The Author’s Obligation to the Reader

I texted a friend once asking her if she had ever read a book where there was a good scene but it could have been written so much better. Within a minute she texted back, “Chariot scene in Ben Hur.” I was surprised by her response on two levels: 1) she responded so quickly and didn’t need time to think, and 2) she had a scene in mind and didn’t require any clarification. No hesitation. No uncertainty. She had been looking forward to that scene since she began reading the book, and she had high hopes for its potential, but it disappointed her. 

I realized writers have an unwritten contract with the readers. As soon as the first word is put on the page you are promising two things: to complete the story and to use all the elements you bring into the story to make the tale memorable.

Having the story completed is always a given. If it’s published and in your hands, it has to be finished, but how many unfinished documents do you have in your computer? I know in my computer I have two main files—Finished and Unfinished, and the Unfinished is a lot larger than the Finished file. You may come up with a new story idea and write it until you get stick. As long as no one else sees it, that’s all right. You have no obligation to the reader. Your obligation to the characters and the story itself depends on your belief in them.

Now the second point was my surprise that my friend had a scene in mind and knew exactly what I was talking about. Imagine you’re baking in the kitchen. You have the following ingredients:

flour (a solid character)

eggs (the plot)

butter (great scenes)

sugar (witty, good-humored dialogue)

cocoa (dark twist)

baking soda (climax builder)

salt (truths come out)

water (everything’s resolved)

and as well as your mixing bowls and spoons. Separately they stand alone and have different purposes, but to make a chocolate cake, you have to measure each one specifically and stir the mixture. You can’t just say, “Let’s do a cup of salt!” and you also can’t just throw all the right measured ingredients into the bowl without stirring it and say it’s a cake.

When you write the first word on the page, you’re promising the reader, “I swear to deliver this story as clearly and accurately as humanly possible. Every element I include will be mastered. The climax will not disappoint. The results will be satisfactory, and the story will be memorable.”

Writing without studying and practicing different kinds of scenes and mastering different elements is like signing up for a marathon when you’ve never trained a single day in your life. You might survive, but it won’t be pretty, and you’ll probably never do that again.

So, when you sit down to write a story but especially a novel, be ready to deliver. “What if the scene I’m writing is boring or difficult? Can I skip it?” Some people do, but I don’t recommend it. There’s a reason why it’s boring or difficult. As the author of the story, it is your duty to look at the chapter and determine why it’s dull and unexciting. If you’re bored by it, your readers will be bored by it as well, and when they’re unamused, they put down the book and never finish it. You don’t want that to happen.

Why is the scene boring? How can you make it more interesting? It might be a scene where two characters are discussing a detrimental consequence of an action, and there’s nothing you can do to make the scene more exciting—except maybe add a flare of personality in the characters, or add a third character who doesn’t get along with one or both of those other two and has a wicked sense of humor or doesn’t understand the seriousness of the talk. Little things like that can make a boring scene pass quicker and be more entertaining.

Now, if a chapter is difficult to write, it could be because it is emotionally trying, or it could be because you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You know what needs to happen, but you’re not sure how it’s supposed to happen, or you might lack confidence in writing that specific type of scene. If it’s emotionally trying, that is good. All that emotion you’re struggling with is rich, so channel it into your writing. Don’t be afraid of feeling, don’t be afraid of your struggle. People relate to emotions, and when they sense the emotions are authentic, it will touch them, and you want that. Take it one step at a time though. Don’t push yourself, but simply allow yourself to feel, and write it.

However, if you’re struggling because you have no idea what you’re doing (with a fight scene, for instance), then you need to pause and reconsider what exactly you are doing and how it’s important to the story. With the first draft, you may wing it for the sake of writing it and moving on with the story, but don’t be satisfied with this when you come back to it during the revision process. Take time to study your problem. Come to understand where exactly the problem lies. If it’s a fight scene, it could be because you don’t know how fights really work. If it’s a battle scene, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the chaos that you don’t know how to cover it. Come to acknowledge the root of the problem. There is no shame in that. Next step, do research, ask fellow writers for help, read books with similar scenes and study how those authors handled the scenes.

Remember, you have an obligation to deliver the story to the fullness of your ability. Don’t think, “Oh, they won’t care,” or “They won’t notice,” because you will be wrong, and your story will be a disappointment. Writing is a craft. You must master it if you truly wish for your story to be memorable or an epic escape.

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A Method of Revision

Last Saturday I hosted a Facebook event discussing approaches to revision, editing, and proofreading. If you were unable to attend, I will dedicate the next few posts to discuss those three different topics. Before you send your work to any editor, agent, or publisher, it is important to go through the steps of revision, editing, and proofreading. “But that’s what editors are for!” Yes and no. Editors edit to the standard of the market, but if you do everything in your ability to make their work easier, they will love you. Besides, it is the responsibility of a writer to improve their own work and not depend on others until absolutely necessary.

First up is revision.

When I decided to attend university, I did so with one reason in mind: learn how to revise and properly edit. Several of my classes were workshops where I had to evaluate others’ work and have my own work assessed. Although the class itself didn’t teach a method on critiquing, I learned my style of critiquing. By learning how to assist others, I discovered how to see the faults in my own writing and to address them.

With revision, it’s about gut feeling. First thing you need to do is reread what you wrote. Don’t try to fix anything during the initial reread. However, if something doesn’t feel right, highlight it, and make a note of what you think your initial gut feeling on the matter. I’m currently rereading the fourth book in my historical fiction series, and notes look something like this:

…In the council hall Baldwin conversed (NOTE: suddenly Baldwin is in the council hall when he was just on the wall?) with his war council over the finer points of the plan when a trumpet sounded.

It’s as simple fix that requires adding a few lines to clarify the transition of the scene without making Baldwin appear to be a teleporter in the medieval times, but I’m not focusing on fixing the problem right now. I am trying to get an overarching view of the story.

When rereading, ask yourself questions. When you come across a part that makes you think, “Wait—what?” Then record your puzzlement. Example taken from my book:

Even Countess Agnes (NOTE: was Agnes here all this time? Insert her presence earlier) gave her son a strange look along with all the other war council members, and she wasn’t in the discussion.

Now, when you reread everything and took notes, open a new document. Title it something so you can differentiate between the two drafts. Since I tend to write book series, each series gets it own folder, and within the folder, each book gets its own folder, so I title my drafts something like, 3Draft4thBook. That way when I go to that book’s folder, I can just look at the number of documents I have saved there and the numbers and immediately tell how many drafts I have and pick the latest one instead of hunting down the most current one in a file containing 25 different drafts of the same book.

Once you have the new document open and ready to go, select from the beginning all the way down to your first note. Copy that then paste it into the new doc. Then tackle the problem that you had noted. Doing it in chucks like this helps you not feel so overwhelmed when your story is 100-600 pages long, and you also don’t have to worry about messing up or losing any sentences you liked because you always have the original document elsewhere.

What happens if the note I made tells me I need to insert a scene earlier on?” Skim through your draft and determine where would be the best place to insert such a scene if you haven’t determined it already. This can be difficult especially if your scenes are tightly knit together, but it’s worth loosening a few knots to make the story better. However, instead of trying to untangle that mess and make it work immediately, open yet another document. Here, just write that scene out unrestricted as you imagine it. Once it’s written, take it back to where it should go in the novel and smooth out the transitions If the new scene isn’t working but is causing even more problems, consider removing it. This is when revising feels a lot like being a surgeon—opening parts up to arrange, insert, or remove different parts.

During revising, organization is key. If your story is over a hundred pages, you are dealing with a leviathan, so you need to keep track of what you’re doing and take a methodical approach. Otherwise, you can get overwhelmed, and you don’t know if you’re making any progress at all because it feels like nothing has changed. It’s better to take smaller steps and make definite progress rather than take everything in running strides while making little or no absolute progress.

Is revision the time I should work on improving the quality of my writing?” No—actually, it’s not. Okay, yes you can, but that is what the Playground Experience is for. If you aren’t confident in your own writing ability by the time you have a story you want to publish, then you should go back and study it closely and ask yourself, “Why am I not happy with it?” You might be naturally insecure and require a lot of outside approval on your work before you’re confident in your writing ability, but it does need to come from within. You need to have written the best you could at that time as I said in my previous post, and you need to know that you did your best instead of just skimming over the description, dodging the dialogue, brushing over the character development, and not really diving into the heart and soul of the plot of the story. If you know you gave it your all, and you know you didn’t try to take the easy way out, then be confident. Your writing (and mine!) will always need improvement. The writing style of every single writer in the world must continue to improve, morph, and develop. Otherwise, it becomes old, dull, and boring, and you always want life in your writing, and the only way to live is to continue exploring and learning.

So should you focus on the quality of your writing during revision? If you’re unhappy with a scene and think you can write it better, then rewrite it. If you’re uncertain about a scene and think you can write it better, then rewrite it. If you’re uncertain about a scene but don’t know if you can write it better, try rewriting it but don’t lose the original version of the scene. All these rewrites should be in an altogether different document than the actual draft.

One final note because this links with editing, which we will discuss in more detail next week. As you’re revising, determine if each chapter is important. Does each scene or chapter advance the plot? What is the reason for each one? If you were to take out one chapter, would the story be crippled and limp along, or would it run smoothly even in the absence of that chapter? Every chapter and every scene must serve a distinct purpose for the story and not merely ‘character development’. This is why developing character throughout the story is better than devoting a single chapter just for character development. It’s like this, if Hancock hadn’t asked Katerina to look into the situation about Armistead, Katerina wouldn’t have gone to Zizka. If she didn’t go to Zizka, Zizka wouldn’t have told Draven to fix the situation, and if Draven didn’t send people to fix it, the reader wouldn’t have found out what was really happening, and so on and so forth. Every scene builds upon the last, and the story is constantly moving forward. If you have this, the story structure will be very tight and concise, and that is what you want.

So with revision, always reread your work first, take notes, then tackle it one section at a time. You may have to remove parts of the story, insert new parts, or arrange parts altogether. Be patient with yourself, and make sure each chapter and each scene moves the story forward.

Now, there are different ways to approach revision, but this is one way. Perhaps you will find it helpful. Next week we’ll discuss editing.