I have a new client whom I shall call Debbie. She was a student in one of my live and in-person classes this winter -- she came all the way from Vermont to LA to write a memoir about Topic A and for the first two days of a four-day intensive workshop, she worked on Topic A. You could tell that she wasn’t happy with what she was writing – the way she spoke about it, the way she sat in her chair, and even the look on her face all reflected frustration. And the writing itself was, in fact, a little flat. Okay, a lot flat.
What do I mean by flat? I lacked oomph. It lacked passion. It lacked power and drive and meaning. Think of Coke gone flat, champagne gone flat, bread dough that never rises…. I tried to point out this reality to Debbie, and she listened, and nodded, but nothing much changed.
Then on the third day, Debbie came into class and explained that she had stayed up all night. She had been listening to the other writers, listening to me, thinking about her pages, wondering what was wrong, and had come to the conclusion that she was writing the wrong story. She realized that her true story was not Topic A; it was topic B – something completely different. I mean, this wasn’t just a little shift. This was a tectonic shift. She handed me six new pages – the fruit of her long night.
I smiled – because anyone who is willing to stay up all night and start all over again in the midst of an intensive workshop is someone who is listening to their heart, and that is where good writing originates. Yes, of course we have to be logical and strategic and we have to let our brains into this process, but we have to lead with our heart and soul. That’s why I knew before I even looked at the first sentence that the pages in my hands were going to be good.
They turned out to be staggeringly good. Had I not been there in the classroom over the last 48 hours watching her struggle, I would not have believed she had just written them. They captured a moment as well as a whole universe, they framed a story, they made a point, they made a promise the reader could be curious about. There was almost nothing to say about them other than, “Wow.” It was a thrill to be a witness to their birth.
Flash forward several months. I gave Debbie the assignments I give to everyone at the start of a project (both in my private work and Phase 1 in my Author Accelerator program), and Debbie completed them and turned them in. Among those assignments is a series of questions about your ideal reader. Who is this book for? Why should they care? What are you promising them? How will you reach them?
Debbie gave some answers related to Topic B – answers that were rich and resonant, and showed the promise of a commercially viable book. It’s exactly what I want to see at this stage of a project – evidence that the writer is thinking beyond their own story to who their reader might be, and how they might reach them. It was good stuff and I was pleased with her progress.
I made my responses to Debbie’s work, asking questions, pushing her here and there, reflecting back to her what the book would look like once it was on the shelves and how she would interact with her readers once the book was in their hands.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Debbie would not settle for “good enough.” About an hour before we were set to get on the phone to discuss these Week #1 assignments, Debbie sent me an email with a whole new set of answers to the assignments. She’d changed her mind. She had a brand new idea – not for the book, this time, but for how to describe her ideal reader. She had a whole new vision of who that reader was and how she could connect with them.
My comments had made her see that she really didn’t want to speak to the people she’d first described. She wanted to speak to a different population. She was, in fact, really excited to speak to this new group, and had a fabulous idea for how she could do so – an idea that had nothing to do with the story itself, but everything to do with who would read it and why. She’d written up her new idea and wanted to know what I thought.
I smiled – again -- because I knew this was going to be a game changer, and it was, in fact, a spectacular idea. Nothing about the story itself would change (well, that’s not entirely true; there would be a new emphasis on one aspect of the work – sort of like shining a light more strongly on one thing rather than another), but everything about who it was FOR would change, and everything about WHY they might want to read it would change. It was a tiny shift, but it was tectonic, too – and it was all done at the very beginning of the project, when only a few pages had been written, and when it was easy to recast and reframe and reimagine it all.
It was an exhilarating moment for me, because in my perfect world, all writers would do this work, ideally at the start of their projects when the idea is fluid and changeable, but I would take all writers doing it at any time – midway through their project, at the revision stage, when they are working on launching it, after publication. Bringing the reader into your perspective as a writer is the surest way to guarantee that you will HAVE readers. This “market perspective” doesn't sully the creative process; it enhances it, boosts it. It’s very powerful stuff!
It was exhilarating for Debbie, too, because she just saved herself years of frustration, and she knew it. She could feel it. She just bridged the giant chasm between “it’s just a little story that I an compelled to tell” and “it’s a story designed to connect with readers.”
When we talked about why she’d made this change, she said, “Writing is an exchange of energy. Ultimately that’s what’s happening between a writer and a reader, and if there wasn’t an exchange now, at the beginning of the process, then it would be a totally different outcome.”
Debbie’s comment captures the fundamental reality of creative work: we need other people to respond to what we do. Readers are critical to our life as writers. Without them, we are writing in a vacuum and for ourselves. Without readers, we are totally and irrevocably alone.
Now some people might argue that all kinds of good can come from writing for ourselves -- and at times, I am that person making that argument. Writing can be healing and can bring clarity and peace and joy even if no one ever reads a word we have written. But that's a completely different kind of writing than the writing I am helping you do.
If you are writing a book that you intend to be read, take a little time to let the reader into your head. It doesn't matter where you are in the writing process. Imagine them reading your book and imagine the exchange of energy you will have with them. Who are they? What do they want? What would make them stay up all night reading your book?
Now work to give it to them.