Jeanne: Hidden Factories

industrial buildingsRecently, we had a conversation on one of my author loops on applying Six Sigma/Lean Manufacturing techniques to writing. Apparently some guru will soon be teaching a class on using Kanban boards to increase author efficiency.

One of the Six Sigma terms I remember from my training back when I worked in the manufacturing sector was “hidden factories”—process steps that take time and resources but don’t add value as defined by the customer. For example, let’s say you have a coffee shop that puts a little paper doily on each saucer before placing the baked good on the plate. If the customer (not the waiter, not the baker, not the store owner) doesn’t perceive that doily as adding value to his bearclaw, that step is a hidden factory.

So how would the concept of hidden factories apply to writing? I’m just riffing but here are some things that authors put a lot of time into that don’t necessarily improve the quality of the book from the readers’ perspective:

  1. In depth research into careers/jobs held by characters.

This is definitely one of the reasons why it takes me so long to write a book. In The Demon’s in the Details, the protagonist was a painter. Since I’m not even a tiny bit artistic, or even crafty, I had no clue how artists view the world. She was, specifically, a muralist, and I didn’t know how artists go about painting murals.

So, some research was clearly required. Before I started writing, though, I think I read three or four books and watched a couple of movies about painting and artists. I also participated in the painting of a mural in my church’s nursery.

Did all those efforts make the art parts of the book more realistic? Yes, of course. On the other hand, did the amount of additional enjoyment my readers got out of the book justify the many hours I spent? That’s less clear.

2.  Visiting places that I use for settings.

I’ve seen recommendations that, if you’re writing about a place you’ve never been, you can use books, YouTube and Google Earth to give you a strong sense of the place. And that’s true, but only to a point. From those sources you can determine what a place looks like and, to a degree, what it sounds like. But they won’t tell you what it smells like, or what the air feels and tastes like, or how the people who live there respond to curious strangers.

Because of those shortcomings, I strongly prefer to set my books in places that I’ve actually been. But while there’s no question that makes the book stronger, does it make a difference to the reader?

Actually, on that one, maybe. On my first book I had someone comment that the clinic setting was so real she felt like she’d been there. And on the second, another reader commented that the descriptions of Sedona left her wanting to visit.

3.  Getting to know my characters really well.

This, to be honest, is where I really eat up a lot of time. It usually takes me one hundred to one hundred and fifty pages of moving characters around before I really feel like I know them. Once I do, it’s not unusual for me to go back and revamp the first part to make the characters consistent which what I’ve unearthed in the process.

That’s a frustratingly slow process, but it seems to yield good results. One reviewer said this of The Demon Always Wins: “The characters are the star of this book… They are all well defined characters who do the things they do for reasons which are or become apparent over the course of the book. Nobody steps out of the character they really are in order to advance the plot.”

Hmm. This didn’t turn out the way I expected. Of the three potential hidden factories I exposed, only one of them appears to actually be a waste of time (and I’m not even sure about that).

What about you? If you’re a writer, what part of your process do you feel you spend more time on than is warranted? If you’re a reader, what parts of books do you skim?



2 thoughts on “Jeanne: Hidden Factories

  1. Well, as a reader of romance novels, I definitely skim or skip the sex scenes, which might be the most enjoyable to research! As a writer, though—I did once go to a location to research, which information I’ve used in four novels so far. I needed to learn some facts about the place that I had been unable to turn up on Google, but if I had learned those things online, I would have felt that I didn’t need to go. However, that trip was with a friend, who went there for her own reasons. So all in all, the trip wasn’t a waste, but my readers “benefitted” only by my knowing that what I wrote was factually true. But if I’d made up the elements I wanted to know, I don’t think either the story or my readers would have suffered.

    Otherwise, the parts of writing I spend too much time on? The parts where I make a mistake and have to go back and delete, sometimes a lot. I spend too much time on that.

  2. I’m very interested in the word “perceived” — how much are readers (and consumers) affected by things that they don’t actually perceive consciously, but may notice subconsciously? (I’ve been reading a couple books on subconscious priming, etc, lately, so that may influence me.)

    Maybe the doily doesn’t register on most people. And maybe some people are actively annoyed by the doily (if it sticks on the sticky buns, or is perceived as a waste of resources). But it may subconsciously promote an air of luxury, and let the café owner charge a higher price.

    I know I’ve read the “behind the scenes” blurbs of a few writers that have added a lot of value to the book/story. Sometimes the behind-the-scenes story is better than the original story, LOL. But some readers skip everything except the body of the story while others appreciate every extra bit.

    For me, hidden factories would be stuff like beginning of the chapter quotations (especially if they don’t seem to really relate easily to the story — I’ll quit reading the quotations after two or three if they are annoying that way), and song lyrics (either at the beginning of a chapter, or created by the author and put in the body of the text). Poetry written by the characters also is a skimmable event for me in almost all cases.

    However, those things MUST have been very important for the writer — gave her direction, or a lot of joy to produce. A very bad pun might give joy to only five percent of the readers — but I imagine it must give joy to 99 percent of the writers who intentionally formed it and then LEFT IT IN. Sometimes these little jokes are very motivational in the writing process.

    I wish I could make my process a lot more efficient, but I’m not sure if it can be done effectively for something that’s meant to be entertaining. They have robots that can write up news stories now, but that’s a plug-in-the-facts-to-the-formula situation.

    I think my biggest bar to efficiency is perfectionism that leads to thinking waaaay too much, rather than writing, throwing away, and writing again. The long way around, ironically, might be more efficient for me.

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