The Dangers of Knowing Too Much
There are some sayings which, cliché as they may be, are so valid we should keep them permanently posted in our work areas. Such as “Pay yourself first,” which is useful and true in so many ways, yet frequently ignored. Or maybe “Make up your bed every morning.” Which is really just a pithy way of saying, Starting every day with a small, easy-to-accomplish task has been shown to lower procrastination and increase productivity and maybe even happiness.
Here’s one more: “Get a fresh set of eyes on it.” (Or ears. Or taste buds. Or whatevers.) Here’s why…
You may have noticed that sometimes in action films, people will be shouting back and forth during an action sequence and you can’t really understand the dialog because of all the action-y noises going on. And occasionally, it might be an artistic choice (perhaps the director or sound editor is trying to replicate the frantic, unclear communication that can occur during the fog of war). But this can also happen for a much more prosaic reason: the people making it are too familiar with the material. They know every word. They’ve read the script countless times, they’ve heard the dialog when it was filmed or dubbed (probably multiple times) and they’ve heard it over and over during the mixing process. So even if the line is buried in the mortar explosions or alien laser beams or musket fire, they know what’s being said and they can still “hear” it. (Plus of course volume equals excitement, which works until it doesn’t.)
The fix for this is to bring in someone who’s never seen/heard it and have them watch it, then ask, “Did you understand the important dialog during the attack of the giant alpacas?” And if the answer is anything but, “Yes, I totally understood what was happening there,” the solution is not to say, “Listen again… the guy says ‘Giant alpacas are allergic to vanilla ice cream!’ which is important because the hero is a Good Humor driver. Can you hear it now?” Instead, the solution is to make it more clear, in any of several ways. (Again, assuming clarity is the desired goal here. Which, ninety-five percent of the time, it is.)
This applies across multiple disciplines. Especially writing. We can become so knowledgeable about the characters and back story and world building of our work that we aren’t really aware that some of what we “know” about the story isn’t actually coming across on the page. We’re simply too close to it, and when we read it we unconsciously fill in any blanks that may exist within the text. Especially on our fourth—or fourteenth or fortieth—time through the manuscript.
This is pretty universal. (At least, it applies to virtually every writer I’ve ever met, certainly including me.) So the safest path is to assume it affects you too, and act accordingly. Which probably includes some version of: Have someone unfamiliar with the story give it a read-through without any prior explanations from you. (Your husband or sister or friend with whom you’ve been brainstorming about the story for a year probably isn’t the best choice, in this context.)
Just have them read it—with zero editorializing from you—then sit them down with their drink of choice and ask them where things were perhaps unclear… where they might have felt a little lost in the plot or uncertain of the setting or stymied regarding why a character did something or just plain disconnected from the story.
Your job at this point is simply to capture the where and why. Where in the story were they unclear as to setting (possible description issues), where in the story did they stop liking the MC (possible motivation issues), where in the story were they unclear regarding the overall direction of things (possible plot issues), and (if they can tell you) why?
What you don’t want to do next is say, “Well actually, that happened due to…” because a little action-figure version of you doesn’t come with each copy of the book to explain what you really meant. All the reader will have is the words on the page, and if that’s not enough to keep them up-to-speed and engaged in your story without you filling in the gaps, then maybe a little more work is in order.
Standard caveats apply: This isn’t about story development. You’re probably not looking for What should I do about it?-type answers (unless the reader is an author/editor-type… and even then there are potential pitfalls--see this post). You’re just looking for spots where the words on the page might not fully convey the story that’s in your head. And of course the type of reader matters. If not your “ideal” reader, they should at least be familiar with the genre in question. (People freaking over f-bombs in a YA book likely don’t understand what “Young Adult” actually means these days, and people who don’t understand the fundamental difference between a star and a planet probably aren’t the best reader for your hard SF novel.)
So okay, you have a list of where things are perhaps unclear to a cognizant reader. Now what? I’d advise against the knee-jerk response of going too far the other way and hammering home whatever tidbit was glossed over. If you mention some aspect of a character or setting once or twice, that should get the picture into the reader’s brain every time they come upon it after that. Like if the first time we see it you state that the Dirty Dog Café is a rundown, funky diner on the edge of town with dingy pink vinyl booths and flypaper hanging up in the corners—some flies having been there since 1982—then you don’t need to mention it every time we visit that setting. Maybe someone can refer to it as a dive or a greasy spoon later on, but more than that can feel pedantic and/or like you’re insulting the reader’s intelligence. (Names are a separate issue which we can get into later.)
In brief: We need to find out what’s in our “mental story” that we left out of the manuscript, and we need to find a way to artfully put it into the written story without overkill. And without using the dreaded “As you know, Bob…” Because yes, Bob certainly already knows all about it.
And so do we.
In fact, as the creator, writer, rewriter, reviser, and polisher-in-chief, we probably know WAY too much about it. And—counter-intuitive as it may seem—perhaps the best help for that is from someone who knows nothing about it.
I’ve always been a little perplexed by people not knowing how to respond—or more important, not knowing how not to respond—when a friend shows them their creative work. (BTW, this isn’t the same thing as when a beginning creative asks you—as an experienced creative—for constructive feedback on their work. But there are some definite similarities—see “Critiquing the Aspiring Writer.”)
And more to the point, I’ve seen people feel hurt and discouraged by thoughtless responses when they’ve shown a friend their latest effort.
I’ve always thought this should be an easy one—you simply imagine showing someone your creative brainchild, and you respond as you would like to be responded to. Golden rule, right? No-brainer, right?
Then why do so many get it so wrong?
A sample of things I’ve seen people say when a friend shows them their work--
Upon reading a friend’s latest work: “Here’s a list of the mistakes I found.”
Upon hearing a friend’s [finished and mixed and mastered and replicated] CD: “You could just remix it.”
Upon reading a friend’s early effort: “We need to talk.”
Upon sampling someone’s culinary creation: “Because this is actually pretty good, I’m going to tell you how to make it even better.”
Upon reading a friend’s published work: “I thought it had too many ellipses…”
Upon walking through a custom house an architect friend designed. “I’d hate to have to clean a house this big.”
Note that these were the initial (and in most cases, only) comments from the friend of the creator. There may be a place for constructive commentary later in the conversation—if it gets that far. Like mentioning typos, which can be useful with a manuscript (but passive-aggressive with a published book, for obvious reasons).
It finally hit me that many of the people responding in inconsiderate ways probably aren’t creatives, in the sense that they haven’t poured themselves into making a work of art and then had the pleasure of showing it to a friend. So they don’t really know what it’s like to be on the high end of the see-saw when the other party decides to step off.
Fair enough. We don’t know what we don’t know.
But some of them are creatives. I find wonky responses from them harder to understand. Perhaps they really think they’re somehow helping the person with their “blunt honesty”? Perhaps their worldview is such that they think pointing out flaws in someone’s work is equal to creating the work itself? Perhaps they think if they don’t come up with some pointed critiques, they’ll come off as ignorant? Perhaps this is the chance to show off their academic education? Perhaps they’re jealous?
Hard to say for sure. But one of the best pieces of interpersonal advice I’ve ever received is about maintaining “the assumption of innocence.” So, working on the assumption there’s zero ill will behind any of the less-than-thoughtful first responses—maybe just a few gaps in knowledge—here’s a list of things to keep in mind when a friend shows you their work for non-critiquing reasons.
1. Resist the urge to blurt out the first thing to come to mind. (Unless your very first thought is, Wow – this is totally awesome! In which case, go ahead and let fly.) Sure, when we read a book or listen to music or watch a film, etc., we sometimes can’t help but notice little imperfections in the production. (The drummer rushed the fill leading into the second verse. The author used “their” instead of “there.” The dialog during the film’s action scene was mixed too low. The fudge is a little granular because the sugar wasn’t fully dissolved. Etc.) The process is automatic. So yes, on some level we might take note of them, but then (if we’re adults) we “listen beyond the production” (i.e. ignore any obvious little mechanical discrepancies) because we know these trivial things aren’t germane to the big picture. Then…
2. Say something positive. There’s virtually always something positive you can say. If not, I’d venture you might want to either dig deeper or check your head. It can be more local than global, if necessary… if you can’t say you liked/loved/enjoyed the work (as a whole), maybe you can say you really liked X (where X is some small-yet-real aspect of the work). Or even a positive comparison with their previous work. (“Your work keeps getting better.” Or, “I liked your last one, but this seems even stronger.”) In an absolute worst-case scenario, you can always compliment the effort involved. (“I can tell how much care you put into this,” or “Good for you for finishing this—I know it was a huge job.”) But once you get beyond the false & reductive It’s not my cup of tea so it’s not good mindset, a caring, supportive person (i.e. a friend) should be able to find something validating to offer.
3. But don’t lie. Because they can tell. Doesn’t mean you can’t slant any positive feelings a little toward the right side of the Dislike-Like-Love continuum, but outright lies or blatant cheerleading will almost always come off as insincere and do more harm than good.
4. It’s not a zero sum game. This reminder is to obviate any feelings of competition or jealousy that may arise from seeing the work. Someone else producing something of value in no way invalidates your own work. And someone else’s success in no way decreases your chances of success. Quite the opposite, in fact. We all can (and should) learn from each other, feel bolstered by each other, and gain inspiration from each other. So much healthier (and in my observation, more likely to lead to success) than feeling competitive with those working in the same arena. The goal isn’t to beat our fellow artists. The goal is to beat our own previous efforts.
5. It’s also not a test. Remember that kiss-ass kid in school waving his hand at the teacher just so he can smugly point out his classmate’s error? Don’t be him. Some people seem to take exposure to another’s work as a challenge or a test, where they feel if they can’t come up with something to criticize, they’ve somehow failed.
6. It’s not your job to point out flaws. Others will provide plenty of criticism, have no fear. (Some of whom should, like agents and editors, and some who maybe shouldn’t but will anyway, for reasons discussed above.) Your job in this situation is to be a friend. Friends support friends.
7. Everyone isn’t you. Everyone doesn’t have your taste, skillset, or particular worldview. Don’t make the mistake of conflating This doesn’t correlate with my tastes with This is bad. (More on this phenomenon here.) You really don’t like romance novels? Fine. But that doesn’t invalidate your friend’s romance novel. So don’t feel obligated to let her know you really don’t value the genre she’s working in. How about “I think romance readers might really like this!” instead? Because friend.
It’s easy to say, Well, you just shouldn’t care what others think of your work. And maybe, in some hypothetical perfect world, that might be possible. But not in the real world, for the most part. Most of us who create do so because we want to share our vision of the world with others. Which means we want others to get—to understand/agree/resonate with—our view of the world. Which, when you strip all the big words away, means we want them to like it. Enjoy it. Agree with it. Maybe even love it. Because in the end it’s all about communicating, about emotional transference… trying to put the thoughts and feelings in our head into another’s head. An imperfect process at best, and of course we don’t always get what we want, yet we still try.
When someone blows off a friend’s work with an ill-considered response, they’re not only saying they don’t like the friend’s work, but maybe that the friend’s attempts to create are misguided to begin with.
And of course, when someone expresses their appreciation for a friend’s work, they’re also validating the time and energy and expense it took to create the work, which really means they’re also validating the decision to make the work.
The creative life is hard enough—we shouldn’t make it any harder for those we care about. A supportive community can make all the difference, as we attempt to pull each other up the slope toward a higher vantage point.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.