Wordy Wednesday: Trust the Reader

This week has been busy. Thursday night I went to an LGBTQ YA panel at McNally Jackson, which was definitely one of the highlights of my summer. I got to see Lindsay Ribar (The Fourth Wish) and Michael Barakiva (One Man Guy), meet Becky Albertalli (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda), Adam Silvera (More Happy than Not), and Dahlia Adler (Under the Lights)–and also hang out with some kind of cool people.

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I mean Camryn, Amy, and Mark are all insanely cool. But John lowers the group average significantly. 

It was so great to get to see Amy again, and meet the others in person for the first time. It’s always so weird and awesome meeting internet people.

Friday I attended the ticker tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes for the US women’s soccer team, in honor of winning the World Cup(!!), followed by the ceremony at City Hall. (Of course I watched that part on the jumbotron from across the street, but still. Super cool.)

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Saturday I finally caught my first Broadway show of my two months in NYC: a matinee of Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Darren Criss. Afterward I read in Central Park for the rest of the evening. (I like it here.)

IMG_9358Aaand now I’m back at work for the week (although I still found time to check out the Strand yesterday and start reading Go Set a Watchman, so yay).

ANYWAY. Now that I’ve gushed endlessly about my week: This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

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Between internships and helping friends, I’ve critiqued a good number of stories at this point. Probably somewhere between twenty or thirty full novels, along with who knows how many novel openings, random scenes, and short stories. And through all of these, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that writers generally have a tendency to over-explain things to the reader.

I’ve talked before about trusting the reader, but always as more of a smaller part of a larger picture. But this is important, so I figured it was time it got its own post.

If you’re a writer, chances are you’re also a reader. And if you like to read, chances are you’re a pretty awesome person. And if you’re a pretty awesome person, chances are you’re also, you know, not unintelligent.

And what does all of this together mean?

Chances are, you’re trustworthy.

I don’t mean this in, like, the traditional “you can trust that there human with your innocent, adorable, very kidnappable children” kind of trustworthy (although, chances are, readers are also not the type of people who would run around offering candy to random five-year-olds, because hello, why do that when it would cut into your reading time). But I do mean that readers are trustworthy in the way that we don’t need absolutely everything explained to us in explicit detail.

This is often easier to figure out from a macro perspective than a micro one. You don’t have to go through the step by step process of your protagonist getting ready for the day for us to understand that things have happened between her waking up and leaving for school, right? That’s common sense.

Despite this, a lot of the writers for whom I’ve critiqued–especially those who’ve given me the privilege of reading their earlier drafts–haven’t expanded this idea to the micro level in their writing. The line-by-line level.

The reader doesn’t need the author to explain that “he fell down.” Down is the traditional direction of motion when you fall, so the word “fell” inherently implies a movement downward. (If “he fell up,” it’s a different story, because it no longer follows the traditional meaning of the word.)

Similarly, we don’t need to know that a character “screamed in horror” if she’s just spotted herself in the mirror for the first time after a bad makeover, or that someone “wrinkled his nose at the smell” while taking out the trash. The scene dictates these things already for us.

Descriptions like these bog down writing, because they’re redundant. The reader doesn’t gain anything from them, so instead they work against the writing. Make the scene run slower; make it feel less interesting; make it easier for the reader to get distracted. (These words are basically empty calories that don’t even do you the service of tasting good.) (Like those crappy potato chips you eat so you won’t look pathetic at a party where you don’t know anyone.)

Of all the issues writers can run into, I think this is one of the hardest ones to fix. Not because it’s an inherently difficult issue to pinpoint (see examples above), but because it’s easy to second guess yourself.

The manuscript I was revising the past year was neck deep in redundancies like these and I thought that because I had learned how to recognize them, I’d be able to get rid of them SUPER EASILY. But then I started wondering, “Will the reader actually get what I’m saying if I don’t point that out, though?” and “What if it’s not obvious enough?” and “What if the sentence is confusing without this?”

It’s easy to be afraid of messing up. When you over-explain things, you know you’re in the clear. No matter what, the reader will get what you’re saying. But you also run the risk of losing the reader to boredom, or annoying the reader, or any number of things.

So, I took a chance and cut all my little “explaining” descriptions. Sent the MS to my critique partners.

And while occasionally someone had a question about what I meant by something, or wanted more of an explanation behind an action, generally they didn’t miss those redundant explanations. At all.

Readers want your writing to make them feel smart. You know this–you’re a reader. So make them feel smart by treating them like they’re smart. (Spoiler: they are.)

Let us fill in the blanks. Allude to things. Tell us steps A and C and let us figure out step B. Be careful not to lay too many hints to what’s going to happen next, because chances are we’ve already figured it out.

Trusting the reader is key. It allows the reader the chance to find a plot twist surprising; to flip through your pages at a hundred miles an hour, because the writing flies by; to fall in love with your characters and world and you.

Books are about trust. By picking up a book, readers take a risk. They choose to trust an author.

Trust them back.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Tips from a Used Bookshop

We’re down to the last couple weeks of spring term! I honestly hadn’t realized how much of the semester had passed already until our professor started talking about turning in final assignments in class tonight and all of us were like, “Wait what.”

So. It’s my last couple weeks of screenwriting and working at the bookshop and interning remotely. THEN IT’S OFF TO NEW YORK FOR TWO MONTHS YAYYY! (Somebody hold me.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post–with a bit of a twist.

After working at a used bookshop for about a month now, mainly shelving books, I’ve noticed a few things that I thought might be helpful for writers out there.

Aim for the emptier parts of the alphabet.

Obviously if you’re going by your legal name, you can’t control with which letter your surname begins. But if you’re planning on publishing under a penname, may I suggest heading out to your local bookshop (preferably a used one, since we generally have a wider selection than regular stores) to check out which letters are more crowded on the shelves than others?

I absolutely hate shelving books whose authors have names that begin with common letters, like A or S. There’s never enough space for everyone. This means that these books are more likely to end up in the stacks heading to our storeroom or forgotten in a pile somewhere.

On the other hand, books by authors whose surnames begin with less common letters (like P or Z) always have more than enough space on our shelves. This means that not only do they all find good homes there, but they’re also more likely to get to face out or have multiple copies shelved at once.

If you’re a newbie, you’re probably better off writing something short.

If you’re someone like Stephen King or JK Rowling–someone who has already established your popularity–of course I’ll make room for your eight-hundred-page monster on the shelf. It’s sure to be a quick sell. But if you’re an unknown, and it’s either stock one of your book or four of other people’s books, I’m more likely to favor them.

It’s quantity of books over quantity of pages in used bookshops. We get paid the same amount for a sale whether your book is two hundred pages or a thousand–and as far as I can tell it works the same way in traditional bookshops, as well. A store’s more likely to stock your debut if they don’t think it’s going to eat all their space.

Have a distinct genre.

By this I mean: Make sure it’s clear in which section your book should go in a store.

I can’t tell you how often we get people looking for something that could be stocked in horror, but could also be a mystery. Or could be stocked in scifi/fantasy, but could also be in philosophy.

I’m not saying that genre crossover is bad. Crossover is awesome. But if it’s possible to aim your book enough in a certain direction for it to be obvious where to put it to someone just glancing at your book–amongst the fifty other new arrivals she has to stock in the next four hours–that is really, really nice. And it makes it easier for us to know where to take customers to find your book when they ask for it, without having to waste time looking it up.

Shorter Titles = Bae.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a customer come up to me looking for, you know, that one book–with that one word in the title? But the title was kind of long? And they couldn’t remember all of it?

People forget shorter titles far less than they forget longer titles. My shop stocks more books than anyone could ever keep track of, so 99% of the time when someone can’t remember the name of what they’re looking for, I can’t help them. Therefore, a shorter title correlates to more sales (and less exasperated readers/bookshop employees).

Three words or fewer generally seems to be a good range to aim for. But this current trend of the, like, five to seven-ish word titles is killing me.

Get to know your local booksellers.

This is less of a thing from working at a used bookshop as much as a general thing I’ve noticed from interacting with employees at my local indies.

People love helping people they know. Go to your local bookshops often. Go to events at them (especially book signings). Talk with the booksellers. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Support those stores in every way possible. (Not that you shouldn’t already be doing this, because if you’re a decent person who likes books you really should, but I figured I would mention it anyway.)

This way when your book comes out someday, your local shops will be ready and waiting to do everything they can to help you make it a success.

Thanks for reading! And make sure to keep an eye out for the rest of my BEA/BookCon recap posts. They should be coming sometime later this week, or early next week!

~Julia

P.S. For anyone who’s curious, no, dyeing your hair with honey does not actually work. I soaked my hair in that goo for SEVEN. HOURS. yesterday and it’s, like, maaaybe one shade lighter now. (However, my hair is super moisturized now, so like, that’s cool?)

BookCon Weekend

BookCon starts tomorrow!

I’m so excited for this weekend. It’s been over a year since I last was in New York City (a travesty) and, on top of that, mi madre and I are meeting up with friends there. One of them I haven’t seen in over a year; one I haven’t seen in going on two years; and the other I just saw last week (but we’re going to ignore that fact because Hannah is wonderful).

I’m here today to let you know that as long as I have time and internet access, I’m going to be flooding you with blog posts this weekend. So prepare yo’self.

Here’s to hoping we actually manage to get into a couple panels and autograph sessions! (Other weekend goals: “Accidentally” run into a famous author. Meet Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York and/or Grumpy Cat. Save the world.)

If you’re at BookCon and see me, make sure to come say hello! I’ll be the one fangirling over literally everything.

Countdown to BookCon: ONE. DAY.

 

~Julia