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The One Thing Every Writer Needs to Know

September 25, 2016 by Diane

hand opening red curtain on white.

You want to be a published writer. So you write–words and sentences and paragraphs–and it makes sense, whatever it is you’re creating out of those piles. It sounds just right in your head. But here’s the thing:

You don’t know how it sounds in your reader’s head.

In your reader’s head, your story might sound like a funeral march.

In yours, it’s Mardi Gras.

Now, you can let it be Mardi Gras in your head, and shrug when you see those funeral marchers with their long faces.

But you can’t help notice: there’s more than one soul marching. There’s at least a dozen, all in black. How could a dozen people think a party was a funeral?

Well, maybe that’s how they read the invitation.

Maybe it’s not their fault at all—it’s the writer’s.

I had a creative writing teacher in college who read each student’s work out loud to the class, so no one knew who wrote it. That left the rest of us free to rip into it with claws and fangs and red-faced vigor, without knowing that the meat we were cutting into was someone’s pet dog.

Well, one night I added my short story to the stack, a work so profoundly funny, I chuckled over each line as I wrote it. I couldn’t wait to hear the response. When the teacher picked up my manuscript and read the title, I settled back, ready for the guffaws.

Then he read the first line of dialogue…in a tone meant for a Tolstoy novel.

What the…? It’s supposed to be a comedy!

On and on he read in that serious tone, and I grew more and more horrified. I knew how comedians felt when they bombed. I wanted to turn into goo, like in the cartoons, and slide down my chair and out the door.

Instead I sat there, pretending to take notes, blinking away tears.

I don’t remember the comments the other students made; the gist was, the entire universe—or at least the entire universe in that room—was in agreement. My story stunk.

When the class ended, I waited for everyone to leave, then snatched the pages on my way out.

It was the best lesson I’d ever learned.

Last week, that lesson came back to haunt me.

If you haven’t read my previous post, it’s called “What Would the Wives Do?” Hurry, read it. And then read the comments. Wait—I’ll save you the trouble. Suffice it to say, some of my readers had strong reactions to the piece. Reactions which, to me, were unexpected.

I wasn’t saying I wanted to be one of the wives.

Oh yeah? Well that’s how it read, bucko. You shoulda made it clear. Delete the post, quick, before anyone else reads it!

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the madness.

Those are the kind of squirrelly thoughts we have when our writing is interpreted in a way we hadn’t intended. We’re surprised, defensive, maybe a bit ornery, and then we call ourselves idiots. We groan, knock back a few drinks, whine to our fellow writers at the bar, and then wake up the next day with a hell of a headache, ready to take a good look at whatever feedback we were so upset about.

Last week, I did all of that.

Except the drinking.

And the whining.

And the headache.

I did a lot of groaning. And sinking my face into my hands.

I couldn’t blame my readers for their comments; they were reacting to the material I had provided. And I asked them to!

In fact, I agreed with them. Mostly.

So I thought about lopping off the last third of the post, ending with, “And I cook, but I’m lousy at it,” a sort of acceptance of myself as is.

I thought about inserting a line near the beginning about how those wives may have felt like trophies, but then again, some of them may have been happy in the life they chose, and who was I to judge?

I thought about adding: “From where I sit, being supported by a wealthy guy that I’m crazy about looks pretty darn groovy—as long as it doesn’t involve losing my independence or self-respect.”

Yeah, I could have edited the piece to hone my meaning.

But I’m leaving it as a fine example of the lesson that it is. The comments were valid. And I’m grateful for each one.

There’s one thing you need to know if you want to be a published writer: how does your work sound in your reader’s head? You need to know, even if it hurts to hear. And the only way to know, is to share. You’ve got to let eyes other than your own see it. You’ve got to roll onto your back and expose your soft belly, knowing that it might not be a nice rub you get.

That’s how it is with writing.

That’s how you develop that thick muscle, that protective shell around your tender, artistic soul. And that’s how you become a stronger writer.

Now, about that funny short story I mentioned earlier?

There were two mobsters in a diner arguing over a bottle of Catsup…


  1. mydangblog says:

    Oh, I hope you didn’t think that I thought that you wanted to be one of them–I loved the post. I thought it was a really cool reflection on that time, and how easy it looked but how unreal it all was. And you’re right as always about the voice we think we’re using versus the one our readers hear–my fallback is to always ask Ken to read it first. He’s very honest about whether or not he thinks it’s funny. My mom, on the other hand, will read something I’ve written that I don’t think is that humorous, and she’ll say it’s the most funny one yet. There’s no accounting for taste!

    • Diane says:

      Speaking of voice…I read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and thought it was the funniest book I’d ever read. And then I heard him read it at an author reading, and I thought, “No, that’s not the voice I heard in my head!” His voice is slightly high and nasally. You just never know…

      Good point…how easy it looked but how unreal it all was. I’m glad you liked the post, and I did like your feedback. Like I said, all the comments were valid. They pointed to an aspect of my post that I hadn’t considered.

  2. Pearl Allard says:

    Ouch. That’s a painful lesson. But you made me curious to read a post I missed! Inspired by your response. Way to handle it!

  3. Sarah says:

    “But I’m leaving it as a fine example of the lesson that it is. The comments were valid. And I’m grateful for each one.” Love this. You’re awesome. But, yes, it’s a brutal lesson you learned there. Hey, good news is you were in a classroom. I was completely, utterly, and in all other ways mortified like that online. And it’s still up in all its “funny” glory making me look like Mommie Dearest and loaded with slightly-veiled “I can’t believe you” comments. *sigh* In my defense… Nah. Carry on, funny lady.

    • Diane says:

      And anonymous in the classroom. It would have been worse if everyone knew I wrote that story.

      Sorry to hear about your online experience. It’s definitely a risk, publishing anything. I cringe to think of the critics who might tear into any book I put out. Thick skin, thick skin.

  4. Joan says:

    I loved last weeks post! I got what you were saying…guess I have the right voices in my head!!

  5. Terry Tyler says:

    One thing I do that helps is to give the newly completed novel to the only two people in the world I can trust to tell me if the novel WORKS, whether or not it’s exactly what they want to read. If you can find two test readers like that, it helps so much!

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