If you’re lucky, or wise enough to make your own luck in this regard, you’ll have a writing buddy or two who rates what you do, but tells you which bits haven’t worked for them, and, more importantly, why.
It’s important to know what readers don’t like about what they think they haven’t found, or have, in what you’ve written, but not merely so that you can change it to meet their requirements. Similar issues arise when you’re being told what has worked. You might need to know it’s worked in the way you intended. Of course, if, rather than having something to tell, you are just trawling with your writing for anybody’s approval about anything they think they’ve found, polishing your techniques could be largely irrelevant.
Discussing flash fiction recently in an online webinar I found myself telling my colleagues that sometimes, when your story has been rejected you need to revise your opinion of it, but that other times when the same outcome occurs you need to revise your opinion of the editor.
It’s important to know, and undoubtedly hard to discern, just when it’s the reader, editor or writing buddy rather than the writing that has the problem, but the first step to knowing that is in knowing that one has been detected.
I’m blessed with an excellent writing buddy or few and I pay attention to what they are telling me. Best of all is when they pick up technical issues, the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of making sense to someone who has no idea of what you’re striving to say, but only the clear evidence, in print, of what you have actually said.
Tobias Wolff, the American short story writer has an interesting comment touching on this in his introduction to the 2008 collection, Our Story Begins (Bloomsbury):
‘if I see a clumsy or superfluous passage, so will you, and why should
I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented.’
He’s justifying the fact that he has taken the chance to re-edit stories in the collection, despite them being decades old (a practice that half a century earlier H.E.Bates in an introduction of his own had specifically condemned). Co-incidentally I discovered on my shelves one of Wolff’s corrected stories in its earlier version. The comparison, as you might guess, was instructive.
Wolff’s statement not only reveals his reasons for acting, but also describes the nature of the problem that he feels he is confronting: that he might ‘throw you [the reader] out of the story with an irritation’.
There’s a lot implied in that. When a sentence, a longer passage or even a phrase, because of the order in which the elements or even individual words are encountered, interrupts the reader’s understanding of what is being conveyed the writer has placed an obstacle – Wolff’s ‘irritation’ – in front of the reader, and one that they might not successfully cross.
These moments of reflection came about because recently I sent one of my writing buddies a flash fiction to peruse. It came back with a generally good report, but with the proviso that there was one short sentence in which the phrase ‘his son’ was ambiguous. A minor character was referring to a third party’s child, but might have meant his own. Worse still (and here my practice of not using speech marks, which does call for extra vigilance, was to blame) the whole sentence could be attributed to the narrator which would raise all sorts of nonsensical and confounding possibilities. It had thrown my writing buddy, but not quite out of the story. He’d had to go however, he wrote, ‘back and forth’ to make sure of the sense and of who, precisely, was being talked about, and by whom.
It struck me on reading the comment that except in those circumstances where we intend to send the reader back into a story by some unexpected revelation to re-read what we have set up to be misinterpreted on the first encounter, to send a reader ‘back and forth’ to make sense of a story is a serious fault. Yet the fix could be as simple – and in my case it was – as changing ‘his’ to a named individual.
Whenever we bring the progress of a reader to a halt in a story, we risk the possibility that they won’t start up again, and nowhere more so than when it is because the thread of understanding has been unintentionally snapped.
James Joyce famously said that writing was about ‘the right words in the right order’, but it’s also true that reading depends upon something very similar.