I was recently on a boat to Antarctica. An opportunity arose to go with family, and I had just finished reading Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. It’s the epic survival story of the explorer Sir Earnest Shackleton and his men who were marooned in Antarctica in 1915. The book piqued my interest so the timing was perfect. However, it wasn’t the best time for my own writing. A deadline loomed in the Book Revision Lab on the other side of the trip. With long days at sea in between icebergs and whale sightings, the novel I was revising was very much on my mind.
We were without cell service or Wi-Fi for considerable periods of time, and while this absence of distraction is normally great for my writing, I’d overlooked one critical detail in preparing for the trip. My entire manuscript was in the cloud, and not the fluffy cotton-candy clouds creeping past the sea-sprayed windows outside. Sitting in my cabin and staring at a blank page I needed to figure out a way to conjure my characters and their circumstances from the ether.
While I don’t usually write to music, I hear a lot of other writers talking about their playlists, so I started poking around on my laptop, thinking I might find some downloaded music to help me get focused. Instead, I came across an audio recording from a few months before. It was a Zoom discussion between the first readers of my manuscript while I was in the Novel Incubator. I recorded the session, but I hadn’t listened to it since that night, so I hit play.
Their voices materialized into the twin speakers of my headphones and I started taking notes on exactly what they were saying. The ship was rocking so horribly and the manuscript felt so far away, but hearing my characters discussed as real people, with real complexities and real problems, made them all the more real to me. I was soon pausing the recording at ever-increasing intervals to scribble a new scene or scrawl out a potential plot point.
The discussion was based almost entirely on what they liked (as this was a core tenet of the discussion group) so I was adding specifically to what was working, instead of what I needed to fix. It became a surprisingly generative process, writing toward the things they were drawn to, as well as a great way to rev up the engine and immediately re-enter the world of my characters. At one point my partner came careening into the room, and I shouted: “I think I have a new plot!”
I’d always considered feedback strictly in the context of making edits, but this was about continuing to write, hearing the story come alive, and using feedback to create new material. A clever trick when you’re out to sea with only the clouds for company.