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On Perspective

There are plenty of ways to improve your writing skills. The most obvious (and least complicated) is to read, a practice that has the happy result of transferring to your brain a great deal of subtextual information about structure, characterization, plotting, and language use. It goes without saying (I hope) that your mileage will vary according to what you read. For example, you miss a lot if you read only modern popular fiction, which, not surprisingly, makes use of mostly modern conventions. Nothing wrong with modern conventions, except that writers who know nothing else may fall into the habit of worshipping them to the point of fearing to break them. It is wonderfully demystifying to understand why they exist, where they came from, and what set of wholly opposite conventions was just as lauded 80 years before. Reading from a wide range of periods and schools is the way to get perspective. Perspective is wonderfully empowering; you realize that it is your choice to write a certain way, and that there are many valid ways to tell the story you want to tell. Conventions are building blocks to use in telling your story, not cinder blocks shaped into a cell inside of which you must force yourself to live.

What we as writers lack is perspective. No joke, eh? It's hard to have any perspective about what exists in the deepest reaches of the mind. Thus we instinctively turn, as a second way to improve our writing skills, to family and friends to read our writing and give us (hopefully) good feedback. If you aren't grooming test readers now, start. Getting other people to read your work can revolutionize your relationship with your writing. Eventually, the need for feedback diminishes, and you will be able to predict what your readers' reactions will be.

This is the development of the "editorial eye." Think of it as a third eye in the middle of your forehead (this has lots of jolly literary allusions). We're all born with one, but it's closed to start with—and it stays closed until you open it by force. For myself, the moment of epiphany came when, after my first five years or so spent working exclusively as a language editor, I went back to my own fiction writing, and realized with a rush of cold horror that all the basic mistakes that made me want to pull my hair out as an editor were present in munificent abundance in my own work. The editorial eye had been opened—with a vengeance.*

But you must learn to pick your readers with care, and quietly drop those who tell you your work is perfect (it is not), as well as those who tell you what you should have had happen, or what books you should have read before you wrote this one, or that you need a spell checker. Getting feedback is not some dread gauntlet through which all writers are doomed to pass. It's worth is not surviving the ordeal, but in the quality of the feedback. If you take away only a feeling of triumph or despair, you have learned nothing.

Your readers need some help in learning their roles. Steer them away from conversations which hinge on whether they think the book is good or bad (this will only distress everyone involved, except for the good liars). Ask your readers what they liked about your book, or what they didn't like, who they liked and disliked. Ask they how they felt at key moments of the plot. Don't tell them what you meant (if they don't know what you meant, you have some work to do, and it should be on paper). And remember, you don't have to please everyone with your writing. The editorial eye is, in the end, highly focused, and exists to help you make sure you get your distinctive message across, not to see into the hearts of your readers. Your readers will bring their own contexts (experiences, idiosyncrasies and expectations) to your book. If nothing works for one reader, too bad. If nothing works for three readers, you need to find out why.

*Some people just seem to "get it" and write exactly what they intend with ease and command from the word go. Bow down to their skill, and take comfort by reminding yourself that they were born with an open editorial eye—like green eyes or a knack for languages—and you weren't, and get on with it.