One of the most important things I ever learned about telling stories was in Orson Card’s weeklong boot camp where we “workshopped” stories by doing zero workshopping. Zero critiques. In fact, critiques were verboten.
Instead, Card asked us to simply provide a report of what he called the three grunts a reader makes when things aren’t working–where it was boring, unclear, or didn’t ring true.
We were to provide a report of our reader reaction, including parts that really entertained or interested us. NOTHING more.
He compared it to going to the doctor. We were to report our “symptoms.” The writer’s job was to diagnose if it was an issue and prescribe a remedy, if any.
Doing that with 19 stories over three days was amazing. It totally opened up what story was about. And taught me what beta reading was all about. One of the most insightful writing experiences I’ve ever had.
Nowadays when I read, I try my best to simply report. And that’s it. If, afterwards, the writer wants to brainstorm ideas together, that’s fine. But I don’t ever want to diagnose and prescribe because there have been too many books that didn’t work for me that delighted tons of readers. My critique or advice would have been exactly the wrong thing.
All I can do is report my reaction. And then think about what would have fixed it for me.
Kristine Rusch recently wrote a great article about this and other things called “Writing by Committee” in which she suggests a list of things authors need to be successful. Give it a read. I think she makes a lot of good points.
And a few I disagree with. She is quite forceful about writers not acting as first readers. I think that’s bunk. And she says as much in the comments. If a writer can give a reader response instead of a critique, that’s as helpful as a non-writer giving a reader response. I also disagree that you have to toss something and start over if it doesn’t work. If it’s fundamentally broken, sure. But many times a small adjustment gets you back on track. Finally, yes, a story has to be surprising. At the same time, you had better deliver the type of experience you promise your reader. And that’s all defined by genre. You can’t promise your readers a thriller and deliver a romance. That only leads to irritated readers. I believe you have to consider your audience. But these are all quibbles. The article is great.
BTW, please note I used “storyteller” in the title. I did that on purpose. More and more, I find I’m not interested in writing. “Writing” doesn’t seem to convey what I’m after. However, I am interested in telling cracking stories.