Have I said enough? I aimed to be brief…

This week, while checking back through an old diary, I found a quote I’d like to share. It comes from the Scottish poet, Liz Lochhead, and seems as valuable and applicable to prose as poetry.

A poet has to trust the readers’ intuition and intelligence…

Woman Reading a Novel, 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Trusting the reader is both important and difficult. It’s not just about avoiding over-explaining things, it’s also about ensuring we say enough to make our meaning clear. While I like to think that I’m able to make that judgement, I’m aware that, especially when I’m writing up to a deadline, I have blind spots.

There are some tried and tested solutions to this problem. One, is the thing so many writers find tricky, to put your first draft away for several weeks as soon as you think it’s finished. If you go on to write on other topics, then that theory says that by the time you return to your first piece you’ll view it through fresh eyes.

If time is shorter, and in my experience it so often is, you might try reading it aloud to yourself. Alternatively, you can give your writing to someone you trust and let them tell you what they think… what they really think. Because, the other aspect of this quote that interests me is that when she says, trust the reader’s intuition and intelligence… Liz Lochhead seems to echo a suggestion I picked up from Stephen King’s autobiography, On Writing.

In it, he talks about having a group of ideal readers who check the first drafts of his manuscripts. These people represent the readers he expects to buy his novels. He suggests that he writes with an idea not just about his story, but about the style of telling that will suit the audience he’s aiming for.

Print by Alberto Manrique

Whether we’re aware of this or not, I think we all write with a reader in mind. It may be that we can’t visualize that audience, but we surely know something about the intuition and intelligence we expect from them. I suspect they’re mostly people like us, or they’re the ‘beings’ we’d like to be.

Finding readers who understand who you are, and what you aspire to, can be tricky. l’m lucky in having two trusted readers. They’re both people I know well, and who know me well.

I don’t say I write for them, my writing is something completely selfish. But when I’ve finished, and I’m checking the draft, I do find myself thinking about how Ray or Ruth will perceive my words.

And later, if either says, ‘I don’t get why/what/how...’ then no matter how much I might want to protest, I know that I’ve got to think about making changes to my writing.

Woman Reading a Novel, painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Getting Engaged.

I’ve just finished The Girl You Left Behind, by Jojo Moyes, one of two books I’ve been reading over the last week. It’s the lighter of the two, and I admit I skimmed some sections. In my defence, this was a novel that was passed on to me, rather than one I chose.  I started it in order to clear some space on the shelf, thinking that if, after a few pages it wasn’t working out, I would give it away.

Something kept me reading.  It had a plot.  There was a little too much coincidence for my taste; some events were too clearly engineered to misdirect us, and the characters seemed predictable, and glossy.  Yet I was hooked.  Why? Well, perhaps because it offered a different view on how society and the media works on the individual.  I did not just want to find out how it ended, I wanted to follow the twists and turns of the story.

I’ve been thinking about this question of reader engagement for the last few days, because I’m struggling with my other read.  It’s a novel I’ve been looking forward to for months.  Other people have loved it, the reviews were good and the blurb on the back seemed to promise the kind of story I love.

It is has strong, flawed characters and lots of interesting and unexpected action, but, and you may have seen this coming, I find myself hoping for sections I can skim.  I want to know what happens, so something is working, but I find it easy to put the novel down.

So far, so obvious.  Yet, it set me thinking about who I write for.  At this point I offer a quote from Stephen King,

Someone – I can’t remember who, for the life of me – once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person.  As it happens, I believe this.  I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader…

‘On Writing’, p256

It’s a quote that is so well worn it’s practically crumbling at the corners, but it is worth a writer thinking about, whether you are publishing or not.  What kind of a read are we offering? Regardless of the message we are sending, how are we hoping to keep it being read?

Famously, Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha, embodies his ideal reader.  This means he has a tangible and fully formed audience he can keep in mind as he writes. Notice I did not say consult.  One of his key rules is that he never discusses a work in progress.

Of course, this ideal reader business may not suit everyone.  I’m sure there are plenty of successful writers who can give us a whole directory of alternative systems.  What I like about it is the way writing for a specific person focuses the mind.

So, here’s me, composing my thoughts into some kind of coherence and posting them onto the net one day, working away at a short story another.  Am I clear about my ideal reader?

Are you?