Tapping Your Readers’ Psychic Power

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Marketing for Hindsights: Lies aren’t 20/20 began yesterday. You can view my Publishizer campaign to preorder a copy. As part of my marketing campaign, expect regular posts over the next 43 days on the theme of psychics and writing. If I reach 250 preorders, I gain 41 queries backed by promised sales. In other words, I’m working to make this book something you can discuss around the water cooler or on Facebook.

Hindsights, to put it simply, is about psychics fighting to navigate the real world. Main character Nathan Wald finds that being a human lie detector doesn’t help him understand the truth of the hidden agendas and conspiracies surrounding him. Will he become what he hates or maintain his integrity?

Great writing hinges on how well a writer portrays a world rather than explains a world. New writers often make two fatal mistakes. Editors reading their short stories see these two mistakes and politely turn them down with a form rejection.

First, they fall in love with the world they created. Most of have been in love at one point. You may have mixed opinions depending on what Shakespearian play you lean towards in philosophy, whether you are still in love, or whether you were formerly in love.

More importantly, we have all known that one couple newly fallen into puppylove. They plague us with the wonders of their new love, pain us with pet names, and relate everything to the wonders of their new love. We feel we cannot criticize them; weren’t we that annoying once? (Probably not.) At any rate, this infatuation denies us the right to criticism. As annoying as “no you hang up first” becomes, this infatuation an author may develop for their own world destroys a story.

home jpgAnother way for us to consider this is as experts in their own fictional world. Expertise in the minutiae of one’s fictional world is essential; telling everyone about all the minute details of your world is not essential. In my day job, we have certain specified experts called Warrant Officers. These are generally good people (and generally excellent at golf) unless you start to discuss their field of expertise. Though it may be important and even interesting how quantum mechanics affect the viscosity of the engine oil, it doesn’t help us turn the engine on. We excuse this type of passion in our technical experts, even encourage it; for writers, it is a cardinal sin.

The second mistake infatuated writers make is the information dump. This comes from a mistaken understanding of story structure. We learn in school that a story goes through exposition, conflict, complication, climax, and resolution. Novice writers often misunderstand the role and form of exposition. Facts may be interesting, fascinating, part of a colorful canvas of the world and still be completely irrelevant. Conversely, they may be entirely relevant to the backstory, but not interesting. Take for example the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When is the story of the seven dwarvish rings told? This forms an essential part of the narrative, but to my memory, the entirety of the story in the novels is “they are lost.”

Your readers are, in a way, slightly psychic. Though the story may include minute details explaining why your planet spins counter to its rotation around its star, does that information advance the plot? This type of storytelling–where omniscient exposition forms a long and indispensable part of form–is at best antiquated.

New writers often mistake the value of these sections because many classics use that very style. Dickens likes to jump into disconnected scenes with little warning, but these passages still slow or obscure the real story. Victor Hugo pulled it off in Les Miserables. Though barely. The story of the priest drags the reader down a rabbit trail that barely connects to the story of Jean Valjean. This information is relevant, but not particularly interesting. Similarly, the story of how Thenadier started by robbing dead soldiers is very interesting but barely relevant. Because of what Les Miserables is, because the story is exceptionally expansive, Hugo makes it work. Then again, it’s Victor Hugo. Note that the movie removes nearly all of these details. Modern storytelling must eschew such rabbit trails.

Writers underestimate how much information truly needs to be stated. Genre influences this–hard science fiction often requires more telling of details. Tom Clancy loves to give us all the gory details in books like The Day After Tomorrow (which basically explains how to build an atomic bomb). Established writers have more leeway than up-and-coming authors.

Many details contained in these information dumps are simply unnecessary to the plot even if they may be tangentially related to the story. When an author falls in love with the details too much, he or she may include facts in the plot that seem fascinating or even pivotal to the story which are better left out. For instance, look at the difference between the abridged and unabridged versions of Moby Dick. Melville placed far too much information describing whales, but the book isn’t really about whales at all.

What does your narrative imply? This is what I mean by psychic readers. Many details are clear from context or simply unimportant. Even extremely important facts may be better wholly removed from the story.

For instance: Does your character need a name? You likely answer yes reflexively. How can we have backstory if our character doesn’t have a name? Great. Your character has a name. Does the reader need to know the character’s name? Even Moby Dick starts with the narrator’s name: “Call me Ishmael.” (Incidentally, the name means “God will hear” and was given to the first son of Abraham before God turned the babe and the woman out into the desert. This is a fact Herman Melville–fond of allusions to the Bible and mythology–was certainly aware of. It is likely placed to serve a metaphysical placeholder for the story… But that’s a discussion for another time.) However, when Ahab appears, we hear little more about Ishmael’s life and backstory. What do we really know about Quequeg?

Still, some books, good books, omit even this seemingly critical detail. The most well-known is probably The Old Man and the Sea. We do learn the fisherman’s name, but only after he returns to shore. We learn his name only after we know him.

A better example is Daphne d’Maurier’s 1939, award-winning novel Rebecca–which inspired the Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 best picture of the same name. Rebecca is the late wife of the male lead character. The narrator/protagonist battles this unseen and probably non-existent ghost only to find the only one really haunted is her new husband, and that because of the manner of Rebecca’s death.

Only at the end, the reader notices that the narrator has no name. These are extreme examples by very skilled writers. The novice writer should take special note to question every fact included in a story. How psychic will your reader be? Could they imply what you overtly tell them? Do they need to imply it for the story to move?

The question isn’t what do I need to put in, but how much can I possibly leave out?

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