Three Things Authors Overlook When Writing Fiction

reminder-965820-mThere are some tactics and tendencies writers tend to abuse–we talked about a handful last time–but there are also techniques and approaches that writers don’t take full advantage of. I’d love to start a discussion about some of those things today.

Some items in this list are more emotional/ mental, dealing with how we approach our writing. One is more practical (at least in application). But they are all things I know I, at least, tend to undervalue or pass over.

1. DON’T OVERLOOK THE READER’S INTELLIGENCE

One of my basic rules of writing is “trust your reader.” Why? When I started writing I thought I had to spell out everything explicitly, and many times that is far, far from necessary.

Some things are easy to connect, or to comprehend. We are all human beings, after all, and we all have a shared understanding of the human condition, even when we come from different cultures. As a result, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, when you overemphasize the obvious:

  • It is boring for readers.
  • It bogs down the story or your argument.
  • It insults readers, as though you as an author don’t trust them to understand something that is rather simple.

In truth, an author isn’t  doubting the reader when she overstates the obvious. In my first novel and first short stories, I was doubting my ability to make my thoughts clear to a reader. My ability to express myself well.

But readers can’t judge what you are thinking or feeling; they can only see the words on the page, and in this situation the words on the page say, “I don’t trust you to get this unless I hammer it in.”

Trusting myself as a writer is tough. I’ve learned that trusting my readers is simpler. I can trust people to “read between the lines.” When I do that, I focus on “showing” something and don’t feel as tempted to “tell” it too.

For example, I can show that a character is nervous by having her twist her hands, or have him stop and start when explaining himself. I can have someone move his eyes to the door or pull on her hair. Such physical signs, in combination with a context that would cause a normal person stress, is enough to imply that a character is stressed out. I don’t have to say, “this person is anxious right now, don’t you see? Is it clear?”

Readers will get it.

Now, this may seem like an obvious thing–trusting readers to pick up on the obvious–but believe me, it takes a while to realize that you can trust your readers when you’re doubting yourself. And speaking of doubting yourself as a writer:

2. DON’T FORGET YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR

Take writing lightly, or the difficulties and mistakes inherent in the process will weigh you down so much you can’t move forward.

Especially when you’re starting out, you can’t take writing too seriously. You can’t worry that what you’re writing is ridiculous. It might be: so keep it to yourself. You don’t have to share your fiction with anyone, right?

The first novel I wrote was totally ridiculous. But you know what? I loved what the people I wrote about stood for and fought for. What they sacrificed for. The story was so melodramatic it would make a decent Lifetime movie, perhaps. I didn’t let that embarrass me; I was just careful about who read the novel.

Writing that novel taught me how to write. It also gave me an outlet for self-expression and a haven of sorts during a time of serious transition. And that’s wonderful.

You have to write for you, as I always, always say. And you have to be able to laugh about yourself. Maybe that means knowing your novel isn’t publishable, but you need to write it anyway (for whatever reason that is). Maybe that means not getting discouraged when you realize that chapter is AWESOMELY bad, or that plot hole is so glaring it’s absurd you never saw it before.

3. DON’T FORGET PERSPECTIVE

  • Writing is tough, for all of us who write fiction. Make no mistake.
  • We all struggle to find time to write.
  • We all struggle to figure out where our stories need to go.
  • We all fight our characters (and our  preconceptions of who they really are.)
  • We all, in turn, judge the same passage that we wrote a month before to be a masterpiece, then utter swill, then okay but not great, then horrible (again).

These things are normal. Neither you nor I are the only writers who experience these roadblocks, and these roadblocks don’t mean a project is doomed.

And even if a project does turn out to be unworkable? Unable to be fixed? Is that really the end of the world? Hardly!

Rewrite it, avoiding the problem that killed the story the first time around. Or write a different story. Heck, maybe you’re a fledgling writer who learns that fiction isn’t really your thing, and you go on to pursue a different dream, grateful and happy that you gave writing a chance and knowing you can always give it another try later on, should you want to.

All of that is wonderful.

PERSPECTIVE.

So, what things do you overlook as a writer? How do you remind yourself of them? What do you think are the most common things writers forget?

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42 responses to “Three Things Authors Overlook When Writing Fiction

  1. Great tips, thanks! I learn a lot from your blog, unfortunately I don’t have a lot to offer other than thank you.

  2. So very true. When my editor looked through my work I was shocked some of the things he pointed out!

    • It really is crazy how that happens. What things we just are blind to in our own work!!! It’s tough but helpful to get that outside perspective from someone who really understands who language and story come together.

      • What I found was that I was assuming that the reader knew what I was talking about! Will post something about the feedback I had in due course, you’ve inspired me!

        I did put a post up about editor feedback regarding the state of the publishing industry which was depressing as well as encouraging!

        Arran

  3. Good tips, especially the first one about over-looking readers’ intelligence. It took me a while to realise that, as readers, we want to feel smart, and if things are over-explained then we don’t get the pleasure of working them out and end up feeling disappointed or patronised.

    The thing I always used to overlook was the importance of showing what’s going on in the characters’ heads. I was so used to television, where you judge that by actions and performance, that I didn’t appreciate the need to approach it differently in books. Now it’s one of the first failures I notice in other people’s writing because it’s such a sensitive spot for me.

    • It really is crazy how film has affected our mindsets and our approach to story. Film really is the dominant storytelling media of our age…. Its effect really can’t be overestimated. I agree with what you say here. I’ve been told that “successful authors write like they are a camera.” Don’t know if I agree that means GOOD authors write that way! Depends on the individual person. I certainly don’t try to write like a camera!!! Because you are right: the mediums are just different in striking, super important ways.

  4. Not sure what I always overlooked. Maybe I’m still overlooking it. Closest thing I can think of is faith in myself. At the beginning, I got it in my head that people knew more about my writing than I did. Not the topic, but my style. So, I listened to everyone and turned my first novel into a mess of styles. I still have moments where I get paranoid around a person’s critique of my style. For example, my monologue use has me really worried about any paragraphs that go longer than 4 sentences now. I haven’t gotten the latest books to beta reader level, so that could change.

    With the first thing, I’ve been told all the time to write as if the reader is an idiot. I don’t follow this, but there are a lot of writers who refuse to let a reader put any effort into deciphering their works. Like they fear a misunderstanding. Years ago, one fellow writer told me that they spell everything out because they don’t want their audience to attach unexpected messages to their work. Supposedly, it would make them feel ‘stupid’ if they were told that their book was about something they never thought of. Not sure if that makes sense. Barely made sense when the person told it to me.

    • I agree, we can’t let other people determine our styles. We can accept their input when it helps us hone our style to be truer to what we are aiming for and what feels right for us. But beyond that…..

      I’m so glad you said that because I think a lot of us struggle with that…. Trying to please too many people all at once and ending up pleasing no one, least of all ourselves.

      And I agree as well that it’s not right to treat readers like idiots. I read a lot of literary theory in grad school and I firmly believe it is the reader’s right to interpret the work as he or she sees fit. A good, complex work will always lend itself to various things people can focus on and connect with.

      • It’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re starting out because you’re confidence is fragile. I wonder if some people take advantage of that to coax authors to write the way they prefer. It sounds a little underhanded, but I’m sure that it’s a minority of people who attempt that.

        It can get a little silly with reader interpretations and leave an author going ‘what?’. I’ve had a few times where a simple argument between two characters is pinpointed as sexual tension. It’s a rather stunning accusation.

        • For some people, everything is always about sex!!! It’s so sad, but very true. Two people of the opposite gender can’t talk, much less argue, without there being sexual tension. I don’t get it either!

        • One of my college professors was like that, so many students tried to gear their answers to that. Part of me wonders if he did it to keep our hormone-infused interest or to see who would go along.

  5. “In truth, an author isn’t doubting the reader when she overstates the obvious. In my first novel and first short stories, I was doubting my ability to make my thoughts clear to a reader. My ability to express myself well.”
    It was like a lightbulb over my head when I read that. Perhaps even a lightning bolt, as that is totally and completely how I feel now that it’s been put into words. I’m so busy anticipating readers asking, “What the hell? Why?” that I try to explain too much. Time to go back and edit some long dialogue. Thanks for this!

    • Aw, so glad it was helpful! 😛 I think a LOT of us have that trouble, trusting ourselves to just put the words on the page in a way that makes sense. I think if we could somehow have a percentage statistic we would all be shocked at how big it was. 🙂

  6. I read an article about Lee Child recently in which he gave a number of good pieces of advice. I’m paraphrasing but one was along the lines of write how you want not how others do – there are enough people out there that there will be plenty who like what you do.

    • I totally agree!!! We each have to be true to ourselves and our unique styles. If other people don’t like, they don’t have to read it! Better yet, they can write what they want to read 🙂

  7. Of all the blogs I’ve followed, I rate yours five stars! You know, through experience, how to relate to other authors. It’s as if we’re members of a special club–writers that continually strive to improve our craft, laugh at our follies along the way, but keep going nonetheless. I’m so happy I discovered Crimson League. Thanks!

    • Aw, you’ve made my day, Linda!!! I’m so glad you feel that way about the blog, because I can’t say how much support and advice and just encouragement to keep on writing I’ve found from you and the other writers who drop by! It really is all about community, isn’t it?

  8. I loved your post! Great advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this.

  9. Reblogged this on Adventures in Writing and commented:
    This is a great post and a great reminder of things to keep in mind while writing!

  10. Great post. Will tweet via @authorrbaustin.

  11. I try to remember being the reader. For example ‘ahem’ years ago you had to have pages and pages of descriptions= the room the dress the country-side. Today when I read In flip through those pages and I found lots of today’s readers find too much detail boring.. get to the story. Now my descriptions are detailed and are limited to just a few paragraphs.

    • It really is crazy to think how we, as a culture, have lost appreciation for description, and narration, and the “art” side of writing. 😦 You are very true though in what you say…. That is how we are nowadays, and readers definitely want us getting to the story already.

  12. Pingback: » The OutRamp Guide to Writing: Episode #12 - The OutRamp

  13. Great tips. For number 2, I would also include giving your characters a sense of humor as well. I have read countless books with humorless characters. I’m not suggesting that they have to be stand-up comedians. But for goodness sake, don’t they ever laugh at anything?

  14. Great post- #2 is especially helpful so I don’t take myself too seriously. Thanks, Victoria.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! I’ve definitely been there myself. I am SUCH a perfectionist that it’s really nice to remind myself every now and again that I don’t have to be perfect 🙂

  15. Reblogged this on The Way of the Storyteller:.

  16. I think I found this post just in time. I attempted NanoWriMo for the first time this year and, to be honest, failed miserably. I’ve always known that I was meant to be a writer and thought that this would be a good motivational tool to help me get on the right track and help me find my voice as a writer. It certainly started off that way. In the beginning, I was writing everyday and even setting goals for myself. The story was flowing really well and I was starting to like where it was headed…but then I got stuck. I hit a huge dead end and couldn’t figure out where to go with it or how to fix it. On top of all that, I was really beginning to panic because I had a mounting deadline fast approacging and was nowhere near finished. Truth be told, it made me more anxious than anything because I felt that if I didn’t finish by the end of November, for some reason it would be the end of the world for me. But guess what! It wasn’t! For a while there I’d given up on my story and in turn, myself, as a writer. However, after having read your blog post, I feel inspired to continue telling my story. I feel its presence lingering within me practically screaming for a way out and I can’t ignore it anymore. I just have to figure out the right way to express it. I guess I gave up a little too soon because of all the pressure and self doubt in light of seeing others succeed while I was floundering. Now I realize, it doesn’t matter who gets to the finish line first; what matters is that I finish the race even if it’s at my own pace. Thanks for this wonderful article and I look forward to reading more from you.

    • It’s not the end of the world to sit NaNo out (like I did) or to “fail,” though some diehards would have us believe that 🙂 It’s all about quality and pursuing work that fulfills YOU. It seems like your project does that , so yea! I will wish you all the luck I can to figure out how to get things going again. Plot holes and dead ends stink, for sure. But they are fixable most of the time. Worst case: starting over tweaking a few things to avoid that dead end. I’m rooting for you!

      • Some of these “writing games” are meant to spur dilettantes into actually putting words on paper. For me, writing doesn’t work like that. I can’t force my story or rush my story: ideas, characters, and plots need to time to develop. As you said, Victoria, it’s all about quality and pursuing work that fulfills YOU. I couldn’t agree with you more!

  17. Pingback: » The OutRamp Writer’s Wroundup Newsletter #3: December 2 – 8, 2013 - The OutRamp

  18. Great tips. It is easy to fall into all three of those traps. Thanks for the reminder to look out for them—and to laugh and keep a sense of perspective.

  19. I think you stated it perfectly when you said that over-explaining things to your readers just bogs the writing down. That’s exactly what it does. Heavy reading is not enjoyable writing.

    Also, I think maintaining perspective is KEY in success with writing. I was lucky to go into it, at least when I started taking writing very seriously, knowing that this was going to be a process that was more like an investment. Lots of time, lots of trial and error, and no real deadline to finish. That perspective has kept me from ripping a few hairs out in frustration, I think 🙂

    • You are so right, Katie! It is all about the perspective. Pushing yourself to improve but not expecting too much too soon, knowing there will be bumps on the road and those bumps hit everyone. FOR SURE. 🙂

  20. Pingback: Three Things Authors Overlook When Writing Fiction | Just 4 My Books

  21. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 12-12-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  22. Yes, Katie and Victoria…There are no shortcuts on the journey to becoming an effective writer. It’s like practicing the piano: eventually you master all the keys, read the music, and are able to play a semblance of a tune. If you keep at it and learn from your mistakes, you will get better. You might never become a concert pianist, but you’ll be good enough to entertain an audience that appreciates your style!

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