Being a Better Writer: How to “Find” a Lost Reader or Editor

Welcome readers, to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! I hope that your weekends were as full of fun and learning as mine was. By Saturday night, my brain felt like a rubber ball that had been stretched, twisted, and then turned into a pretzel before being bounced off of a few walls. This was largely due to information overload thanks to yet another excellent—I would even say stellar—Life, The Universe, and Everything writing symposium. There is no convention quite like LTUE out there in the world, and this year LTUE came back from the previous COVID year with a smash turnout and tons of newcomers eager to expand their writing skill and knowledge.

Yes, it was fantastic. The panels were incredible and covered a massive swath of topics (as you can see if you check out my post-LTUE writeups), the panelists themselves were excited to share their wealth of knowledge no matter how esoteric (and amazing), and the attendees were full of great questions and thirst for writing knowledge.

Top to bottom, absolutely fantastic. If you’ve never made it the LTUE and you’re at all interesting in improving the craft of your writing, you absolutely should put it on your calendar. If you couldn’t make it this year, that is a shame … but there’s always 2023 and beyond. Whether you’re a guest of honor, a panelist, or an attendee, LTUE is the place to be for writing knowledge and experience.

And yes, all copies of Axtara – Banking and Finance and Shadow of an Empire that were available in the vendor hall sold out. I really couldn’t ask for more! Though, if I may talk about my portion of that experience for a moment, there was more. One attendee stopped by the signing booth to tell me how much they had loved Axtara and couldn’t wait for more. Another individual stopped by the vendor booth selling it after buying it the night before to let the proprietor know (which was then passed on to me) that they’d stayed up late the night before reading it and had already almost finished it, and how much they loved it. And at my last panel of the conference, a fellow panelist pulled out her copy, slapped it down on the table next to me, and asked me to please sign it.

Okay, humblebrag over. And I wasn’t trying to brag, honestly. It was just … those were some great highlights from my weekend, and I wanted to share them.

And I guess yeah, if it encourages anyone to mosey on over to my book page and pick up a copy of Axtara or something else, well that doesn’t hurt either.

But enough pontificating! As awesome as LTUE is, we’ve got writing to talk about! And today we’re going to be answering a reader request regarding editors and readers, and what we as writers must do when they get lost.

So hit the jump, and let’s get learning.

All right, first up, let’s talk about the issue at root here. In other words, let’s explain the question in more detail so that we can understand exactly what we’re looking to solve.

So, what was the root of this question? How does an editor or a reader get “lost?” After all, a book has page numbers, right? And it moves in a fairly linear fashion? Maybe we should just hand them a bookmark?

Well … no. Because the issue here isn’t with a physical space, but a mental one. See, as any reader moves through a story, their experience is a bit like exploring the map in an old real-time strategy game. If you’ve never played any of those games, it’s not that difficult to imagine, thankfully. In the old days, the entire map would initially be covered in a black fog known as the “fog of war.” Then, as players would move their units out across the map, the fog would lift based on what that unit could see, revealing terrain, foes, and whatever other features the game had to offer. Usually, if you only had a few units, this would result in “snakes” of revealed terrain across most maps showing the path taken.

Reading a book is a lot like moving through a “fog of war.” When you open up the first few pages, you’re dropping into a world and setting you are—usually—unfamiliar with. Slowly page by page, the author peels the “fog of war” back, introducing characters, settings, and unfolding adventure, whatever that might be. At any moment the reader is able to “look back” inside their head and “see” the path through the story and how they reached the point where they currently are.

In general. There are “in medias res” openings and writing techniques or genre such as mystery that rely on obfuscating that path a bit, but they also mark such or have clear delineations that serve to get the reader to understand “Hey, you’ve just jumped to a new spot disconnected from what you know.” This is fine.

But what happens when something goes wrong. When a character makes a choice that isn’t clear, or the plot takes a turn that the reader doesn’t understand or even realize, and suddenly they look back and realize that somewhere, either in the scene or in the whole story, they’ve gotten “lost” and can no longer see that winding, twisting path snaking out behind them. Or maybe they can, but they can’t see how the story apparently “jumped” up a cliff in the way that their path didn’t go around.

You get the idea. Basically, either in a scene or for the story as a whole, the reader has gotten “lost” and cannot see how the story reached its current point.

And this can be a major problem. Sometimes, it’s easy to take care of. Sometimes someone just missed a single line, skipping over it in their excitement to see things through to the end. All that has to happen there is for their own eyes to glance back and see what they missed. And if it happens to every reader, maybe some new emphasis on that important line to help it stand out.

But sometimes it’s not that nice or as easy a “fix.” Sometimes a reader doesn’t realize that they’ve gotten “lost” for some time. Sometimes they’re not even sure what caused it, or how they ended up lost. They just know that they are lost, and that it’s left them stuck on the story.

And it’s your job to try and fix it.

Which can be a very daunting process. A lot of times, a reader may not be able to tell you even where they got lost. Sands, they might not even be able to tell you what it was that had them feeling lost. Sometimes you just get a vague answer after they’ve read the whole thing of “Yeah, I felt confused somewhere? Fix it?” Which is akin to someone who’s just done a whole tour of Boston telling their host at the end of the day “Hey, I got lost on this one road, I think. I don’t remember where, or really when, but I was lost for a while. Someone should fix that.”

Thankfully, editors should be better than this. Any editor worth their salt should be able to at the very least give the author a rough idea of where the problem might lie, or even better what it actually is. But sometimes even they can’t help but offer a vaguer answer, usually because like in the real world, getting lost can be something that is gradual rather than as simple as flipping a switch. Sometimes there are a lot of small, little things that add up to lose a reader, tiny enough that picking one of them is like picking out the sharp pieces of gravel in a dirt pathway. IE, kind of hard because there’s a lot of ground to cover and no single point of “ouch.”

With this said, however, there are still ways to try and figure out the exact moment that a reader or an editor began getting lost. This being Being a Better Writer, let’s talk about them.

The most obvious and common solution for most is to sit down with the reader or editor and work backwards. Just like in the real world where someone that is lost will trace their steps back to find where things diverged and started going wrong, an author can sit down with an editor or a reader and work back from the point where the reader was through the various scenes and beats to figure out where things started to take a twist. Start with their most recent point, or if they have one, a point of confusion, and then walk back through the scene or chapter. Usually very quickly as the reader starts talking about what happened, they’ll key in on a moment, scene, sentence, or paragraph that stood out to them for one reason or another, and that will help you narrow your search.

Of course, if might be something small, and you’ll be tweaking several such things, but once a reader or an editor “sees” this connection, it’s very often that they’ll start thinking of similar “missteps” along the way and can help you identify them.

But what if they can’t? Sometimes there isn’t a clearly delineation as to where things went wrong. At least, for the reader. As noted by the one who posed this question, sometimes a reader has no idea where they got lost or how they got to where they are. Sometimes they’re just there. And what do we do then?

Well, one thing we can try is identifying the “lack” that makes said reader lost. We can question them and try and get them to be specific about what brought this feeling on. Do they feel that the character’s motives weren’t properly explained? Or do they not understand how the characters reached a physical location in the story itself?

What are they feeling lost about? Once you’ve gotten a somewhat concise answer, you can again begin to work toward finding the point where things “went wrong.” Maybe they didn’t understand the character’s motivations because though they were discussed earlier in the story, they were done in too vague of a manner. Which meant that many chapters later, when those motivations needed to be acted upon, the reader felt lost because that moment earlier wasn’t quite clear to them.

Now, tracking that moment down isn’t exactly easy. But if you can get the reader to say “Well, I didn’t feel that motivation was clear” or “But I didn’t know they wanted to do that” then you can identify yourself that it was supposed to be made clear X chapters earlier, then hop back and make changes. Or maybe it was clear, but when you show that scene to the reader, they say “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that.” At which point you don’t need to make the original any more direct, but instead perhaps later add a signpost of sorts that “reminds” the reader of those decisions.

This is similar to working backward, but it’s you the one that’s working backward and getting to the source, not the reader. But it still has some concerns for some. Sometimes you may not know where the thing the reader is looking for is. And to be fair, if it doesn’t exist, then you’ve found something to fix, certainly. But while this process is helpful, can we improve it?

Thankfully the answer is yes.

The best way to help out editors and readers who are lost (and to improve our editing experience immensely) is to have a process. Yes, for editing and reading before you publish.

Too often, there is no process. Especially for young, new would-be authors. Whether it’s editing or passing their work off to someone to read, most of the time what happens (and no mistake, I’ve seen this as recently as under 48 hours ago) is that the writer just tosses a manuscript at someone and says “Here! Read! Give feedback!”

And that’s it. There’s no context given, no specific questions or answers, or even any indication of what kind of feedback they’re looking for. So what inevitably results is admittedly pretty vague and often formless. Which can compound into unhappiness if the writer of said draft actually did want some sort of specific feedback but didn’t articulate that and then didn’t get it.

By contrast, having a process means that there are requests, direction, and aim given to any editors or pre-readers. There is an approach for them to look for, and an explanation of what is expected. If this process involves readers and editors making notes on a manuscript, then those notes can serve as road-signs of their own to identify where problems and issues may have occurred.

So before you toss a manuscript at a bunch of people, work out what you want from them, and make sure they understand it!

Secondly, make it more than one person. Everyone comes with their own preconceptions and their own blind spots. Sometimes there isn’t problem save for with one reader out of a dozen! And that’s not something that you need to concern yourself over when the other eleven find that there isn’t a problem, because in “fixing” it you may make the story overbearing and handholdy from the perspective of the eleven. Having more than one set of eyes is valuable for figuring out if someone got lost because your signposts weren’t clear enough … or because they need glasses or operated on their own assumptions of “well I’d do it like this.”

Have. Multiple. People. I cannot stress this enough.

That’s where we’ll wrap up for today. So, to recap, it’s very possible for editors and readers to get lost in our draft, in some way not understanding how the story took them to their current point, either in character or in plot. As creators, this means we must work backward with those readers to find the specific points where things began to diverge incorrectly, or attempt to identify the lacking elements of knowledge and figure out where the story failed to present them properly.

Of course, this is simplified if we have a process with our pre-readers that allows us to more readily identify where and how such dissonant moments may be occurring. The more we work with our readers, giving them instructions on what specific feedback we’re looking for or in giving them opportunities to make notes on a problem the moment it arises.

Having a lost reader is never a good thing. But thankfully, there are ways to work through the issue and make sure that for those readers that come later, the path is clearly marked.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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