I’m in the middle of revisions in an effort to meet an impending deadline, and I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed. One of my best beta-readers gave me extensive notes on parts one and two of my book, but not part three, and now that I have reached part three, I’m feeling a bit like an addict whose been cut off from his supply.
I shouldn’t, of course. It’s my book, and I shouldn’t depend on the feedback of others. But I have found that going through someone else’s annotations somehow allows me to see the whole thing through new eyes, and I’m more aware of things, as though I’m reading it fresh. In part three, I’m finding myself struggling to spot important elements, and am mostly just tweaking sentences.
This is, of course, why beta-readers are so valuable, and why I am concerned that I will not finish these revisions in time for a new beta cycle to then be able to revise again before the deadline. But perhaps I’m overthinking it.
Certainly, as I’ve recently noted, critique can be a double-edged sword. And the more you get, the more challenging it becomes. This is another downside to writers’ groups, and why I’ll be scaling back on submitting material. I’ve been spending the afternoon going through a dozen sets of notes on a single chapter, looking for common reactions, reconciling opposed opinions, and just trying to make sense of it all. This has proven more exhausting than having gone through the entire first part with a single set of beta notes.
Part of the issue is that everyone reads differently. It’s important to find readers who know what you are writing, and, more important, are inclined to like it. I’m writing science fiction, so I will get little useful help from a reader who doesn’t like science fiction. And I’m writing Young Adult. So maybe I can’t expect much help from readers who are not, well, young adults.
People who write for young adults are valuable, but they will approach my work as writers, and will probably have a hard time not basing their critique on how they would do it. People who don’t write young adult will do the same, but with a tremendous disadvantage, because they write for a completely different audience, so what they would do could well be irrelevant, if not outright inappropriate.
Granted, there are people saying that what I’m writing is inappropriate, and it’s all just a matter of taste. But are there hard truths to be found? Perhaps so.
In one group I am part of, the notes I have received recently contain a common theme. I’m told by more than one person that I need to show more emotion. I confess that’s probably something I could do better, but I’m not convinced I’m as far off as some suggest.
Indeed, there are a couple of the more dominant people in the group who actually mention the need for more emotion in pretty much everything they read. It’s almost predictable. In fact, one went so far as to fault a piece for not having enough emotion in the main character, despite the fact that the piece was a satire where the whole point was the character’s utter lack of emotional response to the horrors he was exposed to.
Clearly, that reader likes emotion, reads a story to have an emotional experience. But how do I give him what he wants? When readers want to see more emotion, what are they looking for, exactly? Surely not simple statements of emotion: “Tom was angry.” That’s telling, and I would rightly get nailed for that. I have to show it. “Tom was so angry, he smashed his fist through the wall.”
Better, right? No, not good enough. You see, the showing should actually do the job. The reader should be able to tell from the act of Tom punching the wall that he’s angry. In other words, if I’m doing it right, I don’t need to insert details of emotion, because the reader can get it from the actions.
This all makes perfect sense, and any writers reading this have already hit the “Duh!” button. But I’m starting to think it goes even further than that. At least in the case of young adult fiction.
Young adult readers like a clear, straightforward story, and don’t want it clogged up with a lot of heavily laid-on feelings. When I’m told we should see the main character’s emotions, my mind immediately goes to one of my least favorite books of all time, The Hunger Games. Emotion? Katniss is one of the flattest, most emotionless characters out there. But readers love her. Compare her to angsty Bella Swan from Twilight; despite the series’ popularity, her character has more detractors than fans. While people like me might criticize Katniss’ flatness as poor development, the books’ legion of fans insist that it allows the reader to project herself into the character. And, as much as it pains me to admit, I think they’re right.
YA readers like “relatable” characters. They want to feel like they could be the character. The less the character is fleshed out, the easier they can do that. But does that mean an empty, emotionless character like Katniss? No, that really is just bad development. But what it does mean is that the call for “more emotion” is misplaced.
If it’s better to show the emotion rather than tell it, I suggest that it’s better still to not show it. YA readers like plot over everything. So as a writer, I need to let my plot do the work. That includes emotion. Therefore, if I’m really doing it right, and the reader is truly relating to my character, then I don’t need any emotional cues at all. Instead, I need to make sure that my plot is so clear, so defined, so true (so much for Hunger Games!), that the things that happen that cause the character to have an emotional reaction will in fact cause the reader inside the character’s head to have that reaction. So I don’t say Tom was angry, nor do I say his heart raced, or maybe even that he hit the wall. I present a scene that leaves my reader with a racing heart and wanting to hit the wall on Tom’s behalf. That’s good writing, and it’s what makes a character relatable.
I don’t know how good I am at that, but I’m pretty sure that’s the approach I need to be taking. Readers like the ones in my critique group are right to want to experience emotion, but it should be their own emotions they experience, not ones I’ve shown them.
Back to the revisions!