Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Power of the Story

Posted by Lynne

When the playing and replaying of a story in my mind can force me to miss my exit on the expressway, or disengage me from social small talk at a party, or wake me in the middle of the night, the story has power. As the story is revealed to me through the process of researching it and writing it, I start to get a sense of the parts of the plot, and which characterizations are the truth of the story.

Even those of us fortunate enough to have a writers' group, or other trusted readers, need to have critical listening skills to trust the authenticity of the feedback. My aim when it comes to feedback is to listen for consistency in it, along with what rings true for me as the writer. When feedback resonates with me, then by all means I take it. When my readers point out inconsistencies in my character's behavior given her motivations, I take this feedback, too. When my readers feel adrift because my descriptions of setting fail to ground them, I add more setting detail.

Some find it hard to receive the gifts given by trusted readers; the gifts can be small, focused on nuance and subtlety, or they can be big, like a plot line that doesn't mesh. But these gifts have the potential to clarify, center, and add depth to the work. And these gifts can force you to really think, and make a commitment to your story. I force myself to listen.

I find it hard at times to listen to the critical, constructive feedback. I want my work, to work. Like most, I tend to focus a bit too heavily on what doesn't work, even when the good feedback outweighs the constructive. After I've sat with the feedback for a time, the question becomes what will I do with it, especially the feedback that doesn't ring true to me and my story. And what should I do with conflicting feedback from different readers?

I'm new to writing fiction, so I'm no expert here. My style is to wait a day after my work is reviewed in writers' group, then I begin by categorizing the feedback and themes. I separate the feedback; what worked, what didn't, and what feedback will require deeper reflection. When I've taken all the feedback that feels right and true, I then try to remind myself that it's impossible to make every reader happy. There will be those who don't like my protagonist's choices, or the outcome of major plot lines. In these moments, though it's certainly easier said than done, I need to trust my story. You know, the one that distracted me when my friend was talking to me at that party. The one that repeatedly woke me in the night. In those moments, I imagine the muse was there to remind me. Trust yourself. Trust the story.


Anonymous said...

Lynne, I've tried to come to the same place. I've had readers and critiquers of all different strengths. They've all had something important to say, I've learned something from every one on every story. You have to take the time to let their comments sink in, see if it makes sense five days later, and yet, in the end, it's still your story. Only you can decide if it's really the right thing.

And sometimes you're wrong.

But writing by committee never works either. It's a tough balance, and you've captured it nicely.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kristy. You're absolutely right; sometimes we're wrong. I suppose the humble thing to do is to admit it, learn from it, and move on. I certainly find that easier said than done. Gosh, it sure is hard to get it right. Speaking of getting it right, Amy is raving that you did with Catching Genius; I can't wait to read it.