Dear Extra Squeeze Team,
How do you balance meeting your reader’s expectations with also surprising them?
Death is the absence of life. It is the white space on a painting, an empty hospital bed, a silent room, a closet of clothes. Death is the extinction of a species of only one. I closed my eyes. I woke, and he was gone. They took his body in the night. They came for the bed and the wheelchair by noon. We reduced his life to a photo and two columns in the newspaper. We sang his favorite songs. We spoke, “he was good friend, a wonderful father and an average golfer.”
Emotion is the currency of all good writers. But what if there is no emotion? What if death brings not regret, or anger, or longing, or even peace, but rather echoes? Did he call my name? I turned my head. Was that him, walking into his office?
Where is the salty taste of my tears? I become white space.
Can someone please tell me how to feel?
From a Cabin in the Wood featured author is DT Krippene. DT is a contributing author in the recent BWG’s paranormal anthology, Untethered. A man buys a house for a price that is too good to be true, until he discovers the bizarre strings attached in “Hell of a Deal”. He’s also contributed articles for the Bethlehem Writers RoundTable with “Snowbelt Sanctuary”, and “In Simple Terms”.
A native of Wisconsin and Connecticut, DT deserted aspirations of being a biologist to live the corporate dream and raise a family. After six homes, a ten-year stint in Asia, and an imagination that never slept, his annoying muse refuses to be hobbled as a mere dream. DT writes dystopia, paranormal, and science fiction. His current project is about a young man struggling to understand why he was born in a time when humans are unable to procreate and knocking on extinction’s door.
Writers have an abnormal predilection for planting themselves in a chair like a lone desert cactus, surrounded by nothing but sand, and wait for the words to rain. How is that even remotely natural?
After a writer’s conference last year, I took some time to reflect on what I’d learned, what I’d heard before, and why the hell I was still writing.
Our keynote speaker was NYT Bestseller, Bob Mayer, a former Green Beret who wrote the Area 51 series, as well as 70 other titles in fiction and non-fiction. We listened to advice on the standard elements of plot, story structure, character, the importance of tight narrative, and dangers of going off on tangents that don’t move the story. Anyone who has read my article from last year, ‘The Perils of Captain Tangent – a Pantser’s Writing Journey‘, knows I have an issue with side stories that end nowhere.
Bob shared a harsh lesson given to soldiers wanting to be Army Rangers, one easily applied to writer success. “Everyone stand up, look at the person on the right, then look at the one on the left. Only one of you is going to make it.” He reminded us that only five-percent of all writers ever finish a book, that five-percent get to the point of publishing the book, and five percent of those people ever get anywhere with it. In simpler terms, earning enough to buy a case of Yuengling beer is like winning the lottery.
For writers who’d never heard it before, the eagerness visibly drain from their faces. Reality bites. For me, the message I took away had less to do with sobering statistics I already knew, or the writing process I’ve been refining for years.
Growing up, I had an imagination fueled on nuclear ether. I tried to harness the chaos of that imagination by penning it on paper. A bit intense when gripping a pen, my fingers cramped within an hour. I got a D+ in high school typing class, unable to master a typewriter without buckets of whiteout and erasable bond paper. It would take access to a modern word processor and the ability to backspace and delete with impunity, before I struck up the nerve to start writing again many years later.
Thirty-plus years traveling for corporate America offered ample opportunities at boarding gates, on flights, and hotel rooms to write. While living overseas, I landed a non-paid gig writing articles for a local travel magazine. It was fun, and I acquired a small fan base.
Back to last year’s conference, they asked, “Why are you writing, and what’s your goal? How passionate are you about what you’re doing?”
Hell of a question. What do I want to be, besides thirty-years younger? I remembered a book I’d read about rebooting life when the distraction of a workaday world subsided. It asked similar, tough questions like, what gave me passion in my younger years. What was it I dreamt of as a kid?
The answer: I enjoyed times alone inside the chaotic ether of my imagination. After rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, I wanted to mine that creativity and put it in words.
The stories came easy, but understanding the mechanics of plotting and structure was a different breed of cat. I can quote the basic laws of chemistry, but dangling participles was something I learned on the fly. My first 300-page attempt was a laughable exercise that encouraged (I am a writer, I am, I am, I am), and depressed me (Dear Occupant, thank you for your submission, but …). Not having a pedigree that comes with a Fine Arts education, I had a steep hill to climb.
The journey took me on a rediscovery of subjects I’d glossed over in secondary school, like grammar. The proper use of commas was enough to send me to the nut house. Thankfully, Word spell check kept me from giving up entirely. I networked with authors and joined writer groups. Surviving a critique process from fellow writers is not for the weak-hearted.
I went to conferences to learn about the business of getting published. Rejection by the hundreds required the skin of a stegosaurus. With the prolificacy of traditional and indie publishing (an unending tsunami of content in Bob Mayer’s words), being published today is akin to the lone salmon swimming downstream against the horny hoards going the opposite direction during spawning season.
“Old dogs must learn new tricks”, Bob Mayer said. Exhuming a passion, buried for decades in a lead-lined box of adult obligations, can be one of the hardest things in a person’s life. It felt good to hear a professional corroborate what I had to learn on my own.
I’ve published a few short stories, but have yet to find a market for the five books I’d written. A wonderful agent tried to market two books I wrote a few years back, but no takers. It amazes me that she still answers my emails after those first attempts. Her advice to me – keep writing.
Don’t have to ask me twice. Hell, I can’t help myself. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I lost count how many times my wife caught me pacing a room with a blank look, lost in a scene inside the kaleidoscopic pandemonium of my imagination, when I should be cutting the lawn.
I just finished my sixth novel. Given the commentary from trusted beta readers, I still have some work to do. It isn’t because the story sucks. It’s about making it as good as it needs to be. I’m getting closer.
I’ll end it here. I have a story to edit. Have to make my own rain.
Oh, and the hyperactive muse who won’t let me sleep at night, is egging me to start a new idea.
Hmmm – wonder if I can do both at the same time?
Stoke the campfire and get ready for some chills and goosebumps when you open this paranormal addition to the award-winning Bethlehem Writers Group's "Sweet, Funny, and Strange" anthologies.More info →
How do you balance meeting your reader’s expectations with also surprising them?
Think of it this way:
Instead of writing a book, you’re making a movie. You put a lot of hard work into it and you think it’s pretty good so you’re kind of proud of the film. It turns out that all the people who see the movie think it’s SPECTACULAR and they want more. So you make more movies and you work hard to make each one a little better, more creative, more surprising. But people think that each movie is A LOT better. They LOVE your movies.
They can’t get enough of your movies.
You’re nominated for an academy award!
You’re going to walk the red carpet. But what to wear? You don’t want to disappoint anyone. Do you pick a neon pink, crystal-covered number because you are a star? Do you go for a classic cut gown because you want your audience knows you’re in it for the craft? Or, as the big night approaches, are you paralyzed by indecision and opt for the black, wide legged pants and a white blouse that you’ve worn to every wedding you attended in the last ten years? The latter choice, while sincerely attractive, will bore your audience to tears.
Just now I am trying to decide ‘what to wear; as I write book eight of The Witness Series. I had no intention of writing another Witness Series book until fans started asking why I left one beloved character out in the (literal) wilderness and I am paralyzed. One thing I know for sure is that my readers want me to answer the question of what happened to Billy but they want me to answer it in a way that pleases them. The problem is that I don’t know what I think. Should I give them a real crystal covered ending? A sober, long dress ending or do I play it safe in those palazzo pants and shirt and be done with it all.
I am driving myself crazy with what ifs and indecision. The last thing I want is to disappoint. But when this question was asked of the Extra Squeeze team, I realized there was one thing I hadn’t considered. It could be that my readers are telling me that what they really want is a natural end to the journey they have been on with me. Maybe they are gently pushing me to the neon pink dress shimmering with crystals because these characters deserve a conclusion that is spectacular and satisfying and true to the people they have become. Not characters, people who have a their own reality to live.
I guess there is nothing I can do but write. In the end, when this book is reviewed I will know if I was true to everyone: myself, my readers and these wonderful characters.
Writers always want to satisfy their fan base, gain new readers and at the same time, not lose sight of their own creative core. It’s a balancing act but I don’t think it’s always necessary. “Reader expectations” vary from writer to writer and from reader to reader but I think those expectations generally concern character; motivations, future plotting, desired outcomes. Successful series characters become dear friends — I’d have Miss Marple or Kinsey Millhone over to dinner anytime! The reader becomes invested.
I have clients who take reader input very seriously and I respect that. When reader’s express expectations that are at odds with what the author has in mind my response is to remind her that she is the one writing the story. Unless the fan suggestion is far better than what the writer had in mind — and that has happened, more than once! — I suggest that the writer bear the fan concerns in mind but not stray from her creative stream. Again, she is the creator of this work. It isn’t a collaborative effort.
If your work has garnered fans so engaged with your characters that they have developed their own expectations (or wishful ideas for story direction) then it is a blazing sign that your work is successful. A huge part of that success is the authenticity and originality of your voice. You write what your creative brain directs and the quality and truth of that is what appeals to readers. To consider fan input and to find you can accommodate some if not all of that input makes sense, but if it does not fit, gently reject it. There is nothing more jarring than a story that takes a discordant trajectory. You, as the author, know and feel when the story hits an off note — or you should!
Surprising readers is your job and you must be doing it right if your fan base is developing expectations. Inherent in that ‘surprise’ is often a trajectory that goes against reader expectations. That’s why it’s a surprise. Scarlett doesn’t wind up with Rhett. And that famous ending rings true to the original, authentic voice of the proceeding 960 pages. It’s still surprising readers 82 years later.
The best genre writing follows a formula of sorts and that formula contains some reader expectations; romance will have a successful love match, crime novels will vanquish the bad guy etc. Within that genre formula is a lot of room to play with character development and plot surprise. How each writer uniquely handles that is what keeps us genre readers coming back. Accommodate reader expectations if they work; write a gentle personal note when they don’t.
Robin is again, out of the loop. We have a suspicion she’s somewhere having a lot of fun without us.
I attended an author’s chat the other day at our local library. It’s always fun to hear an author talk about their craft— especially if you like their books. The bonus is mingling with other attendees. Who among us doesn’t enjoy chatting with fellow book lovers? I found myself in conversation with two women, each funny, gracious and interesting. When talk got to the inevitable “so what do you do?” I learned Kit was a nurse and Ruth, a writer. I added that I’m an editor and while Kit smiled acknowledgment, Ruth scowled.
Ten minutes later—after Kit had smiled apologetically and bowed out—I’d learned all about Ruth’s experience with editors. “They call themselves editors, but they’re really just critics. They couldn’t even follow the story, let alone the subtext. They’re just mean, simple-minded wannabe writers” and so forth. Yowza! I’d never encountered that before. I know a lot of editors, and none of them fit that bill. Best to just nod and try to look sympathetic while keeping an eye peeled for a graceful escape. Ruth had either met the world’s worst editors, or she’s simply unable to handle criticism. I suspect the latter.
Writing is hard, solitary work. It’s just you creating in a vacuum. Writing requires hours of reading, writing and revising, searching for just the right words to make a character live and breathe, the perfect plot twist, the right feel. Writing writing writing, and then hours of revision. The whole blood, sweat and tears combo. Then there’s the criticism; every writer has to face it if they want to share their work outside that creative vacuum.
It can be a hard pill to swallow. I know. I’ve been singed by some very savvy, very critical edits. Hard to have your heart and soul — not to mention all that BS&T—picked to pieces by others. But like mammograms, taxes and dirty diapers, it has to be faced.
As an editor, I’m really loath to offer a ‘critique’. That word has such baggage. If words have color, then criticism is a red-tinged pulsating mash-up of bruised blue and black. I prefer to think of what I do as editorial assessment, or an overview. (Words really are powerful, aren’t they?!) But no matter how I spin it, it comes down to criticism.
Criticism is like cholesterol; there’s the good kind and the bad kind. The LDL kind, the bad kind, is empty criticism. “ I don’t like it”, “Flimsy and transparent” or “I don’t get it”. My favorite being, “yeah, I read it. Interesting”. Ouch! Then there is the polite, painless approach: “Very nice!” What could that possibly mean?
Constructive criticism is HDL cholesterol, good for every writer’s circulation. Good criticism points out pitfalls and weaknesses, but it also explains why they are pitfalls and weaknesses. It sheds light on why it doesn’t work. Really good, healthy criticism offers solutions. I never expect an author to accept a solution I offer (and most don’t, they find their own). I offer it as a straw man—something to consider, breakdown, reject and replace with a better approach because suggesting a substitute shows the author the problem needing a solution. It’s because a writer creates in isolation that they can’t always hear a misstep. I’m guessing Ruth’s missed subtext was so sub it wasn’t there. Point this out to a writer and the light bulb goes on; they revise, and the story is stronger.
How should you, as a writer, react to criticism? You wrote it, you shared it—you must learn to account for it. How do your words strike people? Did the reader see nothing where you intended a scene to be revealing or suggestive, and so the story is confusing? You can’t dismiss the reader as thick, dense or stupid. You have to look at your words and consider improvement because clearly, those words didn’t do the job you had intended. Whether it’s a missed plot point or character motivation that can’t be seen, maybe it isn’t on the page; it’s still in your head. Revise, rewrite. Listen to the audience your words are intended for. The best writers respect their readers. Your work will only get better.
A good editing critique helps you identify weaknesses. Don’t take it personally. Constructive criticism is useful precisely because it isn’t personal. Your BFF is unwilling to risk a response that might be hurtful, but is that what a writer needs?
Writing’s about kicking doubt in the ass and shoving him out the door. Editing’s about inviting him back in for tea and scrutiny. *
I wish Ruth had invited her editor back in.
*from @novelicious, that magical twitter feed that is double chocolate for every writer’s sweet tooth.
Writing a book is not easy. If it were, everyone would do it.
Itâ€™s not like writing a term paper. Yes, it requires hard work and research, but the thing that makes a book special is the heart and soul the author puts into it. It really is like childbirth. Thereâ€™s a lot of pain and sweat and maybe some cursing, and then finally a new project is brought into the worldâ€”a unique and wonderful project that is nothing like anyone elseâ€™s. Just like a baby.
When a writer first decides to write a book, most of the time he or she is not quite sure how to go about it. The non-writing part of the population figures you just need to sit down and put in some time and poofâ€”a book is born (See term paper reference above). Yes, writing an entire book does take time. How much time? That depends on the writer. And you can speed up your writing time by accepting and loving your Process.
What is your Process? It is how you write your book. Not how I write my bookâ€”thatâ€™s my Process. You need to figure out your own processâ€”what works for you that gets you from Page One to The End. And the best way to do that is to write a book, all the way through.
Every writer has his or her own process. Iâ€™ve written and published twelve books over the past ten years or so, and I still call up my friend when I get stuck. And I still get stuck at the same place in every bookâ€”between chapters five and nineâ€”where I spend a long time banging my head against the wall and wondering if I will ever finish another book in my lifeâ€¦EVER. And you know what my friend says? â€œOh, thatâ€™s just your process.â€
For some reason, knowing that this is my process immediately makes me feel better.
â€œYou do this with every book,â€ she says.
â€œIâ€™ve been studying your process. Iâ€™m trying to learn from it.â€
You are? Can you clue me in?
I have learned some things about my process over the years. Thereâ€™s the chapter 5-9 problem. Usually when Iâ€™m in the middle of a frustrated, Tasmanian Devil spin, the realization that I am at the end of chapter six calms me down. Okay, this is what I always do. Grit teeth and tough it out.
Then thereâ€™s the fact that I am sort of an organized pantser. Iâ€™ve been selling on synopsis for about eight or nine years now. I write a synopsis and get approval from the publisher, and then I start writing the book. I write the first couple of chapters. Go back, change them. Decide no, thatâ€™s not where the story starts. Write a different beginning. Okay, this one might work. Write some more (usually just up to chapter 4 or soâ€”donâ€™t want to hit the No Manâ€™s Land of Chapters 5-9 while still wrestling with the beginning). I might even write a third incarnation of the beginning of the book. Send to writing friends for review. Get comments. Maybe I hear a speaker or read a writing book that makes me reconsider the beginning. Maybe I try storyboarding, but something still isnâ€™t right. In the end, nine times out of ten I will end up going back to my first version of the beginning of the book. Turns out that was the right place to start after all.
Once I have accepted the beginning few chapters, and I have wrestled with my chapter 5-9 issue, I usually get to the first love scene in the middle of the bookâ€”around chapter 10 or so. Writing love scenes and sexual tension is easy for me, so once I get to that point, the rest of the book flies. I am able to surge forward at warp speed and finish the book on time.
With every book I write, the frustration is still there. The certainty that my last book may well have been my LAST book. Every beginning I chase myself in circles. Every second quarter of the book I bang my head against the wall. Then I hit the middle and suddenly the words fly almost faster than I can type them. And when itâ€™s all over, I have a book to submit.
Then I have to do it all again for the next one.
Understanding my process definitely makes it easier to accept while I am in the midst of deadline angst. Loving my process is harder, but the two of us are joined irrevocably. We create wonderful stories together, and that makes it all worthwhile.
“If you ever say anything to anyone, they all die.”More info →
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