What Do Your Readers See When They Read Your Book?

I work for a small publisher in Oregon. It’s located on the second floor of a community-style building whose ground floor features (among other things) a pizza place, a concert venue, and a coffee shop. As I walk through these areas every morning and head to the stairs at the back, I pass walls on both sides which feature elaborate murals depicting scenes of people enjoying various activities out in nature (we’re like that in Oregon). I’ve been working here for almost a year now, but it took me until about two months ago to notice I was looking at one particular image on one of the walls all wrong.

There is a long table with a number of people sitting at it in various states of enjoyment. People are laughing, someone is standing and gesticulating as though in the midst of a great story, and off to the far right is a woman sitting with her elbows on the table, her hands at her temples. For the longest time I thought this was the artist’s representation of someone who was, for some reason, embarrassed by the spectacle taking place at the other end of the table. She looks like she wants to crawl into a hole and die, so I thought she was actually the butt of some joke.

But she isn’t.

In looking more closely at the painting completely by accident the other month, I paid more attention to the man sitting in the chair in the foreground with his back to us. Between him and the woman is a chess board. It appears to be her turn and she is concentrating on her next move. I stopped in my tracks when I saw this because somehow it had escaped my notice all the other times I had looked at it.

Art of any sort–music, writing, painting–offers myriad opportunities for realizations like this to occur. You can hear a song dozens of times before accidentally discovering a very subtle instrumental layer that’s buried beneath the more overt sounds and vocals. You can see a painting plenty of times, as I did, before something new pops out at you. And similarly, you can read a book or story multiple times and have a completely different reaction each time, or learn/see something new, whether because you are paying more attention to the minutiae of the book or your life experiences have made you more able to process certain elements now that maybe you couldn’t earlier.

But you need to be aware of this as you’re writing. Try and make your work as deep as it can be, because you never know who’s going to pick up on those details, or when, and you have no idea how much that little detail might help shape the way they view the reading experience; and if they are writers themselves, who knows but that your extra effort might give them a wild spark of imagination for something they can try in their own work. Readers are rarely–if ever–going to view your work exactly the same way you do, so you might as well make it so deep that people can pick up new things with each time they (hopefully) reread your work.

If nothing else, consider this movie poster which appeared in advance of the release of the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys:

If you’ve seen the movie (and you should), or if you’re paying close attention to the poster’s various details, you know that Michael Douglas is the star of this film. Having said that, when my boss was walking past me a while back while I was reading this, he stopped and said, “Hey, is that Michael J. Fox?” I had never ever considered this previously because I’d never had a reason to; however, once my boss asked the question, and I started to look more closely, I could see why he would ask this in passing. Douglas does look rather like Fox here, and rather like my experience with seeing the picture of the woman in the mural from a new angle, I’m reminded of just how many different things someone can pick up fro a picture, a song, a story.

Your readers have the opportunity to see and experience many things with your work. What are you giving them?

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