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.
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.