Saturday, February 21, 2015

On Writing: The more complicated and unusual the book, the more the little things matter.

The book I'm revising right now has an unusual structure and an unusual narrative voice. For the reader who isn't looking for a puzzle or a job, it has the potential to be a bit offputting. My job is to help that reader wherever I can. I want that reader to feel grounded, pulled in, and welcome in this book; I don't want any reader to feel frustrated and confused!

The unusual structure and the unusual narrative voice are integral to the book, so neither is something I'm willing to abandon. But I find myself doing a lot of other, little things throughout – things that happen on the sentence and word level – to help the reader wherever I can. I'm not sure if these things are working as well as I hope they're working, but I thought I'd share them, just in case any other writers out there are in a similar situation of trying to help the reader get a hold on a weird and complicated book.
  • When faced with the option of using either a pronoun (he, she, it, etc.) or a noun/name (James, Lucy, the painting/courtyard/whatever), I am using the noun much, MUCH more often than I usually do. Rather than writing, "'I saw it hanging on the wall,' he said," I will write, "'I saw the painting hanging on the wall,' James said." The latter choice requires less work from the reader. The reader can relax and not have to keep reminding herself what's being talked about or who's involved in this conversation. I try not to overdo it – avoided pronouns can become annoying, and dialog in particular needs to sound natural. Also, I don't want the reader to think I think she's stupid! But in this particular book, I choose nouns over pronouns wherever I can. It's about finding the balance. Each book you write will require a different balance for comprehensibility.
  • One of the characters is a dog with a human name (like, if you were to name your dog Edward, for example). I refer to this character frequently as "the dog" or "Edward the dog." This way, the reader doesn't have to work to remember that one of these human-sounding people is actually a dog. The reader is less likely to find himself comfused when, for example, Edward is suddenly whining and stepping on his own ears (my dog character is a basset hound ^_^). I try not to overdo this, as well. I do it wherever it feels natural.
  • This book takes place in a large house that has numerous rooms, floors, wings, balconies, bridges, and staircases. At any given moment, a character might have four possible staircases available to him, all of which would lead him to his intended destination. In the first draft of this book, I over-explained where everyone was, where everyone was going, and how they were getting there, at every moment. Who's on which staircase, for example, being watched by which person on which balcony. Who's rounding which courtyard in which direction. As always, I gave an early draft to a number of readers. Too often, in the notes they gave back to me, they wrote something along the lines of, "I'm completely lost right now. Do I need to see exactly how this is happening?" Feedback like this is so helpful! In my current revision, I'm being careful to explain directions and locations explicitly only when they're necessary to the plot. And when I do explain, I'm keeping it as minimal as possible. Note that this bullet point stands in opposition to the previous two bullet points (about the pronouns and the dog), which were about being more clear and specific. The idea behind this bullet point is to allow the reader the freedom of not caring, of not needing to know, unnecessary details. When it comes to directions and locations in a complicated setting, being less specific sometimes frees the mind of the reader – as long as you're still providing any information that is actually necessary, and as long as what you vaguely describe does have some realistic physical interpretation.
  • In this book, I'm allowing for more repetition than I usually do. Readers are smart, and in my experience, YA and middle grade fiction includes less needless repetition than adult fiction does. (SO MANY TIMES, when reading adult fiction, I find myself thinking, "Yes, you've already told me that five times. If my editor were editing this book she would have started striking it out long ago.") But the book I'm writing contains a lot of detail and has a peculiar, somewhat confusing structure. I can't expect the reader to retain everything. So, perhaps I mention early on that Edward the dog was born on a pirate ship because his mother's owner was the pirate cook (not my real story), and suppose that later on in the book, the reader needs to know this information. Rather than assuming the reader remembers, I state the information explicitly again. As with all of these bullet points, this one is about navigating a delicate balance. Repeat information too many times and the reader begins to find the book tedious. She may even begin to resent the implication that she's stupid. Repeat information too few times and the reader will come away feeling stupid! Every single one of my (extremely brainy!) early readers has identified some place in this book that has compelled them to say to me, "This part makes me feel stupid." If the reader feels stupid, it's because the writer has failed to navigate the information-providing balance. In my current revision of this book, I have made the conscious decision to err on the side of repeating information too often (risking annoying the reader with the implication that he's stupid), rather than not repeating it often enough and leaving my reader actually feeling stupid!
  • In a similar vein: if the reader needs detailed information in order to understand something, I try not to provide that detailed information until the very moment the reader needs it. I don't want to overburden my reader with the responsibility of remembering things unnecessarily.
  • Most importantly: I'm already making a list of friends whom I will ask to read this revision, when it's done. It's very hard for the writer to maintain the objective distance needed to determine whether she's getting any of these balancing acts right. I will need the eyes of other people who will read every line, then tell me when and where they are lost, confused, forgetful, annoyed, or overburdened with description.

There are probably other little things I'm doing. Perhaps this blog post will have an addendum as I think of them. In the meantime, it's snowing in Cambridge. It's okay: I put feathers on my nails.