books scoped for her, with another 3 for scoping at some point: if I get my way, I would like to franchise the writing of planetfall books, and have other people write the back story. For planetfall could reasonably be called The Tale of Sophie Argus. It is all about her, from beginning to end. planetfall book 1 is a key moment in her life, although her presence in the book is somewhat shrouded. Readers (when they eventually appear) will have to wait for her story to be revealed – and it will set book 1 in context for them.

Which leaves us with Djembe & Kate. I accept the feedback from everyone – there is not enough about them in the story. Their basic motivations are apparent – Djembe is a follower of rules and protocol, and with his name being borrowed from a drum, provides the beat and rhythm for the story. Readers will eventually find he has a project management role in the story, keeping people to time. His name is no accident. However, criticism so far shows that his rigid personality works, but that it fades or is watered down near the end of the story. I was minded to ignore this feedback, as Djembe also has a longer story arc than book 1, and in fact his personality is not watered down in the slightest. However, as I got more feedback I came to realise that within the confines of book 1 Djembe does indeed more development. There are questions left unanswered about his actions later in the book, where he appears to lose his way. This in part is my fault – I’ve written before about not particularly liking the character, and there was a point where, having given in to the character and allowing it to write itself, I grew tired of him and allowed him to drift into the background. There was a deliberate thought process to this – it’s linked to his re-appearance later in the series – but what I’ve realised is that this needs explaining; or, at least, contextualising, so that the reader accepts a fade out toward the end of book 1. This forms part of my current re-writes on book 1.

And finally we have Kate, ostensibly the main character of book 1. She also has a longer story arc than book 1, and I think I managed to give her a complete and enclosed story line in book 1 (i.e. it appears to make sense and have a beginning, middle and end). However, overwhelmingly everyone asks for more on her thoughts and feelings. She is the principle source of tension in the book. Her hopes and dreams, her values are put to the test, and there is simply not enough about her inner struggle to justify her character, no matter how complete her overall story line.

I find this failure to present completely rounded characters humbling and instructive. I don’t want to excuse myself with a “it’s my first book” line. Managing six principal characters and four minor characters is no mean feat. But it doesn’t excuse not presenting well developed major characters. I am already using the experience to flesh out more the characters in planetfall book 2.But for the moment I am trying to go through a finished novel and weave in extra characterisation which makes sense, is consistent with the rest of the story, supports and develops it for the reader, and meets the need to address the failures of the draft version.

I hope, of course, it will lead to a better, more rounded, more complete first book, that can stand up on its own and escape, as much as possible, a “first book” feeling.

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