In this video I provide a brief overview of the three redrafting prompts on this page. I go into a little more detail here in writing about the principles underpinning them, but you can read my introductory texts for each prompt instead if you like.
Writing takes time, particularly if you’re not used to it and your weekly routine doesn’t make room for it. Writing can also be a tiring activity, and takes energy away from other things – family commitments, work and relaxation time. It’s also easy to feel all the other writing we do in our days, from emailing to shopping lists to all the myriad writing for our jobs, subtracts from our energy to write for ourselves.
Yet once you start drafting a story, it begins to take on a shape and length of its own. Stories ‘commission us,’ to borrow a phrase from Arundhati Roy, demanding to be told. And, while some stories wrap up in a few hundred words, others stretch out into the horizon. For the longer stories, little and often is a good principle to get you to the end of a first, full draft. It also helps to take the pressure off and remind yourself the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; you can fix it later.
These three resources start from a principle that you’ve something demanding to be told, and which you want to get to the end of and, perhaps, polish it up a little before you share it with others. The prompts also start from varying degrees of a completed first draft.
You could apply the first one to a incomplete draft, maybe one that’s halfway finished and doesn’t have both a beginning and an ending. The second prompt works better with a completed draft, albeit one that’s very choppy. It will help to establish a measure for your draft’s quality, a principle for improving the storytelling to more effectively meet what needs to be told.
The third prompt is for when you are ready to share your work with someone else. This might require you to apply one or both of the earlier prompts first, to ensure you’ve worked out the obvious issues with your story – the things you can see yourself. Yet it depends on who your reader is and how forgiving they are of the surface issues early drafts have, and their ability to focus on the story’s shape and emotional impact.
In all, the intention here is to encourage you think about how you might better express your story. ‘Better’ is such a relative term and there’s no requirement to redraft anything for the Illuminations project – please go ahead and share what you have if you don’t want to rework your story.
Consider that you’re trying to establish a measure that works for you and your story, and doesn’t have to please anyone else’s idea of writing. There are no external metrics for performance, no pressures riding on your ability to write to an ideal. Be kind to yourself and, if these resources begin to trigger anxiety, feel free to step back.
Most readers are pretty decent, especially given we’re in the context of wellbeing. So, please be kind to yourself and treat these prompts as suggestions that may or may not work for you. They may give you another angle by which to approach your own experiences, but then again, perhaps not.
Prompt 1: Beginnings and endings
Stories typically have a beginning, a middle and an end. This can emerge purely from the arrangement of words on the page, and how people conventionally read books (in English), from top left first page to bottom right last page. This first prompt focuses on the beginning and the end, taking its premise from a principle relating to first and last sentences.
This is by no means true of all stories, but holds for some well-crafted, conventional short stories as well as novels, though novels often have more room to disperse their story’s focus across longer passages at the start and end. I’ve checked this principle with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example:
First sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Last sentence: “Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.”
The story begins with a general social principle about a rich single man needing a wife, and ends with a specific marriage between two good and grateful people. It’s easy to believe Darcy has a good fortune, but perhaps the nature of ‘good’ has shifted. And, without knowing the story, it’s easy to imagine the ups and downs the two have experienced along the way to their happy marriage. So you can see how there are clues to the story’s whole in those two sentences – an inevitability of sorts.
Test this with a book you have read, or one you don’t mind knowing the ending of. Compare the first and last sentences. How do they relate? Can you see a theme established? Does it feature in the final line? Does the initial premise or theme resolve itself?
Now turn to your story in progress, whether it is nearly finished or finished. Compare your first and last sentences, if you have them, or think about your first sentence, or your ending, based on what you do have. Can you imagine from the sentence you have what makes sense for the other? Can you write yourself an opening or closing line that supports the story’s shape?
See if you can also use this sense of beginning and ending to think about what happens in the middle. Have you started and ended your story with important indicators of the main theme(s)? Can you cut out redundant sections or add material to better support the story’s emotional centre?
Prompt 2: Narrative Arcs
This second resource is from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. She has a video on her website that explains her perspective on morning pages also, which I recommend you watch. This is one of two tools she has developed for supporting creative expression.
In the video I cover some salient points about morning pages. First, I explain what they are: three A4/5 pages, written by hand in the morning, letting out your negative feelings and expression.
It’s important to do them in the morning, so that you can let go of that negativity for the rest of the day. The act of writing on paper serves as a kind of meditation, ritualising the practice.
Cameron writes about needing to overcome our internal critical voice, or Censor, as she calls it. This is the voice that tells us things are bad, or won’t be good enough, or that something isn’t worth doing, or that you’ll fail because you’re not good enough at the task. By getting all those statements out on paper in this ritual practice, you can symbolically let go of the negativity.
Doing this early morning, before you’ve fully woken up, chimes with something a few writers have told me about. Your internal critic is part of your rational brain, so it can help to write first drafts at at time of day when you’re not quite awake – early or late, when you’re still tired. It’s a way of getting ahead of your logical, critical thinking before you’re really awake.
It’s also important to focus on quantity over quality: 3 pages are symbolic enough to be substantial and to provide you with some satisfaction of having done something, no matter how bad. And you can give yourself permission to write without worrying about your spelling or grammar, how mature your writing is, or how interesting.
You can write any rubbish you like – she even says, if you can’t think of anything to write, just write that phrase over and over: ‘I can’t think of anything to write’. Think of it as a mobile meditation, where you are moving your hand across the page for a period of time.
The outcome from morning pages is to allow your ideas and expression to become more fluid, later in the day, when you are working on things where you need to express yourself. You don’t need to keep the output from this, as you’re only writing things you want to let go of.
Some people destroy their morning pages after writing them, as part of their ritual. If you do find an interesting idea emerging in your morning pages occasionally, feel free to transfer that idea to another notebook, so you can develop it further, recognising the different functions and modes for your journaling and writing.
Prompt 2: Narrative arcs
It’s easy to start writing one thing, but find another, more important story takes over and you end somewhere else. This prompt will help you to refocus your story more sharply and make sure the parts are aligned, by extending the focus on a story’s beginning and ending to look at what happens in the middle, across the ‘arc’ or progression, of a narrative.
The main source for this prompt is a principle I learned from writing for theatre, which suggests every scene, as well as a whole play, follows the same three-part structure:
3. Altered situation.
The story’s beginning establishes a situation, or context. Where are we? What’s happening? What’s wrong or right about what’s happening? Likely, you’ve also introduced a protagonist, or some characters, and how they are invested in the situation.
Then something happens to change that situation. Things could get worse, or better. Someone might intervene. Or not. It may be something new arrives into the status quo, or something leaves, creating an absence that everyone who stays behind has to respond to. Or it may be that many things happen all at once, rather than a single event.
The event(s) leads to an altered situation, although that doesn’t have to be a dramatic difference. As Toby Litt once put it, the change might be that someone tried and failed to change the situation, so the outcome is a feeling of lost hope around the same situation as before.
Change can be imagined, just as stories can be imagined. Were there things you wish had been different during lockdown? Having imagined those differences, did they come about or not? What feeling did that leave you with?
Consider, also, what happens in the middle. How clearly do the events change the ‘situation’? Where is the drama, the emotional impact that drives the story? Have you clearly captured your characters’ reactions and feelings in response to what happens?storing these in a notebook you can hold onto for much later. And, once you’ve developed a feel for it, you can apply this technique to urban or indoor spaces and compare the results, both for your wellbeing and your writing.
Prompt 3: Asking for feedback
This last prompt is really an invitation to begin sharing your writing with others. The best way to develop your writing is to see how readers respond to what you’ve written. Do they ‘get’ what you intended? Do they see things you’d missed? Do the words you’ve used support the feeling you were trying to create?
Sharing your work can be daunting, especially when what you’ve written is very personal to you. So, it’s important to lay down some principles before you commit to sending your work out.
First: your ‘readers’ here are ‘pre-publication’ readers. These aren’t readers who expect a finished, polished story. They should be people who understand that you want their support to get your story into a better state, and the words aren’t fixed on the page yet.
Second: choose your readers carefully. Virginia Woolf once said that it is important to choose readers who will encourage you to get the best out of your writing. That’s quite vague, but perhaps you know someone who is constructive and perhaps has also had a go at writing themselves, and so understands where you’re coming from.
Don’t, however, expect to find the perfect reader in a single person. Some readers have an excellent eye for detail, and will help you with the accuracy of your writing at a surface level. Others might have an ear for the rhythm of words, and will help you to make your dialogue or descriptions more authentic, or succinct, or atmospheric. Some readers understand deeper structures in story, and will help you to shape the beginning, middle and end. I try to find a few readers for my work in progress, to help me balance out perspectives at different levels.
Third, and most important: guide your reader to respond to your feedback needs. The best way to do this is with a cover letter, or email, guiding them to read more effectively for your needs. So, when you ask for feedback, make sure you contextualise the request:
• Point out parts where you’ve maybe struggled to get your meaning clear. • Check whether parts are conveying the meaning you intended. • Ask them whether they found anything jarring, or hard to make sense of. • And perhaps add a line about feedback on any other parts that stood out.
And so on. Ask them, also, if they have suggestions for improving any issues they’ve spotted, or that you’ve spotted, but don’t know how to fix.
It’s about focusing your reader to attend to your needs. Otherwise, you may find less useful feedback coming in, or comments that will throw you off track.
Once the feedback comes in, you’ll find suggestions, contradictions, things you hadn’t thought about – all sorts! Don’t be disheartened, as this is still your story. It’s always good to thank your reader, no matter how helpful or unhelpful their feedback is, but it’s down to you to decide what to do with their feedback.
It may help to talk to your reader and clarify any issues you’re unsure about. This will allow you to ask questions, develop possible solutions to issues raised, and also to check where your reader is coming from and how important different points they’ve raised are to them, as well as to you.
So, to summarise this prompt: 1. Find one or more readers (with different approaches to reading) who are willing to give you feedback. 2. Send them your story, with an email or cover letter, to steer them to the parts of your story you want help with. 3. If possible, arrange a conversation with your reader to go over their feedback and clarify what they meant.