Friday, April 18, 2014

Tapping the Reader Mind to Improve the Writer Mind

Sorry I've been MIA this last month. I've been writing like crazy on a new project that's very different from the ones I've done (shocker, right? At this point I think the real surprise would be if I actually wrote two series in the same genre o_o). ANYWAY, in between this new story and doing my research to get ready to enter the self publishing side of the pool this summer, I stumbled over another of those wonderful, headsmackingly obvious yet brilliant writing ideas, and I wanted to share.

But first! The final Devi Morris book, HEAVEN'S QUEEN, comes out April 22! Woo!

"The only game that matters is the end game" is my favorite tag line of the whole series! Go get'em, Devi!

Anyway, on to writing!

So there's a common bit of writing wisdom that goes "Write the book you want to read." This is a very good piece of advice, but it's also a deceptively simple one. Of course I'm writing the book I want to read. If I didn't find my book interesting, then I wouldn't be writing it in the first place, right?

Well, yes and no.

I've written a lot of books at this point (13 between all my pen names and trunked titles), but I'm still discovering new, stupidly obvious truths about my process. Things I really should have noticed back on book #2 rather than #14. But writing is a tricky business, and its easy to miss parts of the process precisely because they seem so obvious.

For example, I engage books different as a reader than I do as a writer. I've long known that the reader side of me, we'll call her Reader Rachel, likes a lot of books that Writer Rachel can't stand. Take The Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance series, for example. Writer Rachel can bitch for hours about how those books are constructed--the ridiculous world building, the fact that all these ancient warriors never seem to actually employ tactics against their enemies, the weird and awkward side plots that have nothing to do with the current story and only exist to set up future books, the endless product placement, the god damn names (OH GOD THE STUPID NAMES).

And yet, for all these obvious flaws, Reader Rachel ate that shit up. Zadist (I warned you about the names) and Bella's book, Lover Awakened, is probably my favorite romance novel ever, and while I gave up on series when she hooked Rehvenge (THAT NAAAAAAME) up with a goody-two-shoes selfless vampire nurse (gag), the fact remains that I still paid freaking $5.99-$9.99 for each ebook and read them all.

There are a number of other series Writer Rachel scoffed at and Reader Rachel adored, but you get the idea. For years, though, I ignored this dichotomy outright. I didn't even question what drove me to obsessively read these books that I knew were...kind of schlocky, honestly. But that was a huge mistake. By dismissing my own reading preferences, I was cutting Reader Rachel out of the picture all together. Writer Rachel was calling all the shots with my stories, which meant that even though I was (and am) very proud of the work I produced, I was disobeying one of the most fundamental rules of story telling. I was writing the books I wanted to write, not the books I wanted to read.

Realizing this was a headslap moment for me. Going back to our initial example, The Black Dagger Brotherhood books are international best sellers despite their flaws. Readers aren't stupid. If a book is that popular, it must be doing something right, and I was the one being stupid one for dismissing that. By ignoring what delighted my reader self, I was ignoring the instincts that made me a writer in the first place. I actually think one of the reasons the Devi books have been so popular was because I wasn't falling into this trap. The entire raison d’ĂȘtre for Fortune's Pawn was that I wanted to read an action packed SF romance and I couldn't find one. It was the essence of writing the book I wanted to read, and I think we can all agree the results were great.

Once I'd realized this truth, the obvious question became how could I do it every time? After all, if the caps lock of doom above wasn't a hint, Reader Rachel and Writer Rachel don't always agree. Fortunately, they don't have to, because I'm not writing Black Dagger Brotherhood or any of the books I like to read. I'm writing my books, only now I'm inviting Reader Rachel to play as well by making the following adjustments to my writing process:

1) I approach my scenes like a reader
I've long said that a scene should do three things: advance the story, reveal information, and pull the reader forward. That's all still true, but now when I sit down to plan a scene, I invite Reader Rachel to join in by asking "If I was a reader, what would I want here?" For a moment, I forget everything I as a writer need the scene to do and just think about what would be awesome. If I was reading this in someone else's book, what would I find exciting or thrilling or romantic? What is the pathos here, where's the emotion? What does Reader Rachel want to see?

When you put it that way, these questions all sound really obvious, but for years now, I wasn't doing this. I always considered building fun and excitement into my work as part of the planning process (and an important cornerstone of fast writing), but even then it was a tool to help me write faster. The improvement to the audience was a side benefit, and that's wrong. Improving the reader experience should have been priority #1. Fortunately, my own innate love of overly dramatic things carried me, but I missed so many opportunities to make my scenes even more awesome. It's the classic "can't see the forest for the trees" problem. I let myself get too caught up in the writing process to remember that the reading experience is the entire point of this whole operation.

2) I pay attention to what makes me read
It's not exactly revolutionary to say that reading widely is a vital part of writing. For a long time now, though, I've been subconsciously dividing my reading into "work" reading (books that make me a better writer) and "fun" reading (books I read on the couch while my kid watches Sponge Bob). Like most divisions, this was wasteful and stupid.

Source material is irrelevant. If I like something, I (and probably a lot of other people) like it for a reason, and understanding that reason lets me use it in my own work. So now, when I encounter something cool in my reading, no matter what I'm reading, I make it a point to stop and figure out why? Why do I like this so much? Why is it cool?

Even if I can't actually answer the question, just the act of asking has made me a better writer. The more I learn about writing, the more I realize that so much of storytelling is about awareness. Understanding the mechanical aspects of what makes a good tale, noticing and studying the details other people take for granted, and then practicing and experimenting with what we've seen in our own work--these are the things that make us better writers regardless of genre or experience.

3) I never forget what I'm writing
This one might seem silly, but bear with me. Reading a standard length book (80k-150k words) usually takes anywhere from six hours to twenty hours depending on length, narrative complexity, and individual reading speed. These hours can be shotgunned in a single session or spread out over many days, but either way it's a relatively short experience, especially compared to how long it takes to write a book. Now, during that reading time, you are immersed in the feel of the book--building terror for horror, rising excitement and wonder for fantasy, anxiety for a thriller, etc.

These intense feelings are the hallmark of good fiction and one of the major reasons people read. When you're writing, though, the relative timeline of the story experience is exponentially expanded, and it's very easy to lose sight of the feelings you want your book to spark. The result can be a book that makes narrative sense, but still feels disjointed, or never develops any sense of gripping emotion at all. Fortunately, involving your reader mind in the writing process neatly avoids this problem.

Your reader mind knows what to expect for your book even if your writer self hasn't quite figured it out yet. If you're writing in a genre, you've read that genre before, and your reader brain knows what to expect emotionally. All Writer You has to do is listen. For example, we've all had times when we get stuck on one paragraph for two hours, but one of the ways to fight that is to ask your reader self "how does this need to feel? If I was reading this paragraph in another book in this genre, what would it say?"

I'm amazed by how often this trick works, but I shouldn't be. Reader Rachel has read more books than Writer Rachel will ever write. She knows a lot about how this stuff works, and if I can disengage my analytic, obsessive writer brain long enough to actually tap into that knowledge, the answer is usually sitting right there. It's all about knowing what you're trying to write on a high level and then using your reader experience and expectations for that genre (or even better, playing with and subverting those expectations) to keep your writing united toward the common goal over the long haul of crafting a book.

These are just a few of the changes I've implemented to bring my reader self in my writing process, but the results have already been amazing. I feel like I'm learning to write all over again, but then, writing is a constant process of reinventing ourselves. We are always rising from our own ashes, and it is this constant process of learning and examining and changing that makes us grow. There's no such thing as the top of our game, and that is wonderful, because it means we can always go higher if only we keep looking for new ways to climb.

Whew, that post got long! Anyway, I hope these insights help you with your writing. Thank you as always for reading and I hope you'll check out HEAVEN'S QUEEN when it launches next week!

Happy writing!
- Rachel


mk said...

What a fantastic post! Thanks for sharing

Crystal said...

Somehow I got it into my head that I'd have to wait another year for Heaven's Queen... and now it's only four days away. I am a happy, happy reader.

Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Rachel.

I do wonder how many writers (especially established) put themselves in a reader's shoe, rather than a writer's one. They aren't the same thing at all, but a writer can read both.

And so can a reader, I think.

Rachel Aaron said...

@mk thank you!

@Crystal yep! Closer than you think. I'm so happy Orbit decided to put these books out so quickly!

@Paul thank you very much. This is one of those things that sounds so obvious when you point it out, but I've found isn't actually intuitive while you're writing. I think this is partially because there's so much emphasis on writing as its own thing, we forget sometimes that writing is also reading.

Deshipley said...

I was gonna point out all the stuff in this post I liked, but that would essentially mean copy/pasting half of what you said and adding, "YEAH, that!"

So I'll just say, "Excellent post!" and leave it there.

Jennavier Gilbert said...

I think you put your finger on why I've gotten so bored with my writing. I've been going through a reading shift and it hasn't been matched in my writing. It's hard to balance staying in one thing in the hopes of selling and enjoying all the new territories I can write.

Claire said...

Book world have just shipped Heavens Queen, got the email this morning, but I also have it ready to auto download on the kindle I'm that desperate to read it *happy face*.

I agree about the reader/writer dichotomy, not that I'm a writer. Most of the time I snark about gaping plot holes, poor skills, ridiculous unpronounceable Irish names etc etc, but sometimes I just want a quick book fix not a commitment and some of the stuff from the library fills that hole ( we don't get anywhere near the variety or amount of books here in Oz that you do in the US and I'm only just discovering sites like fantasy cafe that promote more female etc authors).

Kim said...

Thank you for articulating something that has been on my mind: the inclinations of your writer-self vs those of your reader-self.

I also got sucked into BDB (OMG, yes - Zadist and Bella!!) My writer-self smacked her head at every ridiculous phrase and attempt to be clever in those books while my reader-self ate up the romance and angst.

Deborah said...

I was intrigued by your post and your comments about your writing process. In particular the reason you started writing the Devi series resonated with me as a reader. You said that you realized that you wanted to read an action packed sci fi romance and you couldn't find one. I'm a fan of this genre and books that match that specific description which is of course why I love the Devi series. The only other series I've ever found which (might) rival yours in that sphere is a series by an author named Linnea Sinclair. If you don't know her work, I'd recommend you look her up. I think the first book was named "Gabriel's Ghost." As far as I know she hasn't written anything, other than a few short stories, for three or four years, which IMO is a loss to the science fiction genre. I was SO delighted to find your series - thanks so much for the enjoyment I got from these books!

PK HREZO said...

Great point Rachel! And you're so right--just like all the scoffing writers did toward Twilight, all the while missing the point that readers were gobbling it up. When it comes down to it, readers want to feel something and be entertained, and if we're not writing our stories with that in mind, why bother?
Thanks for the great reminder!

Autumn Macarthur said...

Thanks Rachel! An excellent reminder to think about what a reader might want from my story, not what I want as a writer.

All those bestsellers that can be picked to pieces by Editor Mind without even trying (there's so much there to pick on, in so many of them!), are still devoured by readers hungry for more.

Readers will forgive a lot if the characters and the story gives them what they want.

Okay, back to see if I can apply this to making my currently TSTL heroine's motivations more understandable!

Anonymous said...

Very helpful, especially with where I'm at now with revisions on my novel--thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the party, but I just have to tell you how brilliant this is. It's one of those realizations that should be a no-brainer, but I think writers (and artists of all kinds, really) come hardwired to make things more complicated for themselves. Thank you so much for sharing.

Now I'm off to broker a peace treaty between Reader Kat and Writer Kat. Wish me luck!

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