THE WORD ON THE .NET

Writer T. James' Exploration of Words, on the Internet.

Don’t Lose Your Readers! Context and Your Writing: Does it Need a Frame, or Even a Map?

Is Andy Warhol a good painter? Some have argued that a talented teenager could replicate his work. If one of his paintings had been taken back in time, before he became famous, and was displayed at a high-school art show, would it even be noticed? Years later he became a darling of the media, and acclaimed by celebrities. Then, any piece of work done by Andy Warhol could be displayed anywhere, and would be admired, simply because it was an Andy Warhol. In writing, as in the visual arts, the context of a piece of work can change everything. Ignore it at your own risk.

A little background is necessary here. Recently I was kindly invited to join an online writing group. After some enquiries to find out what an online writing group actually was, I decided this was a great opportunity to read the work of more experienced writers, and more scarily, have them critique my own. I could learn from those that were already ‘doing it’. So I did a little more investigation, summoned my courage, and after some newbie mistakes submitted my first ever piece for critique by my peers.

I call them ‘peers’, but in actual fact all the writers I met on Twitter in the group are much more experienced than I am. They have been writing for a minimum of a year, but most are already published, and often multiple times.

So I submitted my piece, and made one basic, but fundamental mistake. The reviewers are all (for the most part :-) ) intelligent people, much more advanced in their craft than I am in mine, so I made the assumption that they would immediately ‘get’ what the piece was about. I gave no background, no context, no introduction, and nowhere near enough clues within the piece itself for a reader to work out that I wasn’t writing a straight story. So I read all the reviews, and I realised they hadn’t reviewed what I had written, but they had reviewed a story they thought I was attempting to write. Who’s fault? ENTIRELY MINE.

In the reviews there were great tips on grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and the other fundamentals of any genre of writing. This was great, I’ve only been writing for six months and I really need to learn this stuff. Comments like these are like gold dust for a new writer attempting, as I am, to learn the craft. (And, I found out on reflection, a great help for another ongoing project, a draft fantasy novel).

But that wasn’t all I got back. There was a general consensus my writing style was clinical, distancing the reader from the main character and the  important events in her life. The piece was slow and somewhat laboured in places, focusing on extraneous details and giving them equal precedence with more important narrative events. Some of the sentence structure, and writing style was rigid, and stilted. There was no dialogue, or placing of the main character directly within the scenes as they happened, in order to engage the reader and bring the piece to life. The main character’s emotional responses were subdued, and I could have gone much further in bringing her feelings and experiences alive for the reader. There was a lot more, but you get the gist.

At first I was gutted. I had hoped that maybe I had some promise as a writer, and although the reviewers kindly said so (we’ll see), they must just be being nice: although encouraging and objective, the reviews basically slated the piece.

So I read the reviews again, and again. The readers felt distanced from the character, not as engaged with her, or the life she lead as they could be. The writing about her, and her thought processes was stilted, difficult to follow and awkward. Her emotional responses were too flat, but I am already repeating myself.

The point is, these were the thoughts and feelings I was trying to evoke from the reader. I was writing a ‘concept’ piece, not a straight story. I wanted to choose a narrative style with a restricted emotional palette, a deliberately claustrophobic and distanced outlook and setting, and an awkward sentence structure.

Why would any writer want to do this? Because the main character was suffering from depression. I was trying, through some unusual narrative style choices, to evoke from the reader some of the inner experiences of people in the midst of a depressive episode: All positive emotions are diminished, and negative ones fully experienced, with inconsequential worries and thoughts taking over; thought processes are disjointed, and awkward; there is a ‘distancing’ from your inner sense of self, those around you, and the events you experience and remember; there is a sense of wanting to escape this barrier, this blanket, sitting between the sufferer and their life; and of being squeezed into a space smaller than you are, and that no-one was ever meant to inhabit.

There is only one possible conclusion: I MESSED UP! Nobody got it; professional, intelligent writers didn’t get it. So I don’t know how well, or badly, I did in achieving my aim, because I didn’t tell my readers, in any meaningful way, what my aim was.

If you want to push the boundaries of your writing, if you want to try writing cross-genre pieces, and explore the outer limits of the reader/writer dialogue, then I applaud your bravery, and admire your creativity, but you must give your readers a starting point, a frame of reference, and establish common ground before exploring this strange new world you wish them to engage with. Otherwise? They will stop reading, and probably be left thinking, as a writer, that you are either pretentious, or just plain c**p. So, go and explore those strange new worlds, just make sure you give your readers a map.

 

P.S. This article is missing the obvious ‘How-to’ element. First I need to finish the short story, and if I feel I’ve learnt enough, I may be able to write some answers to that question in a later blog post.

P.P.S. Was this useful? Has anyone else messed up like this? What techniques do you use to ensure that  you and your reader are ‘on the same page’? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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16 Comments

  1. I find it amusing now how so many of us all go through the same growing pains. We start out so full of our own ideals as writers that we somehow forget the most important factor: The Reader! :) I loved your post and you are SO not alone in this. Been there, done it, still happens, but THAT is the true joy of having crit partners. They are truly the ones who will be responsible for any future successes we might have. :) Chin up, and happy writing!

  2. Oh, TJ….we’ve all been there…seriously…and still do get glutted on a fairly regular basis. It’s part of the “craft” and one that will never go away. I was having coffee with one of my favourite authors last year (New York Times Bestselling – for context) who told me that she could show me a ms from her editor that was filled with red ink…it doesn’t ever stop – the criticism will always be there. We must constantly grow and learn, especially since this is such a subjective world.

    Luckily, you’ve found a group of writers who will give you honest feedback (useful) but never cruel. I had to learn the hard way that not all writing groups are there to help each other. I promise you, if you stick with us, you’ll hone that skill that you already possess…because you can write well, you just need to keep exploring your voice and expand your repertoire.

    • Thanks for checking out the post. You are absolutely right, we can’t grow without some constructive criticism, and I know I’m not good enough yet to get away without a fair amount.

      Yet I still have this regret. If I had posted the piece and given the reader all the relevant information that they needed, then I might have an answer to the one major question that still feels unanswered: How effective was my narrative style choice in evoking a sense of what it is like to be depressed? The answer maybe, ‘not very’. At the moment I don’t know, and I may not find out until the piece is finished and can be read, and shredded if necessary, as a whole.

      • You should never, NEVER, need to “give the reader all the relevant information” up front. That’s what writing is all about – to give all the relevant information in the piece that you’re writing!

        To answer the question about how effective the piece was for evoking a sense of what it’s like to be depressed: The narrative style was 3rd person, 3rd person works perfectly well to convey what it’s like to feel any kind of emotion. But the piece as it stands at the moment isn’t doing what you want it to do. Take the critiques on board, do much more showing and you’ll get there :)

        You want to make the character clinical, not the writing.

      • It doesn’t matter…your work has to speak for itself because you can’t set it up for your reader every time you send it out there. Whether you explained it or not, you need to take the advice you’ve been given and decide if it works for you or not then tailor your piece the way you want to.

  3. I have to say I admire what you wrote on your blog.

    Accepting criticism is the hardest in any kind of creative work.

    I write & than re-write & re-write some more before I believe my work is finished.

    Except for the scripts ‘cos I don’t think script is ever finish.

    I usually give myself and the story, book or script a breather and I walk away for a month or two before I go back & write again.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree that writing, and re-writing is essential. I tend to get ideas quickly, but putting enough polish on them to be ready for publication seems to take forever. Still, it’s an unavoidable part of the process, unless you have a very understanding editor.

  4. Terrible James – it hurts to learn, the more you ache, the bigger the outcome, especially in writing.

    It’s a craft, you need to bleed – for realz, no joke – before you can truly be happy about a piece.

    Welcome to the insane asylum, dear heart:)

  5. The story definitely shows that you can write, so don’t feel disheartened! But as Angela mentioned, the OWG is there to help hone that skill. We’ve all made the mistake of trying to TELL the readers what’s happening instead of SHOWing them. But I think the mistake you’re making in this blog post is thinking that when we gave critiques to say “show us, don’t tell us!” that we meant you needed to give a broader emotional pallet (as you put it). That’s not the case at all.

    We could tell what you’re trying to do and you don’t need to include a broader scale of emotions (I don’t think anyone said that), you just need to actually show the emotions you’re trying to convey. She feels disconnected, depressed, alone… show us that. That’s what we meant when we said you needed to show emotion and not have the writing so clinical.

    It always comes down to the key phrase: SHOW us, don’t TELL us. For example:

    “Oh my god!” screamed Janie into the phone. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! I got in! I got into Harvard!”

    vs…

    Janie was happy and told her friend she had been accepted into college.

    SHOW vs TELL :) Your story was doing almost all telling, very little showing. You don’t need to include MORE emotions, you just need to actually show the restricted emotion you’re trying to convey.

    Hope that helps clarify a bit!

  6. This sounds very familiar….

    As Tammy said, you’re not alone. As Angela suggested, stick with the OWG. I promise you’ll be amazed at how much you’re writing will grow with the guidance of supportive writers who make up that wonderful group.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

    :) Lisa (owg #5)

  7. Hi T. James,
    To be honest we all go from this, the secret, if there is such a thing is to learn as you go. You’ll get the hang of helping to set the scene with a paragraph prior to help give the reader a “gist” of what you’re trying to achieve. Writing from a depressed persons point of view is very difficult and if readers haven’t gone through it, it could well escape thier scope as they can’t identify with it.

    You’re doing well, you acknowledge that theres a lot to learn, but thats what you’re doing. I’ve been writing for on and off three or four years now. One thing that I would suggest is not just try one style but to try working through various ones, I thought that I’d be ideal for Fantasy, however after trying my hand at a few, my skill set is better at writing children’s picture books.

    I have a lot of fun with it and I love getting my idea’s. It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying to get that fantasy or Urban Fantasy written as I can’t let the outlines go but at the moment, I find the area I’m in rewarding and with three young nephews to test it all out in, its a lot of fun and a great learning experience. I’ve just got to find an artist to create the images so should perhaps co-opt my twin into doing it. (He’s an Art Teacher.)

    Other than that the only other advise I can give is a little different to one that you’ve already heard. (“Write, Write, Write.”) What I’d add is “Read, Read, Read.” Why? As a writer and reader you’ll soon start seening the architecture underneath. You’ll learn what works in your opinion, what doesn’t work and you’ll soon find yourself mentally rewriting parts. You’ll also find that you can learn just as much writing craft from a book that you disliked as one you enjoyed. Just remember its fun and keep on persevering.

    • Thanks to everyone who’s commented so far. I’m new, with a long way to go, and I’m learning from all those who’ve gone this way before.

  8. Kudos to you for your honesty, and putting yourself out there and baring your soul. As writers and authors we all have our ‘babies’ that we nurture as we write and tell their stories, and when we put it out there for our group to critique we open ourselves up to all kinds of criticism and hopefully we learn from it. The beginning is the most difficult and we’ve all gone through it, but what you learn as you keep writing and taking something from all the critiques and feedback is inspriring and helps you become a better writer.
    You’ll find such a big change even in a year of working with the group that you’ll look back on your first posted piece and say ‘wow’ look at how far I’ve come…it’s mind blowing.
    Glad you’ve joined the group and I know you’ll enjoy it. Looks like you’re very open and honest and somewhat like a sponge soaking up everything you can to become the writer you know you CAN BE.
    Good luck T.J. ! Looking forward to reading some of your work. :)

  9. Admittedly, I haven’t read the piece you submitted, but it’s very true that people will sometimes “not get” your work. I’ve had it happen time and again with my flash fiction and I’ve been doing this awhile. Sometimes we get so caught up in what’s in our head, that we don’t translate it all onto the paper. If one person doesn’t get it, okay, but if no one gets it, you need to adjust your style. It doesn’t mean you need to scrap the piece, you just have to fine a more meaningful way to get your point across.

    Personally, I have to connect emotionally with a character in order to care about the story. My book club read NEVER LET ME GO by Ishiguro, which is written with an intentional clinical style. I would rather slit my wrists then read that book again (which Time called a “a page-turner and heartbreaker”). I was bored to tears. All that to say, you can’t win them all. All critiques are subjective. If one person tells you, take it with a grain of salt (that was me w/Ishiguro), but if three-four people tell, then you adjust.

    Welcome to the OWG! Rebels Rule!

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