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Why Writers Should Embrace Misunderstanding

I recently spoke to a man (I’ll call him Jim) who’s a tremendously talented writer, but who’s dreadfully afraid of having his stories misunderstood. Yes, he’s a rather confused-1neurotic fellow. But he’s also extremely imaginative and quite gifted with words. Jim’s been writing for decades now — screenplays, short stories, poems — but has yet to publish anything. Why? You got it. He’s afraid of being misunderstood.

Jim may be on the compulsive end of the scale, but he’s not alone. One of the greatest fears of novelists is that readers won’t “get” their stories. What you considered sublime at the writing, reviewers consider abstruse at the reading.

  • Your stylistic transcendence is regarded as a flight of fancy.
  • Your plot twists are seen as an Escherian labyrinth.
  • Your rich, 3D characters are described as flat.
  • Your big reveal is predictable.
  • Your “deep” message is little more than a literary sand bar.

Of course, they could be wrong. But when it comes to fiction, can anything be right? Nevertheless, if everyone misunderstands your writing, then you probably should take a good look in the mirror. Sure, maybe you’re just deeper than everyone else. But the worst thing you could do is to describe confused and/or negative reviewers as barbarians.

As I told Jim, differing opinions, positive and negative, could be a sign that you’re doing something right.

I recently published a collection of my short stories entitled Subterranea. It consists of nine short stories, all of which had been previously published in books and zines. Except one. “Consonance” is my most recent. It was unpublished and easily one of my most experimental attempts. Of all the stories in Subterranea, I was most interested to see how Consonance would be received. So far, the responses have been what I expected — split.

In his Amazon review, D.M. Dutcher described Consonance as one of his favorites in the anthology, saying it “made me wish [Mike would] try straight science fiction more often.”

Then there’s Jessica Thomas’ review on Goodreads where she writes:

‘Consonance’ is impressive scifi. I wanted more. This one begs to be developed into a novel or novella.

So far, so good. They “got” the story. And then there’s Jill’s Amazon review:

…in the story “Consonance” there seems to be missing lines of text. I was, admittedly, confused with “Consonance” so it’s possible I’m making things up. I don’t think so, though. The story is confusing because the author throws me into a fantasy world without the requisite 100,000 words of world-building necessary for grounding.

So who’s right? Is Consonance “impressive scifi” or is it “confusing”? Did I just trick Jessica and D.M. into adoring my new wardrobe, while Jill is rightly calling me out for literary undress? Listen, neither opinion is wrong. Nor right. Besides, that story is just one in a volume. It’s better viewed as a part of my wardrobe (let’s say, a scarf or a vest) than the entire wardrobe.

As I told Jim, misunderstanding may be a good thing. And in a way, it’s one of the fun parts of writing. It shows that fiction is not a mathematical formula. In fact, there is a danger in the opposite extreme: The harder you try to be understood by everyone, the greater chance you have of compromising your unique “voice” as an author.

A novelist will be much better off if they go into the writing gig expecting their stories to be misunderstood at times. Again, this is not to dismiss poor craft. And perhaps that’s the dividing line in this issue. If your stories are being misunderstood because of sloppiness, laziness, or poor craft, then dismissing readers concerns would be stupid. However, even a well-written story can be misunderstood. In fact, it could be the intent of the author for her story TO BE misunderstood. At least, in the sense of being esoteric, enigmatic, or complex. Leaving people thinking, confused, puzzled, even angry, can sometimes be a good thing.

And the worst thing you can try to do when someone misunderstands your story is to try to explain it. Stories need to be “got” in the armchair, not the classroom. Furthermore, we should not be so arrogant as to think we can know what a reader can or can’t “get” from a story. Listen, I don’t understand what people “get” from some authors. What I must refrain from doing is suggesting there is nothing TO “get.”

Which leads to my motto: Don’t expect to be “gotten” by everyone. When you are, rejoice. When you aren’t, don’t disparage.

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Bobby B January 16, 2013, 7:49 AM

    Eh, it’s all about insecurity. You’re really, really putting yourself out there, as writing is a form of self-expression. Plus, writers are talking through stories, so when friends and family read the person’s work, they say, oh, so THIS is what you think about things. Let’s just talk about that…

    Like in Monday’s post, Mike. A guy writes magic into a story, and he might be afraid his family, friends or even fellow church-goers (perhaps especially that last group) will say, oh neat…he’s published a book! I want to read it! The book is read, and the author is afraid he’ll be besieged by questions: Umm, you teach my son in Sunday School…and you wrote about two people, you know, doing the business and they’re not married??

    I guess I’ve meandered over to the idea that, in my opinion, it’s the misunderstanding of those close to us that can give us the greatest pause in “going public.” But certainly the scrutiny of the general public is nothing to laugh at, either.

  • Paula January 16, 2013, 8:13 AM

    When a reader doesn’t understand my story or gets confused, I do feel like I might have failed somewhere. I can’t help but wonder if I’ve been too subtle and trusted my reader too deeply (although I take great pains to make sure I present well developed characters and plots, and build and foreshadow). But you are right, Mike, not everyone will get everything and readers have different levels of understanding. My question is how do we know, as writers, when we’re being too subtle in showing our story/characters or illustrating too much so readers don’t have to think at all? I find this to be a very blurry line. Part of the fun of reading is finding the elusive reveal itself. That ah-haa moment we all like to have. I ask myself during the writing, will the reader get this? Any tips or suggestions?

    • Mike Duran January 16, 2013, 6:09 PM

      “…how do we know, as writers, when we’re being too subtle in showing our story/characters or illustrating too much so readers don’t have to think at all? I find this to be a very blurry line.”

      That IS the question, isn’t it? Which is probably why there’s no formula to it. Intentional misdirection in a story is one thing. Or ambiguity. But even then, you still have to say some things clearly in order to set up the misdirection or what-not. I’d say the biggest thing for the author is making sure the issue isn’t one of craft. Is the reader’s misunderstanding MY fault? Could I have written this any differently, to cause less confusion, and still stay true to the story? Even the Bible is unclear and confusing in parts. And its Author was God! All that to say, we should keep asking these questions, working on our craft, trying to communicate better… and then conceding our stories will still, sometimes, be misunderstood. Thanks for commenting, Paula!

  • Shannon January 16, 2013, 9:26 AM

    What I find frustrating is the lack of background knowledge readers may have about a subject, making it seem “unrealistic” when in fact, it is grounded in reality. I write a lot of historical fiction where this comes up. I don’t blame my readers for not knowing certain things–much of the history I write about has been buried or denied, which is one reason I am compelled to write about it. But it is frustrating to be asked to make something LESS realistic to make it more “believable” just because readers might not know the real truth about a certain era.

  • Kessie January 16, 2013, 9:51 AM

    Haha, reminds me of when I was writing a story set in the 1800s and mentioned a table covered in spirits and soda. I was thinking of Jeeves and Wooster and soda water. But readers thought I meant soda pop and it pulled them out of the story. I hadn’t been clear enough.

    My job, as a writer, is to communicate as clearly as I possibly can. If my critique group, beta readers and editor all get it, I’m going to assume the writing is clear enough. If a person misunderstands my meaning anyway, well, that’s poor comprehension on their part. I’m not responsible for that.

    I had to read Fire and Hemlock four times before I understood the ending–and even then I still had to go find the author’s notes on what she was trying to convey. But I know my comprehension level isn’t the greatest, especially when I’m reading really fast. But there’s a difference between my reading too fast, and just poor writing. Especially ambiguity.

    One story submitted to my critique group had me howling with laughter–it was describing a hot chick and the male protagonist’s reaction to her. But there were so many pronouns (and some of them were typos) that the hot chick was painted as male. I wrote in my crit, “So this is a cross-dresser??” Which of course wasn’t what the author had intended at all. We had a good laugh over it.

  • Jessica Thomas January 16, 2013, 10:29 AM

    Mike, I find Jill’s comments interesting because I thought some of the same things myself. The story left me a bit confused and discombolulated, but that’s partly why I liked it. I don’t mind being dropped into a scene and left to fend for myself as long as there is something else captivating me and propelling me forward, which in your story was the character’s strong voice.

    (Lately I’m fearing my tastes may be too weird or narrow to be “gotten” by anyone but myself and a small sphere. :\ But it could be that I’m not nearly as witty as I think I am. And/Or. Both.)

    • Jill January 16, 2013, 12:27 PM

      I agree. The story was interesting and unusual. I would like to see it in a longer tome.

  • Jill January 16, 2013, 12:25 PM

    Honestly, I should have been more direct and less confusing when I wrote my review. But I tend to write reviews in a rush, so that’s a problem (hey, now I’m talking about my review being misunderstood!). I think there were lines of text missing in a literal way in the document I read. There were even blank spaces. I was so confused with the story that I wondered if I could have imagined the missing text. The blank spaces, however, were there when I went back and examined the story. If nobody else is complaining about the editorial error, then maybe I am crazy after all. 🙂

    • Mike Duran January 16, 2013, 6:27 PM

      Jill, I’d be surprised if your copy was missing text. At the risk of not taking my own advice… Consonance was broken up into six sections. The third section contains this line of broken text:

      “…poised, equidistant, between the spheres…”

      That is the entire third section. It occurs after Gianni breathes the Jetters’ opium incense in Tier Two. Cleo describes its effects this way, from section four: “It’s psychoactive, produces a spontaneous recall, flashbacks of sorts. And the way you were going, you went way back.” Which is what was happening to Gianni, and central to his existential quest. Both “the spheres” and him being poised perfectly “between the spheres” — albeit momentarily — is the gist of Consonance.

      • Jill January 16, 2013, 8:26 PM

        No, it’s not at the broken text–you used asterisks there to indicate what was going on. It looks like somebody came in and erased lines on about 3 or 4 pgs (maybe just a download problem?). I don’t know how to tell you where they are unless the locations remain consistent on various devices. The first example is here (loc 824): “A Zoner?! They’re sodomites, you know.” This is followed by a blank space, then: “I’d’ve already repositioned your nasal cavity.” These lapses of text didn’t completely confuse the story, but made a difficult story more difficult to understand. And they did seem like editing errors rather than story problems. I should have couched them as such. However, I was so confused by the end of the story that I figured I needed more world-building to understand it.

        • Mike Duran January 17, 2013, 5:15 AM

          Now THAT sounds like a download problem. I don’t see it in my copy.

          • Jill January 17, 2013, 9:14 AM

            Ha ha, well I guess you can ignore my review somewhat, then, if these lapses aren’t even editing errors on your part. What I don’t get is how this happened in only one story. Oh, well.

  • D.M. Dutcher January 16, 2013, 1:36 PM

    I liked it because it reminded me of New Wave science fiction, and that was very unusual to read from a Christian author. It was similar to Kerry Nietz’s book, in that it actually felt like science fiction. Many Christian SF books tend to follow an Anne McCaffrey model, which puts the speculation secondary, and tells a traditional romantic, action, or fantasy kind of story.While that’s not entirely bad, it’s so prevalent that when an author does something unusual, it stands out. I liked your style in doing it, and it was unexpected to see you had more range than I thought.

  • Katherine Coble January 16, 2013, 2:04 PM

    I always tell writers to read the reviews for classics like To Kill A Mockingbird because there’s always someone who “doesn’t get it.” It doesn’t mean what you did doesn’t work. It just means it wasn’t meant for that person.

    I know you (Mike Duran) are not a fan of Postmodernism, but there are contexts wherein it is a very useful approach to life. The appreciation of literature is one of them. Because when you realise that not everyone “gets” every book it’s very freeing as an author.

    I’ve had beta readers hate my fiction because “you’re not upfront with what’s going on. Tell me why she’s limping, tell me why she’s mad.” Then other beta readers with the same story say they love how I keep them reading to find out the answers by showing them in the context of the story why she’s limping, why she’s mad. It’s a taste thing. I don’t think I’m an awful writer. I just know my stuff isn’t for everyone.

    • Mike Duran January 16, 2013, 6:41 PM

      Actually, I appreciate some elements of postmodernism in art. For instance, I LOVE nonlinear storytelling. What I don’t like about postmodern lit is when it proclaims abstraction as something profound and deconstructs stories to the point of nonsense.

  • Kat Heckenbach January 17, 2013, 8:19 AM

    I’ve heard that polarizing your readers is a good thing. If you get a lot of “I loved it” AND “I hated it” then you’re onto something. It’s the “meh”s you have to worry about :).

    I wrote a short story once that I was really unsure of. I posted on FB that I thought it was either brilliant or complete garbage. Someone asked to read it–a fellow writer–and told me he loved it. And it was accepted in an online magazine. But when that zine went under, I tried submitting it elsewhere, and the one place gave me feedback–they saw it as just a buildup to a punchline. Completely missed the essence of the story, but obviously others saw it just fine.

    Anyway, yes, I do think some authors worry so much about pleasing ever reader they wash the voice right out of their writing.

  • Jason H. January 17, 2013, 12:39 PM

    That fear of misunderstanding is a tricky tightrope to walk.

    As a young man, I was asked to display a piece of art at a gallery Open House showcasing young local artists. They requested a stippling I created from a photo of a controversial subject – an anonymous terrorist, standing with his weapon and obvious pride in his cause. As I Christian, I had been intrigued, confused and saddened by this man –proud to bring suffering and death to others. I spent hours staring into his eyes as I worked on the piece. For me, his portrait was a symbol of how far man has fallen.

    When the gallery explained why they wanted that portrait, it was evident that they “got” it. I was most assuredly excited. However, as crowds funneled through the gallery on Opening Night, I was dumbfounded by their negative reactions to my work. The issue was not execution, but interpretation of subject matter. Responses ranged from frowns and quick side-steps to bold accusations that I was supporting the man and his ideals. They most assuredly did not “get” it, or me. Though there are positives in the portrait compelled a response, I was not prepared for their negative reaction toward me.

    Unfortunately, that fear of misunderstanding has spread into my fiction writing. Whereas most of my writing has been faith-based non-fiction, I fear that those of shared faith will misunderstand my fiction. I endeavor to write sci-fi/horror/paranormal stories that demonstrate core tenets of our faith being lived out in the fallen world. However, I intentionally avoid sermonizing and overtly religious references, and sometimes deal with harsh subjects.

    Now older, my fear of being misunderstood has less to do with feeling rejected and more about how it affects others. One thing I know – Fear of failure cannot allow us to become idle in serving others. How do each of you decide the point where the good your writing may do outweighs any harm it may do?

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