When something’s wrong (with your story)

“Just let me finish this scene…”
I made the decision to be a writer at a very early age, not long after asking my mother where books came from. Throughout my elementary school years, whenever we moved to a new town, one of the first things I would do when we visited the local public library was find out whether the library had a subscription to The Writer magazine, and/or whether they had any copies of The Writer’s Handbook, which was a book published yearly featuring a selection of articles from a year’s worth the the magazine, plus a listing of the addresses and submission guidelines for lots of different publishers.

I did it!
I did it!
I read a lot of articles and several books about the craft of fiction writing during my formative years. I internalized a lot of the lessons of those articles, often without remembering the context of where I learned them…

So, for instance, whenever I receive a written critique of a story from an editor or a reader, I try not to give in to the urge to write back and explain away their misunderstandings. Instead, I follow the suggestion from one of those articles: write a thorough and polite response to the critique, making sure that you explain everything that a reader ought take away from your story. Under no circumstance are you ever to share this response with anyone, especially the person who critiqued your work. Instead, go back and re-read your story. Try your best to look at it objectively, as if it were a story written by a stranger. If you have to set the story aside (along with your response to the critique) for a few days or weeks until you can get some emotional distance, do so.

After reading your story, look through your response. Would a person who didn’t know anything about you or any of your previous work have all the information you included in your response? Is whatever plot point you think the editor or reader failed to comprehend actually clear in the story as written? Are all of the character motivations that you think the editor or reader completely misinterpreted while critiquing your story actually shown in the story?

Usually the answer to those questions is “no.” You left something out, or used confusing language, or assumed the reader would guess something but you gave them inadequate clues.

If the story hasn’t been published, you still have time to make some tweaks to the tale to try to fix those things. Quite often all that is required is an extra line of dialogue or maybe just a couple of changes to a couple of sentences.

Other times there’s a lot more that we need to do.

This method has worked really well for me many times. I wish I remembered which article or book about writing I read it in. I would like to be able to give credit to the author who suggested it. Maybe someday, if I keep poking around in used bookstores I’ll find the answer.

The important thing to remember, though, is that arguing with the editor or the reader is not an answer. If for no other reason than that you won’t be there for every reader to answer questions about the story. The story needs to communicate on its own, without supplemental material.

This doesn’t mean that the story has to explicitly answer every single question a reader has. It just means that anything you think is important for the reader to understand must be understandable from the story itself.

It also doesn’t mean that every critique is correct.

For instance, sometimes I like to write really hard science fiction, where plot points turn on understanding something like the Third Law of Thermodynamics. Whenever I read such a story to my regular writers’ group, there are always a few people who don’t find my story the slightest bit interesting. Just as, when those stories are published, there are readers who don’t like the story. It’s perfectly okay for those readers not to like the story. And even more importantly, it’s okay for me, the writer, to admit that those readers weren’t meant to be the audience of that particular tale.

That isn’t the only way in which critiques aren’t always right. In fact:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”—Neil Gaiman

One of the ways that critiques are frequently incorrect is when an editor or reader suggests what you should have done instead. The more detailed their explanation of what you should have done instead, the more likely the suggestion is to be wrong. Note that Mr. Gaiman’s observation is about when people tell you exactly how to fix a problem. My experience is that often people don’t have an exact suggestion, usually it’s more along the lines of, “I didn’t understand why that character did this and so. Is there any way to explain her motivation better?”

If a character’s motivation is unclear, of course you want to make it clearer. But if, instead, a reader or editor insists that you need to have a dream sequence where the heroine confronts the ghosts from her past, and argues with them about some tragic moment in her past and why she needs to avoid doing a similar thing again, that probably isn’t the way to go. Usually, the very specific solution a person has suggested to me has been built around the wrong motivation.

In other words, say that in my mind, the reason the character reacted the way she did was because she misunderstood what was happening. Because I didn’t make that clear, the reader constructed their own elaborate explanation, including a lot of backstory that had nothing to do with how I envisioned the character. The fault of the misinterpretation is mine, because I didn’t make it clear that she misunderstood what was happening. But the reader’s solution won’t work, because it grows out of a completely different vision of the character than I have.

Which isn’t to say that a story can’t be written to have such a dream sequence and work quite well. But it won’t be my story about that character. When I’ve gotten a character developed in my mind to the point that they appear in the story, they already have a certain amount of backstory and a set of motivations. One part of my brain has convinced other parts of my brain that the character in question is a real person with real history. If I try to force her into a different backstory and personality, that crucial bit of me stops believing in her, and I can no longer write her convincingly.

I’m the storyteller. It’s my story, with my mistakes. That’s why I have to find my own solution.

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