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?