Writers: How do you think of your readers?

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Writers need readers.  We want to share our stories with other people, and it’s a bonus if those people respond to what they read and let us know what they think.  We already know that our first relationship with a reader occurs on the page, so it’s important to tell the best story we can, written the best we can write it.

Recently, I read a note mystery novelist Hope Clark wrote in her April 8, 2016 newsletter, FundsforWriters. She calls the relationship writers have with readers friendship. I’m not sure I agree with that term exactly despite the give-and-take between people contained within that word. I understand, however, that calling the relationship a friendship acknowledges its special nature. People who are complete strangers read our writing and feel that they make a connection with us on the page.  As Hope wrote:

Whether you write poetry, scripts, freelance features, nonfiction, memoir, or novels, your goal is to touch minds with a reader. And if the stars align, and you write like an angel, you connect with many readers, making them think you are of like souls.

Writers are also readers. Voracious, and hopefully eclectic readers who experience another writer’s work through a slightly different lens than a reader who isn’t a writer. I know that when I read, I notice style, voice, syntax, word choice, pacing, as well as structure, character development, plot, and dialogue. How a writer uses language to tell a story, that fascinates me. But I know that many people read only to enjoy a good story, to be entertained, to have their emotions aroused, or the mind stimulated in some way. I read for those reasons, too.  In support of her idea of friendship between writer and reader, Hope Clark wrote:

Think of yourself as a reader, and remember that special book that touched you once upon a time. The author reached across the void with characters, storytelling, and voice, and made you believe they understood you as a human being. The author deemed you credible, and you felt the same in return.

This is where I part company with Hope Clark: when I’m reading, I’m not thinking that the writer has understood me personally as a human being.  I think that the writer was successful (or not) in illuminating some universal truth of the human condition. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I don’t think the writer of the book, short story, or article I’m reading is writing to me specifically.  I know when I write, I’m writing for myself in actuality, to satisfy the need to express myself and share the stories my imagination gives me.

Now, from a marketing and promotion perspective, it’s great to foster friendship with readers, to make them feel special in some way. We as writers want people to read our stories, to buy our books, and to continue to read what we write over the years.  Hope Clark puts it this way:

But friendship with your readers means more these days. Once your writing passes muster, you are expected to be readily available online. You are also expected to respect the reader, because they invested time into the reading of your words. Not only do you want to feed them the words they want to hear, but you want to let them know you appreciate them for giving you attention in return

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107The internet has given writers a tool with which to connect even more easily with their readers.  It gives us a way to value our readers, appreciate them, communicate with them, and learn from them, in addition to meeting readers face-to-face during book tours.  The internet also gives readers a place to meet and talk about books, e.g. Goodreads.  I love hearing from my readers!  I wish more people were reading Perceval’s Secret and using the internet to communicate their reaction to it, whether directly to me via e-mail or at this blog, or in reviews posted at Amazon, B&N, or Goodreads (or elsewhere).

Hope Clark cautions in her note that writers write not for sales or Facebook likes, but for that “intimate” relationship with our readers.  I would add that I write to experience my intimate relationship with myself and my imagination, and to explore human behavior.

Why do you write? How do you think of your readers?

Prince and Beethoven

PrinceSymbol150The last few days, I’ve seen a lot of purple.  I live in Minnesota, and everywhere I’ve been, purple has appeared — purple clothing, purple light, purple banners, purple flowers, purple everywhere.  Purple is my favorite color, but it’s still astonishing to see so much of it.  Cars drive by blaring the music of Prince, a burst of sound and then gone. On Friday, my earworm was the first six notes of “Purple Rain.” The music world has lost a lot of fine musicians this year, both in the classical realm as well as the pop/rock.  Prince’s mysterious death is only the latest.

I confess: I know little of Prince’s music.  He’s been a presence in my state, though, since his birth, and during the last nearly 40 years has followed his creative soul here, far from the distractions of fame or notoriety. During the last 48 hours, I’ve learned just how prolific he was as a musician, songwriter, and performer.  He worked hard.  He remained true to his inner muse, to his musical imagination.  What he produced could have been dismissed and rejected because it didn’t fit with current music trends.  But it was accepted as innovative and original.  He was lucky.  He persevered.  He did what he could not not do.

Photo from icadoo.com.au

Photo from icadoo.com.au

Something that’s intrigued me about Prince that I’ve heard over and over the last few days is that he blended music genres, established his own “sound” and broke boundaries.  That reminded me of another short musician who lived  over 200 years ago: Ludwig von Beethoven.  Probably a major difference between the two is Beethoven read music, composed on paper using musical notation.  From what I’ve heard about Prince, he was self-taught, didn’t read music, and composed by playing, although I’d think that at some point he’d have someone write it all down for other musicians.  Beethoven, though, was one of the pop musicians and composers of his day, like Prince.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven also broke boundaries in classical music.  He learned how to follow the rules first, and composed music in the accepted forms and styles.  Then came his Third Symphony.  His Fourth Piano Concerto.  The piano sonatas.  The string quartets.  And of course the Ninth Symphony.  All new, all revolutionary.  He was a pianist who wrote incredible music for orchestra, but he had some challenges when it came to vocal music.  He didn’t allow the challenges to become obstacles that stopped him, though.  Like Prince, who seems to have turned any obstacles into opportunities to make music.  If Beethoven were alive today, would he have liked Prince?  Did Prince like Beethoven’s music?

I’ve been reading a lot of memories of Prince also the last few days.  They’ve reminded me of my own brief encounter with him many years ago.  At the time, I’d heard of him but was more immersed in classical music.

I returned to Minnesota after a trip, landing at MSP on a beautiful, sunny late spring day.  I left the terminal to catch a cab and walked past a shining white car, maybe a town car or a modest limo.  I crossed the road in front of it, and as I looked to the left to check oncoming traffic, the guy in the white car waved to me, he smiled a really big smile like he was seeing an old friend, waving excitedly. I didn’t know the guy, but he made me smile, and I waved back at him.  I crossed over to the first available cab.  The driver looked at me slack-jawed as I got in the back seat.  “You know Prince?”  I started to shake my head and ask “What Prince?” when it hit me.  He was talking about Prince the pop music star.  I looked back at the white car but it was gone.  Yeah, that was Prince sitting in that white car making me smile.

 

 

 

Do You Know Inspiration?

storm-drain-cleaning-fort-myers-plumbing-cape-coral

The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.

– Graham Greene

It amazes me how the smallest detail can inspire my imagination to create a story. I was recently asked what prompted me to start writing fiction.  The memory came back as vivid as if it happened yesterday.  I was in sixth grade, a School Safety Patroller, doing her job at lunchtime outdoors in front of the elementary school.  The early autumn sun blazed and warmed the air. A street storm drain caught my attention, specifically its cover.  It had a parallel horizontal  metal grill that reminded me a bit of train tracks. The thought prompted a question: what kind of being would be able to “walk” on such a track?  My mind filled with images of a jungle planet without solid ground but walkways of tracks like that drain cover. The inhabitants had developed an organic wheel that served as feet at the bottom of one thick but flexible leg. I wrote a story about one of these inhabitants, and my sixth grade teacher read the story aloud to my class.

Do you know inspiration when you see it?  I must confess that it usually sneaks up on me and pounces when I least expect it.  My best stories come when I’m doing something else away from my desk, usually.  I rarely feel inspired sitting at my desk, staring at my computer monitor or at a blank notebook page. There are three things that I can do to inspire inspiration, though. None of them involves writing.

lady_in_shower

Taking a Shower: I have no idea why some of my best ideas come to me when I’m in the shower.  Is it the sensation of water spraying on my head and body?  Is it the steamy air?  Or is it just being relaxed, feeling clean, smelling fresh, and the soothing comfort of a water massage?  Probably all of the above.  The minute I step under the water, my mind wanders and my imagination begins to play.  Daydreaming.  My mind wanders through narrative problems, character issues, story needs.  Usually, ideas begin to bubble with the soap.

front_daniil_trifonov

Daniil Trifonov (Photo: trifonov.us)

Listening to Classical Music: I can be sitting in a concert listening to the Minnesota Orchestra, sitting on my sofa listening to classical music radio, or walking with my Sony Walkman, it doesn’t matter.  Since I was very young, when I’ve listened to classical music, my imagination has been released to frolic or create.  This is my favorite way to invite inspiration for a play date with my imagination.

cleaning

Cleaning: I’ve heard other creative types comment that doing something boring and unrelated to their art almost always stimulates their imaginations and sparks inspiration.  I truly detest housecleaning.  To me, it’s the epitome of boring. When I have a lot of time, though, and one particularly thorny writing problem I need to solve, cleaning can be just the thing.  Combining physical exertion with boredom (like working out, too) creates the perfect condition for my mind to go off on journeys and adventures with my imagination.

And then there’s the stuff that Graham Greene mentions in the quote above.  Just like my experience with the street storm drain, details in our environments can spark ideas, serving as inspiration.  Watching people works especially well for me — airport waiting areas, city buses, restaurants, clinic waiting areas. Maybe it’s the woman dressed to the nines walking down a city street in an undeveloped area.  Or it’s the guy wearing a plaid flannel shirt under a sport jacket.  People behave in unique ways, and it can be fun to imagine the reasons behind the behavior.

opening Age of Innocence

All of these things to spark inspiration won’t work, though, unless I’m open to receiving it.  Be open, think open, want open.  The image I use in my mind is actually video: the opening credits of Martin Scorcese’s movie The Age of Innocence. The visuals are a series of opening flowers.  It’s gorgeous, accompanied by lush music.

Maybe you have places full of details that can fuel your imagination, or things you do to prime yourself to receive inspiration.  Please share your favorites in the comments below.

Accepting Feedback

StudygroupPhotoI used to dread receiving feedback about my writing. Being in a writing workshop stressed me out, and there were times when I dissociated and missed what was said or asked about my writing. Some writers react defensively to feedback. Others become angry as well. I finally learned from a screenwriting teacher under what conditions feedback is best received and how I could learn from it and improve my writing.

Years ago, I took a screenwriting class in order to learn how to write a screenplay of a novel I’d written. The teacher, Steven Larson, had extensive experience writing screenplays and had won awards. From the first day, he created a positive atmosphere in the class by focusing on the writing, and insisting that when we gave feedback, we talk about things the writer did right as well as the things that needed work. So, there were no comments about a writer’s intelligence, a writer’s talent, a writer’s personality or anything else about the writer personally. I learned a lot in that class that has helped me in writing all kinds of prose, not just screenplays.

A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006

I also learned how best to receive feedback, at least for me. Over the years, I’ve developed my own list of things I need to do in preparation and while receiving the feedback.  Having this list keeps me calm and focused so I can take in what the readers of my writing have to say.

  • When I give out my writing to be read and critiqued, I include a list of things that I want the readers to watch for as they read. I make some of it specific, but I also include requests for general thoughts on structure, character, etc. By doing this, I have an idea what the readers will talk about during the critique as well as finding out what I want to know from them.
  • When I prepare for the group critique, or one by an individual reader in person, I first make certain that I have a full pad of paper and at least 2 pens to take notes.
  • I re-read what I’ve submitted for critique, noting any problems that I’ve spotted on each page. It really helps to refresh my mind with what I wrote.
  • At the beginning of the critique, I let the reader(s) know that I will not be talking during their critique, except to ask questions for clarification. I tell them that I’ll be taking notes and listening closely to what they have to say.  Then I thank them for their feedback.
  • During the critique, I take notes. I do not react in any way, keeping my expression open but dispassionate. If I don’t understand a comment, I’ll ask for clarification. Staying silent can be the most difficult part of a critique.  Of course, I want to clarify things, except, it’s important to know that the readers didn’t understand something. That’s a clue that I need to make that part clearer. This is also not an appropriate time to defend anything.  It is the time to listen well, make notes, and plan for the revision process.
  • When the critique is done, I thank my readers for their time and thoughtful reading, and for their helpful, constructive feedback about my writing. I’ll ask them if they have any questions at this time.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.  I try to answer honestly but without going into a lot of detail about my notes or my plans for revision.
  • After the critique, when I’m home and at my desk, I’ll go through my notes once, sometimes write more notes, then I put them away for at least a week before going through them again with the writing that was critiqued. I wait at least a week to let my imagination mull over what was said during the critique.  I’ve learned that if I don’t wait, I’ll get stuck during the revision process.  If I wait, my mind is ready and eager to get to work, and the revision process will go better.

It’s important to go into a critique truly believing that the people you’ve trusted with your writing will want to help you make your writing better.  Approaching the process from the beginning with a positive framework and then refusing to be defensive or get angry will go a long way toward insuring that you’ll be able to accept the feedback in the spirit that it was given, and to use it to help you improve your writing.  I’ve used this process while working with the editor of Perceval’s Secret before its e-publication.

Photo: aliyasking.com

Photo: aliyasking.com

Remember, the goal of a critique is to have fresh, intelligent eyes read your writing and for a reader to provide feedback to help you make your writing better.

Ideas are Overrated

MC Escher Paradox of being a writer

Today, I stumbled on this short blog post by YA author A. B. Westrick.  She writes about the notion that ideas are what drive stories when, in fact, it is what’s behind them that truly propel a story and connect it with its readers.  Well worth the read!