2 Ways Your Brain is Wired to Undermine Your Story – And What To Do About It

One of the things I love about advances in brain science is that scientists are finally proving so much of what writers have been saying about the human condition since long before the invention of, well, everything. After all, our territory as writers is – and always has been – what makes people tick. Writers were psychologists long before there was such a profession. And hey, as Jonah Lehrer so aptly pointed out, “Proust was a neuroscientist.”

But since turnabout is fair play, this time rather than looking at the reader’s brain, let’s take a good look at the writer’s brain to ferret out what makes us tick, and the ways our wiring can trip us up when we write. There are two main dangers to watch out for:

1. We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. In other words, we don’t see things “objectively,” because everything we see is by definition colored by what we tacitly read into it. This is what tends to blindside writers more than anything else. Why? Because the story we see with such perfect clarity in our head is very often not the story we’ve actually put on the page.

I was reminded of this recently while working with a writer who has a splendid voice and a great idea for a novel. Unfortunately, that novel was full of exquisitely described events that transpired entirely on the surface, and didn’t add up to anything or have an ounce of momentum. I remember questioning him about a long, very dull conversation between the protagonist and her father. “There’s no story in it,” I said, “nothing beneath the exterior events, and so we have no idea what the point is.”

He was completely taken aback, and proceeded to tell me in specific, riveting, and insightful detail what each character wanted, why each character said what they did, how each character was interpreting what the other said, and precisely how the scene moved the story forward. “Isn’t that enough?” he asked.

It absolutely was – or make that, it would have been. Unfortunately there was neither hide nor hair of what he was talking about on the page. Not even a subtle teeny tiny hint of it. In his head it was loud and clear; in what he’d written, not so much.

Interestingly, a few minutes later I watched the same writer come across a very similar scenario in someone else’s novel, and he was the first one to point out (nicely, of course) how dull and uninvolving it was.

So why didn’t he see it in his own work? The answer is because when he reread the conversation he’d written, he was already aware of what everything actually meant, what each character’s agenda was, and what they were going to do as a result. It never occurred to him that his brain was supplying crucial information that readers would have no way of knowing. In other words, he was unable to see his story with anyone’s eyes but his own.

And he’s not alone. We all tacitly assume that everyone else sees the same world we do, so naturally they know that when Uncle Archie ignores Aunt Sadie, it’s because of the time back in ’72 when she accidentally threw away his lucky bandana, and that he hasn’t said a civil word to her since. Thus, when we write a scene in which seconds tick by while Archie studiously ignores Sadie until she bursts into tears and stabs him with a salad fork, we’ve felt the tension mount from the instant Sadie walked into the room. Because we not only know what she’s thinking and feeling, we know why. So when at long last she pokes him over and over like a potato about to go into the oven, we have a deep sense of satisfaction. Whereas our clueless reader scratches her head and wonders what the hell is wrong with Sadie that she’d go bonkers for no apparent reason.

What can you do to make sure the story is on the page and not just in your head?

First, make sure you really do know, specifically, why your characters do what they do, and how they’re making sense of everything that happens. Remember, story is internal – that is, it’s about how your characters react internally to what happens on the surface – rather than external. To concentrate solely on the surface events locks the reader out. Readers already have a handle on surface events; we’ve got that part covered. We come to story to find out what your characters are really thinking and feeling as those surface events unfold.

Second, make sure that what you know is actually there on the page. How? By making a list of the things going on beneath the surface. Things like:

  • What’s behind what your character is doing or saying?
  • What does she want in this scene?
  • What, specifically, does she expect to happen?
  • What’s at stake?
  • How is she making sense of what’s happening?
  • How does her internal reaction spur her external response?

Now, reread your work with the answers to these questions in mind, and ask yourself, How will the reader know this? Where, specifically, is it on the page? Look at dialogue, description, internal thought, body language, and the way you handle time and space – in other words, everything.

It also helps to keep in mind that story is often about what we don’t say out loud. After all, in life how often are what you’re saying and what you’re thinking the same thing? And which is more interesting? We turn to story to glean insight into what someone might really be thinking when they say things like, “Oh Bertha, of course I’ll love you forever.”

Third, get an outside opinion, and then really, really listen to it. Which neatly deposits us on the doorstep of the other way our brain works against us as writers.

2. Your brain is wired to argue with anything that challenges something you hold to be true. So when someone questions, or worse, seems to poke holes in something you believe, it awakens your analytical brain. Anything that breaks the pattern of what you expect to hear (like, your novel only needs a bit of polishing and it’s done!), sends up a red flag. As a result your current belief goes into lockdown, while your analytical brain works overtime to guard against anything that challenges it.

For instance, the writer I was just talking about? He was positive that he’d already put everything I was asking for onto the page. So instead of considering the feedback, his goal was to show me that, in fact, everything I thought was missing was already there.

And who could blame him? He’d poured his heart and soul into his novel, and hearing that it still needed a lot of work was difficult. And so his instinctive reaction was to defend what he’d already written. My heart went out to him.

Because I knew that no matter how well he argued – and he was really good at it – it wasn’t going to change the words on the page. So in the long run, his brain was actually working against him. Especially since what mattered most to him wasn’t winning the argument; it was writing a really good novel. It’s just that in that moment, his brain had lost sight of what was most important.

What can you do about your brain’s innate proclivity to argue?

First and foremost, be aware of it. But at the same time, remember to be kind to yourself. Your brain has your best interest at heart, but sometimes it makes a mistake about what would really be in your best interest. So when you’re getting feedback, and you feel your analytic brain kicking up a storm and going into defensive mode, ask it to pipe down for a minute so you can carefully evaluate what you’re hearing. I mean that literally. Talk to your well-meaning but misguided analytic brain, tell it to simmer down. Taking control feels surprisingly good. And breathing deeply helps. So does smiling. Strange, but true.

And hey, does that mean that all the feedback you get will be on target? Of course not. But unless you calmly listen, hear, and evaluate it, how will you be able to tell the difference?

Photo by: Jo Carter

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow! I’d never thought about that, but it makes sense. I’m right-brained, and I’ve really had trouble getting details into the story. I’m not detail-oriented, so I just don’t see them — other people don’t get that and think I’m not paying enough attention. The result is that I’m adding details to the story while my brain is arguing with me that there’s too many — because I can’t tell, and I can’t trust what it tells me! The experience has been a lot like I’m in an advanced French class and I have only a very rudimentary knowledge of French, so I’m spending a lot of time trying to translate the details into ways I can more or less understand.

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    • says

      What an interesting approach, Linda, and so well said! Just being aware that your brain struggles with this can make all the difference. Good luck!

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  2. says

    Lisa,
    This is really helpful advice and it underscores the value of not only using critique partners, but listening to what they say about your work. We are too close to our work to see its flaws. Having said that there is a fine line between implying your characters’ inner motivations and hitting the reader over the head with them. The writer must know where that line is and not cross it. I just picked up your new book on this topic and I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for a great post.

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    • says

      I totally agree, CG, that’s the trick isn’t it? It is such a fine line to walk, and my sense is always that the best way to navigate it is by letting us in on how the character is making sense of what’s happening in the moment. It both keeps the action going, and gives us insight into why. Here’s to balance!

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  3. says

    Right on! I was the worst offender of bristling at criticism and defending whatever seemed so brilliant in my draft. But, happily, I have this wife/editor who really knows her stuff and has beaten the intransigence out of me, or, at least, mostly. I now listen better and make notes and address the sins of commission and omission. Not always successfully, but at least I have lowered the drawbridge. Excellent post, Lisa.

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    • says

      Thanks, Alex! Your wife sounds like a peach — patient, but ready to wield the whip when necessary. Sheesh, sounds like I’ve been reading 50 Shades, doesn’t it? ;-). Seriously, though, here’s to lowering the drawbridge — that’s the biggest part of the battle, don’t you think?

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  4. says

    A writer should never have to explain his work to anyone. If he has to, obviously he didn’t write what he intended! Writing is communication, dressed up with a few things for aesthetics and entertainment. If you have to go into great persuasive detail to explain to your critique partner or editor the significance of a scene or motivations of a character, what are you going to do with the thousands of people who read it when it’s published? Are you going to stand over the shoulders of everyone at Barnes ‘n Noble to explain why they should buy it when they rifle through and say “meh”? Include an analytical forward to preemptively explain everything you meant to do in the text?

    I have seen potentially great books spiral down the drain because the author had an MA in English Lit. Pages of dry discussion of Keats is not a story, no matter what the significance for character development or how many poetic undercurrents of foreshadowing or metaphor or Freudian slips you try to embed in it. Another problem with going analytical is that you expect your readers to do the same–you expect them to trust you and stop to reflect, “Now what is the hero really saying? How might this be significant later? What were our brilliant author’s intentions?” Nah…they just breeze through it. By default, readers will assume that a writer is dumb and just wrote slow, boring drivel because she has no imagination. They will not sink time and mental energy into digging out the glittering nuggets of wisdom buried in the dull ore.

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    • says

      OMG, T.K. I LOVE this — you are SO right, plus you made me laugh out loud more than once! This is brilliantly said, I’m going to quote you!

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    • says

      Do you mind if I steal that line– “Writing is communication, dressed up with a few things for aesthetics and entertainment.” ?? It’s really beatiful!

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  5. says

    As a sometime freelance editor, this is an amazing piece. I’m working on something right now that has so much gold, but the book is based on stories that are normally told out loud in the writer’s family, and as a first-time reader, there’s so much that’s missing (that I assume would be provided by tone of voice or the look in the teller’s eyes). This will be helpful to me as I assemble my editorial letter.

    Also, of course, great reminders for my own writing. Thank you!

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    • says

      Thank you, Natalie, you made my day. And good luck to the writer you’re working with — sharing family stories is so rewarding, both for the writer and the reader, provided they’re there on the page. It doesn’t get better than that!

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  6. says

    Love your description of how your writer friend’s book came alive only when he described it to you–how what he thought he’d written wasn’t actually on the page. I sometimes find that, when I’m stuck–when a scene just isn’t coming alive the way I want it to–talking through it with a friend can help me figure out what, exactly I need to accomplish, versus what I’ve put down on paper. Sometimes this becomes clear from the questions my friend asks, and sometimes it’s just a realization I have, as I listen to myself talk through the scene in question. Either way, it’s very helpful to see your story through someone else’s eyes–and to be open to feedback from the folks you trust, even if it seems at odds with what you think you’ve written.

    I remind myself often that the readers in my inner circle are smart, insightful folks–that is why I have them!–and if they don’t think something works, it probably doesn’t, no matter how near and dear I hold it to my heart. A hard lesson, but one well worth learning.

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    • says

      Well said, Emily! I agree with everything you say here. And I’ve had the exact same thing — when I’m stuck on how to write something, I love to either talk it out with someone else. Or, even, just try to say it out loud, as if I was telling someone. Sometimes the clearest, best sentences (not to mention insights) come that way. And can I say, the title of your latest blog post — Tales of a 5th-Grade Erotica Writer — grabbed me. If it was a book, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Just saying.

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  7. says

    Terrifically insightful post! I definitely find myself experiencing these same patterns of thinking. It is difficult to defeat these sorts of habits, but possible. I’m finding myself pondering the same questions about character motivation that you mentioned. I always find myself thinking, “Will the readers make this connection? The one that I’m assuming they’ll make?”

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    • says

      Thanks, L.M., you made my day! You’re so right, it IS difficult to ferret out the assumptions that our brain tacitly makes, but just like you say — being aware of it can make all the difference.

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  8. says

    In the current stages of my revision work, I’m often struck by how much more I reveal with each stage. I was struck by your warnings in Wired for Story that readers need to be guided along more than we release when we begin. I was afraid too much revelataion would ‘spoil’ the story. But the more I reveal, the better I seem to connect with readers. Still working on my bristling defensiveness over feedback, but getting better. I’ll have to remember to try smiling. :-) Great reminders here, Lisa. Thanks!

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    • says

      See there? My brain was wired to ‘release’ when I began, so I knew what I meant. But will readers of my comment ‘realize’ what I was trying to convey? Hopefully. ;-)

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    • says

      Thanks, Vaughn! It is so interesting, isn’t it, how much deeper the story gets with each layer you reveal? For some reason writing tends to be taught as if those “reveals” are the reader’s job to invent. The irony is that that’s where the story is — and it’s precisely what the reader comes for. In other words, giving that info isn’t guiding them along, that info IS the story. And as for being defensive over feedback? I’m with you there! It IS hard, no matter what. Sometimes I think that being a writer means signing on for those mornings spent in the fetal position under the dining room table after some well meaning fool has just deftly pointed out that the lynch pin your novel hangs on doesn’t quite make sense. Here’s to smiling anyway!

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  9. says

    Great post, Lisa! This issue tends to hit home for me when I’m revising. Once in a while there’s that gem of a scene that I really nailed and it only needs to be tweaked. But then there are those that I have to stop, think about what I see in my head vs. what the words on the page are making me see as I read, rip it apart, and redo it right.

    For me, this is one of the many places where my beta readers and eventually my editor, have been invaluable. When they — as you did in your anecdote above — said “Why does this guy do this?” or “How did she get from here to there?” Of course, I knew the answer to those questions, but I had to go back and really read the pages to see that I hadn’t properly conveyed it to the reader.

    I do think it’s definitely a skill that can be honed, because the more I write and revise, the better I (like to think, anyway) get at it.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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    • says

      Thanks, LynDee! And I TOTALLY agree, it’s absolutely a skill that can be honed. After awhile it really does become muscle memory. Of course, that second set of eyes might still spot a thing or two that’s missing, but it sure does cut down on ’em to size.

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  10. says

    Lisa this is so true. If we have someone bold enough in our lives to point out that the crux of this story is not on the page, we must value that feedback!

    The stakes are higher than ever. You can struggle with this pre-publication until you nail it, failing in relative privacy until you have truly mastered the telling of your story, or you can count on the whisper of hope that an agent or editor will see your potential and then fail in a more embarrassing way when you are unable to immediately produce results when they ask you to put the rest of it on the page.

    And heaven help you if you fail publicly, when reviewers call you out on it—it may be too late by then to salvage your career. This is a great use of handing over our synopsis to our critiquers, because we’ve often imbued that shorter document with the story we wanted to tell.

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    • says

      I couldn’t agree more, Kathryn — you’ve written a brilliant cautionary tale here! Sometimes I think all a writer need do is read a single scathing review — either in the NY Times or on Amazon — to be scared straight . . . toward a good, solid critique. ;-)

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  11. says

    Excellent post and such great insight in the comments too. Thanks for sharing and for reinforcing the need for other trusted voices, in helping move forward with our writing.

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  12. says

    Both in my day job as a magazine art director and my weekend job as aspiring author, I step back to look at my work through the eyes of an outside person. It can be hard, but necessary.

    What happened to the writer you were helping? Did he see the light and ruthlessly revise?

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    • says

      Isn’t it amazing that when you look at your work with those other eyes, things that were invisible a minute ago, suddenly appear — and, maddeningly, vice versa? You’re so right, it’s insanely hard. But so rewarding! As for the author I was working with — yes, I can happily say that he’s just begun to see the light, and boy has his novel improved. That’s rewarding, too ;-).

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  13. says

    Great post – this is helpful! Definitely going into my notes!

    I’m in the unbreakable (bad?) habit of visualizing scenes from my novels as if they are scenes in film in order to “test out” scenarios for the plot. At times if a “scene isn’t working” it’s probably because I spend too much time in my head-studio watching characters do things instead of actually having them do those things in words. By that overly visual method, the appropriate questions are not being addressed or seriously analyzed – only envisioning what the novel could be and what I want it to be instead of what it wants to be. Does that make sense? I’ve definitely found insight from trusted allies to be a saving grace, putting me back on track and getting me back into the words.

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    • says

      Thanks, Jillian! And YES, that not only makes sense, but it’s very well said. I love how you put it — spending too much time in your head-studio. I think we’ve ALL done that!

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  14. says

    I saw this blog title in my daily blog roll and I raced over here to share about this great writing craft book I’ve been reading, only to find it’s your post, Lisa Cron. :)

    If anyone hasn’t read Wired For Story yet, don’t wait. My editor gave me this book back in the summer and I could kiss her for it (and you for writing it, please don’t feel weird). So much good stuff presented in a way I hadn’t read before, and it’s clicking with me.

    “In his head it was loud and clear; in what he’d written, not so much.”

    Am I ever learning that this is true, as I’m presently working through content edits on my debut historical novel. It’s enlightening to learn what’s really on the page, and what never quite made it out of my head.

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  15. says

    Fabulous post. My critique partner and I are exchanging chapters of our first drafts as we write them (which has been an interesting experience, as normally I prefer to give the whole thing at least a single once-over before showing it to anyone) and a major critique of hers is that she can’t tell what my MC wants.

    I, of course, know, but so much of my MC’s goals stem from her backstory that I’ve done, apparently, a horrible job at conveying that to the reader, because I haven’t done flashbacks; her past is conveyed solely through conversations with other characters. So those conversations and my MC’s own actions have not been enough to convey her goals. Yeah. Kind of a major miss on my part.

    Adding to that, I’m an INFJ on Myers-Briggs, which means I experience the world intuitively when the majority of the population (and therefore, the majority of my hoped-for future readers) are S’s, not N’s. They more so experience the world through their senses, which means they quite possibly won’t intuit things I think they will.

    Thanks, Lisa! I’m going to try applying the “checklist” to my scenes.

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    • says

      Thanks, Amanda! And you are SO not alone in that – I really do think it’s just about the most common mistake writers make. I hope the checklist helps! ;-)

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  16. says

    What an excellent article! It really hit the spot.

    The first time my book went to a beta-reader who was a writer, I was shocked to see that they didn’t think it was totally ready for press! After two revisions and a lot of editing, I’ve got a product that I’m proud to shop around to agents.

    I’ve never done an in-person critique before. I love getting my critiques in my inbox- I can download them and read them when I’m ready, then let them digest for a few days before making any changes.

    Fantastic article.

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    • says

      Thanks, Laura! I love getting notes in my inbox, too — having the luxury to process them alone (not to mention spending time sobbing under the kitchen table, if necessary), can make all the difference. That said, I love in person critiques too, because sometimes the best brainstorming sessions come out of them. I’ve never believed in that old saw of “not saying anything when you’re getting critiqued.” What a bad idea! If you aren’t able to tell the person giving you notes what you were trying to say, then how can they help you get it onto the page? Of course, when getting an in person critique, it’s always a good idea to tape it, too — so you can play it back later. There’s nothing worse than remembering that you had a really good, or got a really good suggestion — but having no clue as to what it was.

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  17. says

    Terrific post, Lisa! One of the things I love about being in a critique group is that my crit partners reveal instances when I haven’t been clear enough. They also help me address passages where I haven’t given enough explanation, or when I’m beating the reader over the head with it. All of which has vastly improved the story.

    While we certainly can’t accept every piece of advice offered, if we don’t learn to evaluate criticism objectively we will miss out on valuable opportunities to improve our work and ability as storytellers.

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    • says

      Thanks, Roxanne! How true is that — well said! My biggest problem is not knowing if I’m being clear enough. My beta reader has saved my life on more occasions than I can count.

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  18. Carmel says

    Oh, our brains, our brains. Mine was messing with me the other day, and I had to tell it, the characters *don’t know* that’s about to happen. I had to get out of my brain and into the character’s.

    Thanks for another great post, Lisa.

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    • says

      Oh Carmel, I SO know what you mean. Sometimes I think my brain’s biggest thrill is playing the exact same kind of trick on me. They’re such sneaky devils, aren’t they? ;-).

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  19. says

    It’s important to note that you don’t really want an outside *opinion* (good, bad, needs more sex) — you want an outside *description*. What is happening? What’s at stake? Having someone willing simply to tell you *what they just read*, however obvious it seems to them, is more valuable than ten thousand critics who will tell you how your work does or does not fit into their critical theory.

    Let me figure out for myself *what* I want you to know, and how to get you to know it. What I need is someone to tell me if I succeeded in conveying the knowledge.

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    • says

      I love how you put this — very true! The other thing outside readers can help with is letting you know, even when you have conveyed the info you had in mind, whether or not it’s actually enough.

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  20. Jeanette Hill says

    Thank you this enlightening post. This applies to writing for the stage as well. I saw myself in this not just in the way I think but also because I sometimes want to ‘explain’ what I meant…learning to not just hear but listen! All the best.

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  21. says

    This is such a great post, Lisa, and so true. The way I always explain it when people ask me whether it’s creatively inhibiting or hard to work with an editor is to say that a good editor will point out places where what’s in my head didn’t make it entirely onto the page. And sure, maybe I can explain to my editor what I meant. But if she’s confused, chances are a reader will be, too. And I’m not going to be there, sitting next to every reader who buys my book so that I can explain what I really meant to say.

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    • says

      Thanks, Anna! And I couldn’t agree with you more! Seeing your editor as someone who’s in your corner, rather than as your opponent, is what makes all the difference, don’t you think?

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  22. says

    Great post, Lisa! Just a great story has many layers, so does the storytelling process. Learning to look at our stories from a different vantage point, that of the character or of the reader, can only make for better stories.

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    • says

      Thanks, Patricia. Exactly! Stories are layered, just like life — that’s why there IS so much rewriting. Each layer affects every other layer. Having them unfold together as a single, intertwined narrative takes work. After all, we’re not trying to tell readers what we see, we’re trying to give them a glimpse of it themselves.

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  23. says

    This is a really great checklist for writing and rewriting scenes, thank you! I’m ordering your book “Wired for Story” after my next paycheck– You’ve made an impression :)

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  24. says

    Heh. A friend of mine has a thirteen year old daughter who’s just fallen in love with writing and asked me for advice about how to helpfully critique her work. And I said, “Be gentle. Learning not to defend your work like a wounded mama bear is a thing everyone goes through. Often repeatedly.”

    I don’t think you ever really grow out of that defensive instinct, that: “Let me explain why I am right and you are a wrong, crazy person with no judgement. And I am going to stick my hands over my ears so I can’t hear you, la la la.” These days I just clamp my teeth together and breathe through it until I can say something that doesn’t start with, “But –“

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    • says

      You made me laugh out loud, Kandace! That’s the best advice EVER when listening to feedback: Wait till you can say something that doesn’t start with “But–” Brilliant!

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  25. says

    I’m starting my third memoir with the goal that this one be the one that I take all the way–to an agent/publisher/audience. I’ve learned a lot in the first two tries and I can’t believe how complicated it is to write a full-length piece–well.

    Your writing on brain science and story helps crystallize what I need to know before I begin writing this time, and what I need to keep in mind while I’m writing, and revising.

    I have a question with regard to making sure the reader is informed about what is in your head. I’m wondering about the opposite issue. How do you know when you haven’t given the reader enough space to make her own deductions, insights, aha’s. I worry that I take on too much and the leave the reader out in this way; but then I worry the opposite too.

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    • says

      Ah, Kelly, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Kinda like Goldilocks, how much is “just right”? My sense is that the goal is to let the reader in on your internal struggle, as you make sense of what’s happening. So that you’re giving us backstory in service of what’s happening in the moment, which then leads to action (in other words, has a consequence). That way you’re never telling the reader what to think or feel, but allowing them to feel it on their own — through you. Good luck, you know what they say? The third time’s the charm!

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  26. says

    I ordered Wired for Story from my local indie bookstore. I’m only half-way through, but I love it already. Unlike most how-to-write books, it actually has NEW, highly useful information. I’ve recommended it to writing friends and clients. Go Lisa!

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  27. says

    I love feedback. Because if I’ve lost someone, I can’t argue with that. If someone is confused or gets off on the wrong track (not the track I had in mind), I need to know that. I don’t like to spell out everything for my reader, but sometimes I need to be clearer. That said, I reserve the right to conclude a particular reader might be just a little dim!

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  28. says

    “Because the story we see with such perfect clarity in our head is very often not the story we’ve actually put on the page.”

    So true. I’ve fallen into this trap before. It’s also something to watch for when you’re revising–that you don’t inadvertently delete some telling internal moment.

    Thanks for another fantastic post, Lisa!

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    • says

      Thanks, Therese! It’s a trap I know well because of the gazillion times I’ve found myself standing in a big fat hole in what I’ve written looking up and thinking, damn, how did I get here again? ;-)

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  29. says

    What an enlightening way to put it, Lisa! Whenever something like that happens to me (and it does inevitably with every first draft!) I’ve always felt that part of the story has been “left inside the pen”: that’s what my father used to say and of course that was before the computer became the preferred instrument for writers…

    This said, I think that it’s quite possible to identify what’s been “left in the pen” not only through critique partners or beta readers, but by simply leaving the ms alone for a couple of weeks (or more). Don’t touch it. Walk away from it. Do other things, take a trip, go surfing, whatever it takes to break away. Then when you come back with a “fresh” mind, what’s missing becomes immediately apparent! At least for me, it works every time. But it does require forgetting all those things that were in your mind at the time you first wrote your book…

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    • says

      Thanks, Claude, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Putting what you’ve written aside for a while and then rereading it makes SUCH a difference. I remember once rereading something that I’d written a few months earlier — I came across a scene that I remembered working really hard on for two days straight, because it was so crucial and I had to get it just right. In rereading it I realized that it was not only completely unnecessary, but for the life of me, I had no idea whatsoever WHY I’d thought it was so important in the first place. What a difference a few months makes, right? ;-)

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  30. says

    Very interesting and quite helpful. I knew something was wrong (or right or left?) with my brain. Hmmmm. Its crazy trying to negotiate these issues & often I want to throw in the towel as a result. But we keep on writing because we don;t have a choice. If we did, most of us might choose another profession. instead, Its our dream.

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    • says

      Thanks, Diana! And I sure know what you mean about wanting to throw in the towel. Sometimes I think the biggest, most courageous victory is soldiering on anyway. My theory is, if you’re not at least half-scared of doing something, it probably isn’t worth doing ;-). Here’s to the slog!

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  31. says

    What a great post. I’ve found that one way to help make sure a character’s motivations make it out of a writer’s mind and onto the page is to be seated as deeply as possible inside the character’s head. Writing is role-playing; we have to become our characters and live their lives through the medium of the story.

    Your book premise intrigues me. I’m about to order a copy.

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