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Most readers know what they like. What they don’t know is why they like it (or don’t). Which is the reason that asking for reader feedback can be so unsatisfying and unhelpful.
You: “So, what did you think?” Them: “Oh, it was great.” Or, “I dunno, it seemed off somehow.”
Keep in mind that by “readers” I mean normal people, by which I mean people who are not writers. I.e., your ultimate audience. It’s one thing to ask for and receive a critique from your writers’ group. These are almost always useful. But sooner or later your story needs to be consumed, and consumable, by a normal person. The trouble is, normal people don’t have the experience or vocabulary to tell you how and where you are going wrong (or right). If said normal people know you–and presumably love you–it’s even harder. They just want you to be happy!
But there’s a better way. I’m getting hugely useful help from my husband by reading him one chapter of my novel at a time and then asking him these questions:
What do you think is going to happen next?
What do you think the protagonist wants?
What are you worried about?
What pulled you out of the story?
What did you just not buy?
What annoyed you?
What confused you?
What did you want to know that I didn’t tell you?
What struck you as foreshadowing?
At first, it felt contrived and even a little silly to run through these same questions every single time. But it takes the pressure off him (it’s easier to respond to specific queries than to concoct original comments). And I am constantly surprised by his answers. What he picks up on and what goes right by him. What his priorities are and how they differ from mine. What he enjoys and what he could take or leave. Now I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
(Thanks to Lisa Cron, whose book “Wired for Story” includes a similar list of questions (page 227), which served as a jumping-off point for my own.)
I went to a class today entitled “The Healing Power of Mindfulness.” Mindfulness is something I thought I’d try because I am super-anxious these days. My issue is that the early draft of my novel is wonky. It suffers (among other things) a structural problem I can feel but not yet identify. I’m sure, when fixed, my book will sing. The participants in the class shared what they’d become mindful of after our first hour of meditation and their issues seemed worthy of anxiety: relationship to aging, problems with children, painful bodies, and large questions like what is joy, etc. When it came time for me to share, I backed out of telling the truth, which is my novel is making me miserable, and said something about granting myself permission to fail, which I figure is the next step in my creative journey. I did not mention that for nearly the whole hour I was afflicted with an ear worm, specifically Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”
I think of my novel all the time—in the shower, all day, when reading other books, when ordering pizza, or emptying the dishwasher, when talking to anyone. I imagine my neighbors calling out greetings to me, and my not responding (this happened this morning). The waitress yesterday asked me if I had “determined” what I wanted to order yet, and I thought, “that’s a funny way to put it. I wonder if I should have my character say that?” Being distracted, I settled on “I’ll have what they’re having,” which turned out to be fried and this made me more miserable because my anxiety has given me my first heartburn ever (should my character have heartburn?). Add to this: insomnia, a rash that makes my skin feel weirdly numb, and the feeling that I can’t expand my lungs beyond the 4th rib—you get the picture, a bad case of revision anxiety.
I recently read this on painter Robert Genn’s blog (painterskeys.com): “During the day, your brain normally moves among four brainwave patterns…Theta waves (4-7 Hertz) are an even more relaxed, sometimes meditative or sleepy state…the ‘sweet spot’ of interest to researchers into creativity, invention and mental imagery…The Theta range of firings may also be somewhat responsible for a sense of pattern, continuity and design that’s a condition in all the arts,” (he references Michael Hutchison, author of Mega Brain Power). It seems reasonable that learning to meditate can lead one to think more clearly, hence more creatively. I may find I can crack my brain’s safe and remediate my novel’s problems if I can just learn to turn down the anxiety static and move to Theta.
As for living in the moment, it might be the only way I’m able to slog through my rewrite. Far from being inspired when I lift the whole four-hundred pages of my rough draft and contemplate what it will take to round up all the scattered ends, my mind goes on tilt and I have to take a nap. If I take one problem at a time, proceed one sentence at a time, and remain mindful (I first have to figure out what this means), I might possibly make it through to completed draft. Think on that—or, rather, don’t think on that, just observe the thought as it drifts through your mind and let it go.
Or, to put it the opposite way, do “good” people make for “bad” writers?
Good people are good because they focus on and cultivate honesty, uprightness, compassion, cheerfulness, all those nice positive things. In real life, we want to be around those sorts of people. At least I do.
But have you ever noticed that “good” people who write fiction will create characters with those same qualities? And why wouldn’t they? After all, writing a novel means spending time, an awful lot of time, in the universe you’re creating. Of course your imaginary universe echoes your worldview.
Plus, even writers who are less “good” (you know who I mean–we cynical, negative types) fall in love with their characters and want others to love them, too.
But then you know what happens next. Readers protest. These characters seem “too good to be true,” they say.
Readers are right. No human is entirely wonderful, though some are more wonderful (or less awful, depending on your worldview) than others.
The sad truth is that creating fictional characters who come off as recognizably human requires authors to not only explore the baser side of humanity, but to dwell on it. Even wallow in it. Selfishness, deception, greed–this is what we must spend our time thinking about and imagining. Poor us. It’s enough to make a person cynical and negative.
Which brings me to my tongue-in-cheeky thesis: Doesn’t it stand to reason that people who are already cynical and negative–i.e., “bad” people–will have a leg up on more virtuous folk? After all, they already spend a lot of time on the dark side, just naturally.
In fact, I will go one step further and suggest that “good” people, in the process of becoming good writers, will find themselves slipping into cynicism and negativity. Thereby becoming bad people, heh heh. (Why does this make me feel glad? I guess because I’m bad.)
Either way, it seems that, in writing, you have to be a little bad to be good.
You probably don’t read aloud very often, unless you have small children–OR you are a writer. You do read aloud, don’t you? Writers should be reading aloud all the time.
Specifically, I mean reading our own stuff out loud. (Though reading the great works of literature and poetry is also a fabulous idea and will probably teach you more about syntax and imagery than any writing book ever could.)
But, definitely, you should be reading your own stuff, too.
Why? Because when you read your writing aloud, everything that is wrong with it leaps out at you. All the stuff you failed to notice the first fifty-seven times you (silently) read your draft–missing words, rough transitions, false notes, annoying repetitions–becomes glaringly obvious when filtered through the ear.
But even more than that, you will discover where your narrative is dragging. This works when you read to yourself. It even works when you read to yourself and pretend there is someone listening. But it works best of all when you have an actual flesh and blood listener.
This is why I am, chapter by chapter, reading my novel to my benighted–by which I mean he should be knighted–husband. He’s a great subject because he’s good at spotting errors of fact and consistency. He’s also one of those people who dozes off at the drop of a hat. If the story is keeping him awake, I tell myself, I must be doing something right.
Yes, he has actually fallen asleep while I was reading to him and, yes, we are still married.
If you don’t have a narcoleptic spouse to read to, you can try having your computer read to you (there is such a thing as text-to-speech software) but your computer will not emit those helpful waves of confusion and incredulity (and boredom) that humans do.
Any way you do it, you are cheating yourself if you’re not using the old reading-aloud tool. It’s hard and can be embarrassing, I won’t lie, but it’s worth it.
I am one of those writers who love–LOVE–revising. Getting that first draft down is like opening a vein, but once it’s on paper? Let the games begin.
Of course I try to do all the stuff “they” say you should do–waiting for the draft to cool, reading it out loud to myself, etc. But, most of all, I spend an unconscionable amount of time staring at each and every word. Is it the best word? Might there be another word that is shorter, simpler, smarter, more beautiful, and that packs in more meaning?
Not only do I subject my own writing to this mania, I inflict it on others. At least that’s what a buddy in my writers’ group told me the other day when she handed me this great poster, 250 Ways to Say “Went” from the Write at Home blog.
“You’re always telling me to look for a better way to say “he walked’ in my writing,” she said, “so I thought you’d like this.”
Oh, I do. I do like it.
Not that I would ever actually have any of my characters “skedaddle” or “waft” or “shimmy” or “glissade.”
But certainly ”approach” or “hurry” paints a better picture than just “walk.” Sometimes to have someone “cruise” or “clamber” is just the ticket. It’s even possible I may one day have a character ”mosey.” You never know.
Anyway, it’s a very fun list and well worth perusing–even printing and posting on your writerly wall.
As I may have mentioned, I have an affinity for the novella form. I appreciate the smaller scope and focus of novellas, maybe because I started out writing short stories and was therefore weaned on the necessity of economy in a successful short tale.
The All Of It was originally published in 1986 (reprinted in 1997, Harper Perennial) and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which sounds grand enough to me but sounded even better when (I looked it up) I learned it comes with a $5,000 prize. And this book deserves a prize. Haien writes a novel whose characters navigate complex moral dilemmas but in a form that is direct, free of pretense, and reads like a fable at times. It is a small book about the large issues of morality, choice, and how these are reconciled with religion.
Here’s a synopsis: Father Declan goes fishing, he thinks about the confession four days prior of one of his dying parishioner, Kevin. Actually the fellow dies before confessing and his wife, Enda, does the confessing. But maybe it is the priest who should be asking for forgiveness! He does. Cut away again to Father D. fishing where he catches a big salmon, which catch he announces to Enda (“He extended his arms: “Twenty-four pounds ten ounces!” he swanked.”) after nine o’clock on a foggy night. End.
But the story is complex, in the way that Henry James’ novella Turn of the Screw is complex: you think you have a take on what is going on, until a character says something, or thinks a thought, or exhibits some slight tell that makes you question your first take on things, when you subsequently decide that you’ve had it wrong all along.
Enda’s confession is told in short sentences, simple colloquial language (“…the others, they’d all be raised on the place or close by to it and, well, they were thick, you know, in that way people are who’re known to each other right down to their socks”) and we learn through accretion of her deceptively simple revelations that Enda is an intuitive, smart, quick, and proud woman who defies anyone to question how she chooses to own her secret. I was amazed at the degree of character development in such a short space (145 pages) using quiet language and simple situations (they talk next to the body before the wake, he fishes along the bank of a river, they stand together in the driveway).
In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall, says that while readers are “willing to imagine almost anything [this] flexibility does not extend to the moral realm…Shrewd thinkers…have noted a tendency toward “imaginative resistance”: we won’t go along if someone tries to tell us that bad is good, and good is bad.” This is true of the Father Declan. But what is to be done if, after hearing the all of it, the whole, complete story, identification of good and bad is impossible with any certainty? How would someone who’d believed their whole lives that only one right way exists fare if presented with evidence to the contrary? Haien could have gone for the easy conclusion–again quoting from Gotshall:”religion is not akin, say, to the friendly parasites that colonize our intestines and help us digest food. Religion is more like the loathsome pinworms that lay itchy eggs around the anus.”–but she does not. She simply leaves us with complexity. The man dies, the truth is told, the priest must choose, he does. But what delights me is that at the end we are left with the disquieting sense that, after all, we don’t know the all of it; what seems so simple has become complex and, perhaps, fodder for future conflict for these characters.
Here is a sample passage that gleams:
“Miraculously, he had to stop but once, for a pure-white cow lying in the middle of the narrow road. With the bumper almost touching it, he was obliged to honk it to its feet…But it stood, massively unheeding. He applied again the brash of the horn…The creature lingered over a last, solid stare before moving at a slow walk away, its sashaying rump telling of disdain. He watched it cross the gully and go on into the close-lying field, the milk of its mythic hide luminous against the black turf. Then–the work of a moment’s change–the mists, active as moths’ wings, enfolded and absorbed it: gone.”
A gem of a book–recommended to me by no less than our Mary Casey–and a great example of understated, great writing.
P.S. I just want to say that the fact that the author happens to be a well known concert pianist and teacher in the U.S. and Europe in no way creates greater envy in me than I would have enjoyed simply by envying her writing–but it does prove that God isn’t fair.
Once, I was part of a teaching team that led an intro to poetry class for undergraduates. We draped the structure of the class over Pound’s phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia: eye, ear, word. Or, eye/ear/word. Or, eyeearword.
For me, these three are the fundamental pieces of a poem. A poem needs all of them, working together. The poems I love always have these three elements; they comprise my three-legged stool of poetry. A piece of writing that calls itself a poem and which lacks one of these elements is probably going to be a little wobbly.
Poems certainly have other elements in them but I believe these other elements spring from the interplay between and coalescence of eye, ear, word.
Form—the shape in which a poet builds her poem—holds together eye, ear, word.
In high school, when I learned that Frost characterized free verse as akin to “playing tennis without a net,” I thought, “Great! No rules! That’s for me!” Not quite. Even without a net, we’re still playing tennis, so we still need rules. Sometimes, if she is playing tennis without a net, a poet has to invent rules, so the poem has a shape.
When I teach poetry to young children, rules are the second thing we discuss.
The kids and I mark the beat in Frost’s Stopping by Woods… or Yeats’s Song of the Wandering Aengus. We don’t mark willy-nilly. We make agreements.
Will we stomp? Snap our fingers? Clap our hands? Will we make this racket inside or outside? Walking in a circle? Sitting in a circle? Marching in a line? On our own or together? We define and agree on what boundaries we will observe—because that’s what poets do. Poets follow the rules. Poetry wants rules. Kids and poets understand rules: why we have them, and how it feels to break them.
In the undergraduate class I team taught I gave a lecture about form. I began with the example of 1-4-5 blues, a pretty restrictive musical form. Its restriction sets up an expectation—a form—that blues musicians follow but the hallmark of blues is improvisation. The best blues players and singers riff on the rules. Skilled poets, like skilled musicians, know the rules so well they know where and how to break them. And, breaking the rules can be very interesting.
Contrary to what Auden said, poetry makes something happen. Poems elicit emotion. (They don’t usually describe it.)
The root of “poem” is “to make, to create.” Poetry makes something new out of its recognizable parts (its parts being the words we already know, rhythms that are in our bodies).
The first thing I do when I teach poetry to young children is this:
on the board. Then, I ask:
“What’s the word in a word here? What word is hiding inside ‘poetry’?”
And the kids love to find the word, “POET.”
It’s best to let them find the word themselves. Telling them won’t do, because the finding, the “Aha!” moment of making a connection, making something out of nothing—out of what existed, until recently, outside your experience—is, possibly, the best and most compelling answer to the question, “why poetry”?
The Wall Street Journal runs a regular feature every Saturday called “Word Craft,” wherein writers discuss their craft. The pieces are mostly thinly veiled plugs for the author’s latest project but occasionally someone says something interesting.
E.g., Emma Coats recently offered 20 pretty decent tips to good plotting. There’s wisdom here, especially tips #2 and #9.
But it was tip #13 that made me flinch: “Give your characters opinions. Passive malleable characters might seem likable to you as you write, but they are poison to the audience.”
Confession: My characters tend to be passive. Also malleable. Especially, ulp, the main character. Not that I’m alone in this–I’ve noticed that many other novice fiction writers do the same thing. We write wimpily.
Well, I think that, for starters, writers themselves tend to be passive types. We hang back at parties. We wear glasses. Bullies steal our lunch money. Sand is kicked in our faces every summer. (Maybe this is why we write in the first place? See reason #5 in 15 Reasons to Write Fiction.)
In short, we are weenies. So naturally that is the character type we gravitate to.
Also naturally, we want our protagonists to be likable. And–guess what–likability tends to be less interesting than villainy. Damn. At the same time, we want our protags to be “deep.” Like us, ha ha. Unfortunately, plotwise, people who contemplate, who reflect, who ponder, who philosophize are not doing. Even worse, they are often being done to.
Finally, and this is the most insidious reason of all: We are not only told to “write what you know,” we can’t help writing anything else. And, let’s face it, for most of us what we know–real life–is just not that interesting. For most of us, life is pretty routine, pretty safe, pretty normal. This is good because who needs all that trauma, really.
The problem here is that fiction is not real life. Nope, not by a long shot. In fact, real life is what we read books to get away from. No matter how literary our efforts, how profound our theme, a story still needs to be on some level transporting. Readers want to be brought out of themselves. They want to be entertained.
There. I’ve said it.
Anyway, don’t believe me. Believe John Updike: ”We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings,” he said. “Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
In addition to being a poet, I am also a 1) wife, 2) mother, 3) FT technical editor, and 4) board member for my daughter’s choir. Also, I try to exercise and eat well—which means: I am also a cook. Never mind the other roles I have in my extended family (daughter, sister, sister-in-law, cousin, and daughter-in-law). Oh, and I have friends, too.
So, I have approximately nine lives—but if I didn’t have all the non-poet lives, it’s likely I wouldn’t be a poet.
Some time ago, a poet friend, who is also a 1) wife, 2) mother, 3) FT middle school teacher, and 4) commuted 100 RT to her job said, fiercely, “I do not want writing to be a hobby.”
Well. Neither do I. But, sometimes it does feel as if it is. I don’t have any “glass half full” thing to say about how to sidestep the competing non-writing demands in a writing life—those that frame the writing in such a way that it feels hobby-ish— just that doing so is a work in progress in my life. Mainly, though, it involves saying, out loud and regularly, to the people in my life: “I am going to my office now, to write.”
I am on a retreat as I write this entry, with a fellow Hedgebrook alumna and a manuscript full of comments from a poetry editor. Getting here involved planting a stake in the ground, plunking down some money for a retreat space, and saying out loud, “I need to go away to revise my manuscript.”
My writing retreat mate, who is also doing deep revisions—on a novel manuscript—observed how most people “celebrate the weekend by doing nothing.” And here we are, toiling away for hours. Maybe this is the difference between being a writer and having a hobby: I have no free time, only writing time and non-writing time.
Funny how memory works. Or doesn’t. Last week, I ran across an unfinished story I started years ago about a Cambodian refugee in America and his misguided aspiration to return to Cambodia to find his father, who he knows in his heart is dead. Without rereading the story through, I thought, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good story. I’ll take another shot at it, polish it up and finish it off. Should only take a few days.” After two days trying to resuscitate the piece, I abandoned it (again) and had the following revelations about revisiting past writing projects:
Yes, there is a kernel of appeal here but . . . what a mess.
I have to start over from scratch because I no longer remember what I was trying for when I started the piece and now can’t recover the gestalt of the story.
I have to rewrite this story completely because I write differently now.
Though I felt despondent ditching the story because I still like something about it, I couldn’t commit to rewriting it. The good news: time has moved on and I’ve changed. I’ve become a better writer, or at least a different one, and can see more clearly what does and doesn’t work in my writing. I have other ideas and interests now, more life and writing experience behind me, and would write about that topic with more complexity and subtlety (I hope). The bad news? I remembered the story being much better written than it was. Hold the madeleines and pass me the humble pie.
Can you really go back and recapture the story you meant to tell? Or does the passage of time force you to tell another story? Either way, I suspect it will be a better story.
E. L. Doctorow (1931 to present) : "Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."
the fun writer facts archive
Welcome to Yellow Wallpaper. We are four writers--Karen Burns, Mary Casey, Lynn Wiley Grant, & Christine Johnson-Duell--who meet regularly to write our own fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and memoir. We started this weblog so we can continue and extend our real-life conversations about writing, writers, and our compulsion to make things up.
Why "Yellow Wallpaper"? In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story The Yellow Wallpaper, a woman who wants to write is told she is ill by her doctor husband and confined to a room. It has yellow wallpaper, which she at first abhors but later befriends, believing women live inside it. She ends up locking herself into the room and throwing the key out the window. Here's what this story says to us: DON'T let your family, job, schedule or responsibilites impede you. Write anyway. DON'T let others define you. Or your writing. DON'T wait to be locked in. Lock yourself in! Finally, whatever room you're in, LOOK for the women in the wallpaper. They are your community.