Mind The Gap: Communicating Information to Your Audience

As a writer, it can be frustrating to learn that the story in your head is not the same as the story your audience is reading on the page.

Whether it’s a plot point, some description, a character motivation, or even the emotional resonance of a particular scene, there can be something that seems completely clear to you, but falls flat when you share it with your audience.

It’s that dreaded moment when someone tells you that they just didn’t ‘get’ it.

While it’s tempting to ignore that kind of criticism (“You don’t understand my genius!” etc.), it’s worth considering whether you have a problem with the gap. The ‘gap’ of course being whatever was lost in translation between your brain, the page and the reader’s imagination.

This was one of the most important lessons that I took away from Milford. I submitted a short story with a twist ending, and while the story as a whole was positively received, that twist failed to land for most of the group. It turned out that I hadn’t explained the twist as clearly as I thought I had: I’d left some of the details too vague, and had included some dialogue that appeared to contradict the whole point of the twist itself. This left my readers doing too much guesswork; causing them to ask questions or come up with interpretations that I never intended for them to have.

In short, I’d left too large a gap between what I meant, and what I’d written.

The trick to managing the gap is knowing what details you need to make explicit and concrete, and what details you need to omit or leave vague and open to interpretation. And it can be very difficult to figure that out when you’re the one telling the story: you’re so close to what’s going on that you can’t see the wood for the trees.

So if you’re having problems with the gap, take a step back and ask yourself what your goal is: how do you want your readers to feel? What information do they need to know in order to understand what’s happening? Have you conveyed that to them in the simplest, clearest, most evocative way?

Try to put yourself in your reader’s shoes: what questions might you have about the situation being presented? How would you expect the characters to react? What predictions might you make about where the story is headed?

Think about your work at the sentence level: what specific words are you using, and how might a reader interpret them? Ask yourself if there’s any scope for miscommunication.

In most cases, the key is to err on the side of the obvious. If you’re describing a setting, make sure you’ve highlighted a couple of specific, vivid details. If it’s the way a character’s feeling, make sure to show their emotions: let them smile, or cry; give them sweaty palms if they’re nervous, or a red face if they’re angry. For plot points, make sure all the information has been clearly established; start with the most necessary details—the whos, whats, wheres and whys—before you layer up the complexity. And if you’ve left out some of these details, make sure that you’ve done so deliberately. 

Of course, the best way to find out how people are reading your story is to actually get people to, you know, read it. But hopefully, if you’ve spent time trying to anticipate your audience, you’ll find that what you’ve written is clear enough to convey everything that you intended.

And if that’s not the case, don’t sweat it! Just ask yourself these questions again, and remember, you can always fix a story in the edit.

Milford Writers’ Conference 2019: A Retrospective

And like that, it’s over. I went to Milford; I met some brilliant people, I explored the Welsh countryside with them, and I spent the whole week talking to them about the craft of writing (when we weren’t too busy making dick jokes, that is). Now that I’m back home and I’ve had some time to reflect, I figured I should share my thoughts on it and talk about what I’ve learned.

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Look at them. Look at the lovely people. Look at me standing at the back, pretending to be cool.

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes an experience like Milford so valuable. Partly because there are so many different things you can get out of spending a week with fourteen other writers; what you’ll find most valuable will depend on what you’re looking to get out of it.

For me, personally, I was looking to improve my storytelling skills: to sharpen my understanding of plot structure, character arcs, motivations, and so forth. I wanted to get better at diagnosing story problems; at figuring out when the prose is hindering the narrative. And I did. But what surprised me is that these weren’t the most useful things I learned at Milford.

It was the things that I didn’t know I needed to learn: how to get an agent, where to look for anthology submission calls, which conventions to go to, how to promote yourself. The business stuff. All things that, on some level, I was vaguely aware that I ought to know. But until I was forced to talk to other writers about this stuff, I had managed to avoid really thinking about it. Realising this gave me a feeling similar to the one I’ve experienced during workshop critiques, when someone points out an obvious flaw in a story I’ve submitted: deep down, I already knew it was a problem, but I was really hoping no one else would notice.

As any writer will tell you, this is not a nice feeling. But it is an incredibly useful one; as soon as you’ve accepted there’s a problem you need to work on, you’re one step closer to finding the solution. And Milford was an excellent place to do just that.

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Pretending to be cool, vol. 2.

There was a specific evening dedicated to market discussion: a chance to suggest which magazines, editors, agents or publishers might be interested in the stories we had all submitted. This naturally led to a wide-ranging debate on the business side of writing, and it was a topic we returned to in various conversations throughout the week.

I found much to appreciate in those discussions; not just in the content, but in the delivery. Everyone was incredibly supportive, and all advice was given in a positive, constructive way. It felt like we were part of a community⁠—having a laugh, eating and drinking together, and genuinely willing each other to succeed⁠—for which I was extremely grateful.

And that was the biggest thing I took away from the conference: how wonderful it was to connect with other like-minded people. How much I enjoyed spending a week in the company of some excellent writers who also happened to be excellent human beings. But that’s just my opinion; since it’s a writers-led conference, the things you learn and take away from Milford could be completely different. And since the attendees change every year, there’s always fresh opportunities to learn something new and connect with some brilliant new writers, which is, I’m sure, the thing that keeps people coming back.

If you want to read more, Milford’s co-organiser, Jacey Bedford, wrote her own retrospective, along with a series of live blogs (featuring yours truly!) during the week itself. You can apply to attend the conference here.

To Milford…and Beyond!

The 2014 conference in action…

The Milford SF Writer’s Conference is the UK’s leading residential workshop for science fiction and fantasy authors. Since its inception in 1972 (although it has roots in America as far back as the 1950s), it has played host to some amazing writers, including Anne McCaffrey, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and Bruce Sterling.

And soon, me!

I’m really excited to announce that I’ll be one of the fifteen writers heading up to North Wales for the event on Saturday. Well, really excited and really exhausted, since part of the prep-work for Milford involves reading close to 150,000 words of fiction from fellow attendees and formulating detailed, constructive feedback before the event.

The conference runs for a full week, each day being comprised of a writers-led workshop using the Milford style of critique: the authors sit in a circle and give their feedback one at a time (group therapy style), for an uninterrupted 2-3 minutes each. If you’re the author being critiqued, you must sit in silence while everyone else takes it in turns to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your piece. Only at the end—provided your soul is still intact—can you ask questions or clarify any points that have been raised.

Gulp.

The story I’ve submitted for the event, ‘An Unfamiliar Ceiling’, involves a body-swapping sci-fi drug, and has a slightly twisty-turny plot, so it will be really helpful (and really terrifying) to have a group of experienced authors read and discuss it, and help me iron out any weak spots to really make the story shine. But mostly, I’m looking forward to hearing critiques of other people’s stories, to see what aspects other authors comment on that I might have missed, to help me grow my critical instincts as a writer.

The centre where we’ll be staying, Trigonos, is located in the middle of Snowdonia, and while the views are spectacular, it’s pretty remote, and the cell reception is apparently awful, so I won’t be in touch with the outside world. Assuming the isolation and negative feedback don’t elicit some sort of ‘The Shining’ scenario, I’ll post a write-up of my experience after I come back in late September.

Oh, you think my story sucks, do you?!

If you’re interested in attending Milford yourself, all the details to apply for the 2020 conference are available on their website.