Can I be honest about your writing? (Part 6 – Opinions are not Facts)

Listen. Understand. Act.

Part 1 – Oh, the Vanity of it all! of this multi-post arc dealt with some folks I knew who vanity published their books back when we called vanity publishers “vanity publishers”.
Part 2 – Vanity/Self-Publishing provided an overview of Vanity and Self publishing.
Part 3 – What Camp Are You In? identified four reasons people consider self-publishing.
Part 4 – Pray thee, Joseph, 4 Y do these books suck? delved into editing that doesn’t help a book.
Part 5 – Could you provide examples of suckness? shared some examples of improving sucky writing (my own).

A woman read the opening of a play at a writers’ group I recently attended. She had four characters talking to each other for about eight pages. Not doing anything, just talking.

Ever been at a party and walk up to a group of people talking then discover both they and their conversation are boring as hell?

You look around for another group, one where voices are raised or there’s laughing, one where, even though the people are standing, they’re animated, moving their arms, nodding or shaking their heads to whatever’s being said, stepping back and forth, their bodies demonstrating their feelings about the conversation.

You strategize ways to get out of the boring group and into the interesting group simply because it is interesting!

People reading your story or watching your play behave much the same. If your characters, setting, situation, whatever, is dull, they’ll stop reading, change the channel, get up and leave the theater, take your pick. People need a reason to put their attention on your material. Give it to them.

When the lights go down you have their attention. – Billy Wilder
Alternately: When they open your book’s cover you have their attention.

Act on Facts. Listen to Opinions
Everybody thought the play’s opening dull and boring. Everybody thinking the opening dull and boring was a fact. Doesn’t mean it was, only that everybody in attendance thought so. Each individual’s opinion of the opening was negative.

Their opinions were not facts, what they’re opinions were is a fact and an important one: the test audience didn’t like the play’s opening scene.

Many came up with suggestions for undulling and unboring the opening. Their suggestions were opinions.

You can disagree with an opinion you don’t like. You can’t disagree with a fact you don’t like (unless you’re the President, evidently). The author could disagree with the consensus opinion and seek an audience with a different consensus. The author can’t disagree with the statement of the consensus. Imagine the following conversation:

“We think the opening is boring and dull.”
“No, you don’t.”
“How foolish of us. Of course we don’t think the opening is boring and dull. We simply can’t appreciate this gem you’ve laid before us!”

Never defend or explain your work to an audience unless you plan on giving out CliffNotes to everyone who reads your work. If your audience doesn’t get it, either find an audience that does get it or rewrite your story so this audience gets it.

Changing Reactions
What can the author do to the opening of the play so the audience has a desired reaction? Here are some simple suggestions for taking a bunch of talking heads and making it more interesting:

  • Have the conversation consist of questions to each other rather than statements to each other.
  • Have the characters animated, doing something, even if it’s just walking or driving a car. Have them going somewhere. If you can’t manage physical movement then show mental movement: decisions, confusions, learnings, disillusionments, disagreements (agreements aren’t interesting unless people are deceiving each other when agreeing – think politics – and the audience knows the deceit is occurring).
  • Have the characters as a group pose a rhetorical question signalling the audience/reader all is not as it seems. Example: the play in question takes place after a war, the characters are in a camp. Make the first line something like Huddled together, they stared beyond the camp’s fencing. CharacterA said, “I wonder if the war’s still going on?”. That first line tells the audience/reader a lot and the author can withhold further information for several pages because the audience/reader is waiting to find out more. IE, the author has opened the piece with tension, a threat, and a statement that the characters are unsure of things. Create interesting characters or put people in an interesting situation (or both!) and audience/readers will hang around to learn what happens.

Did you notice that we

  1. listened to the opinions (the opening is boring and dull),
  2. recognized the fact behind those opinions (the audience isn’t reacting the way the author wants them to. ie, the audience isn’t engaged with the characters or their situation), and
  3. acted on the fact, not the opinions.

Don’t ask for an opinion if you’re not willing to accept it
Accepting an opinion isn’t the same as acting upon it. I listen to all opinions, I respond to some, I act on few.

I seek the common thread in opinions. The common thread in the above was “opening is boring and dull”. There were differing opinions regarding why it was boring and dull and differing opinions regarding a solution.

Some suggestions may resonate, ring true, grab you, dazzle you. Some suggestions may piss you off, cause you to fume, make you think the suggester is an idiot.

Here’s the trick – figure out why you have a strong reaction pro or con to any given suggestion. Figure out why some suggestions that leave you indifferent. Figure out why you respond as you do and you’ll know how to fix your work.

Next up – Opinions versus Open onions

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