Six impossible things

It’s not the same

There are a number of bits of wisdom that nonwriters frequently impart to writers, usually with the best of intentions. Some of them are useful and very true, like “You need to send that out, you know.” Other times…not so much.

One of the not-so-much categories comes in the form “If you (the writer) do X, the reader will also do X.” For instance, if the writer likes/dislikes the characters, the reader will dislike the characters. If the writer loses track of the plot, the reader will lose track of the plot. If the writer is having fun, the reader will have fun.

The trouble with this kind of pronouncement is that it confuses product with process. On the most basic level, there’s the matter of time. Most writers spend months or years producing a manuscript; most readers buzz through the same manuscript in days or hours. It’s relatively easy to remember the key hint or the bit of foreshadowing in Chapter Two if you read it within the last day; it’s not so simply if you wrote that bit two or three months ago. It’s even worse if you wrote it four months ago in Chapter Ten, moved it to Chapter Eight a month later, deleted it entirely when the front end of the story got reshuffled a week after that, then changed your mind and decided it needed to go in somewhere and tried it in three or four places before settling on Chapter Two as the right spot (for now) a month ago.

By the same token, the writer has to live with the characters – and their quirks – a lot longer than the readers do. The protagonist who was charming and fascinating at the start of the series can start to feel old and stale after the writer has lived with him/her for four or five years…but the readers, who’ve only had four or five weeks of the character over those same four or five years, frequently still find the character fresh and appealing.

In other words, what works in fiction that is read over a relatively short period – say a week – does not necessarily have the same effect when it is spread over months or years. What works for the reader may well not work in the same way for the writer.

Conversely, what works for the writer (or what the writer thinks is working) may not work for a reader who hasn’t been steeped in the story for weeks and months. Things a writer thinks are blindingly obvious (because he/she has been pondering the character’s motivation or the series of plot twists) may be totally opaque to most readers because the writer forgot (or didn’t think it necessary) to put it on the page. Things a writer thinks are just the right level of incluing may strike the reader as being beaten about the head and shoulders with hints (because the hints that the writer put in weeks apart, the reader is running across within minutes of each other).

Which brings me to the second part of the product-process confusion: the writer and the reader are not looking at the same thing. The reader has a finished product; the writer is working with an unfinished product, right up to the very end.

A story that’s in process is frequently very different from the final version. Not only does it change, it keeps on changing. As a result, the writer’s relationship to the story is very different from even the most dedicated and fanatical reader’s relationship to the story. The reader is looking at a porcelain teacup, finished and glazed. The writer is looking, at various times, at a lump of clay, a lopsided bowl that has to be squished down and reshaped, a mug-like cylinder that’s closer but still too tall, an unfinished cup that still needs to be fired and painted and glazed but that’s at least the right shape, and, eventually, the finished teacup…which may be a lovely and pleasing teacup, but which is nothing at all like the water pitcher the writer had in mind when she sat down with that lump of clay at the beginning of the process.

For writers, it’s as much about the journey as it is about the end result.

  1. While I do occasionally have a strong desire to read books I haven’t written yet, I’ve only had that happen once for a book I had finished. (Or at least, had thought I’d finished at that point. It’s currently being taken from water pitcher to teapot.) It was one of the strangest and most delightful feelings, reading a book I’d written *as* a reader, not as the writer of it. It only happened once but I got to appreciate product and process at the same time, and it was marvellous.

    The rest of the time I find it very difficult to decide if I’m done with the work or not. Ah well, I suppose that’s why one has readers.

  2. Some books can be reread and greatly enjoyed again. One can pick out things that were not known in the first reading but on second reading show up in light of things that happen later. The author does not get that same sense of realisation.

  3. All that is true. I do have one fairly minor quibble, though.

    The *really* successful books (or stories, more generally) live with the reader for a long, long, time, and those characters are still relevant to us decades later. If *I* start seeing them as boring, or as twits, that may not matter too much to the author, though — put in the crudest possible terms, I’ve probably already bought all the author wrote about those characters before the decades bring me to the realization I don’t like them.

    (This relationship with the characters is certainly very different from the relationship involved in creating the stories, you’re completely right about that. So the ways in which a character begins to irritate the author may not be a useful predictor of any possible long-term irritation to the reader anyway.)

  4. This is sooo true! I’m glad someone has finally said it!

  5. This is something that it’s hard for me to keep in mind as I write. When I finish my stories, I try to forget that I wrote them and read through them as a reader would. I don’t think I catch everything, but that’s what we have first readers and critique groups for, I suppose.

  6. This is why the most valuable thing other people can give me (and yes, I’ve asked for this for my birthday and Christmas before) is perspective: beta readers and critique groups are very dear to me. 🙂

  7. As an aspiring writer who is cut off from contact with other more experienced authors, it’s a relief to know much of what I go through I am not alone in. Especially in regards to worrying that readers may find characters stale.

    I do have a question regarding differences in author versus reader perception. Often, when writing, I feel as if I’m watching a film in my head and looking for the best way to put it down on paper. Ideally, when someone reads my work, they see the same film that I watched. The problem arises after the rough draft is complete. Because I still have the master copy of the film in my head, I cannot tell whether or not the rough draft evokes the appropriate mental images, and so I do not know how to go about making edits for content and portrayal. Do other authors have this problem? How do they deal with it?

  8. What an insightful post. YES – I can relate to the lump of clay and all of its various metamorphoses. It IS so hard to look at your novel objectively after living with it so closely and, as you say, after you “wrote it four months ago in Chapter Ten, moved it to Chapter Eight a month later, deleted it entirely when the front end of the story got reshuffled a week after that, then changed your mind and decided it needed to go in somewhere and tried it in three or four places before settling on Chapter Two as the right spot (for now) a month ago”. SO well said. So true.

    Ahh…the beauty of the process…

  9. I especially liked the “(for now)”.

  10. I am going through this with my current WIP. Intellectually, I know it’s in better shape than I think it is, but it’s gone through so many changes that it’s become a muddle in my head. I’m going to need my critique group more than ever with this one.

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