Andromeda: Reading between the lines of readers’ feedback: scene, summary, time, voice, and more

 Note: Andromeda will be
teaching two online classes coming up soon: 

SCENE, SUMMARY, AND TIME with Andromeda Romano-Lax
October 12 to November 1
9+ hours over 3 Weeks Online. No scheduled meetings, asynchronous instruction
November 2 to November 22
9+ hours over 3 Weeks Online. No scheduled meetings, asynchronous instruction

“I just don’t love it.” What does that mean?

I still learn a tremendous amount
from peer feedback, and I am inspired by veteran authors like Philip Roth, who
even at the end of his career was asking friends and acquaintances to make
pre-publication comments on his manuscripts.

But one thing I didn’t realize
for many years was that you have to learn
how to interpret feedback. Peers – and even agents and uninvested editors,
especially when they are in a hurry and skimming your manuscript – may attempt
to diagnose a vague problem but mislabel it. And rarely do they provide a
solution using precise craft terms.

This leaves revisions back in
our hands as writers, more often than not. Starting again, we can try to
proceed intuitively, but pure intuition can be dangerous, or at least limited.
We may spend years writing some things that work and other things that don’t.
We may have flawed, beloved projects wasting away in files or desk drawers,
never quite sure why people were bored by them. We may approach new projects
with apprehension, still not sure our tools are working properly.

By returning to craft and by
becoming experts in patterns – noticing why certain books work, what things are
said about our work repeatedly, which of our intuitive “fixes” seemed to work
and why—we can sometimes rise above these issues.   

Here are some of the murky,
muddy, or misleading comments I’ve heard applied to manuscripts (my own and
many others’) –and the under-described craft issues sometimes lurking behind
those unclear comments.

I just don’t love it. I can’t get grounded. I’m
not interested. It feels lifeless or bloodless. I don’t believe. The characters
or plot don’t grab me. I kept putting it down.

So many criticisms, and more
than half of the time it boils down, in my experience, to a failure to write in
scene. Simple, right? It isn’t. Writers often think they are writing in scene, but instead are in summary mode.
They are not dramatizing, showing us what’s happening, letting the characters
speak for themselves. Or they are writing half-scenes that are not fully
developed, with insufficient detail and unfocused progression.  

I kept turning the pages, I didn’t put it down.
But I just didn’t love it. It was forgettable. It was breathless. It was too
even, somehow. The voice didn’t grab me. The characters felt shallow.

Wait, isn’t this the same set
of criticisms? Not always. When a writer effectively writes simple, competent scenes,
and stitches them together, many readers will keep reading. Every scene is a
potato chip, and after a couple hours the reader feels – well – like he’s eaten
a lot of potato chips. What was tasty in the beginning didn’t satisfy in the
end. There are a lot of reasons for this, but sometimes the problem is too many
scenes, usually of the same length and development pattern, with little summary.
Scene after scene, everything seems to be of equal importance. There is no
fastforwarding or little pausing for reflection. The pacing is too even. Voice
is sometimes less audible in fully dramatized scenes than in reflection. The
relentless scenes with lots of surface action or “showing” and no
thoughtful “telling” prevent deeper meaning from developing. We are often told “show
don’t tell” but the truth is we need to show and tell, show and tell, in
proportions that are unique to each
 We need scene and we need summary, reflection, and
very small bits of exposition.

I’m confused!

One of the simplest ways to stop
confusing readers: pay more attention to time markers. It only takes a few
words. Tell us when this scene is happening. It can be as simple as “The next
week,” or “Later that day.” If you jump around in chronology, be especially
careful to ground us, chronologically, before proceeding. Don’t make us reserve
precious attention for these minor details, like time (or a character’s name or
relationship, if that’s unclear). Just tell us so we can move on to the more
important things.

I’m just not into the subject. There are too
many cancer memoirs out there. I don’t care about that period of history. I’m
not interested in… (caribou, Detroit, archaeology, divorce, rowing, climate
change, record collecting, ferns, cranky old ladies, whatever).

You have a story to tell,
fiction or nonfiction. But people keep telling you the general subject or
setting is the problem. They want you to write something different altogether. Maybe
they’re right. But probably not. How you
are telling the story is often more important than what story you are telling. Look at the bestseller list. Look at
recent books made into movies. The subjects can surprise us. Engaging stories
are spun out of mundane topics, or out of subjects that seem already tired out –
until the next bestseller (about cranky old ladies, horses or dogs, or illness)
comes out. Don’t give up on your subject if you care about it deeply and feel
you have something new to say. Just focus on how to say it better: in vivid scene
and thoughtful summary, with clear time markers, and so on.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the
author of 
Behave, a novel about science, motherhood and the 1920s
(March 1, 2016), as well as The Spanish Bow, The Detour, and Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez. She is
a co-founder of 49 Writers, teaches in the UAA MFA program, and is a private

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