A lot of people imagine a writer’s room to be a fortress of solitude. They picture a crooked citadel where a hunchback feverishly scrawls his quill down a scroll high above the incessant babble of the peasants down below. In his book On Writing Stephen King prescribes such a space:
“When it comes to writing… The space… needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut… There should be no telephone… no TV or videogames… If there’s a window, draw the curtains… it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.”
I write in a coffee shop surrounded by pyramids scheme pitch sessions, awkward Tinder dates, and speakers blaring auto-tuned dub step songs. I find the crooked citadel to be a lonely place. I write in public to give myself the illusion of human interaction.
I find a writer’s room to be more of a state of mind. In that sense I do see it as a sacred space where certain distractions and opinions need to shut out for the writer to get anything done. I’ll explain what I mean with characters that are by no means within the public domain. (Please send your cease and desist emails to drewchialauthor.com, thank you.)
Plagiarizing Pixar to Prove a Point
Imagine that your writer’s room is a control room in your mind, like the setting of Pixar’s Inside Out. Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness are taking a nap while Joy is on Daydream Duty. She’s at the helm with crumpled note pages, sketchpads, and mind maps spread out on the console. Your laptop and work in progress are up on her view screen.
Joy pushes a lever and you feel an urge to type. “Noelle arrived in the small costal town a week after a monster had been sighted in the water.”
Joy is happy with her work until an imaginary construct of a fan-boy kicks down the door. “You should make the monster a vampire!”
Joy spins around. “How did you get in here?”
The fan-boy swats that question away. “Never mind. Just make the monster Dracula. Maybe his coffin crashed at the bottom of the ocean and he just now found his way back to the land.”
“Why Dracula specifically?”
“Because I’m into shit I’m familiar with. Just give me what I know, only different, but not too different.”
Joy rolls her hands. “This is a cosmic horror story. The monster is going to be an extra dimensional entity.”
The fan-boy’s jaw hangs slack. He mouth breathes for a moment too long. “Like the Mind Flayer on Stanger Things?”
Joy shrugs. “Sure.”
The fan-boy claps his hands. “You should fill the rest of the story with songs from the 80s. Oh, and the main character should drive a DeLorean.”
“Not so fast.”
An imaginary construct of a highbrow literary aficionado, a librarian, walks through the door. She takes off her spectacles, blows on the glass, and polishes them with her blouse.
“You should subvert this fan-boy’s expectations by making it so there’s no monster at all. Throughout the story the town will believe it’s haunted by a sea creature, but in reality it’s mass hysteria precipitated by the residents’ penchant for gossip. The story will be a commentary on the romanticized folksy myth of the quant small township.”
In this scenario Joy is torn between both pitches. Neither is right for what she’s programming, but she’s certain both have an audience, and shouldn’t she set her human up for success? Joy debates executing her original vision, something she is passionate about, or taking one of these suggestions, something she could drudge through to pander to a broader audience.
Every author should have a sense of their audience, but the author shouldn’t try to appeal to audiences that are out of tune with their interests. If they do their work won’t resonate. That’s why in this scenario the fan-boy and the librarian have no place in Joy’s control room.
According to Stephen King’s On Writing you should only let one imaginary construct into your writing space: your Ideal Reader. Your ideal reader will help your see your story from your particular niche. This figment need not be burdened with the nostalgic references beloved by general audiences, nor do they require all the symbolism and subtext that’s only sussed out by the truly literate.
Your Ideal Reader will be closer to where you fall within these extremes. Just ask yourself, “Would I like this if I hadn’t written it?”
Don’t Give Your Audience Everything You Think They Want
Say what you will about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it’s clear that Rian Johnson didn’t let his audience into his writing room. If he had the fan-boys would’ve have dictated that all the big reveals. Supreme Leader Snoke would’ve been revealed to be Darth Plagueis the Sith who trained Emperor Palpetine. Ray would’ve been Luke’s daughter. Sir Alec Guinness would’ve been digitally resurrected as a force ghost, and twenty minutes of the film would’ve consisted of the Knights of Ren fighting Boba Fett from deep within the belly of the sarlacc. (And if you’re saying to yourself “That would’ve been awesome!” then you and I need to have a chat after class… leave your preferred Last Jedi pitch in the comments.)
If you give your audience a story that echoes everything they’re familiar with you’ll lose the dramatic tension and they’ll get bored.
Don’t Deny Your Audience Everything You Think They Want
This is one of my signature moves and it’s one I need to work on.
I let my audience into the writer’s room and then I attack them. I lure them in with false promises of aliens and swap my extraterrestrials with demons. I’m a serial unreliable narrator, constantly betraying expectations.
At first I thought I was being clever. I’d drop bright red herrings to lead the audience away from my microscopic Easter eggs. I set readers up to think they were getting one kind of story and then I’d go full on Shyamalan (yes, a name can be a verb). My screenwriting professor compared my twists to sucker punches and not in a good way.
At the time I thought if I outthought my audience there’d be no denying my brilliance, but really I was just compensating for my inexperience.
Balance Audience Expectations
Just as writers need to balance the scales of hope and dread, we also need to balance the scales of expectation and subversion. We need to reward readers for seeing the signs we plant early on and to give them something they don’t see coming.
I do this by structuring strategically. I write a contract with the reader in the first chapter. First, there’s a central question the story promises to answer, second, there’s a smaller mystery with a likely solution for anyone paying attention. By the second chapter the smaller mystery has been solved, and the readers who spotted my storytelling tells will know what to look for later. I try to train my audience to look deeper by rewarding readers who do early on.
Of course I’ll do things to throw even the most astute observers off my scent, but not so far that they won’t feel like they have a fighting chance. As a rule I try to foreshadow my third act twist by the midpoint.
Your true writing space is your headspace. If you’re too concerned with how your material will play to general audiences you will get nothing done. You’re your own toughest critic and if you’re not interested in what you’re writing you won’t finish.
You are your own Ideal Reader. So first and foremost pander to yourself.