Lately I’ve been editing, not only my own work in progress, but the stories and poems produced by the members of my writers’ group. One thing has struck me about both projects: the importance of remembering the reader.
With the stories I’m editing I have identified two main problems: One is giving the reader too much information, and the second is giving her too little.
In terms of my own current work-in-progress, the challenge is conveying the chaotic thinking of the mentally-unstable narrator, while presenting the reader with a coherent narrative. I know what the story is about, but how do I convey it to others?
Writing is a mysterious process. The writer enters a world entirely of her own making. She inhabits it. If she is talented, she will take the essence of that world and distill it onto the page so the reader can come and drink and be filled with that world. If she’s exceptional, that world will wrap itself around the reader’s DNA, becoming a part of them. If you don’t write, or if you are just starting out, all of that sounds like so much apple pie in the heavens.
Here’s a secret: Even writers don’t know how they do it. Not really. We sit at our desks and, on good days, the words stream out. The next time we look up, it’s hours later, the tea has gone cold, and we’ve added a few thousand words to the work in progress. But what happened in the between-time? How did those words appear? I do it every day, have done since I was in single digits, but I haven’t a clue how. This is what they call being “in the zone,” or a “flow state.” (For the psychology of this phenomenon, see by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.) E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” He had a point.
Most of the time when we’re writing, we’re locked inside our own minds, hearing the voices of our characters, seeing the world they inhabit. We strive to find the exactly write words to communicate these things. I say that’s what it’s like, and I think it’s true, but the truth is the degree of immersion is such that it cannot be analysed from the inside, any more than a dream can.
During this early stage the writer is too locked inside her own mind to be able to pay much heed to her own physical existence. Right now, she is writing for herself, not for the reader. Getting it down is what matters. Dump it all out. Tidy it up later.
This is one of the many, many reasons why the rewrite is so important. This is when it stops being all about you and becomes about the person or persons you’re writing for. It is the difference between the whistle on the deserted midnight street and the full scale orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall.
Books are two-way communication. They are, in a sense, a form of telepathy. Think about it. You sit and read a novel by Dickens, for instance. Your eyes burn as you read how Sydney Carton gave his life to save someone else. “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…” You close the book and drown the cover with tears. You’ve just had your heart ripped out by an author who has been dead for almost 150 years. He created a character, a scene, and it was so powerful that you could see what he saw, hear what he heard.
Very few writers really know what they are doing until they have done it.
~ Annie Lamott
Writers with experience know how to select the details that make a character or a scene come to life. The better the writer, the sharper the detail, the more profound the impact on the reader. Inexperienced writers, though, often lack that finesse. They tend to overwrite the scene:
John said he could change the tyre himself. He tried to put the jack in place but it tilted at a dangerous angle. He tried again and it still didn’t work. Finally, on the third try, he managed to get the car off the ground. Now came the battle with the lug nuts…
It’s not elegant prose, is it? More, it’s boring. It lacks pith and wit, and it treats the reader as an idiot. Let’s try it again, this time respecting the reader is intelligent enough to connect the dots for herself:
John insisted he could change the tyre himself. Mary never guessed John knew so many swear words.
Remembering the reader is important. They are the other half of your two-way communication, after all. I mean, if you were, say, making porridge for a little girl, you wouldn’t want it too hot, or too cold. It has to be, well, just right.
Different people read for different reasons. Some want to be ‘hip’, so they will read whatever happens to be on the bestsellers’ lists. Others have specific interests, a period in history, say, and they are drawn to books that will give them more insight into those interests. Some are drawn to genres, others to whatever catches their eye in the airport, and far too many read under duress, usually something assigned for a class.
It’s our job as writers to write prose that will draw in the reader, no matter why he or she first picked up your book. That means not writing as if they were too stupid to understand what you’re trying to say. You don’t have to fill in every detail. Readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions, and they like being treated as intelligent. In my second example above, didn’t you feel a little smug at figuring out on your own why John was swearing?
On the other hand, readers do need enough information to be able figure out what you’re trying to convey. They can connect the dots, but all the dots have to be there. One of the writers in my group presented a story which came to a sudden, abrupt ending. A woman leaves a room and a spark lands on the carpet. There was no sense of what this was supposed to signify. When I asked her about it, she admitted she had cut a big chunk of the story to fit the word count, but had kept the ending that the missing part led to. Don’t do that. Story always trumps word count.
There are some writers, even quite well-known ones, who see fiction as their opportunity to show off how much cleverer they are than their readers. The only thing they love more than ambiguity is the obscure word or phrase. Such prose might win accolades from the sort of university professor who sees education as the bastion of the elite, but it will repel most of the rest of us.
The first function of fiction (say that fast three times) is to tell a story. If your wordplay and fragmented narrative take centre stage and the story has been forgotten, in my opinion you’ve failed.
Get thee a beta reader who is smart, honest, and patient. (Hi, Jane!) That is the only real way to be sure your story fits the Goldilocks formula: It’s not so bloated that the reader feels you’re treating him as an idiot; not so sparse he can’t figure out what’s going on. The ideal story has to be j-u-s-t-r-i-g-h-t…
Writing is meant to be read, which means it needs readers. Treat them with respect and tell them a story. That’s not really too much to ask, is it?