A vast number of writers are afraid of their own power. They fall prey to listening to what other people think their story should be—writing friends, Twitter pals, critique partners, the English teacher next door, agents they’ve met for a minute, workshop teachers, and even editors and book coaches. In their desperate attempts not to get it wrong, they fail to get it right. They forget how to tune into their own voice and their own vision. The sad result is that they end up writing a book that feels as if it’s been written by committee. It’s flat, stingy of spirit, incapable of stirring the hearts of any reader anywhere ever.
This is, obviously, a really bad result.
In order to combat this tendency, I often tell my clients, “You are the god of your own story!”
I say this when I am reflecting back what I see in their story. I want them to either say, “Yes! That’s what I’m trying to do!” or to vehemently disagree with whatever I am suggesting – to fight for what they know their story should be. I do this to help them tune into their own voice and their own power, because you have to have that kind of authority in order to write a book other people want to read. You have to own your words, and own your right to speak, and own the point you set out to make. You have to become the god of your own story so you can bring to life the world that only exists in your mind.
Sounds like awesome fun, right? And it is! To a point. Because becoming the god of your own story means more than being a supreme creator. As with most things, you can cause big problems by going too far with that role. When I think of what “too far” means for a writer of memoir or fiction, I think of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – that fabulous Disney clip from Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse steals the powerful hat of the sorcerer, starts wielding the master’s wand with abandon, and brings down a world-threatening flood.
I also think of a writer who loves the process of writing, who thrills to sit and create and spin their magic web, who loves to talk about the joy of what they are doing, but who refuses to step back and assess. They write whatever they want to write (they are the god of their story!), are frequently dazzled by their own output, hold on tight to everything they produce (every word is precious! Every scene is perfect!), and then they get to “the end” and believe the rest of us should roll out a red carpet for what they have made. They are, after all, a story god!
Ah, but not so fast. Because a god doesn’t just have the power of creation. She has the power of observation, as well. She is omniscient and all-knowing. She can walk around her creation and peek at it from all sides and consider all angles, and nip and trim, and add and enhance as she works to make it better. In other words, she has the power to edit.
Louis Borges said that art is fire plus algebra. Being the god of your story means owning your creative power and tapping into your unconscious and letting your imagination go wild – that’s the fire part of the equation. It’s the part writers are largely really good at. Let’s call the fire the first perspective a writer needs to have about her work.
Perspective #1: You, the god of your own story
You let a vision stick in your mind. You trust in it and you allow yourself to bring it to life on the page to the best of your ability.
Practical Tactics for Perspective #1:
- Keep telling yourself you are the god of your own story, which is to say, tap into what you want this story to be, what you know will resonate with readers, what you love about it.
- When the moments of doubt arise – my mom will hate me for writing this, my writing group didn’t love it, that editor said I should turn it into a mystery instead of a romance, vampire stories are hot again, agents only want YA written by women – do what you have to do to recognize the doubt and keep creating despite it.
The algebra part of the creative equation is when you take off your creator’s hat and set it aside and step back and look with logic and discernment and humility at all sides of what you have created, and you work to make it better, one element at a time. Whether you are revising a scene, a chapter, a section, or a whole manuscript, you must set down your pen and spend time assessing from each of the other three perspectives.
Perspective #2: You, the person who has lived a long life, who brings a billion experiences to bear on the work, who has opinions and biases and the burden of all kinds of knowledge
You don’t know how much you know about your story, how much you assume, but you have to try to make this conscious in order to make sure that your reader has a chance in hell of getting what you are trying to do.
I read a fantastic letter to the editor the other day in an etiquette column in Real Simple magazine that illuminates this point perfectly. The letter writer was miffed that someone on her crowded commuter train had taken a picture of her purse with his cellphone and texted it out to someone. She was nervous, suspicious, confused. Forget the question of etiquette for a minute and imagine all the different reasons why someone would take such a picture. These are the options etiquette expert Catherine Newman presented:
- This is the purse you should snatch when we get off at Grand Central
- Ugly, amiright?
- I’m texting you the picture of this woman’s stuff just to drive her crazy
- This is the gorgeous bag I was telling you about
- You designed this, right?
- Hey it’s your same purse!
The point is that if you were writing that scene in a story – “The woman looked up in shock. The man next to her had just taken a picture of her purse and was furiously typing on his phone. She smiled.” – your reader would have NO CLUE what just happened, or why it mattered, or what to make it of it, and I promise you that she will not stick around to find out.
Your job is to TELL US. Yes, please tell us, don’t just show us. If you don’t tell us, you are shutting us out. Show don’t tell means show us the way the story unfolds, show us what it all meant. Let us in.
Here’s how that sentence above could be revised to do that.
“The woman looked up in shock. The man next to her had just taken a picture of her purse and was furiously typing on his phone. She smiled. The first time this had happened she wasn’t sure she could believe it, but this time, there was no doubt: that man had recognized her design. She tried to catch his eye, to say, “I’m the designer,” but he was absorbed in his phone, immune to the reality that in New York, the stranger on the train could be a rising fashion star.
Practical Tactics for Perspective #2:
- Read your pages, thinking of only of what you know that no one else knows. The whole goal is to show us what you know about your topic or your story.
- Look for places where you have assumed something or skipped over something or failed to make it visible.
- Look especially in dialogue, and in scenes where your characters are making a decision or a judgment call or drawing a conclusion (which should be every scene).
- Look especially at the handling of time. Has an hour gone by? Five? A whole day? A week? A year? The timeline of your story is no doubt solid in your head. Make sure it is solid for the reader, too. You need to ground us in the real movement of time in your story.
Perspective #3: The reader, for whom you are crafting an experience
This reader is busy and anxious and worried. She doesn’t have a lot of time in her day, but she is desperate to connect with another human being in some profound way, which is why she has bought your book in the first place. She wants solace or education or entertainment or escape. Your job is to know what she wants and to make sure you are giving it to her
Practical Tactics for Perspective #3:
- Know what your reader wants. Know the genre your book belongs in, the bestselling books in that category, the things readers tend to say on Amazon and Goodreads about them, the reasons they fall in love with authors who give it to them, and what, exactly, your book is adding to the conversation. Honor her desire in everything you write.
- This means axing anything that doesn’t serve your story or your point – and I mean anything that doesn’t add directly to what the reader needs to know right now to make sense of what she is reading, including: A lovely passage about the sunset, a beautiful description of the blue dress the woman on the stage was wearing, a random bit of backstory from someone’s childhood. Be ruthless.
- No really, be ruthless. Real writers throw out a lot of pages in search of something that feels real and true and alive, not just for them, but for their readers. You have to hold your reader’s perspective in your head – their worries and fears and desires and hopes – so you can give them something of value on every page.
Perspective #4: The characters, who themselves have lived long lives, bring a billion experiences to bear on their life, and who have opinions and biases and the burden of all kinds of knowledge.
If you want your characters to seem like real people to your readers, they, too, will have all of the same burdens of knowledge about their lives that we have about ours. They will believe things about the world very strongly, want things very desperately, be terrified of things at a soul level that are probably the very things that are keeping them from what they desperately want. In other words, characters who seem real to readers feel that way because they are designed that way. The writer has taken the time to give them fully formed interior lives – memories and biases and fears and irrational little worries just like we have.
Practical Tactics for Perspective #4:
- Read your pages, thinking only of what your characters know and believe and feel about what is happening to them. This is the perspective that will add depth of meaning and emotion to your work. This is what will make it all seem real to your reader.
- If you don’t know the answer to what your character thinks or believes or wants, stop and figure it out. Sometimes that means going on a walk or paging through Pinterest or reading someone else’s work as you try to understand your character inside and out, past and present. Giving someone a history and motivation and a rich inner life is not work that usually comes quickly, so as you do it, give yourself a break.
- Don’t be afraid to tell us the answers you find. More writers err on the side of not saying enough than on the side of saying too much.
Here’s how I might add a bit to the sentence above about the woman on the train to add this layer of emotional depth in a revision.
“She pulled up Tad’s number on her phone and for a split second, considered texting him. He was the only person who would understand the intensity of her ambition – that deep in her bones, she believed she deserved to have this kind of success, not because she was any better than anyone else, but because she had overcome so much more than they had to get there.
She stared at his photo and his name, then quietly turned off her phone and slid it back into her prized purse. What good was success if the only person who would have understood it was no longer alive?”
The four perspectives will give you self-editing super-powers. By intentionally looking at each scene, chapter or an entire manuscript from all four perspectives, you will fix holes in logic, deepen the emotion, and offer your readers an immersive experience that will keep them turning pages.
For more information and tips on self-editing, see the revision portion of One Stop for Writers’ Storyteller’s Roadmap.
Jennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.