Intuitively Obvious to the Most Casual Observer

First off, I’m sorry I haven’t been around the blogs much this past couple weeks. My only hope to stay caught up with my blog reading/commenting routine is borrowing some time at work when things are slow. That ain’t been happening lately! And doing any actual writing…forget about it. I’m confident circumstances will swing back the other way soon, but until then I’m just doing my best to stay in the game and remain on your radar.

Today I’d like to discuss a couple of topics that collectively present a personal challenge to my growth as a writer, but I suspect touches all of us in some fashion. As I formulate this post in my head the concepts seemed disjointed and unrelated, but my gut is telling me they are inter-connected, so bear with me as I trust my instincts and fly by the seat of my pants. I’ll do my best to tie it all up with a neat bow at the end.

Most of you are unaware that a good portion of my day-job involves writing material for instruction manuals. Most of my career path has revolved around on-the-job instruction, spending a good many years as an administrative trainer, which also involved developing the manuals that went hand-in-hand with the training. There is a phrase that I learned early-on that served as a guiding beacon when I went about creating these guides, which ironically I now attempt to block out when writing fiction…Intuitively Obvious to the Most Casual Observer. That was always the goal. It mostly entailed explaining a task multiple ways, in the hopes that one of them will ignite a spark of comprehension in the reader. I bet you can see where this is heading. Not only is the writing I immerse myself in during the day un-imaginative, dry, and emotionless, it also must be structured and written in such a manner that even the most intellectually challenged employee could understand what it needs to convey. Just one example of how that bleeds over into my fiction writing is in the form of stage directions, the most common feedback from my critique partners. I find myself going to great lengths, unnecessarily, to explain tiny details that fail to drive a scene forward. It’s habit.

Sometimes I feel like I’m attempting to be the writing equivalent of Superman. During the day I’m the mild-mannered, ever-invisible Clark Kent, churning out non-descript, bland, filler articles about boring subject matter, but at night turning into Superman…where emotion and imagination is boundless.

I recently listened to an interview fellow blogger and author K.M. Weiland conducted with Thriller novelist Joanna Penn and found the Joanna’s discussion concerning transitioning from writing non-fiction to fiction very interesting. I couldn’t help but compare our struggles, and I have to say…I win (that is, if I’m ever published). Works of non-fiction can be very creative, even emotional, but the one thing they cannot be, even in that genre, is obvious. A good novel, whatever the genre, doesn’t spoon-feed the reader. It draws the audience in, forcing them to invest some of themselves by tapping into their own imagination and connecting with the story. That author utilizes layers, and sub-text, all written between the lines. The exact opposite of what I do for a living.

But my challenge doesn’t end there, for me there is another level at play. You see, I write mysteries, where obvious is equivalent to kryptonite. One way I combat my tendency to over-explain, is my outline. That’s right, not only can an outline assist a writer by detailing where various story elements should be introduced, but you can also use it to list which elements need to be suppressed. Many-a-time I have gotten carried away writing a scene or chapter until I checked back to the outline and discovered plot points that were not supposed to be revealed yet. That helps me with timing, but I continue to grapple with another issue -- trust. Trusting the reader to figure things out for themselves. When I am writing my instruction guides, I have to ensure that EVERY reader can figure out what is going on. However, in the world at-large, that is not necessarily the case. The truth is, not every reader is created equal and as a writer, you have to find the intellectual sweet spot that represents your core target audience. If you write too far down, you’ll alienate those readers looking for more challenging content, go to high-brained and you’ll see the opposite effect. This is where a good agent (I’m hoping) can help align you with the niche that best suits what you like to write. Although, agents are first and foremost…readers, and requests for major revisions to either beef up or dumb-down your manuscript should be given a healthy amount of consideration first (*winks at Leigh*). The same goes for advice from CP’s or Beta readers. Making changes to clarify every question or misunderstanding could be doing your story a disservice.

At the end of the day, it’s all a balancing act. Weighing the apparent against the obscure, choosing which dots to connect and which ones to leave for the reader to interpret. I’m doing my best to figure all of that out and create something special.

Isn’t that obvious?

27 comments

  1. I used to thing I would like having a writing job for my day job instead of teaching but I see your point how the writing is so different.
    Hope some time opens up for you soon.

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  2. Writing the "dry" stuff does teach one to think--I think! It's a case of shifting gears from one kind of writing to another. I know where you're at. As a single mother, I've had to work that office day job, then at night was too tired to write creatively, or even read a book!! So, hang in there. Like the above comment, I do hope that time opens up for you soon. Meanwhile, life does come before blogging. Even trying to write creatively comes before blogging. We'll always be here! At least most of us will, I suspect!!
    Ann Best, Long Journey Home

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  3. Yes, you are flipping back and forth across the spectrum, but you see it and you've found ways to work with yourself to combat your challenges, so you're way ahead of many on that balancing act. You know what would be funny? If you found yourself slipping a bit of mystery into your manuals, haha. A murder mystery training session!

    I've begun doing more and more writing at my day job too (mostly marketing stuff, so I get to keep some creativity) but I've found that it sometimes drains my will to write by the time I get home. :/

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  4. I've done the balancing act when I was in school full-time, working full-time and writing fiction. I was actually more productive. And now, I get swamped at work and I'm exhausted and can't write. Although my job now requires a lot more thought then my previous one...

    Good luck! Life gets in the way.

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  5. Time is always a problem. Make sure you have lots of experiences and jot down notes for when you do have time for the creative stuff (I use napkins all the time for such a purpose). Good luck! Miss you

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  6. How strange that you should post this today. My whole week worth the posts coming up are basically along these same lines. When to stop with the backstory, how to cut the descriptions and TRUSTING that reader and/or yourself to get through an entire novel.
    Okay, so I touched a little on the "Superman" analogy this past week and how to tame the artist against my writing personality so I can relate to that, just on the opposite side. My artist is MUCH stronger than my writer and has no such thing as a filter and I find myself straying into things that brink on the absurd. Okay, they go full on absurd (if you see that blog you'll know what I mean)

    Balance and Moderation is the name of the game and it takes practice. Guidlines and other bloggers, information and experience from others is a valuable tool, but nothing more valuable than practice, practice, practice.

    Now that I'm back, you must also return! I'm going to be persistant, so here's your first "poke" to hurry up ;) I do hope work eases up and the Chi of everyday life resumes soon.

    Do you write the manuals on how to construct stuff for Ikea...if so I have a bone to pick with you, Sir!

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  7. I write in the morning to help counterbalance the creative drain I feel at the end of the day. I get the added bonus of a sleepy inner editor too.

    I agree that you are ahead of the game if you can pinpoint the issue. I hope you have a better writing week.

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  8. I can see where that becomes a challenge for you. My job involves some tech and instructional stuff, but it's more from the viewpoint of simple rather than obvious. So my tendency is to simplyfy. I'm one of the few writers who has to go back and add to rather than subtract from their manuscript, because what I've written is so simple and bare bones.

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  9. It must be hard to break those habits. You probably don't even notice you write that way, because you've trained yourself to do it! :) Hope you get more time soon!

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  10. At least you are aware of your challenges in writing and notice them when they infiltrate the fiction.

    Balance is absolutely the key, and you seem to have a good handle on that concept.

    Thanks for sharing this part of your journey DL.

    ........dhole

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  11. I did not know what you did for a living. I thought maybe you were Mr. Mom or something. Not that there's anything wrong with that! Fascinating, that your writing takes two such divergent paths. I like Nicki's suggestion that maybe there's a way to make them converge in a mystery.

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  12. Wow,

    That must be hard. I couldn't fathom writing a manual. My creative sprit would die. I am Mr. Artistic in everything I do.

    I admire you for your strength and determination to write creatively and mystery...

    I have a bit of mystery in my first book, but nothing as suspenseful as you write. Fantasy is literally a whole other world.

    Michael

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  13. I've heard that editing your own work can be compared to packing light for a long journey: pack, then take out half of your stuff; then take out half of what's left. You're packed. Yeah, I know, if you do that to a manuscript, you're writing the a mystery board book.
    I find that word games help me when editing my work, or when changing gears from one type of writing to another. Word games like speed scrabble help your brain step back to a more constructive mode (much needed when working on drafts 2, 3, 4, etc.)

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  14. It must be hard to shift your brain from logical to emotional. The day job has to have the time it needs - that way mortgages get paid and people get to eat more than each other ;)

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  15. DL--A great post!

    I'm right with you when you talk about finding your core audience of readers. It was a real breakthru for me when one of my writing professor's back in my playwriting days pointed out I'd left no room in my script for the audience.

    Letting the audience--or in the case of fiction, the reader--figure out what's going on, and leaving them space to do so is one of the most challenging parts of writing fiction IMHO. And no, I don't think it's obvious. ;)

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  16. I also write for a living as a copywriter. So, not quite instruction manuals, but I'm usually writing content for web pages ... and my clients like the copy to be intuitive and easy to understand. I think I have it easier for you though since I don't write mysteries.

    I still find it hard to be creative at the end of the day though, when I've already spent an entire day of writing for work. I tried writing in the morning, but, yeah, I'm not a morning person. So now, I just have to make sure I have a long enough break in between work and "play" writing, so that I can switch gears.

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  17. Yes, I can relate, D.L. As a former writer of public policy and an academic text, breaking into the world of fiction was difficult. Passive voice is okay in technical writing, where it is taboo in creative writing. I also had to learn to use adjectives and adverbs again, while concentrating on pov, pacing, flow, characterization etc. It took me over a year to figure it all out. I'm finally at a point where my novel is coming together. It aint easy is it? Take care and best of luck.

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  18. shew! Mystery writing seems hard. So many pieces to hold in your head and to trickle out at just the right time.

    I understand the balancing act! And isn't KM the best? Love her.

    Hang in there, D! :o) <3

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  19. Great post! Finding that sweet spot can be so challenging, especially when it's all so clear to you, the writer. That's why good critique partners are so helpful. :)

    And I have to say I really admire that you are able to write boring stuff for a living and still pursue fiction writing in your spare time. I think a job like that would make me hate writing. Hope things slow down for you soon!

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  20. I have the opposite problem with stage direction... but because I've thought up such a complex world and plot, I do tend to try to give things away. But hey, what are revisions for?

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  21. Ah, so you have to move from not trusting your reader to trusting your reader. Like flipping a switch. You must find it liberating.

    I hope you have some time soon to let loose.

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  22. I miss you!!! I'm back in the blogging world! Can't wait to hear more from you.

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  23. I've been missing you too. I thought maybe I had said something a little toooooo blond for your taste. :) Sorry you have been so busy at work, DL!

    Somehow I didn't picture you as a manual writer, I thought you were creating ice cream flavors. :)

    Next time I'm down maybe we can get together for coffee.

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  24. You really have to jump tracks from work to leisure time. You are amazing. I know that you said you've had some down time but it will pick back up again. :)

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  25. Hey Clark Kent/Superman, what's the female equivalent? I write training materials and teach professional training classes too and I know EXACTLY what you mean. Even WORSE, I had to write a 100+ page research paper last year, OMY did that feel like it was strangling my creativity!

    My outlines keep me on track too.

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  26. Where'd you go? Are you coming back? (No pressure though, I know how demanding blogging can be. Take your time, I'm sure your next post will be amazing!)

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  27. You make a great point. I tend to not explain everything, thinking I need to trust the reader, but then when I get questions from CPs and see that they're confused, I automatically go back and make things clearer, thinking if that person's confused, other readers will be, too. But I agree with what you're saying, it's a fine line and each case has to be judged individually.

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