Have you ever had this type of comment in feedback?
‘You’re grasping for a strong thematic purpose. The characters’ actions and the plot are full of significance. Somewhere there’s a strong message. But it’s too abstract or muddied to come through.’
If so, this concept might help. It’s borrowed from writing instructor Lynn Steger Strong, and described in this article in Catapult. Think of your work in two phases – the writer phase and the reader phase.
What might that mean and how might it be useful?
First, an interpretation.
The writer phase
This is the dreaming draft, the phase where you splurge everything you have, go exploring, invent your socks off, have dinner with your characters, test their mettle, immerse in your settings and themes, storm your brains. You figure out what you mean, what you’ll have happen, what you understand.
The reader phase
This second half is where you sell it to the reader. If the first phase took place behind closed doors, here’s where you think about all those eyes and brains seeking a connection with you and your work. For this, you need to make a mental shift. Get ruthless and assess every moment of the story on its own terms. For you, the text is already thrumming with meaning and richness. But will the reader get it?
In the reader phase, that is your quest.
Again, how might it be useful?
You need both phases. Why? Because you can’t explore and refine at the same time. If you do, you’ll shortchange the book. You won’t mine its full potential because you’ll be thinking with your critical hat, wondering what a reader would make of it. And if you don’t switch the other way and ask yourself, am I making sense, you might have a muddled mess. One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.
So that means there are a few crucial differences in how you approach the two halves.
Mindset for writer phase
Be fearlessly inventive. Every idea is precious, rich and worth exploring.
Don’t invite critical feedback except on isolated points. Eg to solve specific plot problems, or to find story models that suggest useful structures or character functions. For instance, if you want a downbeat ending, you might want to look for other books that made it work. Meanwhile, keep the bulk of the book to yourself. Lock the doors and simmer.
Mindset for reader phase
Playtime is over. You have a duty to your audience. In phase 1 you were fearlessly inventive. Now you must be fearlessly adapatable. The more you question what serves the reader, the better your book will be. Do you have enough context? Often a manuscript is obscure because the writer hasn’t let us understand why certain plot events are important.
Here’s another essential of the reader phase. You must be prepared to make drastic change. Think like a vandal. The lines you gave to one character might be much better if said by another. A scene might be better in another point of view, or later in the book, or used as back story.
This means a lot of precious material might have to die, and you’ll find yourself resisting. If so, examine why. There are usually two reasons-
- You’ll steer the book wrong, perhaps with a tone you don’t want or an issue you’re not interested in. (This is a good reason to reject a change.)
- The change will cause a lot of difficult unpicking, or stop you using other fascinating bits. Ahem. In the reader phase, nothing is sacred. All is material.
This is the stage where you seek critical feedback. Indeed, if you’ve successfully switched to the reader mindset, you’ll welcome every glitch they find – because it supports your mission to find everything that doesn’t work. And here’s the real strength of this approach – switching to the reader mindset makes revision much more positive.
The writer’s journey and the reader’s journey
Lynn Steger Strong talks about the length of a journey. The writer takes a long journey to create the book. We’re inventing, looking for sense, patterns, resonance, pivot moments, grace and charm. The reader, though, needs to get there instantly. Taking them there is the challenge.
Thanks for the pic Joao Trindade
Psst …. I talk about different mindsets for writing and revision in this little book …
Let’s discuss! Do you find your mind works differently when writing and revising? Have you received feedback that said your book was too muddled or obscure? How did you tackle it?
#1 by acflory on July 17, 2016 - 11:49 pm
Brilliant post, Roz, especially this: “One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.” I know this is how I work as a pantster, but do plotters work the same way?
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 18, 2016 - 5:42 am
Thanks, Andrea! Well I’m a plotter rather than a pantser – so I guess that’s your answer. 🙂
#3 by acflory on July 18, 2016 - 9:16 am
lol – okay, I’m surprised. 🙂
#4 by authorleannedyck on July 18, 2016 - 12:38 am
In the beginning I was described as a minimalist writer. I knew what was going on but I wasn’t sharing that with my potential reader. Now my mindset is that I will leave no reader behind. Working with a supportive group of writers and with a first reader has helped me enormously.
#5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 18, 2016 - 5:43 am
Hi Leanne! I understand where you’re coming from. I’m guessing you imagined each line was potent with meaning? But didn’t realise you hadn’t done quite enough to let readers see it? I’ve been there, done that. Nice example!
#6 by tracikenworth on July 18, 2016 - 12:47 am
These are good phases to know about and use to their potential!!
#7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 18, 2016 - 5:44 am
#8 by Don Massenzio on July 18, 2016 - 5:10 pm
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
#9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 19, 2016 - 7:31 am
#10 by Don Massenzio on July 19, 2016 - 10:51 am
#11 by dgkaye on July 19, 2016 - 1:17 am
Thanks for sharing your great insight Roz. Indeed killing ‘our darlings’ in the editing process is painful, but a necessity.
#12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 19, 2016 - 7:32 am
And I’m a person who can make many, many darlings – so this is the authentic voice of experience!
#13 by dgkaye on July 19, 2016 - 3:12 pm
I’m sure there are PLENTY of us, lol. 🙂
#14 by DRMarvello on July 20, 2016 - 1:49 pm
My mind definitely works differently when writing versus revising. And thank goodness for revision!
I haven’t had comments about the story being muddled or obscure. I think that’s a side-effect of being a plotter, a genre writer, and not being afraid of (or bored by) revision. Also, for the most part, readers don’t have high thematic expectations of magical fantasy–not that theme isn’t an important element of any well-rounded story.
Back to writing versus revising, I’ve learned to celebrate the different mindset. While writing, the goal is getting my words out. While revising, the goal is making those words the best they can be, replacing them with better words when necessary. I have a mantra that helps me avoid getting too bogged down with self-editing during the writing phase: Trust the Process. The process is to write and then revise. I trust that I will improve whatever I write during revision, but as they say, you can’t revise what you haven’t written.
#15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 23, 2016 - 6:49 am
‘Not afraid of revision…’ Well said! A lot changes when you realise that revision is part of the fun.