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Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

13 May
Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 
       As writers, we face a problem: We’re not the reader. This may sound obvious, but it has important ramifications. Our reader is, in many ways, unknowable, because we have no idea of who will end up picking up our work. We do know some things, though:
       Their background probably won’t match ours. Their tastes will be different. Their age group and education will be different to an unknown degree. And, there’s a 50-50 chance that their gender will be different, too. In fact, it’s unlikely that we and a given reader have all that much in common.
       Given that, how can we write anything that will be acceptable to all readers? The answer is, we can’t. It is literally impossible to write anything that will be viewed in the same way by all readers.
       So, do we accept the fact that the majority of people who read our work won’t “get it?” Or is there a way to eliminate those differences? Obviously, there is, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. The trick isn’t to make our work universally accepted no matter the reader’s background. It’s to make all readers the same.
       What we need to do is to make our reader become our protagonist. If we can make them see the situation exactly as the protagonist does; if we give each reader the same set of resources the protagonist will use; if all readers have the same desires, needs, and imperatives as our protagonist, then they will decide on what must be done next in exactly the same way as our hero will—and do that before the protagonist makes that decision—if they read and absorb that before they read the protagonist’s response to the situation—they will become our protagonist and react as that character does.
       Do that and you avoid the impossibility of making the writing universal. Instead you’ll make your readers universal. And with that as our goal, let’s see how we can accomplish that.
 
       We’ve always relied on presenting the facts accurately, concisely, and dispassionately because that’s how we were taught to write. And it works well for book reports. But when writing fiction, instead of eliminating differences in viewpoint it encourages them. Everyone has their own interpretation of your presentation, based on what the words mean to them. Tell the reader, for example, that the protagonist is at peace, and each reader will take a slightly different meaning from the statement. To some, being at peace means there is no stress in their life. For others, that there is no war, or argument. In Islam, peace is based on submission and surrender to Allah. And there are hundreds of other shades of meaning to that one word. So expecting a reader to know our viewpoint is impossible unless we focus on that reader, and are able to interact with them, so as to refine our words to fit their background and preconceptions. But, make the reader know why the character feels they are at peace by making that reader view the protagonist’s world as the protagonists does, and the reader’s interpretation of the word no-longer-matters. They will feel as the character feels, emotionally, because for the moment, they will have superimposed the protagonist’s view on their own.
       Can we do this using the writing techniques we all learn in school? Hell no. Our teachers spent zero time discussing the nuance of point of view. They taught us how to write dispassionately, with accuracy of observation the most important item. Why? Because most people will do their writing in a business setting, where accuracy is critical. We were, remember, learning skills to make us useful to employers. Those book reports we wrote were practice for writing business reports. Those essays, practice for writing papers and letters. No one explained how to use tags, how to structure a scene, or even basics such as the three questions a reader needs answered quickly when entering any scene so as to have context to make sense of it it.
       Converting the reader into our protagonist requires skills that are unlike those used for telling a story in person, or creating a story on the stage or screen. Our medium is different, and has different strengths and weaknesses. Instead of stressing fact and accuracy we stress emotional connection. Instead of presenting things from the narrator’s viewpoint we presented from the protagonist’s. Same story, but a very different approach to presenting it. And that means a very different tool set must be used in the presentation.
       Our goal, remember, isn’t to make the reader know about the terror our protagonist may be feeling. Our goal is to terrorize the reader. We don’t want the reader to learn about the plot. We want them to live it. If you can make a reader put down your work for a moment, to decompress, because the emotional situation is so intense they can’t handle it, you have a winner.
       In the end, we having name for doing this: it’s called point of view. And POV is the single most powerful tool in your repertoire. It is the thing that makes all readers the same.
       John W. Campbell, a noted editor once wrote an article in which he presented a hypothetical situation involving an observer and a climber. It went something like this:

     Observer: “Don’t climb that tree. If you knew what I know, that’s not just a tree, it’s being used as a power pole, so there’s dangerous high-voltage up there.”
     Protagonist: “If you knew what I know…that I’m a trained lineman, doing my job with the proper equipment, you wouldn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know, that your safety gloves are from a shipment that contained defective product, you wouldn’t go.”
     Protagonist: “Ah…but if you knew what I know, that we heard about the defect and have inspected them to remove the bad gloves—and that the gloves I use will be pressure tested just before I put them on, you needn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know…”

       Point of view is critical. In the example above, were the observer made to know the situation as the protagonist does, confusion would be eliminated and the conversation would never occur.
       Obviously, the protagonist could be wrong. He or she could be missing or misinterpreting data, as could the protagonist in our stories. But that’s okay, because both our protagonist and our reader will have the same misunderstanding and make the same mistakes, which drives our plot. And our reader will be just as surprised, shocked, or perhaps pleased to learn of the misunderstanding.
 
       So how do we do that? How do we gain those necessary skills? How can we turn our narrative around and make our reader view our story from the inside out, as against from the outside in? How do we change our own perspective of how to present a story?
       The answer to that is quite simple. We do that by learning all we can about point of view and the other important skills a writer needs. We add to our existing knowledge, just the way we did, grade-by-grade, as we built our current set of of writing skills. And the more we know, the greater the number of viable choices we have when handling a given situation. The more we know, the better we know what a reader will respond to. And, the more we know the better we get at making our reader feel like our protagonist.
       Simple? Absolutely. Easy? Of course not. If it was easy we’d all be rich and famous. Any profession takes time and practice to perfect. So the question isn’t if it’s easy or hard. The question is, is it worth the effort? And that boils down to: should we continue to write using techniques inappropriate to the task, or should we add professional skills to our toolbox? I don’t think you need my help to answer that question.
       But still, that’s a lot of work, especially given that we won’t know if we have the potential to make effective use of those skills, and to be successful, until we own and apply them. And that’s a big if, especially since most of us are not going to have people lining up to buy our work. So in reality: do we want to be a writer badly enough to to invest lots of time, and perhaps a few dollars to become a writer as a publisher views that term?
       That’s a difficult question to answer, other than to say that if someone can talk you out of writing you aren’t meant to be one. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s our curse and our blessing.
       Something to keep in mind when making that decision: writing isn’t a destination. It’s a journey, one that lasts a lifetime. And if every day we write with a little more skill than we did on the previous day, and we live long enough…
       So…now that I’ve discouraged you with the news that you probably won’t get rich from your writing this year, let me make a suggestion as to how to begin your transformation from outside-in to inside-out writing.
       A very good article on creating a strong point of view can be found here. It’s based on the work of Dwight Swain, who is notable for having defined many of the techniques that professional writers use, in a clear and concise way. I’d advise you to read the article, think about it, and when it begins to make sense, check the fiction that made you feel as though you were experiencing it, to see how the author made the technique work for that story. And if it seems like something that would help your writing, pick up a copy of Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It both expands on that technique and will show you many others, equally meaningful. Read it slowly, stopping at every point where a new concept is introduced, to think about and practice that point, so as to make it your own rather than to simply learn that it exists.
       And when you finish the book put it aside for six months. Use what you’ve learned, gaining skill and competence. Then, read it again. This time, knowing where he’s going, and better understanding the concepts being introduced, you’ll learn as much the second time as you did the first.
       Will it make you a published author? Naa. That’s your job. What it will do is give you the tools with which to become one, if-it’s-in-you to do that. And that’s the best we can hope for. Maybe it will turn out to be something interesting, but still, success will still elude you. Could be. Happens to most of us. But still, new writers appear all the time. Why shouldn’t it be you? And as they say, you never know till you try.

       Hang in there, and keep on writing.
       – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
       These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

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10 responses to “Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

  1. Marilyn Ashworth

    May 13, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    Excellent! But: In the end, we having name for doing this: it’s called point of view.

    Marilyn

     
  2. Catherine Callicott

    May 14, 2015 at 12:41 am

    This was great! Thanks.

     
  3. Tony De Vita

    November 21, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Thanks, this has been helpful.

     
  4. Harry Vossen

    August 8, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    Jay—
    I’m interested in what you’re saying here. I can certainly see the value, and even the application, but I have a question.

    I can see quite easily how this would work in a story about a protagonist who is more or less like an ordinary person. But what if we’re writing a story about, say, an Assyrian in 2500 BCE, or a caveman, or a dinosaur, or a Nazi or something? One of the major characters in my story behaves in a way that would seem very wrong to me, and I suspect other people as well. He’s pretty carefree about violence, he’s uncaring about basically everything that we consider worth caring about (kids starving? Whatever. Puppies under the front wheel of the tank? We need to get to the place!) but he’s ruthlessly pragmatic in the cause of what he considers “justice”, which doesn’t necessarily line up with our ideas of justice. If you know anything about legal theory he’s a staunch positivist.

    So my question is: how do I make the reader become THAT GUY. Because that guy is just insane, from a lot of reader’s perspectives, right? How can I immerse the reader in his head so that they understand what he’s doing? My approach (and I’m not proud to admit it) has basically been to tell the story from a different point of view who’s just watching and reacting to the crazy guy, but that’s… well, it’s pretty bloody weak.

    I’d appreciate your thoughts.

     
    • Jay Greenstein

      August 9, 2016 at 11:55 pm

      So my question is: how do I make the reader become THAT GUY. Because that guy is just insane, from a lot of reader’s perspectives, right?

      Why would they want to? Your reader isn’t with you to learn the details of the story, remember. That’s history, not story, and because it’s a series of facts it’s just as interesting as any other report—and evokes as little emotion in the reader.

      For a reader to get “into” a story they have to develop an emotional connection to the protagonist. They don’t have to like the character, but they do have to, in some way, admire him/her.

      A given character can be cruel, thoughtless, even perceived as evil, if the reader sees (or at least hopes for) some way in which the character can be redeemed, and, they find themselves hoping the character will succeed in the current scene.

      Failing that, it may be possible, but I’m afraid it’s not something I can advise you on.

      There is something like what you mention, though, if the character is presented in a way that his motivation, or even the deeds, are misunderstood. Over time we learn that the deeds that make us dislike him aren’t changed, but our perception of the necessity of them being done changes as we learn more about the situation. So the character is unchanged. Instead, we are.

      I hope this helps.

       
  5. Saud Maroof

    February 4, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Very helpful.

     
  6. David Wikk

    April 23, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    Jay, like anything I have done. I work best by example. You called me here to read this article. It was not in vain. However, can you please post some examples ? That is, what you believe is “textbook” writing (bad writing) and “effective” writing (good writing). So we as the readers can see the difference ?

    Thanks,
    =dw817=

     
    • Jay Greenstein

      April 23, 2017 at 9:17 pm

      As for an example of inside out, here’s a paragraph or two from my WIP. In it, our hero, CIA agent Ben Fisher, has been ambushed in a house he went to visit by a man he’s had a run-in with before. He’s in the living toom, at the kitchen, facing a man with a pistol pointed at him. Outside is his driver/guide for what was to be a simply pick up:
      – – – – –
           The man Ben recognized pushed his own chair back from the table, saying nothing, only motioning that he should turn around and move back into the living room. The hate in his eyes wasn’t a good thing to see. He’d humiliated the man twice; once by disarming him so easily, and a second time with the sleep dart. Now, the man would be aching for the chance to return the favor.
           Raising his hands he took a step backward, placing himself in the doorway, and incidentally pushing the woman back into the living room, where she had a chance to escape. Foolishly, she moved back, rather than running from the house, and in doing so, alerting Susan. The man motioned again and Ben turned, but hesitated in the doorway so the man would come closer. Hopefully, he’d use the gun as a prod to urge him forward. Such a move was tantamount to handing him the gun. Moreover, it would be done at a place where any shot at Ben by the remaining man would be blocked by the one behind him. If the trick worked, he’d be in possession of the man’s gun, with the man serving as a living shield.
           Unfortunately, there was only a blinding pain, a bright shower of sparks, then darkness.
      – – – – –
      A couple of points to note: In this section the narrator speaks not at all. First, Ben unable is to do anything because of the pistol pointed at him. So he watches the man stand while evaluating the situation. Hed decides that he won’t be killed at once. In response to the man’s motion Ben is motivated to turn, but with a plan, hoping that the woman will bolt. When that doesn’t happen he continues planning, hoping to sucker the man into coming close enough to become vulnerable. At this point I do step in, and mention why. But it’s what Ben is hoping to do, expanded—a necessity, because many people aren’t aware that getting close enough to touch someone with a pistol is a way to lose it. I could have given an explanation of how, but that would have been from me, and would have stopped the action and killed momentum. It’s enough to know that Ben has a plan, and has confidence in it. And in any case, given that it doesn’t work, wasting one word on it would only slow the narrative.

      Notice, too, that it’s not overview, it’s told in real-time, as a series of ticks of the scene-clock. And it’s not just “this happened…and that happened…and after that…” That would be telling of the events from the viewpoint of the narrator. And in this case, because we’re in the moment the protagonist calls now, at any time we don’t know if our protagonist will get what he wants. So as we read, we learn Ben’s opinion of what they have in store with him. In his viewpoint, he expects to be humiliated, but doesn’t know how—nor do we. But we do know his plannnig, and want to know if it will work. So we are just as surprised as Ben. And when we are knocked out, and want to know what will happen when he wakes:
      – – – –
      Ben’s next thought was of pain. It took time to gather his scattered wits and realize that he lay on the floor, bound. With closed eyes, he took stock of his assets. There were none. His gun, he could assume, was gone, as was anything else in the dirty tricks department that he might reach. His hands were bound behind him—with tape, from the feel of it, with no chance of pulling free, he was certain. His legs were bound and pulled up behind him, held in position by something that circled his neck from behind. Any attempt to straighten them tightened whatever was around his neck in self-strangulation.
           Filled with a mixture of fury and despair he opened his eyes to find himself looking into those of Susan Allan. He had a flash of hope that between them they might accomplish something. That hope died, however. Her eyes were fixed and staring, and she wasn’t bound. That was when he recognized the wet slickness beneath him as blood. Her throat had been cut and her placement was deliberate. They wanted her to be the first thing he saw.
      – – – –
      Notice that he wakes, and does what you or I would do, take stock. Then he reacts, and opens his eyes, but the news we get along with him isn’t good. And again, we move through time as Ben does, moment-by-moment. SO instead of hearing the events explained, he lives them as we watch, with him as our avitar. And at the point when he realizes that Susan is dead, we, in his position, want to know what options we have, just as he does.

      Look at the same scene as it might be written by a hopeful writer, who explains the action:
      – – – –
           The man Ben recognized got up and motioned for him to turn around and move back into the living room. The man’s eyes were filled with hate, and he wanted revenge for Ben’s capturing him so easily in Israel
           Raising his hands Ben placed himself in the doorway, which pushed the woman into the living room. Ben hoped that she would run outside, which would alert Susan. But she didn’t.
           The man motioned to turn around, so Ben did. But he stayed in the doorway. He hoped that the man would come closer and use the gun as a prod to urge him forward. But if he did, Ben would pivot with his back helf against the gun, and the gun would be moved aside, so he could grab it.
           Unfortunately, the man didn’t do that. Instead there was a blinding pain, a bright shower of sparks, then darkness.
      – – – – – –

      Hope this clarifies.

       
      • David Wikk

        April 23, 2017 at 9:43 pm

        Let me try …

        Ben recognized the man. The man got up and motioned for Ben to turn around and move back into the living room. Ben looked to his eyes and it wasn’t a good thing he saw. They were filled with hate, clearly wanting revenge for Ben having captured him so easily in Israel.

        Okay, I’m having trouble with this, Jay. At some point I would’ve mentioned a name for “the man” cause I can’t just keep writing “the man” right ? It repeats too much.

        I mean with an unknown person, I have managed to work them somewhat with similar words. “assailant” “victim” “perpetrator” “bystander” “shadowy figure” “contact” etc, but they’re still not as clean as actually giving someone a name.

        Now if it was a guy vs girl, you could have him vs her and be done. But instead it’s him vs him so “the man” really does need a name, right ?

         
      • Jay Greenstein

        April 23, 2017 at 11:41 pm

        There is only one person who can say, “Ben recognized the man.” And that’s the writer, someone who is neither in the story nor on the scene. So there we have an external observer, explaining things in a voice the reader cannot hear.The first three sentences are declarative, as you explain things to the reader. That’s a chronicle of events, not a story.

        The problem you face is that your current writing skills were practiced for more than an decade, and you’ve been using them since, so that they feel intuitive, and will insist that you write just as you have been. But remember all the essays and reports you wrote compared to fiction assignments? Remember how much time your teachers spent on handling dialog, introducing tension, and all the other issues unique to fiction? I sure don’t. And that’s my point.

        Take a look at this article. It’s a condensation of one of the best ways I know of for presenting a strong character viewpoint. It’s what I used in the example I gave.

        It’s well worth chewing on till it makes sense. The man who wrote the book the article is based on hit the basic nuts-and-bolts issues of writing better than any other teacher I’ve seen. When he used to tour he would fill auditoriums for his all day workshops.

         

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