Monday, November 22, 2010

The Way We Come Across

Last week, a guy in my company (let's call him "Pete") sent an email to someone else ("Polly"). Polly had asked for Pete to help with the printing of a proposal that would be sent to a customer. Pete replied that our company was on a serious color print and paper reduction campaign and that we would have to think about reducing our color prints drastically. Also, Pete said we should think about reducing the colors we use in our proposals, like removing orange. Orange, of course, being our main corporate color.

Polly (rightly) didn't really know what to say to that, and forwarded it to me. I didn't really know what to say either, since no one had asked ME (I am marketing, by the way) about color usage. The way the email read, someone had made up some stupid rules about color and printing with nary a thought to reality, or funny things like company brand.

I sent some strongly worded emails ("This rule is BS") to Pete and also our IT manager (let's call him "Repeat"), who usually (and frankly, is known for) sets these kinds of rules. Both Pete and Repeat responded quickly all up in arms, telling me there was no need to get my dander up. They both said no one had made the color usage rules and that it didn't exists and it was just a suggestion. And that, basically, *I* was out of line for being all upset.

So, apart from the obvious lapse of total common sense in suggesting such a lame color reduction scheme (perfect fodder for a ragey ahole boss character, no?), Pete and Repeat failed to see how the original email would come across to someone who was merely requesting help with a print job. And then how I took it, having gotten Polly's bewildered email.

It made me wonder about all the times we write a scene or an exchange, and we mean something really important with it, and then our beta readers or critique groups go, "What is this? Did you fall and hit your head? What is this drivel trying to prove right here?" And you go, "Um, I was trying to, um..." but the cause seems lost since they didn't get it. Then later, when you brood over the critique, you go, "But it is there! I was totes trying to make the dragon seem deep, because he represents the struggle of the hero."

I'm convinced that sometimes there's just no way to know what the effect is going to be on people. I would say that in most cases, we try our best to think things through and make sure we consider the different ways in which people take things--and of course this is one of the reasons feedback is so important--but in the end, you can't control it.

(Although I really kind of think Pete could have thought how such a psychotic answer about imaginary color usage rules would come across to the marketing folks.)

Thoughts? Agree, disagree? Do you think there is a way for us to get across a point the way we intend it? Does this happen often to you, where you thought you were showing something only to find you failed utterly?


Matthew Rush said...

Great story!

I think your point is pretty well made but in the end I believe it all comes down to subjectivity. Some readers may get the symbolism of the dragon, overtly, others may not fully understand it, but get a feel for it, and other may not get it at all, or worse, may think it's stupid.

That's why I think it's important to get the feedback from many different sources. You can't expect every reader to react the same way, but if you get a majority reacting how you had hoped they would, you should be good to go.

Linda G. said...

Reader response is all rather mysterious, isn't it? It's like with blog posts--sometimes you can bust your hump over one, and it gets a lukewarm response. Other times, you pull one out of, nether region, and toss it up in about thirty seconds, and you get tons of happy comments. Trying to figure it out can drive you crazy.

For more lasting works (say, novels, for instance), getting feedback from diverse sources within your likely reading demographic is probably the best thing you can do.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

You're definitely right that we can't predict readers' (differing and subjective) responses. In Pete's case, he didn't care and/or was actually trying to coerce Polly (a hypothesis bolstered by his subsequent defensiveness).

I bet, as a marketer, you struggle with this same issue all the time in your day job, Sierra - trying to convey the right message in the most effective way to the client.

In a fiction writer's case, it seems to me that all you can do is get lots of feedback, listen to it and try to learn, and even press (in a nice way), if necessary, so that you understand from the other person why this or that didn't work. You can also assess from the other side (as a reader and reviewer) what works and what doesn't.

KLM said...

Sometimes people will react to something I wrote or said, and I think, "How on earth could they construe that to mean that?" Usually it's just, hey, they're nuts and have a lot of baggage. But sometimes, I can see where they got that impression. (It's one of the reasons I usually keep my sense of humor to myself until I KNOW for SURE that the person can take a joke the way it's intended). When I was querying, I had one agent tell me my MC was coming off as snotty/kind of a brat in the opening pages. I looked at the scene again and thought, Ah, I can see where she got that. It was one piece of dialogue -- again, a joke that apparently didn't go over too well. I softened a few things to lessen that effect without really changing the overall scene that much.

So I guess those moments when you get these odd reactions are opportunities to assess how you're coming across, but again, sometimes people are just nuts and you have to shrug and wonder what went wrong in their childhoods.

Meghan Ward said...

This is why I like writers' groups, particularly ones large enough to get a varied response. So if something isn't clear, they'll tell me. And if three out of four people don't get it, but one person does, then I probably need to clarify it in the text. Loved "Pete" and "Repeat"!

And in response to Kristen's comment, I, too, am more careful about jokes I make in front of people, having learned that people don't always "get" it if they don't know me well.

Sierra Godfrey said...

To speak to Linda's comment about hit or miss blog posts, I thought FOR SURE this post would be a miss with you guys! So thanks for all the comments :)

So, a question for you-- I too agree that a diverse reading base is important, but do you take into account the types of people who respond? You may remember my toxic critique group post. I felt that a lot of the negative (and toxic) feedback I was getting was a direct result of the reviewer hating the material and the genre I was writing. Thoughts on that?

Roni Loren said...

I think it's sometimes impossible to predict how someone will take something. I know I've had readers say--I totally loved how you connected the this with that theme and blah blah. And I'm like--oh yeah, I TOTALLY planned that. o.0 Um, right.

To answer your last question--I think you do have to take into account who is giving the feedback. If a dude who hates romance reads my book, he's not going to like it no matter if the story is good or not.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

Yeah, I agree with Roni. You have to consider the source of the feedback and whether it's focused on actually helping you improve or just some mismatch. There's always a boundary of some sort around the target audience.

And oh man, I cannot count the number of people in my real life who probably think I am super-boring because I choose not to reveal my sense of humor until I reach a certain level of comfort that the person will get it...and sometimes that means never.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I have a terrible time getting my rather dry (sarcastic? nah) wit across to people when I am facing them and speaking clearly. I can only imagine how the things I type are interpreted. If you can't type something nice...

Mia Hayson said...

I totally agree with the comments above! Feedback from readers is so subjective I do tend to take into account them as a person. That is to say, like Roni said, if I know the person is not so hot on the genre I write I know that their opnion is always going to be tainted by that, even if it's just a litte.

I feel like the more readers I get the more I can guage the writing because I sort of judge the average response. Otherwise I get confused.

I have this one friend I let read for me who is LOVELY and WONDERFUL but has got it into her head every scene I ever write that has a guy in it is about my ex-boyfriend. MOST WEIRD but now I just take in in my stride.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I'm reading your comments and thinking "Man, I'd love to read your fiction" because I feel like I would get your jokes! Your humor comes across, dry or not, to me well through blogging and commenting, all of you.

Sierra Gardner said...

Funny stuff. I find that my readers are invaluable in finding those spots I meant something but it didn't come across. Sometimes it's just one person and I file that away to consider when revising. But if everyone points it out - then I KNOW I have a problem. Next time tell Pete not to tell poor Paula about rules that haven't actually been implemented yet =)

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