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Post-Mortem: Readers Like You

I’m keen to use the Idle Fiction Jam to push myself as a writer, exploring new challenges and addressing the flaws in my style and technique. ‘Readers Like You’ unfortunately exhibits a number of those flaws.

I prefer my take on ‘A Person-Shaped Thing is a Person‘ to this story, but vocal readers argue this is the better piece of work. It’s plausible that I like the former more because it engages with issues that press on my mind, or that I liked exploring a set of characters who were worlds apart from anything to do with weird tentacled extraterrestrials. Conversely it could be that people enjoy a decent plot, which ‘A Person-Shaped Thing is a Person’ lacks, and ‘Readers Like You’ has a narrative trajectory and conclusion.

The original concept for ‘Readers Like You’ emerged from two ideas. Both came from a list of readers, which included: someone who reads many things; archaeologists deciphering linguistic artefacts; hard- and software tools for reading (from OCR scanners to epaper); even someone who conveys stories (e.g. a town crier, or other religious and political functionaries). I decided that a contemporary news junkie, compelled to hoover up every bit of information they could find, would be fun to write. Then I decided to throw alien archaeologists into the mix, because why not? Extrinsic actors are a great way to inject conflict into a story, and aliens give you license to get weird.

I wasn’t sure how to actually pull these ideas together. I toyed with having these ‘archaeologists’ comb through humanity’s relics – whether we still existed or not – in search of the ‘perfect mind’ which could remake the world in a new vision. The story’s thrust would be what this vision amounted to; “a tortured hellscape, or a utopia that our psyches and desires, born of perpetual imperfection, can never truly accept?

Before I began writing that story I considered some old advice, the source of which I’ve lost but is along the lines of ‘take your original story idea, which will be terrible, and turn it upside down and inside out until it is barely recognisable – and now you have an interesting idea’. Most ideas are dull because they are one dimensional; examining them from other angles is typically more interesting. So I took my news junkie who was obsessed with the world without and made them an obsessive chronicler of their own life, and I took my alien archaeologists and made them into an inscrutable bunch of social anthropologists driven to collect what they could of humanity’s inner lives in order to understand us. Now there was a stronger connection between the two threads, and there was good reason for the aliens to mess around with their subjects. Not so much the Prime Directive as the Yanomami Controversy.

That’s how the concept came to be. Sadly, the story itself was rushed. I didn’t start writing until the end-of-month deadline was looming, and the first draft was completed several days after it had passed. Because I’d overrun the story got a few edit passes for sanity and that was it; as a result a lot of warts remain visible. Some of these I’d have caught in rewrites, but others I may have missed entirely.

The biggest technical flaw is the story’s shifting tense. Clara’s section begins in present continuous and switches to the past perfect, but from there it slips to the past continuous and back again in an awkward shuffle. I didn’t notice until a friend pointed it out. This was a little infuriating.

The same friend shared very detailed feedback on ‘Readers Like You’ which was fantastic. On the opening section, he remarked “At first glance I wondered what the hell I was reading but I quickly got it.” Though he got what I was aiming for, it is worth noting that the opening passage is 200 words long and features seven “candidates”, and the important stuff could have been conveyed in less.

Stylistically, my critical friend took issue with what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “junk writing”: sentences or paragraphs that serve no actual purpose. He’s also a writer – of a much more meticulous creed than I – and edited a few pages to his preference, only removing words. He cuts 10-15% of those two pages. I don’t agree with every excision but it was a welcome reminder of my propensity to overwrite and my woolliness when it comes to clearly establishing focus and purpose. I will probably print those pages out and pin them above my desk.

My fragile ego was relieved that despite these and other criticisms he liked the story, laughed where I hoped readers would laugh and was intrigued by where the tale was going. I’ve had similarly warm feedback from everyone who’s shared some, which is nice. Of course everyone who thought it shit is also being nice in their own way.

Enough with the auto-fellatio, back to the auto-critique! Perhaps the final major issue with ‘Readers Like You’ is Clara’s diary, which features little despite being the story’s fulcrum. 1,350 words of a 3,000-word story have passed before any diary is mentioned at all. There are ways to amend this without substantial rewrites but as with the shifting tense, I did not notice at the time.

A minor point concerns the awkward use of brand names. The appearance of “iPhone” and “Siri” received criticism, although I still feel these play an important role in conveying the nature of how the aliens can and cannot communicate, as well as being funny. Conversely “B&H” is an abbreviated regional brand name that serves no narrative purpose in the story, and does not need to be there.

I’m not entirely happy with the penultimate scene and the dialogue exchange it contains. Clara keeps herself together too well, and that’s because I needed her to keep her head together in order to ask the right questions. It feels forced. I tried to distract from this by describing symptoms that could be interpreted as physiological responses to extreme distress. However to circumvent the problem entirely would demand a big structural shift and possibly a higher wordcount.

Clara is also the latest in a long line of passive protagonists in my stories. I tend to write stories that involve things happening to people. Even where they are more active they’re generally going to places where things happen to them; they don’t tend to drive the change around them, except by violence. That’s another self-diagnosed issue with my writing I want to address – so expect a future IFJ story to riff on that.

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