Archive for April 28th, 2009

Read and report for effect, not rule compliance

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on April 28th, 2009

At a recent writer’s conference I was on a panel and someone asked what the pros and cons of writing groups were.  Writing groups can save AND kill your writing. So beware.

Workshop Benefits

Writing groups are great for:

  • Encouragement
  • Deadline motivation
  • Having fun with other authors
  • Getting a chance to think about and discuss craft
  • Testing your work

The benefits listed above can all be huge helps to a writer. However, there are two traps that many individuals fall into. You want to avoid both of these because they are plagues that can not only infect, but kill your writing.

Workshop Plague 1: submitting for fixes instead of effect

The first problem occurs when a writer forgets that the purpose of sharing your work with the group is NOT to have them tell you what to do. It’s to test your product on readers who are likely to be in the audience for that particular type of story (please note the last part of that sentence as well).

But in many groups this isn’t what happens. The writer submits his work and then hopes it does well. If it does, he purrs and goes his way rejoicing. If it doesn’t, he figures the group will tell him what to do to fix it. In such groups the readers often arrive with a list of “you shoulds” or “I woulds.”

  • The dialogue here is clunky, you should…
  • These characters are stereotypes, I would…
  • You have infodumps here, here, and here: you should…

This all sounds great, right?

Wrong.

This tells a writer very little that’s worthwhile. What was the problem all these shoulds and woulds are trying to fix? You can’t tell. And not knowing the problem, you don’t know if the fix is really going to work. In fact, the suggested fix might be completely wrong for the story. You are the story designer. YOU have to figure out what’s really wrong and then select the right fix.

Case in point: at this conference another author told of a time her editors came back and said the novel needed to be shorter. It was too slow. In reality, the novel was too short. The real fix was to make it longer. She was skimming the surface of the story in summary and needed to go deeper. She made it longer, and the story worked. But if she had been looking for fixes instead of symptoms she would have done the exact wrong thing for her story.

The most productive thing a writer can hear is what effect the text was having on the reader. Was the reader bored, lost, or feeling it was made up? Or was the reader surprised, intrigued, fascinated, freaked out? In short, did it do what the story was supposed to do to the reader?  An accurate report of the reader experience is invaluable. But a list of shoulds and woulds by the Fixits is not. You want symptoms, not diagnoses and presecriptions.

Of course, when you understand the symptoms, you can very easily open it up to the group for suggestions on ways to fix it. Sometimes brilliant solutions arise from such discussions. Sometimes they don’t. Othertimes, they simply provide a way for the writer to work it out in his own mind. But in the end, YOU as writer have to do what’s right for the story you feel in your gut.

One time to be especially careful of this is when you submit revisions of a story to the same group. Here’s why: when someone says a revision lacks blood and vitamins, it may be this is actually the case. But it also might simply be a case of diminishing returns, e.g. the first ice cream cone you eat is great, the second okay, the fourth begins to make you sick. Would the movie you just saw on Friday night be just as powerful if you saw it again on Saturday? And then again on Monday? I know it’s not exactly what’s happening, but it’s similar. After reading a manuscript multiple times, a reader sometimes can see nothing but the stitching.

Furthermore, a reader will often get revision ideas that jazz them about the story only to find the author was jazzed about some other revision idea. And that can often disappoint. And if this multiple revision reading goes through multiple cycles, I’ve found it becomes harder and harder for the reader to avoid becoming a director of sorts, the author trying to perform to their taste. I done this far too often to people feeding me multiple revisions. 

There’s an easy way around this one: simply avoid submitting any individual story to the same set of readers more than once.  However, I don’t want to suggest you should NEVER submit revisions to the same set of readers. Orson Card submits all his work, originals and revisions, to his wife Kristine. I submit mine to my wife and editors. Many writers have trusted readers. Just be aware that submitting multiple revisions can very easily lead to our chasing someone else’s opinion instead of writing the story we feel in our guts.  Tread with caution.

Workshop Plague 2: reading for rule compliance instead of effect

 The second problem occurs when you have readers who have forgotten that the ONLY thing that matters is effect. Many times writers will build a list of writing rules as they learn the craft. And they will forget that the rules are, by themselves, meaningless. Please see my post on Rules vs. Objectives. These well-meaning folks come, not with an accurate report of their reading experience, but with a list of your rule violations.

So instead of hearing that the story immediately pulled the reader in but that by page four the reader’s mind was wandering, the reader points out that you started the story with dialogue and you shouldn’t do that. Or that you used said-bookisms, which was a very flabby and naughty thing to do. Or that you had more than one point-of-view in the chapter. Or that you chapters were too short or too long. Or whatever it is that that particular reader has in their rule book.

This kind of feedback is worthless. I don’t care if my story started with dialogue. What I want to know is if it pulled the reader in. And when I say “reader” I mean  one who is looking for a story, not for rule infractions. What you want is an accurate report of the reading experience. That’s it. Both the good and the bad.

Here’s an example of what I try to do when I read and report. It’s not the only way, but it illustrates what I’m talking about.

  1. I read the story as a normal reader. No pencil or pen in hand. I’m just thinking: okay, I hope this is good.
  2. I read until I’m bored, lost, or (hopefully) turn the last page in delight. Some folks may wonder why I wouldn’t read to the end of everything I’d agreed to report on. Simple. If I’m bored or lost I’m OUT of the story and cannot judge the effect of what follows as a reader. Maybe I’m bored because of the craft. Maybe I’m bored because I’m not in the audience for that kind of story. If this is the case, my experience doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t give a romance to a thriller reader and then expect them to love it, would you? Well, authors are no different. Just because we write doesn’t mean we automatically love everything (please see my blog Is 90% of Everything Crap). 
  3. I write up my experience, making sure I accurately report who and what I was interested in, what delighted me, what bored me, where I was lost, or didn’t believe etc. I’m also very particular to clearly separate  the things that had a big effect on my experience versus those that had a small one. For example, some confusion in an exchange of dialogue might be a small thing. Confusion in a whole chapter is a big thing. As a writer I don’t want a laundry list. I want to get a sense of proportion. And I want to know if the reader generally enjoyed the story or not. It’s one thing to know the story is busted. It’s another to know that it works, but has a few paint spots.  
  4. If I did not read through to the end, I do so now. Or maybe I skim. Just to get an idea of the whole story.
  5. Then I ask myself what I think this story was trying to do. What kind of an experience, what kind of delights was it offering up to the reader? Suspense, delightful characters, romance, wonder, cool textual pyrotechnics, etc.
  6. Having an idea of what the story was trying to do, I see if I can’t diagnose the problems and think of some ways to fix them.
  7. Finally, I give my report to the writer. I include #3. Then I add #5 and #6, stating that here’s “what I think the root of my issues were and some ideas that might help.”

You might do it differently. Just make sure you focus on accurately reporting your experience reading for effect, not rule compliance. Once you have a number of reports you can see what’s working and what isn’t. If one out of ten people has an issue with a certain part, I may or may not ignore it, depending on my own judgment. However, if four to seven of them have an issue, I’m probably going to fix it.

So writing groups can be wonderful. Just be careful to avoid these two plauges as if they were, well, plagues.

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