Monday, November 17, 2014

Midwifing A Story: The Trusted Reader

Some writers do all their work in isolation. They are the creative hermits of the literary world.  When they get an idea for a story, they tell no one. This isn’t always the misplaced fear that the other person will “steal” their idea. Few ideas are so strikingly original that they have not already been told in a myriad variations. Even if the other person were to write a story on the same idea, the stories would have different executions. Knowing this doesn’t seem to make a difference. Some folks just work better alone. I’ve heard some of them say that if they discuss a work in progress, the very act of telling it aloud dissipates the creative energy: they’ve told the story, so there’s no reward for writing it. Some of them never improve as writers, but others seem able to teach themselves and to produce work of quality.

I’m not one of them.

First of all, I am, as the French say, “très sociable.” I flourish with regular chats with other writers. More importantly, I learned early on in this business that if I am left to my own devices, I will come up with the most dreadful poppycock and think it’s great. My stories will have plot holes you could ride a tyrannosaur through. And let’s not mention grammatical atrocities, inconsistent characterizations…you know the drill. Fortunately, my second and third drafts are a whole lot better than the drivel I throw together as a rough draft. I revise a couple of times, just to get the words on the page into some correlation to the story in my head, before I let anyone else see it.

At some point, however, I need feedback. I need an ally. Better yet, several. I benefit from having a “story midwife” to help me with the process of pushing and squeezing and ruthlessly pruning a story into the form that is most true to my creative vision.

A “story midwife” is someone whose insightful feedback helps me to make the story more fully what I intended it to be. It is not a person who rewrites my work to their own agenda, sabotages my writing efforts in order to make themselves feel good, or who goes about claiming credit for having salvaged or inspired my work. These things happen (and they’ve happened to me), but they’re not only not helpful, they’re potentially devastating. All these things happen because the person reading the story has motives other than being of help to the writer. These folks are often unsuccessful writers themselves.

Often the person who sees an early draft is not a writer, but an astute reader whose reactions I can trust. Usually it’s best that this not be a relative or close friend. It’s possible those folks could give honest feedback, but more likely than not, they want to make me happy. I don’t want to hear what a fantastic writer I am or that this deformed raw effort is the Great American Novel. I want to know where I lost the reader’s attention, or where I misled or confused or infuriated the reader. I don’t necessarily want to know how to fix the problem or even what the problem is.

Interestingly, when I was a new writer, I tended to discount the feedback of trusted readers because of their lack of writing experience. Whether I knew it or not, I was searching for teachers, not readers. This is an important point. There are many kinds of “story midwives,” and trusted readers are only one. Often, we need different types of feedback at different stages in our growth as writers, or in the development of a specific story. So a beginning writer may need a mentor or teacher and then a skilled editor, as well as a trusted reader.

Now I value the feedback from trusted readers. They are in touch with how they feel and can articulate what thoughts pop into their heads as they read. To me, as an experienced writer, these reactions are pure gold. I’m not looking for explanations of the elements of writing craft (and how I’ve mangled them!). I want to know where I connected with the reader and where I failed. It’s up to me to figure out what the problem is and what I want to do about it. For example, if something wasn’t clear, it could be because I didn’t set up and foreshadow adequately, or it could be that I myself was not clear, that I needed to delve more deeply into the story. If I’m unwise enough to follow advice (uncritically), then I may end up patching up the surface instead of doing the hard work to uncover the diamond within the rough. Trusted readers, by and large, don’t go for the spackle and the duct tape. “I just don’t get this,” is often a prelude to revealing structural flaws, inconsistent motivation, or poorly thought out world-building, all of which I am grateful to know about while the story is still in formation (as opposed to when it’s solidified in print!)

I try to keep all this in mind when I act as a trusted reader for someone else. I try to go along for the ride, noticing when it gets bumpy for me. Some of the things that boot me out of the story or cause me as the reader to lose trust in the writer may not be true for someone else. This mode of reading is more focused than casual reading for enjoyment, but much less analytical then when I’m critiquing. I try my best to leave my editor’s hat at the door.

That said, I’ve sometimes run across stories where the roles change or blur. I set out to read a story with one intention in mind but find it requires a different level of engagement and feedback. I cannot overstate it enough that changing gears requires clear communication! I’ve been on both ends – giving and receiving – of an unannounced and unwelcome switch. In one instance, several decades ago when I didn’t know any better, a fairly new writer asked what I thought of a story that had been published in a fanzine. I gave the writer a thorough critique, analyzing the structure and peppering the manuscript with suggestions, when all the writer had wanted to know was if I’d enjoyed it. Now, unless what the writer expects is clear from the beginning, I will say, “What kind of feedback do you want?” And as a trusted reader, I strive to be trustworthy.

In future blog posts, I’ll discuss other “story midwives:” critiquers, beta readers, editors, and those who carry us through difficult times with their support.

The painting is by Jules Ernest Renoux (1863-1932)

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