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Delighting the Reader

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Leveraging Curiosity

I was working with a writer this week whom I shall call Steve. Steve is writing a novel and we were working on a bit of dialogue that, in my mind, stopped the story cold. 

The scene was between two old friends. Character B was prodding Character A (the protagonist) about a situation that will later explode in Character A’s life. Character B sees clearly the train wreck that is coming, and tries to call her friend out on it,  but Character A deflects the prod from her old friend in this way:

 “I said nothing in reply. I was not going to get into that conversation. Instead, I changed the subject.”

It was a very small moment, but my notes in the margin were strong: “Wait WHAT? Why wouldn't’ she go there? The reader is DYING to find out! Why are you keeping it from us? This is going to piss off your reader…”

Steve’s answer to me: “Because if I explain it there, it will give everything away. I’m saving that reveal for later.”

Steve, in other words, had a secret he wanted to keep from the reader and he wanted to keep it because he felt that the opposite -- holding his cards really close to his vest -- would pique the reader’s curiosity.

This is a very commonly held belief, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that like. In fact, it works precisely the opposite way. That’s the secret about keeping secrets in writing.  They usually only work if you let the reader in on it. Otherwise, the reader will be feeling left out, dismissed, disregarded.

If Steve had instead told us something of the secret, we would have been curious in the way Steve really wanted. If he had written this….    

“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to let memories of my mother’s death influence my career choices, and didn’t even like suggestion of such a thing on the table. Who did Sally think she was to question my integrity in that way? She of all people should have known better. Instead, I changed the subject.”

…the reader  would have thought, Oh NO I don’t have a good feeling about this, I think this is going to come back to bite Character A, I wonder when that will happen and what she will do and what the consequences of that will be. I’m going to keep reading to see if I’m right and to watch this drama unfold.

We read, in other words, for the WHY of the story – why people do things, what they make of it, what it MEANS to them. We don’t read for the what – for what happens. We talked about this last week on a bigger picture scale, but I wanted to drill down this week to show you exactly how this works.

You can give away what happens all day long as long as you let us know there IS a why and that it’s coming.

A fantastic example of this truth is in the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which I am currently reading. This book is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when he was a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School. It’s a tale about life and death – but mostly death. Kalanithi dies in the end. And the reader knows that the moment they read the book jacket copy:

Kalanithi himself reinforces that truth in the very first sentences of the book, in the prologue:

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

So is not a secret to the reader what happens in this story – not in the slightest. We know everything about what happens.

What we read for is how he makes meaning of his reality – in other words, the why of it. In particular in this case, we have the following questions in our head:

  • Why did he decide to write about his own death?
  • Why did he decide to have a child when he knew he was going to die?
  • Why did his wife agree to that?
  • What did it feel like to make that decision?
  • What does it feel like to chronicle your own death?
  • What does someone who knows so much about what sustains life bring to the task of dying?

I just read a passage last night in which, having gone back in time to Kalanithi’s decision to go to med school and having followed his journey through it, we arrive again at the day of diagnosis.  This is now the second time he has written about this day – first in those sentences from the prologue I quoted above and now on this page – page 119. Only moments have passed between the two instances and we are right back with a man reading his CT scans.

He writes:

“Lying next to Lucy in the hospital bed, both of us crying, the CT scan images still glowing on the computer screen, that identity as a physician – my identity – no longer mattered….”

The only difference to the reader is that this second time, we know even more about why this moment matters to this man in particular. We know that Kalanithi has witnessed many deaths, has wrestled with the meaning of life, has made professional choices based on his beliefs about life and death, and has just suffered the loss of a colleague who took his own life. We know even more acutely what death means to him and we know with more assuredness that death is coming for him.

But again, no one in their right might would stop reading just because we know what’s going to happen. It’s not the WHAT we care about it. We KNOW what. It’s the why we continue to read forward to find out.

In your own work, look for places where you are holding back information from the reader.

  • It might be in dialogue like it was with Steve. Make sure you are not being coy with information, that you are not holding back things on purpose. It almost never works – because if the good thing happens on page 100 and your reader never makes it there, who cares?
  • It might be when conclusions are being drawn from a scene or situation – it’s easy to assume the reader knows what the conclusion is (Isn’t it obvious? the writer thinks), but we usually don’t. We need to be told. Every time your character thinks a thought or makes a decision or takes some action, we want to know the conclusions the protagonist is drawing from it. Why does it matter, why are we being asked to pay attention?
  • It might be in how you are structuring your entire story – giving us far too much what before you let us have any why. We want why

Odds are good that you can add in the why in small and large ways throughout your work. My advice is to err on the side of saying too much. You will do more damage holding back than you do in spilling your secrets.

I’ll leave you with one last moving passage from Kalanithi’s book, where he employs this tactic with masterful precision. He and his wife Lucy are having a discussion about whether or not to have a child, given Kalanithi’s diagnosis. She begins the conversation:

“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

That last line – that add on – is what gives that passage such depth and nuance and power. Kalanithi doesn’t leave us to wonder what the conversation means or why it matters. He doesn't leave his question unanswered. He answers it himself, right on the page, and thereby invites us into the heart of his devastating experience.

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What Michael Lewis Can Teach Us About Writing in the Real World

I went to see The Big Short last week. As someone who has worked as a writer, editor, writing instructor and book coach for 27 years, I am not a person who has a natural understanding or affinity for numbers, but I am a reader of newspapers, and I have a mortgage, and I am a generally aware citizen, and care about the state of our world, and I am just as susceptible to the buzz of a big movie as anyone else, so I thought it would be an interesting way to spend an evening. It was – though not in the way I expected.

I went to the movie with my husband, who has an MBA, is a CFO, and worked on Wall Street for several years after college. He is, in other words, a person who has spent 27 working with numbers. Throughout The Big Short, Rob was belly laughing. Totally cracking up. And I kept looking at him thinking, “What? What?” Afterwards, he declared that he loved the movie. He thought it was hilarious and important – a masterwork.

I understood the storyline – Adam McKay worked hard to make sure that someone like me would – and I understood what an important point the movie was making about our banks and our culture. It was, in that way, quite frightening, and also motivating in terms of making sure I continue to be an aware consumer and citizen. I also recognized that some of the acting was amazing, because I largely forgot that I was watching Brad Bitt and Ryan Gosling – which is hard to do.

But what I took away from the theater was this: a million questions about how it was done.

Not every movie – or book -- causes that reaction in me. I saw The Force Awakens over the holidays and also Spectre, and loved the experience of those movies. They were fun – Star Wars even despite the obvious plot holes and plot repetition. But with a movie like The Big Short, which by all measures shouldn’t work (a movie about banking and bankers and the arcane facts of trading?), I am just dying to know how.

How did the writer get the idea? How did he know it was a good idea? How did he organize the material the way he did? How did he choose whom to give a POV? How did he convince anyone else this story was a good idea? How did they get Brad Pitt?

When I came home from the theater, I hit the Internet to answer my questions. We live in extraordinary times, that we can do such a thing – just instantly get answers to almost anything. I learned all kinds of interesting things about casting, and the bit with Selena Gomez, and then I happened upon an article by Michael Lewis about his surprise that the movie got made at all. I want to share it with you today, because it’s a beautiful and profound explanation of what it means to be a writer in the real world.

What do I even mean by that? Well, it’s pretty easy to be a writer who sits in her room alone and never shares her work with the world, but to be a writer who thinks about her reader, and who thinks about the marketplace, and who is brave enough to want to be read and to do what it takes to make it happen – that’s hard. That's what I mean by being a writer in the real world. It’s what I work to help people become, and it’s what I want to be in my own work.

In this article, Michael Lewis shows us how it’s done – step by step, from the moment the idea hit him, through his exploration of it, through the doubt he felt about it, and all the way until the big movie rolled into the theaters. I annotated in yellow the passages throughout where he shows us these things, because it’s not always explicit. But it’s there – a subtext to everything he is writing. I explained my thinking so you can see exactly what I mean. I hope you take inspiration from it for your work in 2016.

>>>> CLICK HERE TO SEE ANNOTATED PIECE

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How to Write a Sentence

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I am such an evangelist for thinking BIG about books – for knowing your audience, for knowing the marketplace, for understanding how your structure serves your story-- and as a result, I spend a lot of time in this newsletter talking about these big picture ideas.

I also spend a lot of time on the realities of the writing life – the habits you need to do good work, the kind of support that helps and hurts, the ways you can shake off doubt and despair so you can get the words out of your head and onto the page.

And then, of course, there is the selling – how to connect with readers, how to hook agents, and all the rest of the noisy work of publishing.

What often gets overlooked is the power and beauty of a well-crafted sentence. It’s often the very last thing we care about – because if you don’t know your point, and you haven’t chosen an effective structure, and you don’t have the habits to sustain the writing of a book, what difference does it make how your sentences sound? Crafting a sentence is often the very last thing a writer – or a book coach -- pays attention to.

And yet when we read a book, when we fall under its spell, oftentimes, the thing that most stands out are the sentences.

I am in the midst of reading H is for Hawk, the award-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald, and I am completely dazzled – by the story, by the structure, by the content (so many new things to learn about training falcons and the British aristocracy and grief!) It is taking me forever to read because I can only manage a few pages at a time. There is just so much happening, so much depth and nuance, and I want to enjoy it and also figure out how Macdonald has done it, and in addition to all that, there are her sentences.

They are breathtaking. They startle and delight and prod. They have wit and wisdom and rhythm. These sentences are so good it seems as though you could eat them.

I want to show you just one. It comes on page 16. This is a story about a woman who has been unhinged by grief – her father has died – and she is going to deal with her grief by training a new hawk. But on page 16, the grief is brand new, and this is how she describes it:

 

Sometimes, a few times, I felt my father must be sitting near me as I sat on a train or in a café. This was comforting. It all was. Because these were the normal madnesses of grief. I learned this from books. I bought books on grieving, on loss and bereavement. They spilled over my desk in tottering piles. Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers. Was it reassuring to be told that everyone sees ghosts? That everyone stops eating? Or can’t stop eating? Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?

 

The sentence I want to talk about is the last one.

 

Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?

 

What’s fascinating is that it’s the fourth sentence in a series. So often, we stop at three. Our ear is trained for three. But Macdonald drives on here with a fourth sentence, and it really feels like it’s driving through – like a freight train or a semi truck. It hits the reader in the gut.

What makes this sentence so powerful?

First, there’s the internal alliteration (comes/can) and rhythm of the opening phrase. “Grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned.” Just say that out loud and HEAR how it rolls off the tongue.  Emphasize comes/stages/numbered/pinned and you get it even more.

Then there are those two incredibly specific terms – numbered and pinned.  Not simply counted and named, but bound to a number, pinned to a particular spot. The second we read those words, our mind’s race ahead to think of things that get numbered and pinned and without the author’s help, we can’t quite get there, we can’t quite figure out what she means, and then she gives it to us – “like beetles in boxes.”

Readers are constantly trying to stay a step ahead of the author in this way – on the level of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter and a story. We’re in a dialogue with the author, in a relationship with them, interacting with them at every moment, and this is a perfect example of how it works. We’re stretching, yearning to solve this little puzzle of how grief gets numbered and pinned, or what else gets numbered and pinned.

When she gives us the “beetles in boxes” image it’s so satisfying. It sounds great, for one thing because of the alliteration. Beetles in boxes! She didn’t just stop at the thing that is numbered and pinned – beetles – but she gave them a context, a grim reality: boxes. This evokes something very specific and macabre – dead bugs, displayed bugs, bugs kept under glass for human pleasure. You can’t help but see it – I pictured intense jewel tones, creepy bent legs, shellacked backed bugs, and those terrifying pins -- and you can’t help but feel it, the finality of what has happened to those beetles and to the author’s dad.

The author has been talking about ghosts and the wrecked relationship with food – things that are far from benign – but with that final image of beetles in boxes, she slams us with an image that we can’t shake. It echoes. I read the passage two, three, four times, just to experience the satisfaction of that sentence and the pleasure of that image – gruesome and beautiful.

We all want to engage our reader, to speak to them, to connect with them, to hook them, to move them, and although emotions and expectation and curiosity and desire are underneath everything, making it all work, the tool used to deliver all that is just a few words woven into a simple sentence.

When you think about it, it’s some kind of serious magic.

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What We Can Learn About Reader Engagement From Elizabeth Gilbert

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I had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Pasadena last week at an event sponsored by Vroman’s bookstore. The talk was in celebration of the publication of Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, which discusses the “attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.” I’m halfway through the book and will be talking about its contents next week. This week, however, I want to talk about Liz Gilbert, the author who has figured out how to engage her readers.  It is not very likely that any of us are going to sell 10 million copies of our books, or to gleefully proclaim on Twitter that our book hit the New York Times bestseller list, but we can learn so much from watching someone at the top of their game.

So what is Liz Gilbert doing so well?  

1. She knows who her audience is

There were approximately 1,000 women at the event I attended, and perhaps two dozen men. By my estimation, there was no one in the room under the age of 25. When Gilbert gave a shout out to Vroman’s and mentioned how lucky Pasadena was to still have a fantastic independent bookstore, the crowd went wild. These are women who love their bookstore and love their community.

A 40-something woman seated in front of me was typical of the crowd: she clutched a well-worn and much-flagged copy of Eat, Pray, Love. I asked if I could take a picture of it, and she beamed.  I asked her how many times she’d read it. “Probably three times straight through,” she said, “But I constantly go back to refer to my favorite passages. It’s so inspiring.”

 

From the moment Gilbert began to speak, it was clear she knew exactly to whom she was speaking. It was, in a nutshell, this woman.

Gilbert would be the first to say that she didn’t set out to speak to this audience. Eat, Pray, Love was a book she says she had to write for herself in order to simply survive. She also says something similar about Big Magic. We all have reasons we are called to write the books we want to write – private, powerful reasons – and that is as it should be. That is the only reason to even consider doing this work.

But the minute you begin to imagine that you might want to share your book with readers, it pays to take even a few moments to consider who your audience might be. If the answer is vague and broad -- “everyone” or “women” or “moms” or “fantasy fiction fans,” picture a thousand people showing up to hear you speak. Who are they, really?

2. She has been engaging with these women in an intimate way for a long time.

One of the very first things Gilbert said in her talk was that she wanted to go on the road with Big Magic in order to meet all the women she had been talking to on Facebook. She has 1,367,505 people who follow her on Facebook.

In this little chat with Oprah, Gilbert confesses that the first thing she does each morning is go onto Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to interact with her followers.

Can we just think about that for a moment?

This is a woman who has something like 147 appearances planned all over the world in the next three months alone. This is a woman who recently sat for a photo shoot and an interview with People magazine, who spent two days signing 20,000 books in a warehouse in New Jersey. She could easily kick back and just watch the books fly off the shelf, but she doesn’t do that. She wants to interact with her readers, one on one, and she has found that social media is a fantastic way to do it. (See that Oprah clip again to hear her describe this.)

In a big lead up to the launch of Big Magic, Gilbert went one step further. She invited her followers to raise their hand if they wanted a little one-on-one creativity coaching from Liz herself. She selected a handful of these women and for six months, coached them through their paralysis and their doubt and their self loathing and they busy days so that they could experience creative breakthroughs. She called these women on the phone to coach them. She recorded the key calls in a podcast. Each episodes attracts in somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 or 80,000 fans.

Gilbert has, in other words, worked really hard to engage with her audience in meaningful ways. She understands that reading a book involves far more than just the moments you spend turning the pages. People take your ideas and bring them to life in their own heads. That’s the true magic of reading, after all.

What can you do to being to engage with your future readers in a meaningful way?

3. As a result of all that knowledge and interaction we were just talking about, she knows exactly what these women need.

It's not enough just to know who your audience is. Middle-aged, book-loving women from an affluent American town – that’s a good start but it’s still pretty vague. What Elizabeth Gilbert knows is how, exactly, these women are in pain.

They are in pain from things that didn’t go well in their life. They are in pain from marriages that didn’t work out, from dreams that died, from the dark nights of the soul they have suffered in terms of who they are and why they are here. Many of them have suffered from depression, which Gilbert writes about in Eat, Pray, Love.

How do I know she knows this? The Gilbert event was billed as a reading followed by a Q&A. Gilbert gave a little chatty introduction of perhaps 7 minutes. Then she read a lovely passage from her book – a chunk of perhaps 12 pages that took perhaps 20 minutes. It was a fantastic reading but I was sitting there thinking – Seriously, Elizabeth Gilbert is going to talk for 7 minutes, read for 20, take a few Q&AS (“Where do you get your ideas?” “How is Philipe?” ) and go home? We drove an hour and paid $30 for this?  I was thinking it was a little stingy, to be honest.

But man was I wrong. The Q&A was unlike anything I have ever seen. People scrambled to line up at the two microphones to ask their questions. They trembled when they spoke, they cried, they sniffled, they confessed, they asked for Gilbert’s help and her blessing. They went so deep so fast, and Gilbert stood there and lifted them up, and got right down into their pain, and healed them.

It was, in one sense, kind of strange. This was no author we had come to see. This was a guru – and it’s just strange how our culture elevates some people into this realm.

That being said, it was a dazzling performance – one obviously honed over many, many appearances. One given by someone who knows precisely what really matters to these women.

On the interview Gilbert gave with Marie Forleo a few weeks ago, she spoke about being horribly nervous before her talk to 20,000 Oprah fans, and how she yanked herself out of her nervous state. She told herself something about the people who had come to hear her:

“They don’t need your fear, because they have their own…They don’t need your insecurity. They have it covered. They don’t need your sense of low self worth. They don’t need your insecurity…. [They need] dignity and composure and grace and female autonomy.”

Ha! That is about as not-vague as one could get. That is a person who understands her audience’s pain.

As luck would have it, the woman sitting in front of me with the dog-earred book was one of about a dozen audience members who had an opportunity to ask her question. She trembled when she spoke. She was so nervous she could barely get her words out. When she was finished with her exchange with Gilbert, she sat back down in her chair awash in awe and gratitude and what I imagine she might have described as the magic of the universe.

I am no longer a church-goer, but I grew up going to church and singing in the choir. I know many of the stories – and the story that came crashing into my mind was the one about the woman who felt she only had to touch the hem of Jesus’ garments in order to be healed.

My guess is that Gilbert knows this how she makes women feel. It would be pretty hard to miss it.

What do your readers need? Where is their pain? What is your book doing to give it to them? Again, this is not the place to start a creative project, but it’s a potent question to ask so that you can be sure you are, in the end, giving them something.

4. She is generous with her time and her wisdom

Gilbert was incredibly generous with everyone who stood in line to ask their deeply personal questions. She had enormous empathy for them. One woman told a story about an ex-husband who tore up her passport to prevent her from going to hear Gilbert speak, and Gilbert patiently listened and then boomed into the microphone, “MOTHERFUCKER!” It was as if she wanted to go after this loser personally.

Another woman cried and cried about her battle with depression and Gilbert spoke to her about what to do as if there was no one else in the room.

Another woman wept as she confessed her inability to write the book she was burning to write. Gilbert gave her a homework assignment – to work through The Artists’ Way – as if this woman was going to actually turn it in for a grade.

Gilbert gave these women her time, her heart, her spirit.  She absolutely was not dialing it in. When she couldn’t answer a question, she humbly said, “I don’t know. I simply just don’t know the answer to what you should do about that.”

In other words, she deeply cares about these people. She actually cares about them. You could feel it. It’s the kind of thing you can’t fake.

It can be powerful to think about how you can be generous, too. What can you give your readers to help them where they hurt?

5. She understands her limits

One of the most moving parts of the evening, for me, was at the end when Gilbert explained that she wasn’t going to be signing individual books (they were pre-signed in that warehouse in New Jersey) and she wasn’t going to sit for photos with everyone after the talk. She had come to realize that if she was going to go on the road to engage with her audience, she had to preserve her energy, her health and her sanity. She had to draw a line somewhere, and that was where she decided to draw the line.

I loved this, because we all have to know our limits. If you can’t stand Facebook, don’t use Facebook as a way to engage your readers. If you are terrified of public speaking, don’t have speaking be a cornerstone of your marketing plan. Find a way to engage your readers in a way that works for you.

Of all the extraordinary things that Elizabeth Gilbert does, that, to me, is the most powerful. She knows her strengths as a writer and as a public figure. She also knows her weaknesses. She can give, but only so much.

What about you?  What strengths do you have that you can leverage? What weaknesses would it be wise to admit?

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Writing is an Exchange of Energy

                          
 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.

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