Golden rule of writing: don’t confuse your reader
Nothing will lead a reader sooner to dumping a book – including not reading past the sample – than being confused. It’s not a pleasant sensation, and differs considerably from ‘being intrigued,’ the desirable sensation in a reader.
So, the important part is for the reader to know SOMEONE is in control of the ride, and that’s the writer’s job.
But the writer knows the material too well. And editing is a hard and boring job.
So edit when YOU’RE tired
I accidentally discovered a trick: To catch the confusing part of your writing before it hits the reader, edit when you’re exhausted.
And, as a nice side benefit, also catch the slow spots.
If you read your own work late at night, while hungover, or when sick, you’re going to notice more problems than if your mind is kindly and efficiently supplying everything that’s missing from your actual words on the page, because your mind is your sprightly companion and you’re wide awake.
Anything that slows YOU down is a gift. It hurts, but it is also a good use of time when you can’t really do anything else. Or, for me, with perennial brain fog, a good use of time when I’m awake but not really ticking.
Writing experiments don’t always work
That’s why they’re called ‘experiments.’
I just had that kind of experimental confusion happen, luckily with a scene which hasn’t gone out to my beta reader yet: and I’m glad it didn’t, because I’m pretty sure she would have caught it immediately.
I tried something new – nothing wrong with that. My intention was to try to keep a scene in a deep point of view by using the personal pronoun ‘he’ as much as possible ONLY for the viewpoint character.
In principle, this should have worked. And it does fine in scenes where the only other character present is a ‘she’ (which I didn’t think of, and which led me down this particular garden path).
In practice, since the scene had several males in it, every time I went back to the pov character, and immediately went back to ‘he’ – without mentioning the pov character’s name or person in any way – there was a tiny glitch. My brain coped well with it when I was writing it – I can’t actually write unless I’m awake and coherent. I even congratulated myself on staying so close to the character’s thoughts that we were looking out through his eyes.
But when I went back to re-read the scene, to get into the same mindset for this character’s NEXT pov scene, I happened to be tired. And the little glitch that my more-awake mind handled without even bothering me, became a huge stumbling stone – and I read through the scene in a kind of horror, bumping into all the boulders.
I pushed a few of the rocks around, rearranging Stonehenge, and thought I’d cleaned it up. I went back to the beginning for a clean read-through – and it started happening all over again.
At which point I blamed myself for being extremely tired, and took a nap.
Finding a new editing trick by paying attention to failure
But when I woke up I realized that if I got confused on my own writing just because I was tired, that a tired reader, reading in bed for a while before toddling off to sleep, would have a version of the same problem – a problem I had created – and this wasn’t going to do. Not everyone will be completely awake when reading, which is what’s required to keep the pronouns straight in my little experiment in deep pov.
I’ll fix the pov problem. I know what I did, and went back to my craft books for a quick review.
But I have a new technique for CATCHING this kind of confusion-for-the-reader potential roadblock – editing while tired and braindead.
Good use for a brain-fogged time
The standards are higher when I (standing in for the reader) am tired: I have to be clearer to be understood.
So be it.
Now I have a good use for those times when my own brain is wanting to quit, but I can’t quite make myself go to bed: checking out every scene in the book while tired.
I will heroically read my own work when I’m falling asleep to see if it confuses me even more. It will probably make me want to put the book down and go to sleep, a good thing. But I will mark the confusing places – and tend to them later.
The things we writers do for our art!