Sunday, March 6, 2011

What we writers do for our readers

I am one-third of a writer's group. During the years I have spent work-shopping my pieces with these wonderful ladies, my writing has blossomed (but not enough to come up with a more original metaphor). Without their guidance, support, and threats, I probably would still be working on finishing my third novel (with that parallel universe twist, dammit), would never have survived the synopsis process, and would be prostituting myself in the lobby of publishing houses instead of using other respectable means of getting picked up.

There are many dimensions to the dynamic that makes this particular writing group exceptional, but what I appreciate the most is our differences: we each write for a different genre and we each bring unique strengths to the craft.

JennyB is the master of detail and can write one hell of an introduction (see Missed Periods). Also, she has an uncanny eye for spotting contradictions and a witty way of weaving contemporary culture into her writing. When I start to stray from the fundamentals of my characters, she steers me back on track. And without JennyB, this blog would not exist.

Minz might be the most creative writer I've come across (see Melinda J Combs). She dreams up plot lines that I couldn't mold three acid-hits into a transcendental experience, but at the same time can still relate to commonly shared experiences of her audience and make them feel her writing. And thank god, she knows the ins and outs of this publishing game.

What do I bring? You'd have to ask them. If you asked me, I'd just say my hot ass.

Our differences really manifested during our last workshop. Each of us are working on books: Minz, a memoir; JennyB, contemporary romantic comedy; and I, a serial-killer thriller. In each of our recent submissions, our focal characters have moments of reflection that will impact the rest of the story. In JennyB's, her character's reflection came too early; in Minz's, it appeared unnecessarily; in mine, it came way too late.

This Goldilocks scenario is typical of our group, and we had a good laugh over it. But since we all were playing the writer and the reader simultaneously, I realized just what our reflection-timing might be doing to our readers.

In JennyB's case, her character has a meaningful experience and immediately sees the relevance of it. Therefore, by the time I have processed what has happened, her character already has reflected and already has internalized the significance. Don't get me wrong, she does this beautifully in way that is so real, so contemporary but I don't have a chance to mentally go "ah-ha" just before the character does, but I do have a chance to panic and mentally plead "Wait for me!" Instead, of feeling enlightened and wise, I feel slow and clueless.

Minz manages to weave subtly her reflection into her prose, but then at the end she spends a good paragraph summarizing the reflection just one more time.  At that point, it doesn't seem necessary. This can make the reader feel one of two ways: either it will just add an extra level of reassurance, as if Minz is handing just one more blanket to her chilly reader who is already curled up in front of a fire, just in case they might need it; or it might exasperate the reader because they are warm enough, dammit, and don't need that extra blanket.

As for me, my reflection comes about two chapters after the character has a plot-altering, mind-fucking experience. This might make my reader extremely frustrated with my seemingly obtuse character, as he or she wonders why in the hell I'd make such an idiot my protagonist.

Or, maybe I am providing a public service.

My lagging reflection makes my reader feel like a genius! Maybe, just maybe, the reader will feel witty and intelligent if he or she is two chapters ahead of my character! I give my reader the opportunity to feel as intuitive as Sherlock Holmes! And who doesn't want to be as insightful as that guy? I could be raising confidence levels, inflating egos, adding a mental swagger to my readers' lives!

Whose with me? Anyone?

I should change my pen name to Watson. Or, I should just move the damn reflection two chapters earlier so that my readers don't think the only way I got published was because I slept with an agent.


  1. I'm totally with you, Holly. One of my writing instructor's once told me that we, the reader, want to be onto things faster than the characters, but we don't want to know too late or too early -- nor do we want to be hit in the head with too much reflection. But, we, the reader, don't want to be talked down to nor do we want things to be too cryptic either. It's a balance. And a tough one, indeed.

    And thanks for such a great entry about GLOW.

  2. Great post Holly. I have the same problem as you in my WIP, except on a much larger scale. My character's in denial over something but she drags it on so long. At some point she needs to accept the truth and it needs to be a lot earlier than how it's currently written or readers are going to get frustrated with her. My crit partner helped me come to this conclusion too ;)

  3. Hey, leave it exactly as it is, I definitely want to feel smart when I read your stuff! I need the win!

  4. I am writing my next chapter right now, and I am really keeping this in mind.

  5. I think your way works just fine. I am not a writer, other than cheesy poetry, but as a reader and fan of detective novels, I appreciate feeling smart. I think my most joyful reading experience ever is when I figured out "who-done-it" in an Agatha Christie book. Of course, I still don't figure out Scooby Doo villians before the meddling kids do, but you can use me as your low bar.


Please validate my existence.