The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Oh Wise Ones

by Steve Gajadhar

I don’t know about the rest of you writerly types, but I can’t read my own work worth a damn. I’m lucky to spot its from it’s, or their from there, let alone the subtleties of characterization, the ins and outs of plot, or the nuances of tone. So I have friends (and a fabulous spouse) that read my work and comment on it for me. Some of them even enjoy doing it, which means I can’t be as bad as I think I am. And all of them (one in particular, RP) have been brutally honest with me, for which I thank them profusely.

My readers tell me when something stinks, when something shows potential, or when something is good and with some hard work could be great. They tell me when they are lost, or when too much of the story is in my head and not on paper. But they don’t tell me what I should do. They tell me what I’ve already done. This is an important difference, and one that signals you’ve found someone with the potential to become a trusted and wise reader of your work for years to come.

The following is excerpted from Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction:

The audience never lies. When I was a playwright, I learned something about audiences. After the performance, everybody lies and tells you it was wonderful. But during the performance of a play the audience will never lie. By the way they lean forward in their seats, eyes riveted on the stage, they tell you that they’re interested, tense, anxious--exactly what you want. Then, suddenly, a large number of them shift in their seats, glance down at their program--without meaning to, they’re telling you that something’s wrong with the play, you’ve lost their attention.

As a fiction writer, you can’t watch what they do while they’re reading your manuscript. But you can train one reader to notice his own process of reading and take notes that will help you find the weak spots in your story. You want him to keep a record of symptoms--what the story does to him.

He’s right, of course. I want reaction. I want emotion and thought provocation. And I do want some prescription, because that brilliant piece of exposition that I’m love with might actually do nothing for the story but add word count. I want a well trained reader!

Yet what should the reader look for? The reader-writer relationship is a dependent one. Each learns and grows from interacting with the other. Each relationship is different, with each reader of my work getting different things from it, finding different things wrong with it. It would be nice to have a universal starting point, a singularity from which this symbiotic relationship could spring, or at least a set of directions for our readers to fall back on when they’ve lost their way. I think Mr. Scott Card can help us out yet again. Here are his wise reader questions:

1. Were you ever bored? Did you find your mind wandering? Can you tell me where this happened? --Let him take his time, look back through the story, find a place where he remembers losing interest.

2. What did you think about the character named X? Did you like him? Hate him? Keep forgetting who he was?

3. Was there anything you didn’t understand? Is there any section you had to read twice? Any place you got confused?—The answers to these questions will tell you where exposition isn’t handled well, or where the action/scene is confusing.

4. Was there anything you didn’t believe? Any time when you said, “Oh come on!”—This will help you catch clichés or places where you need to go into more detail.

5. What do you think will happen next? What are you still wondering about?

From here you can come up with your own questions, customized to each of your readers. Your readers will still each give you their unique point of view and criticism, only now they can each answer some of the same questions and give you a litmus test of the overall quality of your piece.

Now, before I forget, a big shout out to all my dedicated readers. Thanks MK/RP, RM, JH, and SG. And a big thanks to and all of you zoers who have been transient readers of my stuff.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

What a great guide for readers and reviewers, Steve. "...they don't tell me what I should do. They tell me what I've already done." Excellent insight. The writer really is all alone in figuring out where to go from there.


Wed Mar 21, 01:48:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

I like these questions Steve! Thanks for the guide.

Fri Mar 23, 09:25:00 am GMT-4  

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