Some of these lessons, you just can’t be “taught.”
The truth is, to be a good writer, and a good indie publisher, you have to have outside feedback, and then, miraculously, you have to know what to do with it. Because sometimes it’s not grammar or spelling or even A + B = C, but something so understated and new, you’re going to need all those writerly smarts just to figure it out.
Case in point: I am in the editing process of a fantasy novella called The Night of One Hundred Thieves. I am still hoping to publish in September, so I’ll try not to give too much away. But it’s like this: thirty-two people in a medieval, fictionalized town set their sights on stealing The Queen’s powerful, magical ring after she dies. Time after time, I received the exact same feedback: 1) characters needed a more conventional conclusion, 2) more magic! (and more closely defined magic), and 3) for pity’s sake, tell us what happened to the ring! We’ll talk about each of these.
As for the third, it especially baffled me, and I also had to laugh at it. (What else?) You see, the answer is in the book. There are–you count ’em–three scenes where the ring shows up after being stolen (and a number of places where it doesn’t). I really don’t want to be too detailed here, but just believe me. There is sentence each time, and in that sentence it places the ring in that person’s possession. So what happened? Here’s what I learned from this process: 1) readers like to be hit over the head. As my writing group put it, Stop Being So Darned Oblique. Yeah, metaphor and description is great for showing us your prose chops, but readers still need things to be clear. Like crystal. 2) Readers like to be hit over the head even harder when the unexpected happens. They don’t want to stop reading and start thinking, “Did that really just happen?” No, they need to think, “That was crazy s***, but it totally just happened!” 3) When multiple characters have motivation and means, there has to be some sort of other muscle to flex to make the whole thing believable. This was especially hard on me, since one of the “points” of the story was that luck and randomness would have as much to do with a triumphing thief as anything. Although true to life, readers in general did not like this idea. They want to know why that’s the character who gets away with it. They want to know my justification for the ending. Like I have always said, the end needs to feel like an inevitable surprise. As a writer, I’m still working on what that means to the reader and how to orchestrate it. And 5) different strokes for different genres. This isn’t literary fiction, it’s fantasy.
My beta readers wanted more magic, and more closely defined magic. Here’s the thing: I can write for the most discerning and intelligent writer, but then I’m going to lose everyone else. This might sound pompous, but I often tell other writers not to take my opinions of their writing too serious because I am a very good reader. Most of their readers will not be as immersed in the world of literature as I am, or as attuned to the subtleties of story. Likewise, it’s not stupid to repeat things in real books, to come back around, to drive home a point, or to just say it.
My beta readers wanted a more conventional conclusion. Readers can only take so much of “different.” Short fantasy mixed with an insane number of characters and shifting point of view was already enough of a work-out for the reader. (Those things, they enjoyed.) But when they got to the end and found a more open-ended story line with loose tie-ups… they were not amused. I am going to come back to my friend’s old visual for this: when you do something good in a story, it’s like giving the reader a gold coin. When you challenge the reader, it’s like expecting them to pay you a gold coin (even if the challenge will be rewarding). By the time my readers got to the end, they were entertained but they were nearly bankrupt. I couldn’t pull a fast one on them when I had already required them to flex their cerebrum once every three pages, already. Of course, some books are structured to challenge, almost exclusively, but that’s not the audience I am going for here. So one last lesson: know which audience you are going for, and make sure you please them.
Sure, whatever you are going through, some writer somewhere has been through. However, it’s in the particulars that we can be blinded. I mean, I would have told you that my ending was clear and “surprising but inevitable.” Unfortunately, I would have been the only one. What I mean is, there are books and classes and books–and I have read a number of them–addressing plot and ending and genre and all the things I just wrote about. It’s that mysterious process of actually writing the book that’s inside you that makes following advice and using tools so darned tricky. I mean, every application is both unique and myopic, and so can be exceedingly bizarre and confusing. Thank goodness I believe that there is no perfect Platonic form of “book” or “my book” waiting to be actualized. I just rely on my intuition and my instincts and my talents, make sure the tools are handy, and embrace my beta readers and editors. I’ll never, ever see my own book for what it really is… I’m just too close to the thing. But I can do my best and wait to see if it has just a glimmer of the brilliance I’ve seen in my dreams of it.