The Reader

I have to occasionally remind myself that I spend many months full-time writing something that will be read by others in several hours. I also have to remember what mindset the reader approaches my novels with. I have to both tell a story interesting enough to keep the reader's attention (intellect) and tell it in a manner that the reader enjoys (emotion). As a writer, you also need to be aware of these things.

Don't forget what the reader knows. If the reader knows something that a character in your story doesn't, it makes the story harder to write and you must be more skillful. You have to do this sometimes, but be very careful to not confuse or bore your reader. Don't go 10 pages with your character agonizing over who killed Aunt Bess if the reader was shown Uncle John strangling Aunt Bess in chapter two, something your character obviously wasn't privy to.

I find this to be a big problem that many new writers have, and it comes about because of point of view. If the writer has a scene that reveals who the bad guy is in chapter 2, but the protagonist doesn't know who the bad guy is until chapter 14, those twelve chapters in between, wherever the protagonist is trying to discover who the bad guy is, are a real turn-off to the reader.

In the same manner if you have an ensemble cast of characters traveling all over the world, you run into the problem of what we used to call in the army 'dissemination of information.' The reader knows all of what all the characters know, but the characters don't know what each other know. I used to have scenes where my characters literally all sat around a conference table and exchanged information—at least that is until an editor pointed out to me how boring those scenes were to the reader.

Don't underestimate the reader. If they can read, they have at least a base level of education. Don't beat the reader to death to make a point. Most writers err on the side of overkill; although a just as dangerous trait is being so subtle the reader misses it. Usually, though, the difference between a book and a movie is that the reader can go back three pages and reread something to check it. Also remember most people read every word and aren't likely to miss what you write. They may miss the significance of what you've written (which is useful in building suspense and having neat twists) but usually when the reader gets to the end and learns what really happened (if it's well written) they suddenly see the significance of things they didn't pay much attention to. Thus mention Uncle John maybe only once, instead of twenty times. Yeah, he was mentioned and the especially astute reader may pick up your clue, but even the most obtuse will get it if you rant on about Uncle John's massive forearms and great hand strength in chapter 10, and happen to mention several times how he likes to pop the heads off chickens in chapter 12 and how he used to set fires and torture small animals as a kid in chapter 14—get the point? Or do I have to beat you to death with it?

When remembering your reader, do not sell your reader short. Give the reader credit for putting some brain effort into the book. There is a tendency for beginning writers to either beat a reader to death with a point that they feel is important (i.e. repeating it several times on the same page) or being too subtle because the writer knows what's going on but forgets that the reader doesn't.

In the first case, overuse of language can be a problem. If a character is upset and you basically say that once, to use very strong adjectives or adverbs further on, to further emphasize the character's state of mind can actually detract. It is almost like using dialogue poorly. Let the actions, not the adjectives and adverbs speak.

An example of this common mistake:

"Listen you idiot," Buffalo Bill angrily screamed at the quivering boy. "You've really made me mad now,"he furiously added as he pounded the stock of his rifle into the dead buffalo's already smashed skull.

Think Buffalo Bill is angry? Uh-huh.

Also don't lecture the reader. Sometimes you will write something you feel very strongly about emotionally, but really adds little to the story. Cutting something out of your manuscript is one of the most painful things to do but one of the most necessary. I had a thirty-page chapter in my second novel that I was very proud of. It was a Special Forces briefback that went into superb detail on the upcoming mission. Unfortunately, it slowed down the action of the book and I made the decision to cut it down extensively and Chapter Six went from thirty pages to five in the final version. Concentrate on the overall story, not parts of the story.

I've even heard someone say that you should cut out the part of the manuscript that you absolutely love the most because your emotion is clouding your judgment. I'm not sure I agree with that, but there is a certain degree of validity to taking a hard look at the parts in your story that you feel most strongly about. It might even be just a sentence that strikes you each time you read it, jarring you out of the story, or even a word. Be prepared to cut.

Another mistake is too much foreshadowing. I found that I tended to 'set up' plot points a bit too much instead of allowing them to occur naturally. I mention elsewhere Chekov's rule of not having a gun in Act One unless you fire it by the end of Act Three, but be careful not to mention the gun too much or the reader loses all suspense.

The most important thing you have to remember about the reader though is that you have to interest him. You have to get him involved with your story. You can never assume you interest the reader. You have to focus on making sure you do that.

Even now, when I publish a book, I step back from it and look at it on the racks in the bookstore. I ask myself why should someone who has never heard of me pick up that book and even look at the back cover, never mind buy it? What makes my book stand out?

That leads me to this brilliant observation I made after publishing 10 books and writing 15 manuscripts: Title is important.

I look at the titles for my first eight books now and I cringe. There is little in the title of any of those books to interest the reader. So then why should they pick up and even check to see what it is about? Do that yourself. Go to the bookstore and just scan. Besides the cover art (if the book is fortunate not to be spine out), what do you notice? The title. And which ones catch your interest? It is something very important to think about and consider.

Many authors come up with a title that only makes sense if you read the book; i.e. the title comes out of the book. But that's backwards logic. Because no one is going to read the book unless the title draws them into. I recommend spending a considerable amount of time thinking about your title. I believe it is the only marketing device the writer has control of.

The bottom line is that the reader is the most important factor in the entire publishing arc that goes from writer, through agent, to editor, to publisher, to bookseller, to bookstores, to reader.

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