Monday, August 27, 2007

On Subtlety

My workshop ended an hour and a half ago and I’m still processing the critique session I sat through tonight. It wasn’t my excerpt being critiqued, it was someone else’s. It was an odd experience because I had to turn an excerpt in to the group tonight and as the critique got underway, I could literally feel heat in my face and my own gnawing anxiety in anticipation of how my work will be received.

The work we discussed tonight was good and I give my fellow writer huge kudos for going first. It really was very good. It had a great first sentence, great hook, lots of tension, excellent description, and a good balance of scene and narrative summary. The voice was strong – there were one or two minor things related to timeline that were a little confusing, but I think they were the result of some revisions that haven’t been completely edited and polished.

I assume people see the same things I see, but they don’t. Overall, the reaction was very good, but some questions and discussion came up that baffled me. One person wasn’t sure where the initial scene took place – it said so right on the page. There was a paragraph where there was a lot of confusion as to whether the character was being sincere or sarcastic – it was crystal clear to me what the intent was, but even when I pointed out a sentence that made the intent obvious, not everyone was so sure.

It was sort of like watching a movie with someone else who becomes confused about the action because they didn’t pick up on an earlier detail. The information is all there, but the viewer has to be paying attention.

The next time we meet, I’ll be listening to everyone discussing my work. It’s a draft of a first chapter so it needs a lot more work, and I’m aware of a number of specific problems it has. It needs to move more quickly, needs more tension, conflict and stakes. There are other aspects I’m pretty happy with, but now I’m not so sure the parts I was confident about are going to come across. That’s OK – I need to know these things.

To be clear, I’m taking this workshop to work on craft and technique, so I’m not deluded into thinking I’ve got something that’s anywhere near finished, or even good (yet), but I am trying to incorporate some techniques, primarily descriptive and related to place and to the character’s gestures and facial expressions, that will evoke a mood, attitude, or sometimes foreshadow things in order to avoid spelling everything out in narrative summary or dialogue. It works well for skilled writers and for me; it will take a lot of practice.

How much subtlety do you try to use in your work, and how much do you feel needs to be spelled out? Have you written scenes that you felt provided clear information, but been given feedback that indicated people were confused and you weren’t being as obvious as you thought you were?


liz fenwick said...

I have had feedback come that asked me about things that were clearly spelled out in the script - I went and read it several times myself afterwards. It's amazing how other people read and watch they see. Reading and critiquing is very subjective but it is brilliant to have the feedback even if it's flawed. Good luck

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I have a tendency, in early drafts, to write "one sentence too many." By this, I mean that I'll have an important scene--I'll weave in all the hints, the details; I'll set the scene. And then I'll put in that last sentence, "telegraphing", hey, this is what's happening; this is what's important. On rereading (or more commonly, when I read it to my husband!), I catch the "announcement" and take it out. I need to trust my writing and the reader. To paraphrase a line from King Lear, subtlety is all.

Carleen Brice said...

Maybe this isn't the same thing, but I've been so afraid of being MELOdramatic, that my first drafts often have no drama. So I'm actually pushing myself to err on the side of doing too much and editing back.

As far as explanations, it's a hard call. I hate for things to be spelled out, but if my whole critique group said they didn't get it, I'd be taking another look at it.

Patti said...

i feel as if i am the queen of the subtle tell. i am a huge fan of thinking as you are reading, or of the personal discovery and the quiet smile that comes from a reader "knowing" what i have offered. i just assume my readers will be savvy enough to get it. huh, maybe they don't. i have never asked any of them. i better check on this!

and i also have a weird habit of putting inside jokes into my work.

Larramie said...

It's all about perspective, Lisa, and everyone has a different one that they claim is correct.

Like Patti, I prefer a subtle tone with enough information to allow you to understand what's going on, but not enough to smother personal imagination. And, as for last night, didn't the missed details cause you to wonder how comprehending these writers were as readers?

Charles Gramlich said...

After a fair amount of experience I tend to air on the side of being obvious. The ones who like subtelty are still likely to keep reading, but the ones who can't handle subtlety will throw your work away if you don't give them the obvious.

Shauna Roberts said...

At first, I made everything very obvious, and my critique group kept calling me on it. I've gotten more subtle now, although I'm still guilty of having my characters say exactly what they think. Only my bad guys beat around the bush. Perhaps subconsciously I think subtlety is a character defect.

I think the problem of people reading right over crucial pieces of information is a universal one. My critique group members are careful readers, but often there is a sentence or paragraph that is crystal clear to some and murky as Mississippi water to others.

Sometimes the fault IS the writer's, even though she has inserted the needed information. The information may be in the wrong place, or the sentence may be weak or uninteresting. (See Candice [] and Charles's [] posts recently on the importance of ending sentences with strong words.) Sometimes I think putting information in the correct place is the hardest part of writing.

Therese said...

Your experience Monday night is one you're going to find frequently in critique workshops.

I've even seen the teachers make these kinds of "mistakes" in their initial reads. Usually it's a result of hurrying through the piece and thus missing what's plainly on the page.

Over time, if you remain in a group with consistent membership, you'll begin to see whose critiques are balanced, thorough, and reliable--those are the ones that will be of most value to you. And of course that's the criticism model to strive for yourself.

Of course, sometimes the trouble IS more in the writing than in the critic!

In any event, I don't believe in spoon-feeding readers information. That said, there's a wide range of what works in adult fiction--the level of subtlty should match the intended readership.

Don't be afraid to overwrite when you're drafting. It's easy to scale back in revision.

Ello said...

I have to chime in to second Therese's comments! As the course continues, you will start to see who in the workshop are the better critiquers. I find that in a group of 10 writers, you might have 3 to 4 strong critiquers, 2 to 3 average critiquers (that might not get the more subtle stuff) and the rest might be more into their writing and worrying about their turn to provide effective critiques. It is always an interesting dynamic in these workshops. And the one thing that I remind myself constantly is that reading is so subject to personal taste. You can always tell when it isn't to a person's taste because you usually hear the "I don't get it" comments. I think it is because when you read something that is not your cup of tea, some people don't tend to be as careful or patient with it.

Anyway, just my thoughts on this!

Lisa said...

Liz, I think what you and a number of people have said here is true. Some people just are not careful readers and in a critiquing environment, I don't understand that -- since that would be a pretty big criteria for providing meaningful feedback!

Judy, I can certainly understand that tendency and I'm not experienced enough yet to have figured out my own habits. My first draft is twice as long as what I end up with because I tend to overdo everything, although I think ...Carleen, that I may be inclined to do what you do in terms of trying to leave too much unsaid in certain areas because I'm worried about being too obvious. I'm also finding that on repeated review, I do add more things, like description that I've initially left out.

Patti, I like to think that readers (a reader, someone?) will pick up on the more understated things, but I guess it's safe to assume that a lot of people won't (since some people don't read closely and miss obvious things), and only a certain type of reader will find those surprises -- I guess you need just the right trusted readers to assess how accessible those things are...

Larramie, Yes, I absolutely wondered about that, although there seemed to be a definite connection between the less careful readers and the fact that the story we were reading was not the type of material they write -- I'd think anyone could develop the ability to be objective about any style of writing, but I'm revising that view.

Charles, You are drawing on real experience with your work and so fortunately for you, you've had the opportunity to find out what works for your audience. I hope I have the opportunity to find out the same :)

Shauna, I'm confident now that I've read all of these comments that there must be a universal issue with people sometimes not reading carefully (again, call me anal retentive, but when I have work to critique, I consider it my obligation to read it VERY carefully). I did read those two posts you reference and you have an excellent point. Last sentences and words (and I also think first sentences and words) in paragraphs, scenes and chapters do tend to be more impactful and it would make sense that strategic placement of more subtle points will make a big difference on whether or not they come across to the reader or not.

Therese, I continue to learn things I wasn't expecting to learn and yep, the differences in the way various people read is one of the surprises this week. Your observation about matching the level of subtlety to our target audience is once again, a great reminder that we really need to have a clear idea of who that might be. I'm beginning to believe that may be a little trickier to gauge than I first thought. One of the other tricky aspects I'm finding is that since I'm at a pretty early stage in my work in progress, I'm working like crazy to make the submitted excerpts as clean and as complete as possible, even though I know there is still an awful lot of work to be done -- so I have two early chapters that I've worked over excessively, everything after that is in rough draft form and I'm only about 12,000 words in! Oh well, it's all good and I'm getting much more work done, faster than I would be without the workshop.

Ello, I completely agree. As a matter of fact, I'm going to come back and look at your estimated numbers in a few weeks, but I'll bet you're right on with the ratios!

Therese said...

Lisa, again you remind me so much of myself when I started my writing program!

When I was talking with Amy M recently, she observed that she has some real OCD-like attributes and thinks many/most writers do. So I wondered aloud, "Hmm, what OCD traits do I have?" Well, we concluded mine is apparent in my perfectionism about my writing. She said, "You turn in a clean manuscript."

As for that tricky who's-your-reader factor, you might take a back door approach and simply emulate writing that resonates with you. Trust that you'll figure out your target in due time (because you will!).

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf