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.