“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
—Larry L. King, WD
—Larry L. King, WD
Today I’d like to talk about self-editing.
I’m sure every writer has had this experience: you’ve written a story, you’ve fallen in love with the story, but you know it doesn’t work. But it could be fixed. If only you could figure out what isn't working.
That’s what I want to begin exploring today. I want to look at how to take a story idea and, as it were, stretch it out over the dress frame of story structure. The goal is to see where the story is ‘thin’ as well as where it bunches up due to excess material.
One thing I find ironic is that I’m MUCH better evaluating another person’s story, at seeing where it has gone off the rails, than I am at evaluating my own work. I think it’s a bit like my friend’s attitude toward her kids. She knows her children aren’t perfect because no child is, but she sees them through the rose colored goggles of a loving mother. Because of this, parent-teacher conferences can be a bit rough but they do help ground her in reality!
My friend isn’t alone. It is difficult to clearly see what we love.
What follows is an attempt to help writers—myself included—evaluate their own work. We need to be able to tell whether our story works and, if it doesn’t, evaluate where it has gone off the rails and fix it.
Note: As usually happens, I didn’t get through as much of this material as I would like, but I’ll pick the subject up again tomorrow. Cheers!
The Importance of Having an Ideal Reader
Before we get started, let’s ask the most fundamental question we can: What is a story? When we write a story what are we doing?
In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain writes:
“To bring a story into being, you need to think of it not as a thing, but as something you do to a specific reader—a motivation; a stimulus you thrust at him.”
I’ve talked before about the ideal reader. Stephen King talks about this in On Writing:
“Someone—I can’t remember who, for the life of me— once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.” 
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“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed. And you know what? You’ll find yourself bending the story even before Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence. I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even while there’s no audience there and you’re totally in charge.” 
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“I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time. Nevertheless, you need to beware—if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.
“The best way to find the happy medium? Ideal Reader, of course. Try to imagine whether he or she will be bored by a certain scene—if you know the tastes of your I.R. even half as well as I know the tastes of mine, that shouldn’t be too hard. Is I.R. going to feel there’s too much pointless talk in this place or that? That you’ve underexplained a certain situation … or overexplained it, which is one of my chronic failings? That you forgot to resolve some important plot point? Forgot an entire character, as Raymond Chandler once did? (When asked about the murdered chauffeur in The Big Sleep, Chandler—who liked his tipple—replied, “Oh, him. You know, I forgot all about him.”) These questions should be in your mind even with the door closed. And once it’s open— once your Ideal Reader has actually read your manuscript— you should ask your questions out loud. Also, needy or not, you might want to watch and see when your I.R. puts your manuscript down to do something else. What scene was he or she reading? What was so easy to put down?” 
The idea is that you don’t write your story for a sea of generic faces, your write your story for one person.
Why does this work? Let's take a closer look at this in the next section.
The Ideal Reader as Avatar
I’d like to borrow an idea from marketing and talk about avatars. In marketing, an avatar represents your ideal client.
I think it’s a great idea to have an avatar/Ideal Reader in mind when we write our stories. What market are we targeting? For instance, let’s say I’m writing a horror story. Who would my Ideal Reader be? Well, obviously, someone who reads a lot of horror stories!
But, beyond that, I would want to know who my avatar’s favorite authors are. I would want to know how many hours she read per week? I would want to know what kind of horror story she liked best. I would want to know what kind of clothes she preferred. (If you do a promo and give out a free t-shirt, this is relevant!) I would want to know what 'gave her the creeps.' I would want to know what she found engaging. I would even want to know what names they liked. And that’s just for starters!
I’m not suggesting that you change how you write to fit someone else’s tastes, far from it! I'm just saying, know the Ideal Reader for the story you want to write. The trick is picking the right avatar for the book you have in mind. In that way, writing to an avatar can help keep you on track.
As Dwight V. Swain writes:
“Your goal ... is to elicit a particular reaction from this reader. You want to make him feel a certain way ... suck him into a whirlpool of emotion.”
So you’re writing a story for some one person and your goal is to make him feel. Feel what? It depends. Sadness, happiness, fear, excitement, puzzlement, love. The question is, How do you get your reader to feel the way you want him to feel? Swain doesn’t answer this right away except to say that this is a “story’s whole and total function.” He also writes:
“The function of a story is to create a particular reaction in a given reader.”
Which reader is this? Well, it’s any actual flesh and blood person who reads your story, but when you’re writing, this reader is your Ideak Reader. It is the reader “who shares your tastes and interests.”
Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)
Today I would like to recommend Choose Your Own Story: Wendigo's Wizarding Academy by John Diary. It's a Choose Your Own Adventure book and it looks fun. Plus, it's only 99 cents!
That's it! I'll talk to you again tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!
1. On Writing by Stephen King.
2. Of course, a company might not have just one avatar. Take Coke for example. They could have an avatar that represents their loyal older demographic, a 62 year old male from the buckle of the Bible Belt who has been drinking Coke for thirty years. His favorite movie is Top Gun and he loves sports. There could also be another avatar that represents a younger demographic. Perhaps they’re 19 years old, own three pairs of Nike runners, have one year of college and love horror movies. (Don’t laugh! Avatars can be oddly specific.)
3. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.