Reader Response Theory

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At a recent writers group meeting one member read a short story and then we started the discussion about what we thought it meant. And it was somewhat of a surprise for some members that we each interpreted the story quite differently. One member actually felt he had not been paying attention or had misunderstood something.

But as readers (or listeners in this case) we all bring something very different to the experience. Those differences will influence how we interpret the writing. It is not a deficiency on the writer’s part (certainly not in this case) or in the reader themselves. It is just difference.

These differences can include, amongst other things:

  • Culture
  • Experience/History
  • Emotions
  • Knowledge

The short story read to the group was only 500 words and that is not a lot of words to tell a story in. My interpretation was that the character telling the story was grieving a lover. Part of the reason I considered that was because of a song playing in the background while the group member was reading. The song is a direct link to my past and an emotional tug that relates to a boy from long ago. Listening to the song in conjunction with the story affected my emotional state. Given my history and experience with the boy from long ago there appeared a connection between the lovers in the story (which it turned out the author intended).

I grew up with fairy tales and still read a lot of them and so the shimmering scales I immediately saw as mermaids, another member saw them as fish and a satiation of hunger (maybe he was hungry during our meeting).

The idea of reader response theory is that a writer only gives so much to the reading experience. That each reader will take something different from it and that there is no single meaning for a text.

At the same meeting we discussed romance novels (the steamy variety). Both men in the group could not understand the appeal at all. They labelled the unrealistic relationships as dull with no substance. I, on the other hand, love a steamy romance from time to time, for a variety of reasons. I enjoy the point of view of the other, as most alternate between the male and female point of view. Generally I think this is the female author’s idea of a perfect male partner (most of them are buff) but it is an interesting concept none-the-less; and something I have tried (in a non-romantic way) to give male and female points of view in my Raven Crown series.

I have an interest in this area because I want to create a more immersive reading experience, one in which the reader loses themselves in the story, unaware of the outside world and even the words on the page.

My aim is to create the links and provide as immersive story as I can so that no matter the background, culture, history and emotion of the reader they will find it an immersive experience. To provide that I need to be aware that each reader will take something different from my stories, and not necessarily what I intend.

Quarterly Goal Check

Goals

It is that time of year (for me) when I start looking at diaries for next year and thinking about what I’m doing, wanting to do and how this year is going. It is a quarterly review of sorts and although I never put it in the diary it happens at the same time every year.

For this year I had simple goals but it didn’t take long for them to change…so will I get there this year or will it be another case of carrying my goals over and never really reaching what I want.

Here were my goals for 2014

  • I will write at least a sentence every day…
  • I will complete my fantasy novel to a polished standard
  • I will complete a first draft of next novel – Sisters Book 1 (working title)
  • I will develop my website and post at least once a week
  • I will write and publish a non-fiction ebook via my website
  • I will read more – at least 15 minutes a day of fiction

So far this year…

The sentence a day fell over in April, the dedicated file of at least one sentence a day that is. I continue to write every day so I see that as a win.

My fantasy novel is at a reasonable level (still seeing errors) and is out with the beta reading group. Once it returns I will edit again dependent on feedback and then consider an editor before focusing on its publication.

I have drafted 100,000 words so far across books 1 and 2 of the “Sisters” trilogy (which will become the Raven Crown Series). This is on track for a good draft by the end of the year.

My website is up and running, still developing but I think it will always do that. Posting semi-regularly and now on Facebook and Twitter (very recently and still learning that one). So platform building is well under way.

The Ebook is one thing not going quite to plan – I have a draft but it will take a bit more work and will probably be published early next year now. Although I will have a fantasy short story available before Christmas.

I am reading more – both fiction and non-fiction – sometimes a bit light and fluffy but I am reading every day.

A review like this helps build confidence in how close I am to achieving my goals. It also helps maintain the momentum to ensure my actions don’t dwindle as the year end draws closer.

Next year…

A review like this helps form ideas for goals for the next year. It creates a time to consider what will build on this year and what new goals to set. I consider it a chance to brainstorm projects I would like to start next year.

I would love to know how you are going with your writing goals. Are you on track and if not do you know why? Have you started to think about next year and what you want to achieve or do you think it is too early? Hit reply to share your goal setting stories.

Surviving Normality (missing the retreat focus)

The perfect excuse to stay inside and write ...
The perfect excuse to stay inside and write …

Back from my retreat where I had nothing to do but write I have found myself missing the dedicated time and with everything else required of me I’m scared I will lose the flow and procrastination will creep in.

I needed to refocus on making the time to write. And make the time for specific writing tasks as my drafting was taking over.

I have a specific goal for the draft of how many hours of writing time per week I want to do – if this doesn’t work as well I might shift this to number of words. I have the goal of one hour a day, and now that I’m recording my time more closely I have discovered that once I walk to the library, get set up and then write, pack up to head back to work by the time my lunch hour is over, I only get 35-40 minutes of writing time when I thought I had closer to an hour. So I’m rethinking where and how…or that I need to do another half hour at the end of the day, which is sometimes hard. I am trying to shift my morning wake time a little, to get some extra time when I know I am most productive.

Booking time for each project so that I don’t forget the other things. Because this new story is constantly with me (I’m even dreaming of my characters now) I am drafting over my other writing commitments, such as blogging, my planned ebook and the edit for the short story I am hoping to publish this year. I have had to specify what I will work on during each writing block.

Focus is one of those things I long for but worry I cannot find. Until I am sitting down and writing and then the world around me disappears. To find the focus required for each writing project I sometimes have to tell myself a story to get my butt in the chair.

Not fairytales, a reminder story: the reason behind the writing, the why I want to do it, what I will get from it or what you, dear reader, will get from it (and that includes the fiction as well as the blog).

Life continues…

I am also trying to be more aware of the daily things I need to do – lunches, time with my daughter, animals, washing, day job and so on. It was fantastic to focus on nothing but writing while I was away, but now I’m back I need to remind myself that I have to share my time out. I can continue that focused time, I just have to split it around everything else.

Writing is part of my life, and my aim is to fit it in with all the other components of life, such as family and the day job. How does writing fit into your life?

The power of “What if?”

question by Colin K

I recently discussed that I was looking at changing my writing processes to include outlining and planning rather than just pantsing; and as I was thinking about a trilogy I thought outlining and planning was going to be very important.

In preparation for this change I researched how other writers planned and outlined their work – and it appears that there are lots of planners out there.

Many writers discussing the planning process include “thinking about the idea” as the most important part of this process and that it was to be done before anything else.

I have been thinking about the characters of my new work for some time and all the things that may occur to them and how they might react (of course once I start writing they don’t always react as expected…but I love that about writing.)

Neil Gaiman discussed developing his ideas by asking questions:

  • What if?
  • And then what?
  • If only?
  • I wonder…?

KM Weiland in her book “Outlining” actually suggests this questioning and querying as part of the outlining process. To actively consider all the possibilities of what could happen to the characters, what is expected by the reader and turning it on its head. And it could be simple things or crazy things, opposite to what you think your character might do, or what the reader might expect. Just jotting down the ideas as they flow. Sensible or not.

This has opened up some interesting ideas for me and has helped hugely with the plotting of my project. Even now, part way in when I’m not sure I list a few what if’s…

For example a character returns to the storyline to find his lover has disappeared…

  • What if he tries to find her?
  • What if he carries on with his duty?
  • What if he unable to leave in the search?
  • What if he does not really love her?
  • What if he is relieved she is gone?
  • What if he is in love with someone else?
  • What if he does something crazy in his search for her?
  • What if he is killed in his search?

I could go on…

For each character and plot idea I did this before I started writing. I created pages of possible and impossible possibilities. Many were ignored when I started pulling the ideas together, and others provided some great ideas and plot twists I would not have otherwise considered.

When I started I had the idea for the story but this process could similarly be used to start the ideas generating for the story before you start.

KM Weiland gives lots of examples in her book, but for my story it could be:

‘What if the wrong sister was crowned queen?’

This led to: ‘Who thinks she is the wrong one and why?’ and then ‘Who will do what to rectify the situation?’

Holly Lisle suggests interviewing the characters, which is something I have done in the past but had not consciously attempted for this project. Her idea is to ask things like:

  • Why are you there?
  • Why do you want to see another character?
  • What did you feel when you saw them?

For my example above I could ask:

  • Why do you want to find her?
  • What frame of mind to you expect to find her in?
  • Do you think she wants to be found?
  • If you find her what will you do? Will you make her return or stay with her?

That is of course if he decides to join the search. If he were to remain to do his duty:

  • Why do you think your duty is more important?
  • What do you think she will think of you if you do not search?
  • Do you care for her?
  • Do you understand why she left? (this could work for both)

I think this is a useful tool and could help me fill some gaps once I run out of flow and need to go back. I now have about 85,000 words but they are spread across the expanse of two books (so there are many gaps to fill).

I do not write linearly, no matter how hard I try or the fact that I have planned out this series, it just isn’t in me. So I am writing as it comes to me and I will reorganise as I need to for the second draft. I am still enjoying the process and I’m finding the flow quite easily.

We all write differently. What tools have you discovered that help in the planning process?

 

 Image is courtesy of Colin_K (originally on Flickr)

Writing Retreat Report



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This year’s writing retreat was a dream. I was unsure the best way to share the experience and have attempted a day by day run down (if you find that too much, skip ahead to the summary).

 

1409122109173Day 1 started as a comedy of errors, or at least it did for my writing buddy as she tried to find my house to pick me up. I was packed and ready to go hours before she was due and the waiting became quite difficult. After a couple of phone calls she was only 10 minutes late in the end and the journey began.

And began it did, too eager to get to our destination we didn’t even pause for coffee until we reached the nearest town to our cottage. We parked the car and headed off on a short walk, on which we discovered most of the little shops we had perused the year before had closed and we were so keen to keep moving we didn’t really look at those that were open.

We had coffee and a waffle (disguised as lunch) and then hit the supermarket. At which point my brain froze because the whole cooking thing freaks me out. So we went for simple stuff and lots of snacks knowing there would be some stuff in the house already.

Finally we made it. There was less stuff in the fridge than we imagined and the house was cold but we rectified that quickly and before we knew it rooms were assigned, bags stowed, food put away, computers and notes littered the dining table and we were writing.

I must admit that I was somewhat nervous, despite all my outlining and note making, to actually start this new project but the words flowed quickly and the characters began to take real shape.

The afternoon was amazingly productive.  I am currently making notes on how long I spend on all my writing tasks and outputs.

My target was to reach 50,000 words during the retreat and my first afternoon yielded an average of 1500 words an hour. It was looking like an achievable goal.

 

Day 2 started at 4.30am with the story already screaming to written down. I spent a little time making notes as to what I had done the day before and started on my draft by 5.00am. I wrote reasonably solidly throughout the day but by 3.30pm I was spent.

I had written over 12,000 words and my brain was close to snapping.

The story, at least, seemed to be driving itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I struggled to find some names for some new characters, but even just marked as Bob they were introducing some new directions. Yet the main characters were more or less following the plan at this point.

There were too many sex scenes written. Why, I’m not sure. They just seemed to appear. But they are a useful tool for getting to know the characters and could be an interesting blog point. Or I need to change my genre. Chances are they will be cut from the next draft without a second thought.

I also created a lot of exposition. Some paragraphs I know will expand out another thousand words or so, but it is a start and it is the blah/blew/vomit draft. So it was more important just to get the story down.

Allowed a little rest time to sooth my mind, including a hot shower, movie time and an early night.

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Day 3 also took off before the sun, waking at 4.10am and super keen, again.

I spent a little time catching up on yesterday’s notes and then straight to it. Nerves threatened and the number of days left seemed both too much and too little. I began to fear a hideous block.

Yet the words flowed, the characters took off and I found myself writing for longer periods of time and churned out 16,000 plus words. Some characters seemed to develop a bigger part than others, but there is far more words needed to fill the first book alone.

I didn’t quite feel the same brain drain at the end of the day and worked until we had to stop for Dr Who.

We also cooked ourselves with the wood heater, my buddy confident in the hot burn, me too scared I would kill it. But we didn’t freeze.

 

Day 4 was the slowest start, rising at a lazy 7am and felt that I had wasted hours before I had left my room. Too much had raced around my head the previous evening and it had taken me a long time to sleep.

I found my writing buddy on the couch as her room had sprung a leak.

Started off a little slower but the end of book one became clearer with some planning time on the floor with a whiteboard. Only 11,000 words written but I took some time to read through much of what I had written looking for gaps and made notes of missing characters and errors and ideas.

Worked much later than I had previously.

 

Day 5 started stiffly at 6.00am. I hadn’t stretched as much as I should have the day before. I spent time planning out the events for book 2 before I started writing, not sure at the time exactly what I could do with the end, but the beginning and middle very clear.

A hugely productive day as I wrote almost 20,000 words and although I struggled with one main character’s story for the second book, another’s has taken off. Some new and interesting characters have come into play, including a few more soldiers but this time all with pure thoughts although one relationship has changed in unexpected ways.

Wrote late, read later.

I had trouble sleeping as the story continued to bounce around my brain and decided to read someone else’s book and sat up until it was nearly time to get up again.

 

1409122108400Day 6 I started at 7am freaked out that it was our last morning and we only had mere hours to go.

Some more words in – if only 2500 and then it was time to pack up and leave our little house.
We were sad to go but keen for next year which we are sure would come around quite quickly. We hadn’t even taken the time to stand at the fence to play with the ponies this year.

I looked back up the little hill I had wanted to walk on, on the first day and voiced my desire to walk more next year. But we laughed, we were there to write and write we did.

Overall this retreat was a huge success

70,000 words in five days.

I started off a little nervous at the number of days I would have to sit and write and I wondered if there were that many words in me. I had also spent a long time planning this series (years in fact, when I retraced my notes back to the original idea).

Yet the words flowed easily, running across the page. Then my ideas changed as the characters took the story where they wanted it to go, others not behaving as I thought they would at all and new ones popping up and interrupting my plans further. But I took that all as a good sign, the story was there and keen to be written.

I knew where I wanted my characters to get to and they seemed to be moving that way just not quite as I thought they would.

I ended up with the main points for the first book, the first half points for the second book and a clearer idea of how it will all come together.

Not all of the words will live through the next draft and there are lots of gaps to fill but very excited about what I did achieve. And so looking forward to next year.

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Try it yourself

All we did was rent a little house for a week. Just me and a trusted writing buddy. We both had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve and had everything we needed with us to do that.

(and that wasn’t much for me – notes, laptop, charger, whiteboard and pile of pens)

It does not have to be extravagant and it doesn’t have to be too far away from home. It just needs to be somewhere you can relax and concentrate on your writing.

Go on, try it.