Write your best story. Change your life. Astound the world. Award-winning and internationally published author of the bestselling Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. Writes speculative and historical fic.
As writers, we have the opportunity to live lives of creativity, in which we get to craft whole worlds that conform to our every whim. Whether you’re writing your first book or your thirtieth, it’s always going to be a heady experience. But this comes with certain inherent pitfalls. Sometimes all this power can go to our heads and lead us into the dark waters of self-indulgent writing.
A few weeks ago, we talked about how you need to be writing to an audience of one: yourself. The idea is that you should be writing to yourself as your ideal reader. Write the kind of stories, characters, themes, and narrative you like to read, rather than trying to anticipate the preferences of a marketful of blank-faced readers.
There is, however, a problem with this mindset. Writers sometimes forget they’re supposed to be writing to themselves as readers (smart, critical, objective, well-read readers, right?), and instead end up writing for themselves as writers. And let’s face it, as writers, we don’t always enjoy the same thing we do as readers.
What Is Self-Indulgent Writing?
As readers, we spend a few hours reading what we hope will be a tight, logically-constructed narrative that mates intellect and emotion in an effortlessly entertaining, perhaps even transformative experience.
But that’s not exactly the writing experience, is it?
As writers, we spend months, sometimes years, playing with words, characters, and scenes on the meta-est of meta levels. For us, the experience doesn’t always seem tight and cohesive, or even logical. Sometimes we don’t want it to. Sometimes, we just want to glory in these characters we’ve created. We want to sit around and listen to our broody hero internally monologue for pages and pages about life problems and philosophy. We want to put our two adorable leads on a porch swing together and let them chat about sweet nothings for at least a couple chapters. We want to explore every square inch of this fantabulous fantasy world we dreamed up.
In short, as surprising as it may be (or not), the thing writers want most from the writing experience isn’t always what’s going to create the best reading experience.
This is where self-indulgent writing can rear its sneakily malevolent head.
Put simply, self-indulgent writing is writing that doesn’t work. It is writing that doesn’t serve the story. Self-indulgent writing is made up the of the “darlings” you’re always being told you’re supposed to kill. It’s stuff you might love as a writer, but that, were you an objective reader of your own stuff, you probably would not.
The Two Major Problems With Self-Indulgent Writing
Ultimately, self-indulgent writing is really nothing more or less than poor editing.
As writers, we have every right to be as self-indulgent as we want in our first drafts. That’s our playground. That’s a space made just for us. We get to be ridiculous there. We get to create stuff meant just for us, stuff that doesn’t ever have to please another person.
But remember that old bit of advice:
The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the reader.
If, at some point in the process, you are not taking control of any self-indulgent impulses that detract from the overall purity of a story’s vision, then you’re likely to end up with two results.
1. Your Story Won’t Live Up to Its Potential
If your goal is just to have fun with a story, don’t worry about cutting your darlings. But if your goal is to create something cohesive and resonant, at some point you must settle down to the discipline of writing. This means first identifying the core of your story’s vision and potential, and then doing all the darling-killing necessary to make it a lean, mean narrative machine.
2. You’re Being Disrespectful to Readers
A book is a contract between writer and reader. If you want to be read, and if you want to create something accessible, you have to respect your readers. Respect their time, respect their expectations, and respect their own relationship with your story. They’re paying you the respect of opening their lives and minds to you. They deserve only your best in return.
7 Signs of Self-Indulgent Writing
Today, let’s kick self-indulgent writing “out da door or tru da window” (*does best Sheldon Leonard impression*). Here are the seven signs of self-indulgent writing I see most often.
It’s telling that I see these most frequently in works that either haven’t been well-edited or that are the later productions of big-name authors who are assured of successfully publishing pretty much whatever they want regardless of quality.
If you can learn to spot, objectively analyze, and appropriately eliminate the following from your story, you will have taken a huge step toward streamlining your story into a powerfully-focused piece of art.
1. Extra Length
This is the gimme of the group. There’s a reason we so often see books in a series growing longer and longer with each entry—and it’s usually not because the quality is growing accordingly. Rather, it’s because the longer an author spends with a story and the more commercially successful it becomes, the less pressure there is to weigh the necessity of every word and scene. (Plus, there’s, you know, the little fact that the more entries there are in a series, the longer it lasts and the more money everybody makes. Every TV series ever: I’m looking at you.)
I harp a lot on long books. It’s not because I don’t like them. Almost all of my favorite books are doorstops. Indeed, most of my own books tend toward long word counts. But there’s a huge difference between books that need to be long and books that do not. Most books do not.
The Test: So is your long book the good kind of long—or the self-indulgent writing kind of long? I always say a book needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be. And the only way know to know the optimal length is to examine first your story’s structure (especially the structural timing) and then every scene, every element, even every word.
If you can pull anything without endangering or confusing the throughline of the plot (and therefore the throughlines of character and theme—because they’re all so perfectly intertwined, right?), then pull it. No matter how cute it is, or how fun it was to write, it’s ultimately dead weight. A story can support a few “extras,” but when a sizable amount of its word count fails to advance the story (and believe me, I’ve seen whole entries in series that qualify), then the entire foundation of the story is in danger—and readers are likely to feel frustrated because the author hasn’t respected their time enough to give them only the very best.
2. Extra POVs
Authors love POVs. The more POVs we can cram in a story, the more of our characters we get to explore from the inside out. Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes multiple POVs are indispensable to a story’s vision. But often, it’s a very bad thing.
Not only do extra POVs inevitably jack up the word count, they can also contribute to scattering the narrative. Every added POV makes a statement about what this story is supposed to be about. When POVs are added willy-nilly, for no other reason than the author liked this character or because it was convenient to show a scene from a certain perspective, the story suffers.
The Test: This may surprise some writers, but adding a POV simply because this character is the only person present in an important scene is not a good enough reason to include it. POV shapes your entire narrative. Masterful writers choose their POVs because of how they influence the story, and they use those POVs consistently from beginning to end.
By the same token, choosing to include a POV just because you like the character is not a good reason. Rather, you should be examining why this character’s POV contributes inimitably to the plot and theme. If you pull this character’s POV, what do you lose—what do you really lose? Unless you have a deliberate, conscious reason for including this POV, don’t. When in doubt, cut it out.
3. Unnecessary Philosophical Discussions
Most writers fall somewhere on the spectrum of viewing their writing as either entertainment or an intellectual contribution to the world. Both are valid. But within the latter lies the pitfall of turning your story into a pulpit for your own views. Even if you do this skillfully by sowing philosophical conversations into witty or conflict-laden dialogue, it can be tempting to spend too much time commentating on society, religion, philosophy, science, etc.
There’s a tremendous difference between using the inherent drama of a story to explore the realities of certain world views versus shoehorning in lengthy discussions of said world views. This becomes even more egregious when the world views being discussed aren’t even the point of the story.
The Test: Is there a subject you’re particularly passionate about? One you could talk about (or argue about) for hours? One you feel a burning desire to share with everyone you meet? If so, you already know your danger point. There’s no reason whatsoever you shouldn’t be sharing this passion with your readers (indeed, you should), but you must exercise extra discipline in sharing it in a way that advances your story.
If at any point, any reference to this subject could be removed without altering the protagonist’s journey to the Climactic Moment, then that’s a good sign it’s extraneous. Even if the information is necessary, make sure you’re sharing it in the most entertaining and unexpected way possible. Avoid being on-the-nose at all costs.
4. Worldbuilding That Doesn’t Move the Plot
Anyone who has invested in lengthy research or worldbuilding can fall prey to the temptation of exploring their settings at length—without moving the plot. Fantasy writers seem more notoriously guilty of this than any other type of writer. In part, this is because of the amount of time they spend creating their worlds, but, also, because they often discover their worlds through the writing. And then once all these delicious setting details or magic rules have been written, why on earth would you not want to share them with readers??? Of course, they’ll be just as enthusiastic about ever little detail as you.
The Test: It’s true many fantasy readers are passionate about the details of worldbuilding. But that’s what wikis are for. The moment lengthy worldbuilding moves beyond orienting readers in the setting and fails to advance the plot, that’s the moment when it’s time to start cutting. All those training scenes where your characters learn how to use their magic powers? Yes, sometimes they’re necessary for dramatizing character development. But sometimes they’re just filler while the author explores all the possibilities of this cool world.
5. “Teacher’s Pet” Characters
Like parents, writers aren’t supposed to have favorites among their children. But sometimes (a lot of times), we do. And sometimes the characters who end up becoming “teacher’s pets” are not the optimal characters for advancing the story.
This happens when authors fixate on minor characters (especially minor POV characters) who do not advance the plot or contribute to the overall cohesive vision for the story’s narrative and thematic premise. Again, this is a common problem in sequels. Readers enter a sequel expecting more of the same, only better. Adding new characters or shifting focus onto previously minor characters can alter the entire story experience as presented to readers in the first book.
The Test: As with POVs, question yourself every time you put the spotlight on a new character. Why are you looking at this person? Because she fascinates you? That’s a good reason for starters. But if it’s the only reason, it’s not good enough. If this character is truly important, it’s because she’s important to the story and to the forward progression of the thematic whole. If not, save her for a standalone book.
6. Experiments That Don’t Work
There’s only one rule in writing:
Follow all the rules—unless you can break them brilliantly. Then break them.
But let’s be honest. Most of us aren’t that brilliant. If you’re going to break the rules of narrative form, you first need to know what rules you’re breaking, why you want to break them, and if the result is actually better than if you hadn’t broken anything. If you can’t objectively answer those questions, then you’re likely to end up with a story that doesn’t work, disgruntles readers, or both.
The Test: Experimental fiction is fun, fine, and even, in its place, important. But you need to know why you’re thinking outside the box. If it’s just because you want to be different or brilliant, that’s probably a short road to disaster. Successful experiments are what happen when authors have a firm understanding of what they’re doing and why. But if you’re just playing with readers to prove you’re smarter than them or better than the rules they’ve learned to expect, then that’s just ego.
7. Jerking Readers Around With Poor Plot Twists
It’s always a dangerous thing to assume you’re smarter than your readers. Remember, after all, you are your ideal reader. Can’t be smarter than yourself, right? As a reader, you, like all the rest of us, probably love a good plot twist. But I bet what you don’t love is when authors try to fool you for no other reason than getting to yell, Gotcha!
Sometimes poor plot twists are the result simply of poor writing. Rather than intending to jerk the reader around, the writer just failed to properly set up the story’s foreshadowing. But sometimes as a writer, it can be tempting to pull outrageous plot twists just because we want an emotional reaction from readers. As much as readers want you to evoke their emotions, they never want you to do it unfairly or without good reason.
The Test: First question is always: “Does this twist advance the plot?” You know the drill by now: If you can yank it, yank it.
Second question is: “Have you set this up in a way that will satisfy readers by giving them what they wanted all along, if only on a subconscious level?” If you’ve set up a romance and led readers to anticipate it working out, they’re probably not going to appreciate it when it turns out one of the leads is pranking the other for a reality show.
Don’t jerk readers around. It’s not nice. Respect them, and they’ll respect you.
Avoiding most of these symptoms of self-indulgent writing comes down to practicing common sense. Know your vision for your story and adhere to it with discipline. It’s fine to play around with the shiny fun stuff, but don’t get sidetracked from what’s best for your story. Just realizing we all have a tendency to be self-indulgent will help you stay on top of the temptation and keep your writing as crisp and powerful as possible.
I’m not doing a regular blog post today, since I’m spending this week visiting my adorable niece and nephew. Just so you don’t miss me too much while I’m gone, here are some goodies to keep you busy!
1. One of My Favorite Posts From the Archives
This post from two years ago examines seven important questions about scenes vs. chapters, which will help you better understand and control your narrative. >>Click to read.
2. My Latest Greatest Writing Read
This should come as no surprise, since I’ve been raving for months now about the excellent essay anthology Light the Dark. In it, respected authors were invited to share passages from their own reading that they felt were formative to their journeys as writers. The insights are vast, and as varied as the authors.
3. My Surprising New Writing Music
Study Music Alpha Waves: Relaxing Studying Music, Brain Power, Focus Concentration Music, ☯161 - YouTube
Most of the time, I write exclusively to epic music—movie scores and trailer music companies like Two Steps From Hell. But lately I’ve really found these “alpha wave” compilations great for quieting my mind and concentrating.
4. The Novel I’m Enjoying Right Now
My first experience with Anton Myrer, Once an Eagle, immediately became one of my favorite books. After several disappointing fantasy novels earlier this year, I’m enjoying the strong and controlled writing found so far in Myrer’s nostaglic ode to the pre-World War II years, The Last Convertible.
I’ll be back on Monday the 12th with a new post. See you then!
Humor is like any other type of writing: setup, payoff, setup, payoff, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s all there is to it!
Okay, that’s not all there is to it. Humor is a craft that can be learned and perfected. With that in mind, let’s look at how a joke is crafted.
How to Write Funny: Set It Up and Pay It Off
The formula is: For any given setup, the payoff is the negation of the setup.
The setup: Babies are inherently cute.
The payoff: That is one ugly baby.
The joke: A woman boards the bus with her infant, and the driver cannot help himself: “That’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” The woman sits down and tells her seatmate the driver insulted her. The seatmate is horrified: “You give him a piece of your mind! Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”
The jokes: This is used to great comedic effect multiple times.
At the opening when he is preternaturally cheery despite being captured.
When Mjolnir does not respond to his call.
When he insists his girlfriend didn’t dump him.
When he screams in fright while being dragged to meet the Grandmaster.
When the Grandmaster keeps referring to him as the Lord of Thunder.
When he sees his opponent in battle is the Hulk, his “friend from work.”
When he assumes his login is “Strongest Avenger” when it actually is “Bodhi from Point Break.”
In his special Equanimity, comedian Dave Chappelle has a joke about his high-schooler son going to parties. Dave tells his son if the son ever found himself in a situation where his ride was drunk to call Dave.
The setup: Dave is a responsible parent.
The payoff: Dave is not a responsible parent.
The joke: Inevitably, the son calls from a party, and Dave is upset: “Do you know what time it is? It’s 1 AM! I’m drunk!” Dave tacks on two more payoffs to extend the laugh:
Dave decides to drive his son anyway.
When Dave gets the address, he realizes they’re at the same party.
In extending the joke, Dave uses both shock (driving drunk to stop drunk driving) and the unexpected (Dave is also out partying that weekend).
6 Types of Humor You Can Use in Your Writing
1. Stakes and Identification
In the early 2000s, Ashton Kutcher developed a show called Harassment, with the premise of doing shocking things to regular people. The pilot featured an ordinary couple who returned to their hotel room only to discover a dead body surrounded by a pool of blood. “Security” arrived and refused to let them leave the room.
One $10 million lawsuit and countless therapy visits later, Kutcher retooled the show as Punk’d. This time, it was a hit, and the only difference was that it lowered the stakes (the higher the stakes, the less humor).
Finding a dead body in your room and facing prison… the stakes do not get much higher. Punk’d lowered the stakes. One prank featured a jealous man who took a baseball bat to a replica of a star’s new car. It’s okay to laugh at the star’s anguish and confusion because we know the car is fine. This is a technique known as dramatic irony, in which readers know more than a character does about a situation, which transfers our identification to the prankster.
After the initial payoff, another payoff to the same setup is known as a callback. Callbacks are a great way to increase comedic momentum. For this reason, comedians almost always end their sets on a callback. In Ragnarok, Loki’s ecstatic reaction to Hulk stomping Thor is a callback to the climax of The Avengers (which, as you may recall, ends on a callback of its own: #Schwarma).
When an element does not fit expectation, it is incongruous or counter to expectation; we react to this by laughing. The mighty Thor screaming in fright does not line up with our expectations. Nor does Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster meet our expectation of a fearsome character.
Absurdism defies literal explanation, temporal logic, sometimes even physics itself. One of my favorite examples is when the Beatles are tormenting a banker on the train in A Hard Day’s Night. After being in the corridor to his left, a second later they are on his right—-and off the train, banging on his window. Absurdism is truly unexpected, a key element of comedy. The more unexpected the payoff, the bigger the laugh—which is why when Thor is hit in the head by the metal ball, it gets the biggest laugh in the film.
Because of absurdism’s disregard for niceties of plot and logic, it is best used judiciously. Too much absurdity can disrupt plot mechanics and make the piece too frothy. However, a moment or two of absurdity can lift an overly serious work.
Slapstick is a huge component of humor. Wherever characters are falling down or running into walls, slapstick lives. The Three Stooges personify slapstick, as does Thor and Loki when they play “get help.”
Slapstick is the easiest form. One moment your character is walking and talking, and the next they have fallen down a manhole—while the other person continues the conversation. A moment of slapstick instantly changes the tone of any scene.
6. The One Technique All Decent Folk Hate
Black humor is the most vital, life-affirming humor there is—because it is the one that laughs in the face of death, pain, and suffering. For example:
Setup: Danger should be avoided.
Payoff: I want it to be dangerous.
Joke: My Craigslist date stood me up and I was really hoping to get murdered tonight. (Via Twitter user Mr. Bea Arthur.)
If you do not gasp and sputter in shock at that joke, you’re a terrible person, and you need to friend me on Facebook RIGHT NOW.
When we laugh at something scary, it robs its power over us. Four Lions, a film about inept British terrorists, is a great recent example of taking an existential horror and letting us laugh at it by making it ridiculous.
Making Humor Work for You
Effective humor is on-theme humor. Cracking a joke just for a laugh weakens your story.
Humor can act as counterpoint. Since the stakes are generally lower in a subplot, making it humorous is a good way to increase the entertainment value of your work.
Humor can foreshadow in an entertaining and unexpected way. Make your beats do double duty.
Make a story beat surprising by making it a joke. A laugh is a great way to alleviate growing tension without changing the underlying mechanics.
Humor can be used to reveal character. Having characters act in ways diametrically opposed to their words can be effective and funny.
Mastering humor can seem daunting, but it is just a craft, and a craft can be mastered with practice. When your audience laughs, they won’t be wondering how hard you worked on that joke, they’ll be too busy laughing.
Which reminds me of a joke: Why did the writer write? To get to “the end.”
I didn’t say it was a good joke.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you included humor in your story? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!
When you think about it, the transformative power of the written word is no less phenomenal than the technological miracles of computers, televisions, and smarts phones. Both are alchemy. Technology uses wires and circuits to turn code into the wonder of light and color. Writing does exactly the same thing. Little black squiggles on the page have the power to reach another human being’s mind and light it up with imagery just as vivid as anything that person might experience in the real world.
In reading, all you see are words on paper. But think about one of your favorite books. The visual memory that returns to you is not one of black words on white paper, is it? What you see are images—recalled snapshots of an experience that, in your mind’s eye, looks almost as real as memories of your actual life.
That is the marvelous power of written fiction.
As readers, we know this instinctively. But as writers, we can sometimes get so lost in the technical minutiae of the art form that we forget fiction’s visceral impact. To readers, a story is light and color, sensation and emotion. To writers, fiction is often words. Ideas. Themes. Plot. Structure. Scenes.
Although all those things are crucial to a solid story, they are ultimately just the framework for a reader’s sensory experience of your work. This is why it’s so important for writers to think visually when writing.
Creating Visual Memories of Your Stories: An Exercise
In her essay “Nobody Asked You to Write That Novel” in the anthology Light the Dark, Pulitzer-winner Jane Smiley observed:
The moments are what come to mind when I think about the books I like best—moments that stick in my mind as pictures. When you’re deep into reading a book that you’re very fond of, the images pass through your mind and leave a permanent impression. I don’t tend to remember the ideas as strongly. For me, a novel’s conceptual framework generally takes a backseat to the images that tell the story. Ultimately, these images are more important and enduring than what the writer believes.
Today, I want to challenge you to stop thinking about scenes (not permanently, of course, but just as an exercise). Instead, start thinking of your story in terms of images.
Maybe you immediately have a strong visual response. (Whenever I listen to Nightwish’s “Last of the Wilds,” I experience an almost overwhelming image of my heroine from Dreamlander riding a black stallion through the white snow toward a battle.)
Last of the Wilds by Nightwish - YouTube
Maybe what you experience is more of a jumbled mass of pictures—as if you dumped a box of Polaroids onto a table—vivid and real but without conscious order.
Or maybe you have to purposefully conjure specific images based on scene ideas—creating them on the spot, rather than discovering them already preformed in your own mind.
No one of these responses is right or wrong. But the stronger your visual memories of your story, the more likely you will be able to craft words that work the same alchemy for readers.
The very nature of reading encourages us to believe we’re looking through the prose to worlds on the other side of the ink.
To that end, here are six ways you can learn to pay attention to your own visual imagination, mine it for its full wealth, and then craft a story that unforgettably shares those riches with your readers.
1. Recall Your Visceral Responses From Other Books
The first step to writing strongly visual fiction is to gain a conscious understanding of this highly subconscious phenomenon. Look to yourself and your own reading experiences.
Again, think of your favorite reading experiences (not movie experiences, since they’re already explicitly visual). What do you remember? What do you see? (And definitely try to go beyond any image that might have been directly influenced by the book’s cover or other related art.)
Try to remember these “moments” in the story as specifically as possible. Mentally flesh out the visual details. Now… what do you feel? What emotions do you associate with these moments? Do you remember what was happening in the plot? In the theme? Do you have an intellectual memory or understanding of these things as well? Or is what you feel more of an idea?
Again, there are no right or wrong answers. Just analyze your experiences and your responses. Figure out what about these particular scenes is so visually arresting they’ve become imprinted in your memory.
2. Fill Your Mind With Images
You cannot draw water from an empty well. None of us are capable of coming up with something out of nothing. We all need external “objective” input from the outside world in order to, in turn, create something subjective from within our interior worlds.
Remember the Neil Gaiman quote we referenced a few weeks ago? He talked about how our early (and not-so-early) influences get tossed into the compost heap of our minds where they’re broken down into the kind of rich and fertile soil we require to grow new ideas.
This is why writers must be students of the world. Being a student begins by opening yourself to experiences and, particularly, images. Yes, read like crazy. But also look like crazy. Become an avid looker of the world. At every opportunity, fill your brain with new images.
When possible, travel. Watch movies of all types—the more varied, the better. Study paintings: if it’s of people, study every single face: look for the artist’s conscious decisions in every brushstroke. Utilize Pinterest by following a variety of boards, everything from global scenery to fantasy paintings to architecture.
Be a visual glutton. Cram your imagination full of beautiful and arresting images. You won’t even be aware of how most of these images influence your own writing, but they will.
Recently, I rewatched Disney’s animated Robin Hood, which was a childhood favorite. I was surprised to be able to realize how much of the film’s imagery had impacted my own writing. (The armory behind the waterfall in Dreamlander? I can now see how that was totally my imagination recycling the scene when Robin takes Marian to his hidden camp through the entrance behind the waterfall.)
Love goes on - Robinhood - YouTube
3. Study Symbolism
The reason imagery is so memorable—and so powerful—is because it represents symbolism. This is true on both a universal level (e.g., we all instinctively understand the implications of light and dark), but also on a personal level. The reason certain images from certain stories remain with you so intensely is because they represent or are in themselves symbols of things that are important to you.
We might argue that art itself is essentially nothing more or less than symbolism. Especially when it requires people to interact with it emotionally (rather than on a conscious, logical level), it becomes a manifestation or metaphor of a deeper feeling, idea, or belief.
Written fiction tends to complicate this idea. Unlike a painting, which simply is what it is and offers no commentary upon itself, written fiction is almost entirely its own commentary. This is why writers instinctively understand the importance of the principle “show, don’t tell.” The more we tell—the more we commentate—the more we degrade a story’s natural symbolism.
To execute symbolism well, writers must have a conscious understanding of this powerful tool. One way to look at symbolism is as the intersection of imagery and meaning. This definition affords guidelines for study. Part of paying attention to your own visceral reactions to images (those you see in real life, film, and visual art, but also those you imagine based on the written word) is, first, asking yourself what these reactions tell you these images mean to you, and, then, what it is you think the artist intended them to mean.
4. Make Use of Weather, Lighting, and Color
Universal symbolism largely draws its metaphors from universal sources. Top among these are weather, lighting, and color. Think of these as these as the primary colors on your palette—red, blue, and yellow. They’re bold, they’re brash, they’re impossible to ignore, and they’re powerfully memorable. But they’re also just the starting place for more nuanced uses of symbolic imagery.
Think again about some of your favorite remembered scenes. I bet some of the most powerful aspects of these memories incorporates one or all of these elements.
More than once, when I’ve struggled to write a scene, it’s because the lighting is off. Sounds crazy, but sometimes you just can’t write a scene the way you want it if you have the sun shining down on your characters.
Same goes for color. Color galvanizes all my visual scenes. In all my memories, it’s the colors that pop to mind first. And when I do the mental exercise of running through one of my stories image by image, my mind’s eye is instantly awash in color.
5. Train Yourself to Think in Images
Allow me a momentary rabbit trail: It has been my observation that the reason many writers get hung up on the outlining process is because they’re too focused on the words. They’re creating a list of scenes that is nothing but words (e.g., Larry went to town; Maya broke her leg). When they stop thinking of the outline as a scene list and instead start using it as a brainstorming exercise in which they vividly envision their scenes, everything changes.
However important it may be, if scene structure is the beginning and end of how you think about scenes, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients. In planning every scene in your story, discipline yourself to take a step back from the plotting. Instead of focusing rigorously about how your character has to have a goal and that goal has to be met by conflict, give your subconscious a chance to speak up. Stop thinking about the scene and start seeing it.
A recent reviewer of my aviation-adventure novel Storming made my day by saying that “some of her stuff is outrageous, but always entertaining.” To me, this means I’m doing my job right. I’m opening up my subconscious and using its unique and vibrant images. Instead of just writing, “oh, and then they had a fight,” I’m trying to find the most interesting visual to represent this important moment in the plot.
But remember, even as you’re relying on the power of universal symbolism, you’re trying to avoid using the same old image readers have seen a million times before. You’re taking all your own visual influences, throwing them in a food processor, and seeing what new and interesting mashup emerges. Don’t settle for seeing the same old sights; seek brave new visions.
6. Polish Descriptive Skills
And now, finally, we come to the subject of execution. Writing is ever a tale of duality: subconscious and conscious. Your conscious brain can have nothing worthwhile to execute if the subconscious isn’t supplying it with rich fodder. But even the richest imaginations will fail to connect with others if the conscious execution isn’t portraying ideas as powerfully and cleanly as possible.
Really, the art of creating visual fiction is as vast as the art of narrative writing itself. Choosing the right words, balancing subtext and context, knowing when to show and when to tell, even crafting solid structures and themes—all of these are inherent to marvelously visual fiction.
A writer’s imagination is the ultimate fantasy land. Visit it fully every chance you get. Open the doors and let it spill into the real world. And, in return, never cease feeding those fantasies with the beauties and wonders of reality. Taking full advantage of the shared imaginative experience the written word creates between individuals is one of the most incredible opportunities and greatest privileges of being a writer.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is an image you recall vividly from one of your favorite books? Tell me in the comments!
This week only, I’m joining up with the popular editing software ProWritingAid to give you a special discount when you purchase their premium license in a bundle with my own Outlining Your Novel Workbook software.
ProWritingAid Premium and Outlining Your Novel Workbook together this week only for just$65 (a $90 value). Until February 24th, get the Outlining Your Novel Workbook ($40) and 1 year of ProWritingAid Premium ($50) for just $65.
Scroll down to read more.
ProWritingAid Premium: Editing Power Without Limitations
In the words of my developer Bob Miller, ProWritingAid is a premium tool for helping you spot “clichés, difficult sentences, slow pacing, repeated phrases, and much more”:
I’ve used ProWritingAid.com for years. In just a few moments of analysis, the program shows me grammar, style, and readability issues. I don’t consider my novel fully edited until I’ve used this program to analyze each chapter.
Here’s a bit more about the extra perks you get when you go premium:
1) No word count
If you don’t write that often, you will probably get along just fine with the free version and its 500-word limit. If, however, you want to analyze full chapters, articles, reports, or essays and get a wider overview of your work, then ProWritingAid Premium is for you.
Premium users have access to the ProWritingAid Desktop App (perfect for Scrivener and Mac users), as well as add-ins for MS Word, Google Docs, and Chrome.
3) Full Word Explorer functionality
The Word Explorer has fast become one of ProWritingAid’s most popular and most-used features. Premium users get a more in-depth exploration of their vocabulary, sparking creativity and more dynamic word choice.
The Outlining Your Novel Workbook provides an intuitive and easy-to-use fill-in-the-blanks format that will guide you through every step of the outlining process. Creating your own outline is as simple as starting on the first screen, using its prompts and lessons to work through your story in the most intuitive way, and clicking through the tabs at the top of the screen to access important sections such as Premise, Characters, and Settings.
The Outlining Your Novel Workbook program makes outlining a fun and empowering process that will help you write your best story.
Outline – Create a story with a solid Three-Act plot structure and perfect scene structure.
Premise – Easy fill-in-the-blanks give you a perfect elevator pitch every time.
General Sketches – Brainstorm the big picture of your scene list, character arcs, and theme.
Character – Get to know your characters with an extensive character interview, featuring 100+ questions.
Settings – Keep track of your settings, explore your best options, and answer helpful world-building questions.
Fun Extras – Import your mind maps and world maps, keep track of your story’s timeline, cast your characters, and create story-specific musical playlists.
So many pieces have to come together to create skillful fiction that it’s almost disingenuous to suggest there are only one or two that make or break the story. But turns out: it’s true. And if my marquee-style post title wasn’t enough to give it away, let me spell it out: for a story to work, it must possess… cohesion and resonance.
To some extent, I’ve been guilty of taking these two little guys for granted. It’s so easy to focus on the big guns—structure, character, theme—that you forget why any of it matters in the first place. But recently, I’ve realized that the two things that truly matter to me in fiction—the two things that make or break whether an otherwise well-written story not just works, but kicks everything up to the next level—are (you guessed it) cohesion and resonance.
Actually, I’ve always harped on the importance of cohesion and resonance. If you run a search, you’ll find that both are common words on this site. But they’ve always been background to whatever else I’m talking about—be it structure, characters, theme, or even POV.
However, of late, I find these two words frequently running through my head in response to some of the exciting big-name stories (both books and movies) that have ended up disappointing me. Mentally, I find myself doing a Barney Fife impression: They! have! to! be! shown!
So today, let’s talk cohesion and resonance. Let’s examine what each is, why they matter individually, how they work together, and how you can make sure your story isn’t missing out on these two incredibly vital and powerful magic ingredients.
What Is Cohesion?
Cohesion is logic. Cohesion is organization. Cohesion is cutting away the nonessential to find the essential.
Basically, cohesion is what happens when everything in a story is there for a reason. Every single part of the story is part of a united whole. It all pulls together, seamlessly, toward the same end goal.
Cohesion is not a hodge-podge of ideas thrown onto the page just because they’re all shiny and cool. Cohesion is what you get from a writer who has a specific vision for the story and who works with diligence and discipline to discover the story elements best optimized to support that vision and then pare away all the darlings that distract from it.
A few weeks ago, someone asked me to name some of my favorite movies. I started rattling off titles: Great Escape, Gladiator, Master and Commander, True Grit, Warrior, Black Hawk Down, Singin’ in the Rain, Secondhand Lions, Bourne Identity, It’s a Wonderful Life. I immediately realized the one thing all these stories have in common is a focused and cohesive plot. It’s so well done in these stories that you almost take it for granted. I certainly do. I don’t say, “Oh, I love The Great Escape because it’s so cohesive.” When I’m watching it, studying it, trying to figure out what makes it so powerful for me, I’m thinking more about technical stuff like plot and pacing, character and theme.
But here’s the thing: plot, pacing, character, and theme are founded on cohesion. You can have a story that does all those things—even does them well—but if it doesn’t bring them together in a cohesive way, the story as a whole will falter and fail.
Granted, it’s preferable to have pieces that are better than the whole, rather than pieces and whole that both stink. But how much better to have a story that is brilliant because its brilliant pieces came together into a single brilliant whole?
The Best Way to Create Cohesion
All right, so you’re sold: pass the cohesion. But where do you get it?
Cohesion is about all the pieces in your story coming together into a unified whole. But the single best place to start that coming-together is with your structure. If your story lacks cohesive structure, it will also lack the foundation upon which to execute the rest of your vision.
And, yeah, we’re back to the idea of vision. If you’re going to create a cohesive structure, you have to know what you want this story to be as a whole. It has to be more than just a random collection of dramatic events carefully timed to coincide with the structural beats.
Here are several points to keep in mind:
Structure is the backbone of your story.
If you don’t have a structure, you don’t have a story. You just have a bunch of stuff happening—and that’s if you’re lucky. I’ve seen far too many stories that offered lots of stuff happening but next to no progression in the plot. Structure is what keeps you on track and assures you’re creating a story rather than just action.
Structural events tell you what this story is about.
Anybody with a little education can structure a story. But you know you’ve found a masterfully structured story when you can pull all the major structural moments out of the narrative (as I do in the Story Structure Database) and see the common elements from plot point to plot point. Nothing is random. It all connects. One of my favorite examples is Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator—a sprawling and varied story that never loses sight of itself thanks to its structural underpinning in the throughline of Howard Hughes’s obsession with aviation.
Structural events need to form a continuous line of catalytic change.
This isn’t to undermine the importance of other structural moments, obviously. But if you want to verify that your structure is cohesive—all its parts are telling the same story—the first place to look is at your Inciting Event (halfway through the First Act), your Midpoint (halfway through the Second Act), and the Climactic Moment (end of the Third Act). The Inciting Event and Climactic Moment, in particular, should bookend each other; the Inciting Event asks a question which the Climactic Moment directly answers. The Midpoint is the Moment of Truth in between that redirects the story from the character’s understanding of the question in the first half (in both the plot and the theme) and the character’s understanding of the answer in the second half.
When it comes right down to it, good structure is all about good foreshadowing: plants and pay-offs. The end is in the beginning—and if it is not, then the story isn’t cohesive.
What Is Resonance?
A story with cohesion is a story that is already far better than most. But cohesion is only half the magic. The other half is resonance.
Resonance is meaning. Resonance is what reader Eric Copenhaver called, in an email to me, “mythic value.” Resonance is what raises a story from interesting anecdote to universal affirmation.
You know that feeling you get when you connect with a story? That’s resonance. And that’s what we’re all looking for, as both readers and writers. Resonance is what lifts a story beyond mere entertainment into an experience of life itself.
Stories without resonance may be fun, but they’re quickly forgotten. This is true in any genre. Whether it’s a “big” epic journey or a “little” comedy sketch, it won’t matter to readers on any level unless it is a mirror reflecting a truth back at them.
Cohesion and resonance go hand in hand because they build one off the other. It’s hard (although not impossible) to get resonance out of a story that lacks cohesion. Cohesion is the ship in which resonance sails; if it’s leaky, the deeper meaning is going to get at least a little water-logged. And vice versa: if there’s no resonance helming your perfectly cohesive ship, best case scenario is that it just aimlessly wanders the seas.
Resonance is a little slippery, mostly because it’s also a little subjective. Although there are certainly universal truths we all resonate with, there are also specific stories or scenes that affect the individual in ways they do not affect the group. Still, it’s pretty easy to spot the stories that didn’t get it done in the resonance department: they’re soulless.
These are the stories you can just tell had little to no passion behind them. They’re stories that were churned out either to make money or just to fit a technically perfect structure (probably both). They’re stories that lack imagination, originality, empathy, and courage.
That said, it’s entirely possible to be imaginative, original, empathetic, and courageous—and still produce a story that lacks resonance, simply because it wasn’t executed well.
The Best Way to Create Resonance
Like cohesion, resonance only occurs when everything in the story comes together to support a singular vision. But as with cohesion and structure, there is an obvious entry point to checking and refining your story’s resonance.
The entry point to resonance is theme.
Great themes can arise from poorly-structured stories. Usually, this is simply the result of an author’s deep personal awareness and exceptional narrative skill. Few writers start out fully equipped with either. But the good news is that creating resonance via theme is something you can learn to do consciously and deliberately.
If cohesion is intellectual resonance, then resonance is emotional cohesion. Resonance is what you get when you’re able to purposefully shape plot and theme to create a unified feeling in your readers. Along the way, you’re likely to give them some interesting ideas to chew on, but even before their brains begin to process all that, they’re going have a sense, a feeling, that Yeeeeeeessss, this works. This is right. This is true.
Resonant stories are those that use their plots to tell the story of the theme, rather than using the theme to simply embellish the plot. Think of plot as the extroversion of the theme. The plot provides the dramatic background that forces the characters to physically work through questions of universal truth. The theme and plot are integrally connected in that one always comments on the other. The plot is, in many ways, a metaphor for the theme, and theme is likewise a commentary on the plot.
Theme is the central existential question/answer that powers your plot.
A lot of people think “theme” is a one-word virtue or vice that sums up the essence of the story. Although you often can sum up a story’s theme in one word, it’s more instructive to think of theme as a question—and the plot as an externalized search for the answer. Try boiling your theme down to a central question (e.g., What is the cost of war? How do we overcome our pasts? Is idealism dangerous?). A complex story will never be as simple as just one question (indeed, ask a group of people to name the central theme in your favorite story and you’re likely to get many different—and probably accurate—suggestions). But that central question should be your guiding light in choosing cohesive plot elements every step of the way.
Writers often talk about “plot-driven fiction” vs. “character-driven fiction.” I would argue that truly resonant fiction is rarely either/or. This is because theme is the bridge between plot and character. The character’s arc explores the theme’s inner workings, while the character’s actions explore the theme’s external realities. When done well, plot, character, and theme come together powerfully in a cohesive and resonant whole.
Theme is not dogmatic.
It is impossible to write a truly resonant story if you believe you have all the answers. Because, face it, you don’t. (Sorry, keepin’ it real.) This is where the tough part of being honest comes into play. When you select your story’s central question, you must be willing to chase down all the possible answers. This doesn’t mean you have to believe them all. But it does mean you have to empathize with them enough to play devil’s advocate. You have to examine all aspects of your question with painful honesty. There’s a quote I like about how good fiction doesn’t offer answers, it just asks questions. This isn’t entirely true, since most stories will offer some kind of solution via the protagonist’s final choices. But if those final choices are going to ring true and give readers something worth thinking about, the journey to the end must be one of empathy.
Okay, so I admit I’m writing this post for totally selfish reasons. I love cohesive and resonant fiction. I can’t get enough of it. I want more, more more. I want to write it, and I want you to write it so I can read it! In the midst of all your structuring, character building, and prose polishing, take a moment to check these two all-important ingredients of great fiction off your list. If you can create a story with cohesion and resonance, I guarantee you will have written something truly magical.
Here’s my somewhat radical idea: Writers don’t need to know who their audience is.
And, yes, I know this goes entirely against popular advice, which encourages (even insists) that beginning authors must know their audience. I’ve probably even said basically that somewhere or other on this site.
You’re supposed to go so far as to write up a dossier of your ideal reader, sometimes even complete with a stock photo.
Or at the very least, you’re supposed to think of one person who you know reads your books (your mom, your editor, that one really nice reviewer) and write solely to that person as a representative of your audience.
On the surface, those ideas don’t sound so bad. And yet when writers sit down to try to form an idea of their “ideal audience,” most of us come up blank.
“Um, my audience is, you know–[insert vague gesture]–anybody who likes books like this.”
Helpful, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing though: your “audience” only matters when it comes time to market the book. That whole write-a-dossier-of-your-ideal-reader thing? That’s a copywriting trick—an advertising technique.
Sure, you’re probably writing this book for eventual sale, but, frankly, selling it is the last thing you should be thinking about when you’re writing it. Time enough to figure out who to sell it to once you’ve finished and know what kind of book you’ve got.
Does that mean you should completely forget about an audience while writing? Should you just pretend no one but you is ever going to see this book?
The answer to that is yes. And… no.
Writing for the right audience is incredibly important. But it’s not what you think—partly because finding that audience is actually incredibly easy.
The Problem of Focusing on Writing to the Right Audience
These days, publishing is the wild west. Authors are entirely responsible for carrying their own marketing six-guns. We have to be both artist and businessperson. It’s a tough balance, especially if you’re determined to make a living.
I’m all for business-savvy authors going out there with their amazing books and crushing it. But I am first and always an advocate for the art. You will never hear me tell an author to write to the market. But when an author writes “to an audience” that’s often exactly what’s happening.
“Writing to the right audience” is the first step on the dark road to the kind of soulless disasters Hollywood is churning out right now. It may be a road paved with good intentions (and it is certainly not a road that always leads to soulless disasters), but it is a road that oversteps the most important question of creativity. That question is not “Will this sell and who will buy it?”—but, rather, “What do I want to say and why is this important to me?”
And yet… you gotta have an audience, right? And you gotta find it somewhere, right?
I would argue that you don’t find the right audience; the right audience finds you. I don’t mean that in a marketing sense, because that’s really another topic altogether. What we’re talking about here is writing to the right audience.
Imagine a cellist playing one of Bach’s solo suites. Does he consider his audience? (Did Bach, for that matter?) Does he play the suite differently to audiences of different incomes and educations and social backgrounds? No. The work selects its audience.
Who Is Your Audience?
You don’t need to create a complex dossier of your ideal reader. You don’t need to hunt down the perfect stock photo of what this person might look like. Just go stand in front of the mirror.
You are your perfect audience.
As Toni Morrison famously said:
If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
As we’ve talked about elsewhere recently, the most important ingredient you bring to your art is yourself. Never lose that in trying to appeal to what you think readers want. This doesn’t mean you aren’t always trying to improve your technique or make your writing as accessible as possible. But it does mean that if you’re not writing something you would kill to read, then you’re probably writing the wrong thing.
This is true on so many levels. Not only should be you be writing to the reader who enjoys the stories, characters, and themes that you do—you should also be writing to a reader who has reached your own level of reading. Don’t write down to readers. Expect them to be as smart as you, as story-savvy as you, as keen about all your favorite weird subjects as you. Sure, there will be readers who aren’t quite there; but in trusting even them, you’re giving them the gift of an opportunity to rise, rather than an excuse to remain complacent. More than that: you’re being honest. Arguably, honesty is one of the single most important components in truly resonant art, of any kind.
If you can do this—if you can write to yourself as the audience—you’ll discover you’re not just writing to yourself. You’re one in a million, remember? That means there are upwards of 10,000 people just like you and a whole lot more whose interests overlap. That’s your audience, baby.
4 Tips for Writing to the Right Audience
Basically, my big bit of advice here is: write for yourself and don’t worry too much about your readers. Not yet anyway. As they say,
The first draft is for the writer; the second draft is for the reader.
Once you realize this, there are a couple steps you can take to optimize this mindset in creating your best possible book. Here are four.
1. Write to Your Audience of One
This is where it all starts. Just write a book you would objectively love to read.
That’s not as simple as it sounds. It can be incredibly easy to write a book, enjoy writing it, and then realize (usually a few years later) that this book is not even close to something you’d like to read but actually even presents characters and themes with which you’re in total disharmony. I know; I’ve done it.
This can happen for two reasons:
1. You’re trying to imitate authors you perceive as successful or especially erudite.
2. You’re unconsciously (or not-so-unconsciously) mimicking trends you’re absorbing in popular media.
This is why it’s important to be rigorously aware of yourself as a person—and, in turn, rigorously honest with yourself as a writer. When I’m in the prep stages of my novels’ outlines, I always try to step back and objectively evaluate the ideas I’m coming up with:
Is this theme playing out like this because this is how it always plays out—or because it’s representing something I believe is true?
Is this character behaving like this because this is how this type of character is expected to behave—or because it feels honest and true to me?
Am I creating this plot because it’s a familiar and successful iteration—or because I am just insanely in love with it?
This goes for the writing itself. Choose words and write sentences that make sense to you and that you feel you would enjoy reading. Don’t limit yourself to your preconceptions of your readers’ skill level. Time enough to make adjustments for any errors in judgement (aka, writing-that-wasn’t-quite-as-brilliant-as-you-though-it-was) when you start getting feedback from confused beta readers.
2. Trust Your Readers as Humans
Writers often end up on two extreme ends of the spectrum: either we just assume readers will get what we’re saying no matter how incomprehensible, or we worry readers won’t get anything we’re trying to say and we just spell it all out.
You know both are mistakes because you know that, as a reader, you would appreciate neither. Your goal is to try to strike the perfect balance of clarity and trust you find in your own favorite authors.
One of the best rules of thumb is simply remembering your readers are humans too. They’re living this life same as you—learning as they go, same as you. The older and more mature they are, the more likely they are to extrapolate your subtext, and, thus, the less likely they will need every little nuance spelled out. Klinkenborg reminds:
It helps to remember that your prose is going to be read against two different backdrops: What the reader knows about reading and what the reader knows about life. It’s surprising how many writers forget the life part.
3. Trust Your Readers as Readers
Last week, we talked about reading as a learned skill and how readers are at different levels depending on their depth of experience. The primary reason it’s so important for writers to be experienced readers is because they cannot write books that surpass their own reading skills.
It is not possible for a writer to write a book better than those he is able to understand and appreciate as a reader (although it is certainly possible to read and enjoy books of a higher level than our current writing skill set).
Because you are trying to write the kind of book you would enjoy reading, it is important not to write a book that is less complex and trusting of the reader than the books you read. Write bravely. Write with all the intelligence and audacity you can muster. Dare much and throw it all out there on the page.
Your beta readers, critique partners, and editors exist to tell you when you’ve missed the mark—when your complexity is really just obtuse, or your trust of readers to “get it” is really just a plot hole. But save all that for the second draft. When you’re initially writing this story, write it for yourself, knowing you will totally get it.
One of the reasons reading fiction is a learned skill is that there are often certain genre conventions that are not immediately intuitive to new readers. Often—as in science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels, among others—the writer must simply trust the reader to get aspects of the form without taking the time to spell it out. In Light the Dark, William Gibson explained from the vantage of high-concept science fiction:
Sophisticated science fiction requires a sort of cultural superstructure of reading skill. We forget as readers of longform fiction that at one time we didn’t know how to do that—we had to acquire the skill through cultural education. It’s the same with good sci-fi, which generally requires a sort of superstructure of culture experience to make it pleasurably accessible. As a reader, I want to encounter rigorously imagined literature….
Yes, this inevitably means you’re going to lose some readers. But if you lose them over something like this, then they weren’t your readers anyway, were they?
“Rigorously-imagined literature” encompasses a thorough, detailed understanding of your story’s inner workings—its theme, plot, character arcs, setting (both physical and historical), language, and details. Writing something deeply complex and asking readers to figure it out is totally different from writing something blurry and vague and asking readers to fill in the blanks.
This takes work. It takes discipline. It requires logic as well as creativity. Historian David McCullough nailed it when he said:
Writing is thinking clearly. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.
But if that is what you expect from your own favorite authors, seems only fair to expect it from yourself as well, right?
“Writing to the right audience” is about nothing more or less than the same old directive to write the best book you possibly can by first having a clear understanding of what you’re writing and why. The answers to both those questions come from deep within yourself.
Anyone can read a book, right? We all become better readers just by reading, right? Learning to put letters together into words and understand what they say—learning to read—that’s a learned skill. But once you’ve pretty much mastered that by fourth grade, you can read anything. There’s no skill to reading a novel. What is there to understand, after all? The writer does all the work so the reader doesn’t have to. In short, all readers are created equal.
Think that’s true?
To some extent, it’s a surface belief we take for granted. But it’s not true. Simply reading fiction is one thing. But reading it well is a learned skill that requires some amount of experience and even dedication from the reader.
This is important for writers to understand—for two reasons:
1. Not All Readers Are Created Equal
The subjectivity of art aside (to some extent), this is going to be a crucial factor in helping you recognize the right audience for the type of books you are writing (something we’ll be talking about more in a future post).
2. Writers Must Consciously Seek to Become Better Readers
No one should be more experienced in fiction—in all its forms—than a writer of fiction. The more skilled and aware you are as a reader, the more skilled and aware you will be in communicating with your own readers.
Today, we’re going to examine how you can improve your own reading skills and then take that awareness of your personal reading experiences to the page.
Why Reading Fiction Is a Learned Skill
Early on in my career life, before I knew many other writers, I would hand my books out for critique to family members who were not experienced fiction readers. Initially, many of their responses puzzled and confused me. They were questioning things that I knew from my own reading were common fiction techniques (one person even rejected the use of a first-person narrator, saying they’d never seen that before). Quickly, I learned that the quality of feedback I received varied greatly depending on the reader’s own experience.
It’s easy to forget—especially for those of us who started reading heavily at a young age—that we had to learn the customs of fiction. We had to acquaint ourselves with everything from scene breaks to rapid-fire dialogue to POV changes. We didn’t start out with Cormac McCarthy; we started out with Nancy Drew.
Writers often bemoan—with real curiosity and confusion—why it is that so many “bad books” become bestsellers. We’ve all done it: picked up the latest rage only to shake our heads and swear we could surely write a better book than this ourselves. And yet it’s a bestseller—in all the airports and grocery stores. Why is that?
Easy. Because many of these books are written to appeal to the greatest possible audience—readers of all levels of experience. Books that are written to the highest level of reader are books that are aimed at a very select—and very limited—audience. How many of us really enjoy James Joyce? And yet he is undeniably a skilled author, worshiped by those who have the dedication to learn how to read him. Absurdist philosopher Albert Camus observed:
Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators.
We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read, too.
Please note: this is no excuse for poor writing. Many of us (*raises hand*) would love to believe that whenever someone dislikes what we’ve written, it’s just because we’re too genius for their poor little brains to get it. The only way to truly know whether or not you’re becoming an experienced writer is to first become an experienced reader—someone who has read so many different kinds of books that they have the personal context and reasonable objectivity to make accurate judgments.
4 Ways to Become Better Readers
Few people become writers without being passionate readers and without wanting to become better readers. But we can all get lazy. (Yeah, I admit sometimes I’d much rather curl up with fast-and-easy junk-food fiction rather than Mann or Dostoevsky.) Here are four reading resolutions you can make this year that will help you improve your reading skills on the way to become better writers.
1. Challenge Yourself
We all have a favorite genre. It’s comfy there. It punches all our buttons. We love it. But reading just one thing all the time is like spending your entire life in your hometown: your perspective is inevitably narrow.
Reading should be pleasurable, but it shouldn’t be merely pleasurable. Push yourself. Read beyond your comfort zone. Read in every genre. Read the classics.
Let me say that again: read the classics. After I graduated high school, I decided I would read all the classics in my local library. I alternated a classic author for every contemporary author I read. At this point, I’ve read my way through the alphabet to Sir Walter Scott. It has been a difficult, sometimes tedious, but always rewarding journey.
I guarantee: if you can get through the entirety of William Faulkner, you will have gained an education all its own.
2. Improve Your Vocabulary
Very often, when people think of “high-level books,” what they’re really thinking is “high-level vocabulary.” This is, of course, a hilarious oversimplification of the complexities of truly great literature. However, it’s still a valid point. If you don’t have a good vocabulary, you’ll often be lost in these stories.
Writers today are often encouraged (by Internet grammar software and SEO widgets) to write “readable” fiction—which simply means fiction that doesn’t contain words most people won’t know.
But you’re a writer. You write words. You love words. You need to know words.
Great literature will challenge and expand your vocabulary. If you don’t know a word, look it up. I used to keep a list tucked in the back of my book, then look up all the words the next day, underline them in my dictionary, and write out the definitions. I don’t do that anymore (insta-dictionary on Kindle is a lifesaver), but it was an exercise that has indelibly shaped me as a writer.
The most complex books are not ones you will master, or even appreciate, in one reading—especially if you’re reading “up” to a level higher than your current skillset (which you totally should be). Even if you don’t initially enjoy an experience with a book, it’s often worthwhile to go back for another try.
I first read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights when I was 18 and 19, respectively. I didn’t much care for either. I gave Jane Eyre 2.5 stars and said “I was unable to identify it as a treasure worth re-reading.” Wuthering Heights fared a little better: it got 3.5 stars but was deemed “doubtful that this will ever be a book to enjoy upon countless re-readings.”
For various reasons (mostly because Writer’s Digest commissioned me to study and annotate Jane Eyre from a writer’s perspective), I did end up re-reading both—several times. And on each reading, my understanding of these amazing masterpieces grew a little clearer. Both are now among my favorite books. If I’d given up on them after the first reading, I would have missed something wonderful—and my own narrow skills as a reader would never have had a chance to expand.
4. Trust Your Authors—Until You Don’t Trust Them
Inexperienced readers can be very judgmental. This is doubly true when those readers are writers (ahem, my teenage reviews of the Brontë sisters, above?).
Judgment is a closed door, never an open mind.
In your reading (and viewing), try to be what I call a “forgiving critic.” Don’t turn your brain off, but try not to enter a book with the preconception that you know better than the author. Put yourself in their hands from the beginning. Take the chance on trusting them. Give yourself the opportunity to see the world through their eyes and fiction through their technique.
One of the hardest things about learning to read well is learning to believe that every sentence has been consciously, purposely shaped by the writer. This is only credible in the presence of excellent writing.
Do not, however, miss that last sentence about excellent writing. Just as you shouldn’t enter a book with cynicism, you also shouldn’t leave it with blind faith. Don’t check your brain at the front cover. You’re a forgiving critic, remember? If you don’t like something, acknowledge why it’s not working for you. It could well be your skills haven’t reached the point where you can appreciate what you’re reading. But it could also be this author doesn’t know quite as much as he thought he did either.
Learn from your authors—both those you aspire to emulate and those you have grown beyond.
Perhaps the most-quoted bit of advice from a writer to writers about reading is Stephen King’s:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
For writers, reading should be about much more than just sitting down with a cozy book that requires as little brainpower as possible. We all have the right to indulge in some delicious junk food from time to time. But on a regular basis, we need to be feeding our brains a purposeful and nutritious diet, one that helps us grow healthy skillsets—as both readers and writers.
For me, it’s almost become a cliché answer: “I write because stories have always been my language. I write because my very first memory is telling myself a story.”
“Why do you write?” and “What made you a writer?” are two questions I’m ubiquitously asked in interviews. I can respond to those questions in my sleep. I don’t even think about their answers anymore.
And that, as I’m now realizing, is a shame.
As artists, our early influences were more than just the first domino in our journeys. They were more than “just” formative. They were the experiences that shaped us into the people and writers we have become. Sometimes these influences are conscious: some writers can recall a specific book or movie that made them say, “I want to be a writer.” But even in these situations, the subconscious impact is often far deeper and more telling.
I ask working artists (many of them writers) to choose a favorite passage from literature, the lines that have hit them hardest over the course of a lifetime’s reading. Each person looks closely at his or her selection, explains its personal impact, and makes a case for why it matters. Taken together, these pieces offer a rare glimpse into the creative mind at work—how artists learn to think, how they find inspiration, and how they get things done.
Needless to say, I recommend the book. In addition to inspiring last week’s post about the 4 Reasons We Write, it has also prompted me to take a closer look at my own early influences—and to try my hand at choosing and examining a formative passage of my own.
A Journey Through Yourself: The Difficulty in Discovering Your Influences
In Light the Dark, the gathered authors make it look so easy to find your influences. Most of them seemed to know immediately which passage had most impacted them—as if they carried it around in the warm space under their hearts and were overjoyed to carefully pull it out and share it.
During the evenings when I read this book, I often found myself sitting back in puzzlement. What were my early influences? I read Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Black Stallion, Trixie Belden, Little House on the Prairie, Smoky the Cowhorse, and lots and lots of terrible Star Wars novels. Were those my influences? If so, then how… cliché.
Or was the formative influence really something I’d read a little later on when my tastes started to mature? Was it perhaps a favorite author such as Patrick O’Brian? How about the bazillion classic authors I’ve read and loved—Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad? Or was that just brownnosing?
Maybe, as a product of my generation, I was actually more influenced by movies than books. After all, when I made up stories in my childhood, I would call them “my movies.” Maybe it was one of the many westerns I all but memorized—everything from The Magnificent Seven to True Grit to Red River to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Or maybe it was Star Wars after all: I vividly remember the trash-compacter scene from my first viewing when I was ten or eleven. Maybe it was Robin Hood or Indiana Jones or The Great Escape.
Gah. Insanity! And then I was supposed to be able to narrow it down further to one passage that shaped the entirety of my artistic life? It was starting to make me feel less inspired, rather than more.
But then I reached the last essay, Neil Gaiman’s, in which he blithely subverted the whole premise of the book:
…you don’t even necessarily understand [when you’re young] where all your influences are coming from, or what they can mean, nor should you. They compost down anyway, good influences, no matter how old you are. It’s like when you put the scraps onto your compost heap: eggshells, and it’s half-eaten turnips, and it’s apple cores, and the like. A year later, it’s black mulch that you can grow stuff in. And influences, good ones, are that too. Trying to figure out what’s influenced you is as difficult as taking the black mulch, and saying this used to be half an apple.
Trying to make our artistic passion the result of a single influence is like trying to define our lives by a single experience.
Realizing that took the pressure off. I started thinking about the question from another angle. Instead of trying to identify the one single story that started me on my journey, I started thinking about what it is that defines me as storyteller. What stories am I inevitably telling—and where did they come from? Why am I telling these stories?
So here’s what I came up with. If I have to choose one passage to encapsulate my “creativity, inspiration, and artistic process,” this is what it has to be…
The Light in My Dark: What My Formative Influences Tell Me About My Writing
“Oh my best brother that ever I had!” cried Wallace, in a sudden transport, and kissing his pale forehead; “my sincerest friend in my greatest need. In thee was truth, manhood, and nobleness; in thee was all man’s fidelity, with woman’s tenderness. My friend, my brother, oh would to God I had died for thee!”—Jane Porter, The Scottish Chiefs
When I was maybe six or seven, my dad brought home this big old copy of what some people consider to be the seminal historical novel: Jane Porter’s lushly romantic (and highly imaginative) ode to the roles of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the Scottish War for Independence.
For many years, I would have said it was my favorite book. Looking back now, I can tell you it’s historically suspect, blatantly melodramatic, sometimes even silly. But even though I haven’t read it in years, thinking about this book still stirs me—especially the death scene quoted in that passage. I remember absolutely bawling over this scene, which was something I never did, even as a child.
In reading histories of Scotland a few years ago, I was surprised by how vividly it all came back to me. When I think of this war and envision the people who took part in it, the images I see are still those vivid iterations inspired by N.C. Wyeth’s gorgeous illustrations and Jane Porter’s words.
Today, when I decided to pull the book of my shelf to re-read this dimly remembered passage I had chosen, I surprised even myself. In some ways, my choice of this book was random—and my choice of this particular passage even more random. In reading it once again, I was blown away to see so much of myself there in those words.
When I look at the body of work I’ve created over the years—when I think about the stories still in my head waiting to be told—when I examine the stories of others I’m most drawn to and moved by—what I find is that they are inevitably the stories that share the deep archetypal weft of heroic symbolism.
They are stories about brotherhood. They are stories about sacrifice. They are stories about laying down your life for your friends and your cause. They are stories about haunted, scarred loner-leaders. They are stories about extraordinarily gifted people and the inevitability that from those who have much, much will be asked. They are stories about the redeeming worth of relationships.
I mean that’s it. And it’s all right there in that one single passage from one of the earliest stories I can remember.
Even though I went looking for my early influences, I honestly did not see that coming. It’s completely cool and, honestly, a little overwhelming.
It helps me bring into alignment all the many other influences that have marked the roadside of my artistic journey. It all makes a little more sense now: the definitive archetypalism in Star Wars, the loner heroes of John Ford’s idealistic westerns, the thematic depth of Robin Hood’s adventures. Disparate as they are, they are all part of an arrow-straight line pointing me to every story I’ve ever written or, I think, ever will write.
Writing Like You Will Be Someone’s Formative Influence
If you read this blog with any regularity, then you probably know I’m all about the subtext. I’m all about chasing down the hidden, often subconscious, meanings—in stories and also in life. No surprise then that I believe an exploration of your own formative influences is a vastly worthwhile venture. Certainly, my own experience with this little exercise has been not just fun, but enlightening. It’s provided me much food for thought in moving forward with a better understanding of why I’m drawn to write the kind of stories I write.
But here’s another thing it’s made me realize: our stories—yours and mine—have the potential to similarly impact other young readers. In his essay in Light in the Dark, Jim Crace wrote:
We should never underestimate what it is that will turn a young person into someone who wants to love literature. Or the young person who wants to make music, or the young person who is attracted to lyric. How are these people formed? They’re not formed by being sent to do MFAs in creative writing. That’s too late. They’re formed by early encounters.
This week, my young niece had her first encounter with one of my own childhood favorites—Disney’s animated Robin Hood. When the film reached the part where Robin Hood apparently drowns, she started weeping and kept on until her mom hurried in to fast-forward to where it’s revealed Robin survives.
Think that’s “just” a story?
Whether she remembers it or not, she just had a formative experience. Will she write about Robin Hood someday? Will she shape her life around stories of self-sacrifice? (Or, I don’t know, maybe just be scared to ever go swimming?) Who knows? But she was shaped, just as our readers can’t help but be shaped whenever they encounter our stories.
Today, I find myself challenged and inspired to carry on the torch. The authors who inspired us gave to each of us a spark. Every time we dig deep and share honestly, every time we put in the due diligence to write with all the clarity and passion we can muster—we are using those sparks to build another fire. We have no idea who will see its light and maybe wander over to sit for a while. We have even less of an idea which of them will catch an ember, tuck it away in that special place beneath their hearts, and carry it with them for the rest of their lives.
But today when you sit down to write, I challenge you to remember: somebody will. Go light the dark.
It is the nature of writers to wonder. We wonder about others and we wonder about ourselves. We even wonder why we write.
For most of us the compulsion to write is so… ineffable. Why do we write? We just do. We desire the stories. We love the words. We are compelled to communicate our wonder with the world. We write because we must.
But why must we?
Money, fame, success?
Maybe. In a way. But that’s not really it, is it?
The need to tell stories is universal—across time, across space. Indeed, we might even say the world itself is a story–the structured turning of the planets, the rise and fall of seasons, the beginning and ending of lives beyond number.
Something in the soul of the human recognizes this, resonates with it like the plucked string of a violin, responds to it with passionate verve.
But why? Why, why, why?
Even the word itself is an undeniable call for a story.
So today, let’s tell ourselves the story of why we write. It will be just one story among many, one tiny part of an answerable answer. But it is a worthwhile narrative for any writer—indeed, any creator—to pursue. Why we are driven to tell stories is at the heart of everything we write. Realizing this can help open up a new understanding of how to write bigger, better, clearer, and keener.
4 Reasons Why We Write
I think one of the reasons we find this question fascinating is that it has no absolute answer. Indeed, the answer is a part of Truth itself—infinite and ultimately ungraspable by our finite minds. As a result, our response to the question of why we write must inevitably be broken down into any number of smaller truths that, although incomplete (and sometimes subjective), help us glimpse the larger Truth.
I started out the year by finishing the excellent essay anthology Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. In it, respected authors were invited to share passages from their own reading that they felt were formative to their journeys as writers. The insights are vast, and as varied as the authors, but those I found most enlightening directly responded to why these people were inspired to become authors.
It also made me ponder my own influences, which is something I hope to share in a future post. But for today, I want to share four of the major reasons we write, all of which jumped out at me from the responses in Light the Dark.
1. Writing Joins Us to a Community… of the Like and Unlike
I used to loathe the idea that stories were escapism. This was for two reasons:
1. I resented the notion that, in enjoying stories, I needed to escape—that I wasn’t brave enough or honest enough to face the world as it is.
Now, however, I see the truth that, yes, stories are adamantly about escape. But rather than allowing us to escape out of our lives, they instead allow us to escape into the broader community of the world itself—both present and past.
Good stories bring us face to face with ourselves. They are a mirror of our faults, our strengths, our quirks, and our experiences.
Life is nothing if not dichotomous. We’re all in it together, and yet each of us must face it alone. We all walk side by side down exactly the same road, from birth to death, and yet no one can truly accompany us on our own journeys. No one can truly know us; we don’t even ever truly know ourselves.
But in stories, in writing, we tap into a collective soul. How many of us, as young readers, happened onto some random passage that suddenly made us sit up, made our spines go cold, made us almost gasp with the shock realizing that someone else was like us? Someone else knew exactly what we were thinking, maybe even before we knew we were thinking it.
The more fiction allows us to resonate with all the ways we are alike, the more it also allows us to accept and appreciate and learn from the ways we are different.
2. Writing Lets Us Unmask Ourselves… to Ourselves
First comes that moment when a story tells us: Yes, this is who you are. I see you. I know you. I accept you.
That moment is a doorway of no return (a First Plot Point of sorts). Once we step through it, we are then further challenged to use our experience of stories, both as readers and writers, to be honest with ourselves.
After all, if even the books of strangers recognize us, then mustn’t we be brave enough to also recognize ourselves?
In its brutal demand for honesty, storytelling is but a microcosm of life itself. If we hope to succeed as writers (or as human beings?), we must pursue Truth to the end of every horizon. Will we ever catch it? I don’t know. I tend to think not. I certainly haven’t yet. But I know I must chase it.
This would be true for me whether I was a writer or not. But as a writer, I am given unique and powerful tools for discovering the masks I wear, the reasons I wear them, and how I may shed them to live a better life and write better stories.
Good stories change the world. They do this for the simple reason that their authors caught a piece of the Truth and were brave enough to write about it. The Truth is ever-frightening. Perhaps this is because, in looking into its face, however briefly and sidelong, we look into the enormity of the infinite. But these pieces of Truth change us forever. They show us the commonality in our individual stories. They are what allow us to tap into that community of the human soul.
3. Writing Tells Us Who We Are and What Life We’re Living
We will never know anyone as well as we know ourselves. And yet we will never be blinder to anyone than we are to ourselves. As much as our writing is a discovery of the world around us, it is also a discovery of ourselves.
My writing teaches me who I am. So often, without even intending it, I discover the themes I’m writing about reverberating in my own life. I was shocked a few years ago when a reviewer of my portal fantasy Dreamlander pointed out that the integral themes of my life were also the integral (if unintended) themes of my fiction:
The consistent theme in each of her books is finding the best in human relationships and coming to an understanding about who you are and what you believe.
I resonated with Amy Tan’s quote because her words were almost exactly my own in reading that review. That review was a lightening of the veil that allowed me to see start seeing myself more and more clearly through my own fiction.
I never consciously write about my own life; I never use people I know as characters. And yet, of course I do. Every character I write is me. Every word out of their mouths tells me truths about myself that I have yet to realize. And, in so doing, they offer me the opportunity to understand what it is I’m really doing on this earth. Why am I here? What is my mission statement? What is my story?
Subconsciously, that is the story I’m telling whenever I sit down to write.
4. Writing Lets Us Speak the Truth
The truth is hard to speak, for many reasons. For one thing, it can be dangerous. In some societies, it will get you jailed, or worse. But even when it’s supposedly socially acceptable, the truth is rarely considered good table manners. An oft-quoted proverb says:
The truth will set you free. But first it will make you mad.
The act of writing—the construct of putting feelings and instincts into words—automatically places a degree of distance between us and the truth. It lets us take a step back and examine it from a safer distance. If it also happens that what you’re writing is fiction, you’re given an even darker pair of shades through which to view the sun without nuking your eyeballs.
In writing fiction, we are becoming our characters—we are becoming something other. In essence, this allows us to step outside our lives, even outside the world itself. It’s an out-of-body experience that grants us an unprecedented opportunity to view the larger picture with all the objectivity we can muster.
And then, as writers, we get to share that objectivity with others, in the least threatening way possible: through a lie that tells the truth.
And the greatest irony? In telling truths through the untruths of fiction, what we’re really doing is wielding one of our greatest weapons against the larger lies of real life. As Ayana Mathis (also in Light the Dark) put it:
…writing is a way of working against belligerent unreality.
Why do we write? For all these reasons. And for more. We might as well ask: Why do we love?or Why do we live?
And yet, as with those questions, we must keep seeking the answers. As a paperweight someone gave me says,