Ages ago I signed up for a local library writing group run by Sian Prior (author of Shy). Since it was over subscribed I consistently missed each meeting, except the last one, which I did attend. It turns out this writing group delivered nothing I hadn’t already heard, however some of the resources and handouts were new to me. We were all invited to bring along 800 words or less to review. I took along an unpublished flash fiction (600 words) mainly to see if there were any problems with it, as it had been getting rejected recently.
This is what I heard back:
- Readers thought the story was challenging.
- Readers wanted to know if they were correct as to what they thought the story was about.
- Readers identified places to insert words.
When interpreting a story there are degrees of correct. I had in mind something, but if readers have in mind something else that is analogous it doesn’t matter. That is what I told my readers. There are no extra points for readers whose interpretation aligns to my intention as author. Same if a reader finds out my intention and presents a case for the story indicating something else. All I do is write a story, and if readers can somehow ask me what it means, I can tell them what I intended, if I remember. But readers are free to see something else. With the flash fiction in question, some suggested it was a dream sequence, or an afterlife tale, or something related to reincarnation. What I want to know why these readers (who are writers) are so hung up on ‘correctness’ and ‘certainty’ in fiction? I find fiction an escape, especially since as least as I have experienced it, life has provided very little certainty and countless, excruciating opportunities for me to be incorrect. Maybe that’s the point for readers though. Since life is so fraught, perhaps readers do desire clarity? Perhaps my refusal to pin down meaning is out of fashion in these difficult to navigate times?
Then, the idea that my 600 words were challenging. This surprised me. I didn’t use difficult language. I didn’t shoehorn arcane concepts or random esoterica into a mundane story. It was a simple exchange between two characters in an airport, and if readers could identify the characters all the better, but the story doesn’t hinge on it. It turns out the readers who thought the story a challenge were immersed in ‘life writing.’ What I should have said to them was every kind of writing offers challenge. The fact my little literary / slightly SF story was couched in such a term has me pondering why so many people see science fiction or fantasy as challenging when real life is nigh on incomprehensible. SF is currently everywhere too, what do people think they are watching?
Maybe my readers felt tricked when they thought they were reading literary fiction or life writing or something else. I don’t know. But I keep returning to the idea of ‘challenging’. I want to argue that the story is less challenging than those fictions demanding acceptance and belief in all sorts of things: like troubled detectives who always solve every crime, for instance.
So that in a nutshell, was that. Since that meeting, I’ve edited my story, fleshed it out a bit, and clarified any instance where it seemed like a word was missing (there weren’t any mistakes, just ambiguities). Yet as a result of this group, the questions I’m left with have no answer. What I’d hoped to gain from the experience I didn’t quite get, and furthermore, since library funding is tight the group won’t meet next year. I’m at a crossroads, as with the rest of my life. Do I keep sending stories out? Do I try something else? Or do I double down, work harder, push further and keep writing, keep editing and rewriting? Do I continue or give up? The writing group thought I should continue, but they also apparently don’t usually read stories like mine.
It’s late. I’m tired and I suspect that just right now, writing, like sleep and life, is all too challenging.