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Designing the Read

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Anne Lamott


When you set out to write, you’re designing the read for a certain type of reader – you.

So the question is, FullSizeRender_2What inspires you? 

As I mentioned last week, powerful writing comes from powerful editing. So when you edit and when you’re writing your first draft, you’ve got to continually think about what fires you up about this story. How is the theme, the big idea, the message, involving and providing what you want to read?

The thoughts and feelings of your main character and the story itself arise from that. That’s where the deepest drama comes from.

This is why I recommend considering your favorite books and how the author captured that essential empathy and connected to your own hopes and desires. Think about and decide specifically what you love and why. Likely, you share some similar passions with your favorite authors you can cultivate and develop.

What is it exactly? Certainly, it involves the words and phrasing–the elemental writer’s passion. But beyond that, what in the subject, the observations, the dialogue and relationships shows the author’s mind at work, their heart for this story? Think of the book as a well-tended garden and consider the care invested in it.

That’s what your applied passion will produce if you just keep at it.

FullSizeRenderRemember, your reader wants to figure out not just the external puzzles and mysteries, but the interior ones as well—the insights and connections, the hidden distinctions and revelations. Those are the uniquely suited plants a writer chooses and waters. And then, as they flourish, decisions come about which elements to bring forward and which to prune into subtler background. Your preferences matter most and your vision needs to be strong to shape the effect you want to have. But what readers need, that’s the writer’s job to consider too, no matter what kind of book you’re writing. And that’s where good editing considers all the elements and designs the best possible experience.

The beauty of a well-designed garden is obvious. But how exactly the gardener made their decisions, what went into each plant and how much pruning was involved? Most people won’t care. But you will. Because you’ve felt the swell in your spirit at knowing someone took the time to care that much. And it inspired you to care as well.

Repeat it until it’s second-nature: the drama and impact of the read comes from what you write and what you don’t. Ponder on that for several mornings as you sit down to write: it’s what you’re bringing and what you’re taking away that makes the garden beautiful. Consider your favorite books and how you yourself are thrilled when you read a story that allows you to fill in and imagine what the author suggested. That’s what good writing does. And if you’re writing a first draft, just tell the story to yourself and don’t worry about designing it yet. This shaping work creates the magic from the editing process, where you think about creating a stronger experience by augmenting the essential, and eliminating all else. But in writing, often you have to over-plant and then edit for economy and efficiency.

Focus on the 2 of 3 rule when you write, and think what readers need in each chapter/scene/section: 1) reveal character, 2) advance plot, and/or 3) describe setting. Ideally, have 2 of those 3 happening at any given spot and you’ll have a lush garden.

FullSizeRender_1Then, once the first draft is done, read aloud with someone and address any obvious weaknesses as you work to strengthen the experience — heighten the central desire, deepen the opposition, raise the stakes, convey the plight. Show what your character is seeing and feeling through description of the setting, reduce extra detail, digressions, and places where the story stops moving forward. Show us the characters’ feelings about her situation and the people in her life. Use your outline to consider what each chapter experience is—happy, sad, anger, fear, or surprise. And refer to the feel wheel often.

And where does your motivation for all of this work come from? From the chance to do something very few people get to do for perfect strangers: offer hope.

What brings that hope, what saves someone desperate to live, is a story—your story. That’s why you’ve got to believe in that power.

You don’t need to know whether the story is timely, fitting, competitive, or even desirable. You only need to believe in the power of your story to save.

You can do this if you’ll choose to ignore the distractions and lesser gardens around you. You can speak the truth of your experience clearly and powerfully so that anyone attuned to hear it will feel in their heart it’s their own story being expressed.

For as Buechner said, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

Free your reader, my friend. Concentrate on that concentrated passion….

For the higher purpose,


10 Responses to “Designing the Read”

  1. dhgaul says:

    I absolutely loved this piece. The wisdom you offer to all of us is invaluable and so many of us could never afford a formal workshop to learn from you face-to-face. I love the way you’ve chosen NOT to seat the poor man at the back of the church. Aside from the fact you live with humility and grace, I am so glad to be in your circle. And I’m using everything you offer…

    • Mick says:

      Wow! Thanks for the huge appreciation. You make it easy to share. And I’m all about offering the freebies–there’s way too much bad advice out there. Keep those kind words coming! And keep writing. The dollars will come. -M

  2. Just signed up for the blog and already halfway through Mick and Emily’s book on writing the memoir. I’m inspired. Thanks!

  3. So perfectly timed. Thank you, Mick, for the free hard-won advice so graciously given.

    • Mick says:

      So glad you can put it to use. Happy writing! And thanks for the awesome support, Jody. -M

  4. suzee branch says:

    ahh, the importance of both what one does write and what one should leave out. i was just needing to screen my manuscript with that particular issue at the forefront. but then ALL those other crucial
    checkpoints…everyone to be heeded and if i actually could and did, then what a story i’d end up with. your experience is making you a better teacher and suggester (is that a word?) all the time. your biggest gift to me this week was sharing anne lamott’s quote. it provides the ULTIMATE in relief and relaxation as a human trying to navigate this here life. THANK YOU MICK.
    suzee B

    • Mick says:

      So much to think about, isn’t it? And to strive for much of it to become second nature–to so fuse with your process it enters the level of simply playing. Like a beautiful singer or dancer.

      You just keep showing up for work, Suzee. Step by step, he is refining you as you hold still, looking at him, and shining. So much fun! -M

  5. terripicone07 says:

    This post is another standout, Mick. I think you need to write a book about editing because you have such amazing insights. This is why I follow and recommend you to others.

    My favorite books are those that let me make discoveries based on the evidence the writer provides (and I’m not talking about mysteries either). So powerful, like I’m learning along with the character (yes, the power of story). Conversely, I’m insulted and often quit reading a book which tells me everything, a book which the author doesn’t trust me to ‘get it.’

    I gave some thought to the themes of my favorite writers as you suggested and can see connections there of injustice, survival, overcoming, and most of all-hope.

    I love your analogy in the comment response above about striving like a dancer or singer for our writing to become second nature. Then we can joyfully play with our words and sentences, characters and plot points so they become beautiful for our reader.

    Thanks for helping us work on it, coach!

    • Mick says:

      Hmm. Maybe so. Think there’s enough for a book here? So appreciate your kind words and sharing mine with others. You continually honor me with how deeply you invest in the deeper meaning of this work. It’s truly a coach’s dream. :) Keep investing all that great thinking for the book until it conveys all this! You’ve got what it takes. -M

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