One of the experiences that is common to most long-time readers is that of running across a book that they loved when they first read it (usually ten or more years previously), settling down for an enjoyable re-read, and realizing that the book is horrible. It’s not that the book has changed; it’s often not even that the reader’s taste has changed. It’s that in the intervening ten years, the reader has had enough additional experience to be able to see flaws that were invisible back when they first read the story.
Writers go through a similar process. We all come to writing as experienced readers, having read a lot more than we’ve ever written. This is not surprising; even a slow reader can read a novel much faster than a writer can type it out, let alone compose it.
This means that practically everyone comes to fiction writing with some pretty clear ideas of what they want a “good book” to do in order to satisfy them. These ideas tend to be personal and idiosyncratic, but they’re usually pretty clear. Jane likes books with intricate plots, so she focuses on learning to develop and lay out the twistiest, most convoluted stories she can, while George works at making his characters more and more sympathetic and believable, because that’s what he prefers. Sue is all about the language; she works at making every sentence sing. Jack experiences books “like a movie in my head” and expects his readers to be the same, so he tries for clarity and visual evocativeness.
And not one of them can understand why the other three have gotten published. Not at first, anyway. They each see other writers’ work in terms of what they themselves like in a story. Jane complains about everyone else’s plots, George about their characters, Sue about their clunky sentences and syntactical mistakes, and Jack about the flatness of the story and lack of clarity.
None of them can see the flaws in their own stories, because their stories are flawed in ways that don’t matter to them as readers. All of them also miss the flaws in the other writers that don’t match up with their own primary focus. Jane, for instance, instantly identifies George’s plots as thin, Sue’s as full of holes, and Jack’s as clichéd, but she completely misses the fact that Sue’s characters are unrealistic and Jack’s are cardboard, or that George’s sentences are clunky and Jack’s phrasing is awkward and sometimes ungrammatical. If she is sufficiently plot-oriented, she may even fail to notice the other writers’ strengths. At first.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is nothing quite like writing a novel to force one to realize that there is more to making a story work than plot, or characters, or poetic language, or whatever one’s personal focus happens to be. Once they realize this, the next step for many writers seems to be to look for guidelines or rules or formulas for filling in the missing pieces that they hadn’t noticed earlier. This rarely works, because the writer hasn’t yet learned to see the problem, and if you can’t see it at all, you can only get it right by accident – and even then you won’t know that you’ve done it.
Learning to see happens through experience. Writers gain that kind of experience in three ways: by reading and analyzing other writers’ work, by talking to readers and other writers, and of course, by writing. Writing, especially writing stretchy, challenging things, gives one a chance to learn new techniques and struggle with different areas. Sometimes, the result is the realization that yes, plot/characters/setting/language/clarity/etc. really is important after all, and one doesn’t have the chops to do it yet. This is a good thing, because it gives one a place to focus.
Reading and analyzing means reading “like a writer” and with purpose. Jane, George, Sue, and Jack would have gotten a lot farther, a lot faster, if they had all quit complaining about how horribly the others handled their personal “must-have” and looked at what they’d done right. Jane can learn a lot about characterization from George, even if she doesn’t focus mainly on her cast. Jack may not care much about poetic language, but if he studies Sue’s work, he can pick up enough techniques to keep from alienating readers who do care.
Talking to readers and other writers covers everything from formal classes to critique groups to listening to readers complaints about one’s own work to 3 a.m. arguments in the bar at an SF convention. Reader comments need to be interpreted; someone who offers you a plot outline for your next three romance novels that revolves around a war may not be your intended audience…but may also be an indication that your novels could use more action. Writers, especially in crit groups, are usually more articulate about what you’re doing or not doing or should be doing (unless it’s 3 a.m. at the bar and adult beverages have been on the menu).
Critiquing other writers’ work helps you see their strengths and weaknesses the same way analyzing a published novel would; listening to another writer’s work being critiqued not only helps you see what mistakes they’ve made and what people think are their strong points, but also gives you the chance to go back and fix your own work before it has to run the gauntlet.
The more one learns about writing, the more easily one can see the subtle flaws and strengths in other people’s writing…and eventually, in one’s own. At which point, one has a decent shot at fixing them.