At the university where I teach, we have lovely gardens. In fact, we have listed, conserved gardens. This September, after the lovely summer, they looked absolutely spectacular. ‘Wow,’ I said to one of the gardeners, ‘it looks amazing.’
She sighed and leaned on her spade. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I wish we didn’t have to have to students back.’
I just smiled and kept walking (I frequently hit the gardening staff up for cuttings), but inside i was thinking, ‘You wouldn’t be here without the students. The place might not have survived without the students. The students are the whole point.’
And it’s the same with readers. I’ve just had an email from an undergraduate student. Her novel is turning out experimental. She’s horrified that her tutor wants her to think about readership. I hope I can straighten her out on Friday…convince her that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Some writers never think about their readers, ‘I write what I want to read,’ they say. ‘If I like it, I know they will.’ And that, of course, works…if there are enough people a lot like you. If you are plugged into the zeitgeist in a personal, fundamental way. But it doesn’t work for all of us. It especially doesn’t work if your reader is ten. Or fourteen. Or two.
Readers aren’t just there to react to your genius. Readers make up half of the book. You don’t write the story world…you write signs that point to it. The reader makes up the rest in his or her mind. You say someone, ‘has a beard, baggy corduroy trousers and a vacant expression’ and they add the rest to make a whole person.
Take a moment to read that description again: What do you see? Is your person’s hair thinning? Do they stoop a little? Do they wear half-moon glasses down on their nose? Mine does. Yours might not. And that shouldn’t matter.
A good relationship with your readers means that you are both making up much the same book. That you aren’t ruining the book they are making up as they read and they aren’t ruining the book you are making up as you write.
Good agents and editors understand readers so well, that they can often guess where readers might have problems with a writer’s manuscript. They help the writer build little bridges of meaning across the soggy bits.
I’m going to talk to the Editor O’ My Dreams about my manuscript at the end of the week. I’m going to talk to my agent tomorrow…and I’ve just sent her two new manuscripts. I’m getting several people to read my Adventure Story With Dog – people with Army backgrounds to see if I’ve hit the right note. Lots of new readers, reading lots of new things.
It’s pretty scary, sometimes.
But it’s also very satisfying. Because the story doesn’t happen without the reader, the words on the page are not the story. The story only becomes real when the person reading it makes up their own corduroy-clad character, maybe one with bushy hair and a lop-sided bowtie. That’s when it lives, when it stops being ‘your book’ and becomes ‘their book’.
Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of marks you’ve put on the page. It might be pretty. It might be just like you liked it. But there’s nobody smelling your roses.