Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer

non-writer

Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer

So, this is the post to send to all the non-writer friends and family who read your writing. You want useful feedback but it’s actually hard to get unless they know what you want. Because—

They are readers

You remember the continuous dream. It is the state you want to put readers in. They sink into the world you’ve created and live happily in it. If you’ve done it well, your readers are reacting as if they’re living the story with your characters.

Great for the reader. Bad for the writer. In fact, the more successful you are at creating this dream, the less successful your readers are likely to be in giving the kind of feedback you need.

An example

Your non-writer friend has kindly read your magnum opus.

You: How did you like it?

Reader: Oh, it was great.

You: Thanks, but what did you like about it specifically?

Reader: Well, uh…well, I liked Jillian—I really felt for her.

You: But what about Jillian made you feel for her?

Reader: Well…well…

The reader is focused on how he feels about the story. The writer is focused on how to create the feelings the reader experiences. To give you the most useful feedback, the reader must break out of the continuous dream to notice why you made him feel the way he did and how you did it.

It’s a tough ask.

And not really the reader’s job.

But without this kind of feedback, the most you get are general statements of what the reader liked and didn’t like. Sometimes helpful but often not.

You need more specific instructions.

Note to your non-writer reader

Dear Reader

I really appreciate that you’re taking the time to read my writing. Naturally, I’m very interested in knowing what you think of the story and the characters. But in addition, could I ask you to do a couple of things?

  1. Track your reading. That is, record the page where you put the book down every time you stop.
  2. At what page did you flip to the end to see how many pages were left?
  3. Were there any points where you just kept reading even though you had other things to do? If so, where were they?

Thanks so much. The answers to these questions will help me improve the story.

Analysis of the feedback

Tracking the reading

Where people put the book down can be, but isn’t always, where the interest might be waning. Look at the few pages prior to the stop to see if there is anything which could be improved. Too much description? Lots of talk, no action? A lot of inner dialogue? You might get clues where to tighten up, rewrite, or dump.

Flipping to the end

This often happens around the middle of the book. Knowing exactly where can help you determine if you can move the plot along faster or otherwise help people to get over the hump of the middle.

Had to keep reading

So, your reward. Where this reader couldn’t put the novel down. Take a look at these spots. Do a little basking but then give them a careful read. What made them work? Could you apply this learning to other chunks in the novel to ummph them up?

This isn’t a foolproof way to get the feedback you need but signaling what you want to the non-writer can be useful. I’ve talked more about getting the most from readers’ opinions in another post.

Writing Villains

villains

Writing Villains

Oh, for the good old days when villains wore black (Stetsons, if appropriate), twirled their handlebar mustaches, and revealed their evil ways in every word and deed. Think Uriah Heep from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Dr. Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Scoundrels we love to hate.

But while we can still appreciate the all-out, no-holds-barred malevolence of these anti-heroes, most modern readers expect a more nuanced approach to their (well, your) villains.

Villains are needed

You write the story from the protagonist’s point of view. It’s a challenge enough to show this character as real and sympathetic. The antagonist/villain is there but frequently only as foil to demonstrate the hero’s sterling qualities.

Now, you need this kind of a dynamic to make the novel work. For interesting reading, the leading character cannot sail smoothly to his promised land. Wants to be an Olympic athlete? Gets the gold. Wants to write a famous opera? The new Mozart. Not only is this progression boring but it doesn’t do anything for how we feel about the protagonist. You like people whose success comes easily? No, we like people who struggle and then conquer.

Enter, the villain. He can be the personification of the world blocking or thwarting the hero’s objectives. But if that is the only role he plays in the novel, the villain can also become boring or at least repetitive and unidimensional. And, not particularly believable. Or only in the style of the mustache-twirling from above.

So, you need the villain to be as believable as your hero. And if you can, you have a great opportunity to deepen the story.

How do I make my villain believable?

So, the big thing is to make your heavy as human as possible. What he needs is:

  • To be well-motivated. It is not enough for him to say, “I’ve always hated Harry [your main character] and I’m going to stop him.” Show, show, show. Why does he hate Harry? What did Harry do to him? Is he perhaps justified in his wish for revenge?
  • To care about something or someone. And getting Harry doesn’t count. It could be a dog. Or a place. Could be a lost love. Whatever. But he needs to have more in his life than retribution. (Unless of course you want to make him a psychopath but that has its own writing challenges.) Showing him with loving emotions both humanizes and makes the reader reassess him.
  • His own agenda. He cannot just act in reaction to the hero’s goals. He needs his own ends and desires. He has a plan. He will walk all over Harry to get them. But necessary in his mind to reach his destination.

Playing with antiheroes

In fact, if you make both the villain and the hero very human, and dare I say, sympathetic, you may be able to do the coolest thing: you may make it hard for the reader to decide which is which. Is the villain the tyrannical father who refuses to let his daughter take art lessons? Or is it the well-meaning teacher who tries to help a young girl be free? The ‘easy’ villain is the father. The ‘interesting’ villain is the schoolteacher who is imposing her morality on a situation she doesn’t understand.

This is one time when it’s okay to confuse the reader. She’ll love it.

Next post: the unreliable narrator. Also a winner with readers.

Acquiring Author Credibility

Credibility

Acquiring Author Credibility

In the last post, we discussed the concept of the authority of the author.  In general, I think it’s your ability to allow your reader to sink happily into the world you have created for as long as you want her there. In this post, I’ll make a stab at delineating how you acquire this credibility. Truthfully, I’m a little nervous about this as it’s a difficult idea to pars. But let’s give it a try.

Some parts of author credibility

I think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for your reader to trust you.

Expertise. Well, obviously. If you’re writing historical fiction, you make the reader uneasy if you write, “Sir Galahad said, ‘Get your buns in gear.’” (unless the intent is comic). Similarly, even in science fiction, violating basic principles of the physical universe need careful and well-reasoned explanations for the reader to buy it.

Confident handling of structure. This is where mastery of craft comes in. Your ability to seamlessly handle the mechanics of story-telling like the judicious use of description, dialogue, showing not telling, etc. The novel should flow seemingly effortlessly to its inevitable close. You accomplish this only by a lot of effort and technical proficiency.

Believability. The tale itself needs to be believable or at least, the hard to believe parts are carefully explained. This is also true of depicting human interactions. You don’t want to kick the reader out of the continuous dream by having her think “Really? Would he actually do that?”

Belief in your story.  You presumably believe in your story because you’re writing it. And you continue to do so despite the occasional quiver in confidence. However, you can show your belief in the story by avoiding bombast—that is, the desire to tell your reader how she should feel about what you are writing. Instead, you just show the events and let the reader come to her own conclusions. You believe in your plot enough that it doesn’t need these artificial supports.

Belief in self. We all have occasional attacks of writer’s block, or are discouraged by how hard this all is, or are convinced that everything I write is junk. Belief in self will allow you to tough through these wobbles and keep writing. Without it, there will be no stories over which to have authority.

Is this enough?

I wish I could say with confidence that I had wrestled all the components of author credibility to the ground. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t because there is a know-it-when-you-see-it residual which resists analysis.

This is the magic I have talked about. It is that indefinable fairy dust that sometimes you can sprinkle over your writing and sometimes you can’t. But you keep writing in the hopes that your Muse or inner spirit or the drop into the right space, will give you the magic. And by the by, credibility, too.

Authority of the Author—What is it?

authority

Authority of the Author—What is it?

Sounds a little New Age, doesn’t it? Authority of the Author.  It is, kind of. I think the best way to start is with an example.

As always, I remember reading this but can’t remember the source so you’ll to have to take my word for it.

In her earlier writing, Margaret Atwood published a short story about girls at a summer camp who collaborate on writing a novel. A bad, clichéd one as it turned out. The humor is in how inept it is.

But what would have happened if the writer herself had been a bad writer? The joke would fall flat or disappear because the reader wouldn’t see a difference between the quality of the writing of the novel-in-progress and that of how the story itself was being told. For the short story to work, Atwood had to establish that she herself as a good writer before she introduced the girls’ efforts.

She does this by her vivid description of the setting and the dialogue through which she introduces the idea of the group effort, among other ways. Atwood has established her authority to tell the story.

What is this authority of the author?

The Atwood example is the clearest I’ve found where a lack of authorial authority makes a difference. But it gets murky beyond that. Honestly, there’s not even unanimous agreement on what it means.

Brooke Warner in her Huffington post article believes “getting published writing under your belt (including books, of course) is the key to true authority.” That doesn’t quite sit right with me as I’ve read plenty of unpublished pieces which have authority.

The blog Wistful Writer comes closest to a definition I agree with:

Authority is important in any sort of writing, but especially so in literary fiction. Because the writer is creating a world that is essentially made from thin air, the reader must feel safe and confident that the world she is entering into is real and true. The reader must be able to trust the writer in order to engage with the work. As such, the writer absolutely must work hard in order to gain the reader’s trust.

However, the blog then gives an example which doesn’t actually capture the concept for me.

Memoirs should have this power

Memoir writers presumably have this completely covered. They certainly are experts on their own story. They have sort of spontaneous authority, no?

But even with this presumed knowhow, memoirs can also be seen as self-serving, light on truth, or verging on the unbelievable. So they don’t automatically get a free pass into being trusted.

Defining authority primarily as a writer’s expertise on the topic of the narrative doesn’t feel right to me. While I agree a writer needs to know what he’s talking about in both content and craft, I think authority encompasses a realm which I may not be able to adequately define but will nevertheless give a try in the next post.

But for a final word:

Why does it matter?

Really, who cares if you have authority? Big deal.

But actually, it is. If you do, your reader will relax into your story and go willingly where you want to take her. You have put her in the continuous dream state.

Authority has another, practical advantage. With it, you can probably rely on your readers to stick with you through bumpy/puzzling plot bits or necessary but slow scenes. So they can experience your dazzling ending.

 

Why Now?

why

Why Now?

In a previous post, I discussed what you can do if the first draft of your novel is too short. This post covers another question you may need to ask yourself as you are strengthening the manuscript: Why now?

Obviously, your novel is set at a particular time, even if an indeterminate present, and at a particular point in your hero’s life. I suppose the exception might be a family saga which is going soup to nuts.

But generally, writers pick a period in the main character’s life to focus on. Might be middle age, might be just starting out, might be on the brink of death. Whenever it is, a good question to ask yourself is why you picked that age/state of life. Why does your hero do what he does at this moment in his life?

An example of why now?

For example, your hero (Todd) might be a downtrodden spouse who has been married for twenty years and then suddenly announces he wants a divorce. Why now?

Why didn’t he do it early in the marriage when it became clear that things weren’t going as envisioned? How come he didn’t see the signs before the wedding? Why wouldn’t he leave it until his dying day and make it his last words?

Asking yourself this question can prompt two possible lines of thought.

First, you might need to adjust or rewrite so that it makes sense to the reader why this is the right time in his life. Sure, he might have fallen in love and that would be the impetus. But isn’t there a compelling inner reason why Todd chooses this moment to allow the new love to be the dominant factor in his decision?

Second, although I know you’d have to be dragged to this option, is there a dramatically more interesting time in his life to leave the marriage than the one you have used? Is there a stronger reason to justify the act at some other point?

Why not earlier, later, or not at all?

So, let’s continue to play with the why now? issue.

What if it is earlier?

What if Todd makes the decision to leave early in the marriage? What prompts it? Could be another woman but then are you painting a picture of a man who can’t make a commitment? What about him allows him to break from the easier path of putting up and going along?

Or later?

What if he decides leave the marriage much later?  Does he struggle with abandoning what he might think of as his duty? Or does the angst come from how he has to change himself to make this move? Or does he revise his personal definition of duty?

Or not at all?

I know—this is the all-bets-off option. If he doesn’t do the central thing of the novel, it’s a whole new ball game. But if you have created a truly interesting character, might there be more scope to explore who he is in a different situation? Just asking.

Who cares?

I know that reading this may cause a certain level of discomfort, especially if you believe you have completed a first draft. But playing with the concept of why now? at very least encourages  you to make sure that what Todd is doing in the present tale is well grounded in an understanding of why he chooses to act at this moment in his life.

Playing with options may open up possibilities that hadn’t occurred to you. Might not mean a rewrite. Could just be a deepening and strengthening of your story.

Next: subplots.