The Reader Comes First
Vikram Ramakrishnan is a Tamil-American writer and computer programmer. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied physics, mathematics, and computer science. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, where he won the Walter & Kattie Metcalf Singing Spider Scholarship. He lives in New York and can be found at https://vikramramakrishnan.com.
A few people have asked about the Biggest Thing I learned at Odyssey. I think what they really want is a pithy phrase. I respect that. Pithy phrases are nice. They summarize vast amounts of knowledge into bite-sized quips.
While it’s not so easy to distill Odyssey into one, I’ll try. If there is one overarching Biggest Thing Jeanne imparted on me—something that transformed the way I wrote, that turbocharged my writing to be full of intention—it’s this: the reader comes first.
There. That’s my pithy phrase.
Writers need to give readers what they want. We can challenge them, push them to think hard, make them undergo emotional waves they didn’t expect, but at the end of the day, they read us for an experience. We serve them in that experience. If writers are purveyors of goods (short stories, books, essays like this), readers are our customers. It’s our job to give them the best product, the best experience we can offer.
Before Odyssey, my writing used to be all about me. I’d write about what I thought was exciting and tie together ideas with loose threads. It wasn’t until Jeanne asked us what pleasures readers derive from reading that a great portal opened up for me, a fresh way of thinking.
Three questions steer me. What am I trying to say? Why should the reader care about it? How can they derive joy from my piece?
In retrospect, caring about readers seems obvious. The reader, of course, should come first. But like so much of Odyssey, what’s obvious now in hindsight only became apparent after Jeanne’s guidance.
At Odyssey, every lecture, critique, and guest Q&A formed a series of turning points to push the reader-first idea home. In our first week, we explored how readers appreciate fiction. In our second, we built exciting worlds. We wrote characters to delight readers in the third week. The following week, we concocted unputdownable plots. In our fifth, we polished our sentences so readers hung on to every word. And in our sixth and final week, we learned how to get our stories into their hands.
These turning points built on each other until they formed a great gestalt.
Now, a writer (like myself, maybe you too) might say, “But, I have things to say. I want to put a new spin on conventions. I want to shock readers, make them think differently.”
That’s fine. Good, even.
But wouldn’t you want the reader to truly grok your work? Why should we expect readers to think exactly like us, be somehow privy to the leaf-mould that composes us? We shouldn’t expect that.
There’s a craft in converting thoughts into words. When you do it well, magic blooms. You teach a reader something new. You show them a new way of grokking the world. You bring about an incredible personal change in their lives. This magic is the sweetest spot.
So again, the reader comes first. Go on and take that pith with you. Whip out that story you’ve been dying to tell, and think about the person who’s been dying to hear it.
If you’ve just been accepted to the Odyssey Writing Workshop, here are some things that will help you get the most out of the experience…
Get ready to write. A lot. It doesn’t sound like much in the description–just six short stories or six chapters from a longer piece over a six-week period–but you will likely write more words of criticism than you do of fiction. You are not just learning from Jeanne, but from all the other writers in your class. Each of your classmates is also turning in six submissions and you will be reading and critiquing two thirds of them. (The other third are critiqued privately by special guests.) While you will no doubt be praising their imagination, creativity, and beautiful prose, you will also be expected to make suggestions for improvements. It’s not enough to say “this part doesn’t work for me.” You have to figure out why it doesn’t work and come up with a suggestion on how to make it better.
Since you may not be used to reading critically, you’ll want to start training your editor brain, which is quite different than your writer brain. Reread favorite genre stories and novels with an eye to why you like them and why they work for you. One of the concepts introduced in the workshop is the concept of your “leaf mold,” which is the composting of all your reading that fertilizes your imagination and writing technique. You want high quality fertilizer for your leaf mold.
Shift your brain into short story mode. While many Odyssey attendees plan on writing novels, they tend to mostly submit short stories at the workshop. Working on six completely different pieces allows you to experiment with different genres, tenses, points of view, etc. You will be encouraged to try new things with your writing. For example, if you normally carefully plan and plot everything out in advance, you may want to try “pantsing,” as in writing by the seat of your pants.
If you normally read only novels, you will definitely need to make an adjustment, hence shifting your brain into short story mode. Short stories are not just very short novels, but have a different structure, pace and set of rules. If you aren’t familiar with short stories, you should spend most of your free reading time before Odyssey focusing on short stories in your chosen genre(s). Read as many award-winning stories as you can. Collections, such as “The Year’s Best _____” are a great way to compare different successful writers working in the same genre.
Learn how to make the most out of criticism. Your stories have probably been read by others before. Your friends and family are probably a source of praise. You may have even attended other workshops before, but the sheer amount of feedback you receive will be overwhelming. Imagine reading 15 essays where the topic is how to improve the story you just birthed. You may not agree with every critique, but you have to respect the effort that went into it. That other writer would likely rather be working on their next assignment, but instead they offer you their opinion and suggestions on how to improve your work.
Jeanne’s critiques are on a whole other level. If you think the other writers’ critiques are in depth, wait until you pore over hers. She writes over ten thousand words of critiques every week, causing writers to wonder if she has multiple clones of herself or has no need for sleep. Her insight is amazing and will often leave you feeling dumbstruck. Make use of all her suggestions. Your story may have been your baby, but Jeanne will help you raise that baby to adulthood. Here is a sample from one of her critiques, which my class decided was the most definitive Jeanne comment: “This paraphrasing of dialogue is telling me that you realize this conversation lacks conflict so it’s not worth quoting directly. I agree, and that’s a problem.”
Jeanne will provide you with an optional list of novels to read and movies to watch before the workshop. Do not treat these as optional. You may have read/seen some of these already, but revisit each one with an eye toward plot, structure, and character development. These will provide you all with a common vocabulary and shared knowledge base.
Finally, Jeanne will have three one-on-one meetings with you. Try to schedule them as early as possible during the workshop. You may think you should wait until after you have turned in more submissions, but trust me, she will have you figured out just from your two pre-workshop submissions. Getting her feedback early will give you more submissions to work on your weaknesses, and give you more opportunities to leverage your strengths. You only have six submissions during the workshop and you want to make the most of them. She will not only nail your weaknesses, but give you suggestions on how to improve them. Her advice isn’t like the generic comments you get in writing classes. For a strength, she said “Interesting focus on protagonists who are subject to the will of powers greater than themselves (and between rationality and irrationality).” She will steer you toward writing styles that will take you out of your comfort zone, but will produce great leaps in your overall writing ability. One student had several stories that dealt with a central mystery that resolved with a twist or surprise at the end. She suggested writing a story with no element of mystery or hidden plotline at all, resulting in several breakthroughs.
I hope you have the chance to experience Odyssey. If you do, take everything Jeanne says to heart and you may be dedicating a novel to her in the future.