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Monday, May 20, 2019

Making Your Manuscript Reader-friendly

Have you ever used a computer program that wasn't user-friendly? It's kind of the worst. I remember a particular one that me and my sibling spent over an hour trying to figure out how to use. It was not user-friendly. At all.

Unfortunately, the same thing can happen when writing a novel.

I've heard these wise words in the industry, but I'm not sure on their source.

Writing is telling yourself the story. Editing is telling the reader the story.

While I think there are some exceptions (like with all maxims) (sometimes I'm still telling myself the story when editing), I think this thought process holds a lot of truth.

As writers, for the first part of the process, we are trying to figure out the story, and we are telling it to ourselves. We want to put down what's in our heads.

But literature is a collaboration. It's not just about what the writer writes. It's also about the meanings, experiences, and conclusions the reader has. Together, through the text, we create the story.

(Okay, maybe some writers, who only write for themselves, don't need to worry about that. But most of us do.)

Just as programs largely need to be user-friendly to be successful, so do stories.

If the reader can't understand, appreciate, or enjoy the story, the collaboration part of the narrative is failing.

But this is easier said than done, and sometimes tricky to spot and fix.

So here are some things to consider.

(Also, I typically wouldn't recommend you stress about this too early in the book-writing process. If you are still "telling the story to yourself" and this stresses you out, leave it for a later edit.)

The Reader Doesn't Need to Know as Much as the Writer

During the writing process, we have to brainstorm and figure out a lot of things that the reader neither needs to know nor cares about.

We may come up with elaborate, important backstories for characters that may never be published, in order to understand the person, their motives, and what kind of subtext they bring to their scenes. We may spend hours researching information to find out if a certain situation and outcome is plausible, and we might write why in the draft. We might throw up an info-dump right in the middle of a chapter when we are explaining the story to ourselves. We might include flashbacks that feel vital, but in the grand scheme of things, can actually be axed.

Almost always, we probably love our characters, world, and plot more than the readers do. (I said "almost.") And often if we include everything we know about them and the world and the story, it'll be boring. Have you guys read Lord of the Rings? Wonderful story. How many of you read the entire prologue the first time? Probably almost no one. Why? Because it's a 15-page info-dump explaining Hobbits to the audience. The average reader doesn't care about all that. They might care about it after they are familiar with the story, but that's not the first thing they want to read.

When inviting the audience into our fictive world to meet our characters, often less is more. We want them to want more information--which means not flooding them with unnecessary details. So cut what they don't need to know.

The Reader Needs to Know More than The Writer

On the flip side, in a strange way, the reader needs to know more than the writer. Maybe I write a scene where the characters' motivations are clear as day to me, the writer, because of all of the foreshadowing and subtext I've put in, so I feel like I don't need to explain it in the text itself. I don't need to "know" that information by writing it down.

But it's not clear to the reader. Why did so-and-so do such and such? How did Jane know that Matthew was the killer?

To be honest, most people who haven't studied literature at a college level haven't been taught how to read carefully, and how to accurately read into a text. That's fine. But that means that you might need to provide more information and guidance than you thought you needed when telling the story to yourself.

Other times, the readers may have different, inaccurate (but merited) interpretations of what's happening, so they need more information to come to the right conclusion. For example, I once worked on a story where I was convinced that one of the antagonistic characters was a werewolf. Baffled, the writer asked me why. After pointing out all the evidence, he realized he needed to change some of the story so that it wasn't misleading. (In some stories, it would have been fine to be ambiguous, but not in this one.) This is often where beta-readers are helpful.

Reader: But why is the Dark Lord doing that?
Reader: ????

So add more information when the reader needs it. What's obvious to you, is not always obvious to them.

FOCUS the Story

I'm going to be a bad person and tell you guys right now that I hate the movie Secret Life of Pets. Why? Because there is no focus! Or at least, very little. It's just things happening, that sort of follow the Freytag Pyramid, but nothing is fully weaved in or connected or truly realized. Unlike most blockbuster children movies, it lacks focus. (BTW, just because it lacks focus doesn't mean you aren't allowed to like it. I don't like it, because of that, but Heaven knows I love and forgive a lot of other stories that are lacking).

During the writing process, you were probably figuring out the story. You may not quite know how to focus the story--or what the focus even is. Maybe you had a bunch of good ideas and cool subplots and even character arcs and fun scenes . . . but there is just too much or it doesn't seem to fit together cohesively.

Readers prefer focus and cohesion. Sure, there are some rare stories that can break this, but very few. If the story lacks focus, the audience may be wondering: What the heck is this book about? Which parts are important? What do I need to remember for later? Where is this going?

There are two (as far as I know) ways to better focus the story.

1. Focus on the main plot lines

In most successful stories, there is an inner journey and an outer journey for the protagonist. Those are the most important story lines, usually. Other than that, there may be a tertiary plot line--often a relationship, but it could be something else. In any case, figure out the main plot lines of your story. If something doesn't fit into one of those, like say that whole chapter you have about your protagonist hanging out at Uncle Mike's for the summer, then it may need to be cut.

2. Focus on the theme topic

A lot of stories that seem to have a lot of characters, events happening, and sometimes seemingly unrelated events, actually have focus because they focus on the theme topic. In Hamilton, almost every "character story" explored relates back to the theme topic of legacy: Hamilton, Burr, Eliza, Angelica, Washington, Lafayette, Hercules--and provides different manifestations and views of it. (Les Mis does the exact same thing, with the theme topics of mercy and justice.)

The theme statement is the takeaway value, the point of the story. The theme topic is the subject we are exploring. So, for Les Mis, the theme statement is that "mercy is more powerful than justice." But the topics are mercy and justice themselves.

(Secret Life of Pets has no clear theme, which is why I didn't like it. Compare it to Finding Dory, Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, or Moana, and it's clear that Disney understands how theme focuses story.)

Which parts of your manuscript connect to the theme topic? The theme topic should be explored, tested, questioned through the course of the story. You may need to cut or repurpose parts that don't relate to the theme.

Bring clarity to the story by strengthening focus.

The Reader has Less Patience than the Author

For the reader, an ideal story keeps them looking forward; it keeps them wanting to turn pages. As writers, like I said before, we tend to already be more interested in the world and characters than the audience is. We might have fun ways we want to introduce each character, great dialogue exchanges, interesting facts about the setting, and yet including all that might kill the pacing.

Remember, as writers, we are already way invested and interested in the story--we've spent so much time working on it! But the reader isn't. He or she needs to get invested quick. And when reading, they don't want to feel like they have to be patient. They just want to read and enjoy the story. The words "be patient" shouldn't even have to enter their thought process.

There is a reason they picked up your book. What did they come for? Make sure you are delivering on that. If you can't deliver on it right away, you may need to add a prologue to promise it will be there soon.

Work toward main points and significant parts (or in some cases, the most entertaining parts) and don't dilly-dally too much. (Focusing the story will help with this).

It's worth remembering that sometimes the point of the writing isn't to give an exact rendition of what is happening and what the characters are experiencing, but rather to give the notion or impression of it. If your protagonist is bored for a full week, the audience only wants a quick impression of the boredom--enough to get the point--not an accurate, full rendition of it.

Connect and Simplify Complicated Concepts

By the time you've finished telling the story to yourself, you probably have a lot of concepts going on. (Or if you are like me, may be bordering on a "kitchen sink" story.) Remember, it's easier for the audience to learn something new and/or recall what they've already learned when it's connected to something.

If you've introduced too many new ideas and concepts, you may need to connect them. It's hard to remember a bunch of random numbers. But it's easier to remember them if they connect in some way (2, 4, 8, 16).

Brandon Sanderson touches on this idea when talking about magic systems. He says instead of adding and adding and adding new things, it's usually more effective to connect, deepen, and build on what's already there. If you can connect complicated concepts, the story will be more reader-friendly.

Likewise, you may need to simplify some concepts . . . or at least the delivery of them. (Remember, the audience doesn't need to know as much as the writer.) Make it look easier than it is. I mean, it's really easy to use Netflix, but I'm sure the backend is not that simple! It's easy for me to use my computer, but if I tried to build one, I'd be clueless.

Remember what da Vinci said: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Just because something comes across as simple doesn't necessarily mean it's not deep or complex--it's just not confusing.

And when it comes to making a manuscript reader-friendly, we usually don't want to be confusing.


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