Resisting Your Own Autosuggest

iphonesWe’ve all been there – when we’re running late or feeling lazy or trying to dash off an email during a stoplight – those moments when we’re grateful that our phones seem to anticipate what we want to say. “That sounds good.” “I’ll call you later.” The words pop up on the screen before I even think them. Predictability eases me down the well-worn path. See, it just happened again.

Good fiction writing requires us to resist the predictable, both the sort that everyone overuses – common cliques, trite metaphors, tired character tropes – and our own personal collection. All of us have favorite gestures, facial expressions, descriptions, and snatches of dialogue. In your first drafts, I wouldn’t worry about them. In mine, the characters start out shaking their heads like a contagious tic. But when you edit, make an effort to resist your own mental autosuggest. Here are a few good reasons why (besides not wanting to drive your readers nuts):

To keep readers from tuning out. No one feels a need to bother picturing people who are doing typical things. In a chapter of mine critiqued by the talented Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, my characters were eating and sipping drinks at a Christmas party. She suggested that I give them more unusual food – for example, they could be cracking nuts with old nutcrackers – or unexpected small actions such as making a paper airplane out of an old takeout menu. The same goes for what they say and how they look. In other words, work to make your characters’ behavior different and interesting enough to catch and hold your readers’ attention.

To make everything count. Gestures, expressions and descriptions can all convey meaning. They can be an opportunity to add layers or increase the stakes. Readers notice when a gap opens up between what characters say and what they do. Everyone loves to watch for clues. Thinking of the extra messages that you’d like to send can help you to avoid the repetitive and potentially boring.

To convince yourself of the reality of the scene. Your first and most important reader is you. If you make your characters less predictable, then all of sudden you’ll find yourself needing to pay them more attention. Each time you add another distinctive action or expression to a character, she or he will become more singular and real. Characters will get more specific, gestures more laden, and descriptions more riveting. Your scenes as a whole will take on more texture and complication.

So when you’re ready to revise, try to push yourself past what’s easy and automatic. Try surprising yourself.

Hungry Writers and Smart Readers

This site is for writers and readers both. I can’t separate the two. Growing up, I was Summer Readingthe kind of kid who wrote in the attic and read in a hollowed-out hedge. The characters in books were as alive to me as my own – they’d have adventures together in my head. When I first saw the film of a favorite story, Peter Pan, I loved it, but was startled that what I saw on the screen didn’t match up with my vision. My Peter had more of an edge (and was rather hot). Writing and reading are a collaborative act. The writer takes the lead, but together we do more than apart. The minds of writers and readers connect through the act of reading to forge something new and unique.

Writers can anticipate this by reading our own work as a smart reader would. To allow our minds to visualize, our guts to react and our brains to question, even as we revise stories that we’ve worked on for months. If your stomach tightens, then that’s a good bet that the tension is working. If it doesn’t, then you need to consider what would increase the stakes. Continue to read other people’s work, both to learn more about writing and to train yourself in how to be a better reader of your own. Writers should hunger – to create characters that yearn to breathe, to tell stories that need telling, to reach readers that would care. To become a stronger writer with each sentence you lay down.

I see us all as hungry writers and smart readers, deserving of inspiration, celebration and support. I want this to be a place you can go to learn and be valued. A place for connecting through story, mind to mind, heart to heart.

Photo credit: “Summer Reading” by Sheila Sund via a Creative Commons License.