I used to love pub quizzes – one of the forgotten casualties of the information age. It’s just not the same when people can sneak a look at Google on their phone. But almost as much as entering them, I enjoyed setting questions – ferreting out obscure and less-obscure bits of knowledge to make the quizzes interesting and fun for all concerned. It was always a challenge though, it’s hard to know whether your own questions are easy or hard enough. You want the answer not to be common knowledge, but also not so obscure that nobody knows the answer, but when you know about something, it’s easy to assume other people do too.
For example, to me, the question “Name all the current drivers in Formula 1” is relatively easy. But to me, “What’s Jen’s credit card PIN?” is easy too, and it certainly wouldn’t be a fair question for a pub quiz. (Or a very wise one, given you given out the answers at the end!)
Writing is sometimes similar. As the author, you know who is speaking, how they feel, what their tone of voice is and what they really mean. You also know more generally what you’re talking about. For example, in my LAX/LXA story a couple of weeks ago, I knew what the airport names and letters referred to. But that immersion can make it hard to decide exactly how much you need to explain.
I thought LAX = Los Angeles was common knowledge and I thought I’d made LXA clear enough with the references to the airport name and Tibet / China. But some of the comments made it clear that neither of these was necessarily true. Now, in a 100 word flash fiction, you have to some extent to leave the readers to infer everything, because you’re limited in what you can say, but in longer fiction the problem should be surmountable. However, over-supplying information isn’t the answer either. That way boredom lies, for the reader who got it at line 1 and doesn’t want you to slow down the story by hammering home whatever point made there.
To some extent, the answer comes in beta readers – once you see how a story affects members of your writing group or whichever friends you trust to proofread, you get a better feel for how well you’ve put across the story in your head. Even then, I think we have to accept we’ll always have a few people at either end of the spectrum and they won’t form our core readership base. That’s why I never understand writers who only ever ask one friend (often their partner) to beta for them, all they are really doing is learning to write for that one person.
The rest, I hope, lies in practice and study – in exercises like Friday Fiction, that allow you to access lots of beta readers over and over again, and in consciously reading other books to see how that author struck the balance (or failed to!).
What think you?