Why Writing is a Partnership.

In a previous post on the five reasons perseverance is the most important quality for a writer, I said that writing wasn’t finished until it was read, that having someone read your writing and draw meaning from it is the entire reason for writing in the first place. Someone on social media pointed out that writing can be a purely personal thing, that someone can enjoy the act of writing solely for themselves without another person ever laying eyes on their words. I suppose this is true in personal cases, like writing a journal, or even when you’re taking your first tentative steps into the waters of fiction writing.

However, I would argue that if you want to take your writing to the next level, if you want to have your writing published and find an audience who actually wants to read it, then you must forget the idea of writing as a self-imposed lock down in solitary confinement and instead consider writing as a partnership between the writer and the reader. Even though you may never meet the person who reads your words, at least for the duration of the story, you and that reader are a team. 

Writer and Reader.jpg

Consider this question: When you’re reading a story where does that story take place, the writer’s head or your own?

The answer is, of course, that it happens in your head. Writers like to talk about building worlds and bringing their characters to life but the truth is they don’t, the reader does. The author provides the scaffolding, the clues, the guidance, but it is within the reader’s imagination that characters walk and talk and the world is born. As writers our words are thought instructions, they are sensory and emotional cues for another person’s experience.

The Real Meaning Of Show Don’t Tell

‘Show don’t tell’ is probably the most well known piece of writing advice. We want our readers to feel as if they are discovering the world of the story on their own. It is at the heart of the reader/writer partnership. Readers enjoy stories the most when they experience them, when the carefully planned twist subtly sneaks up and hits them, when the actions of a character make them angry or sad or happy, when they discover the meaning of our work on their own.

A mistake writers make, I have been particularly guilty of this at times, is thinking that in order to draw a reader in they need to lace every scene with detail, paragraphs of description to paint a picture in readers minds. In fact, more often than not, the opposite is true. As writers we should pull back on description, reign in our desire to write about every article of clothing a character is wearing, the colour of their hair and eyes, the angle of every wrinkle on their face. Instead, detailed description should be deliberate and restrained.

Of course we don’t leave our writing bare of detail we are simply being smarter about where to add that detail leaving the reader’s imagination to work. There are three places we should add detail:

  • Detail for character – we describe details that are important for understanding a character, either physically or emotionally, or some aspect of them that will be important later.

  •  Detail for setting – we add enough detail that the reader knows where they are, that it feels familiar enough that their imagination can run on from our description but also they are aware we are taking them somewhere new.
  •  Detail for tension and tone - we add details when we want to add to the tension or tone of a scene. Perhaps when a killer is creeping down a hallway and our protagonist doesn’t know they’re coming we want to slow the perceived passage of time to draw out the suspense, we do this through adding detail.

What we have is a porridge problem, it’s important we be aware of what is described and what is left for the reader’s imagination, not too hot, not too cold but just right. Overuse of description removes power from the reader. That’s what I interpret as the real meaning of show don’t tell, you should be the guide, not the traveller. Don’t tell the reader someone is angry, show them why, but more importantly do your upmost to have the reader discover the anger on their own, to feel it as the character does.

How Your Language Generates Your Reader’s Thoughts

It’s not necessarily the language itself that determines good writing from bad but rather the emotional and intellectual response a reader has to that language. The writer’s job is to carefully control this transfer of meaning and emotion, to structure words so as to draw out the intended response. Essentially, during the act of writing we as writers are transferring our thoughts and emotions directly into the head of our reader.

I write both prose and comics. These are different mediums with different strengths and weaknesses. Both are great in their own way but I think prose has an advantage in the delivery of emotion over comics (or film and other forms of visual narrative) in that it is written directly in the language of thought.

Language shapes our thoughts; in fact it is language that allows us to think at all. There are two schools of thought in psychology about the interdependence of language and thought. Either we are born able to think before we develop language or we develop language and this allows us to think. Without going too deep into this the end result is ultimately the same. As we grow older, language becomes the way we conceptualise our thoughts, it is what allows us to imagine things and express ourselves. When you think you do it with language, this language generates emotion and understanding. So when storytelling is in its most pure form, that of spoken or written language, as writers we are directly shaping the thoughts of a reader.

So what does this tell us about the partnership between writer and reader? Well, it highlights the need to consider the reader from the get-go. When we set out to write a scene we should be mindful of the way we are trying to generate emotion. We include the reader in our writing process by:

  • Beginning with an imaginary reader in mind - from the start of the writing process consider a target audience or even a specific person you're writing for.

  • Being aware of what we’re trying to convey - in every scene ensure you understand the actions, emotions and motivations of your characters, without this understanding it's difficult to be clear in what the reader should experience.

  • Writing for our reader to experience this  - attempt to write in a way that generates the emotions of our characters not just in ourselves but in our imaginary reader who doesn’t have our understanding of the story.

With every sentence we write we should be thinking about the reader. So next time you sit down at your desk ready for the solitary slog we call writing try and remember that you’re not alone. You’ve got a partner in this story, a tourist that’s relying on you to be thoughtful about how you guide them through this world you’re creating. Do them the favour of thinking about how they’re involved.

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What do I have to add to this? Putting yourself in your writing.

The crack of a never opened spine, the yellowing pages of a well-loved classic, the endless words set in Garamond or Sabon or Times, there are so many things to love about bookshops. They are among my favourite places. The little independent with the personalised recommendation, the dusty second hand seller with the price penciled inside the cover, the giant chain with the smell of coffee from the onsite cafe, I can literally spend hours perusing any of them, looking at covers and blurbs and reading snippets of work from authors I've loved forever and authors I've never heard of.
There's also something about being in a bookshop that brings me down, and it's to do with being a writer, in particular one who is aspiring to have a novel on those shelves. I don't mean the self-doubt I think all authors suffer from, the feeling that maybe I'm never going to have a book in this shop. The doubt that someone will ever come in and browse and perhaps pick it up and read the blurb and have a flick through and after all that take it to the counter and shell out their hard earned, and even if I do get my books published and in stores and readers actually read them they might not like them and I'm not a real writer anyway, and on and on it goes. I think every author has these feelings and I think they should, they're good doubts to have, because they're motivating. These doubts push you to become a better writer. The question I'm actually referring to, the one that I often feel in a bookstore is, 'Do I really have something to add to all of this?'

The answer, though in the midst of the bookshop blues it's not always easy to see, is yes. Me, you, every writer has something to add to all the hundreds of thousands of books that are already out there and this is because of what I'll call the inner part of your writing. The part of your writing behind the words, the part of your writing that is actually you. 

The skills we focus on teaching writers are the mechanics of the art, like training a basketball player to jump higher and higher and then teaching him how to slam dunk. Sure he'll be able to do it but what we marvel at when we see Michael Jordan or Lebron James is that something else, the flair with which they do it. So too are there two halves to writing, the part you can learn from Strunk and White, the part that comes from outside yourself, but there's also the flair you put into your writing, the part that makes it uniquely yours, the aspect of your writing that no one can teach you but yourself, the inner part.

Discovering this inner part to yourself and your writing is far more difficult but also far more important. Sure, you can take a story you've got an idea for and read a book on how to create characters, then read a book on writing good description, then read a book about how to squeeze it into a well-defined (and far too overused) story structure like The Hero's Journey, but what are you trying to say? What will make people finish the book and not just forget it forever?

We all care about different things, we all love and hate and are indifferent to differing parts of the world around us, religion, politics, social issues, football teams and fashion, we all have opinions. You have experiences to share and insights to provide, together story and language give you the vehicle with which to do that.

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is 'write what you know.' To me this doesn't mean if you're a lawyer you should solely write courtroom dramas, (if that were the case where would we get the great works of science fiction and fantasy?) it means you should tap into your life experiences and draw from them your own unique perspective on universal human qualities such as fear and love. How does the protagonist in your epic space opera overcome his fear of flying in space? Maybe it's the same way you overcame your fear of flying. As an author you can, scratch that, you should make us feel what you felt in times of great pain, or joy, or fear. Draw on your experiences to connect with your reader.

What is it that you enjoy about your favourite works of fiction? Great characters, sure. Terrific plot, absolutely. Beautiful prose, of course. But if you step back from these more technical aspects of the book and really examine it, what is the effect of all this? I'd be surprised if you didn't say something about how that book made you feel, some emotional connection to it. There's something in that book that you consider a truth about life, a truth that author has helped you find. The writing of that author has allowed you to experience life through someone else.  

"I'm just writing something to entertain people."

This is a statement I've heard writers make when they wish to dismiss discussions of theme or message in their work. At best this is being naive to the deeper power of language, at worst this is insulting to their possible readers. Of course we want to entertain, people would not read fiction if it wasn't entertaining but there's a misunderstanding here about what it is that entertains us. Sure the motorcycle chase up the back ramp of the taking-off cargo plane in that thriller you're reading was pretty awesome but the subtle scene in the kitchen where the mother realises her children have been kidnapped, that's what moved you emotionally. That's what made you feel what she felt.

I'm not suggesting what we set out to write is purely 'high literature', whatever that is, this is true of any genre. What elevates the best science fiction and fantasy is the way that fantastic world turns a mirror to our own world, the way the characters are still human (even when they're not) and the way they can show us their life lessons and we can apply them to ourselves. 

This may all sound like a bit of arm waving black magic hocus-pocus, but it's not. It's simply acknowledging the ability of story to generate emotion and understanding, after all that's the whole point isn't it? As you set out to write, be it novel, short-story, screenplay or poetry, think about what you're trying to share with your reader beyond simple entertainment. What will they feel and discover when your words are in their head? You can label it theme if you'd like, but consider the inner part of your work. You may not even be aware of what you're trying to say until you've written the first draft, but then when you embark on re-writing, before you consider reshaping dialogue and tightening prose consider the emotional story you're trying to convey, what's the point of the whole thing? If you can find what you're saying in the work and shape this just as much as you do the characters or plot your work will be more satisfying to you and certainly more satisfying to your reader.

By honestly sharing your view of the world you will ensure your writing adds to everything that is already out there. You can walk through the smell of fresh books and the quiet contemplation of a book shop safe in the knowledge that there is always space for more.