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?

Advertisements

The Most Important Books I Read in 2015

Okay, so after my awesome agent showed me the error of my narrow-minded ways yesterday with respect to my reasons for not posting a list of top books for 2015, I’m writing a post about the books that impacted my life the most this tear. You’ll notice I didn’t say they are the best books, or that they are even from this year. I was awful about reading new books this year, so most of these titles will be at least a year or two old (and some quite a bit older than that!), but for better or worse, and in no particular order, these are the ten(ish) books that had the biggest effect on me and my writing this year:

Chabon Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon

It had been a few years since I’d last read this, so I was due. Yes, Chabon has too great a love for using words only five other people on the planet use in real life for his own good, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t know how to paint a good picture. Consider this snippet from page 20: “The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim–even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon–feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Cole bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep. This is in my opinion, why writers–like insomniacs–are so accident-prone, so obsessed with the calculus of bad luck and missed opportunities, so liable to rumination and a concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when urged repeatedly to do so.” Reading this book reminds me of what I want to aspire to in my own work: creating something that readers will want to keep coming back to, even if only once every few years, because let’s be honest–a lot of books don’t get repeat reading.

TolkienThe Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

I’m cheating twice here because: a) it’s a trilogy, and b) I’m still reading it at the moment, but this book is beyond special. There’s little I can write here that hasn’t been written thousands of times before by others more qualified than I am to judge its greatness, but as I work on my next project I am taking to heart much of what I see in Tolkien’s remarkable knack for world-building. You need to do some level of world-building in anything you write, but a series like this has it in spades. Also, like Chabon, Tolkien has a profoundly miraculous way with words. I believe this will be the fourth time I’ve read the series, and I am still struck by a moment in the book where Tolkien uses the word “stuff” instead of a more particular description, because it seems like the one place in the entire trilogy where he used a placeholder word and simply forgot to replace it with a better one during the revision process. I want to write well enough that people are struck by my choice of words, whether for good or bad.

LeeGo Set a Watchman, Whoever the hell is running Harper Lee’s affairs and forced her to release this book

Far and away the worst book I read in 2015. I knew it wouldn’t be as good as To Kill a Mockingbird on quality alone, and I knew I couldn’t possibly enjoy it as much as I did the other because there was no way this book could possibly come close to meeting the hype that surrounded its release. I was bound to be disappointed, but I had no way of knowing I would be so utterly and completely let down. There is a reason Watchman was never meant to see the light of day–Lee wrote it before To Kill a Mockingbird, and she and her agent both knew it was crap. For all intents and purposes, Watchman is a first draft of an idea about a novel. There are significant portions of the book where nothing happens. At all. In any way. The voice is schizophrenic, the switch from past to present is rocky at best, and the characters’ arcs are all but nonexistent. I hate Lee’s estate or whatever went for a cash grab here because they have somewhat tarnished Lee’s literary legacy with this festering pile of garbage.

DoescherWilliam Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return, Ian Doescher

With Star Wars fever returning to this part of the galaxy again (I can’t see it until Sunday though, so nobody post spoilers!), I figured there was no better way to get stoked again by essentially reading Return of the Jedi in iambic pentameter. It’s every bit as glorious as it sounds. It was a fantastic fun read!

DekkerA.D. 30, Ted Dekker

Dekker2Hacker, Ted Dekker

Cheating again by focusing on two books, but hey–my blog, my post, my rules, so nyah, nyah, nyah! Outside of perhaps Frank Peretti there is no bigger name in so-called Christian fiction than Dekker, who has supplied us with many an interesting yarn over the past decade-plus. But Dekker’s act was wearing thin (his recent tag-team series with Tosca Lee, The Books of Mortals, was so poorly constructed–it even cribbed heavily from his best-known work, The Circle Trilogy–that I couldn’t even finish the second book) and I was ready to write him off. But then he did something different. A.D. 30 was his first foray into historical fiction, and good grief did it draw me in. I was captivated by his descriptions and the emotional, political, social, and religious landscapes he depicted leading up to the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth on the scene  were breathtaking and completely unlike anything I had ever read from him. His book had life in it, and it made me feel things–deeply. Hacker was similar in that it evoked strong emotional responses from me even though this book was more in line with his previous work (some out-there sci-fi about being able to essentially hack into your brain, a tactic a main character uses in order to stave off a terminal diagnosis). I saw some of plot points coming, but the denouement was exquisite in its execution. The point here is that beyond evoking seriously great responses from me, these books reminded me that it’s never too late to make truly worthwhile literary additions to our global library, and I hope to have the sort of career where I’m inspired by every last thing I’m writing, and am seeking to give my readers something to respond to on the deepest level possible.

DashnerThe Eye of Minds, James Dashner

The first entry in Dashner’s first post-The Maze Runner trilogy. Proof that there is life after a breakthrough hit series. Simply put: I’m hooked.

SnicketThe End, Lemony Snicket

Still cheating. Never underestimate the author’s power to do exactly what he tells you he is going to do almost from the start of a series, even though you completely don’t believe he’s going to do it because there’s no way in hell an author would be that cruel, and no way a publisher would allow him to do it because his readers would hate him forever. Writers want to evoke a response from readers, even if that means pulling the rug out from under them in ways they will loathe. Snicket did that here. I hate the way this series ended, but I’m still thinking about it and talking about it, so Snicket did his job.

NichollsOne Day, David Nicholls

Another reread, and proof that you can’t just have a nifty concept for the book (each chapter takes place on July 15th of every year that the story’s central characters–Dex and Em–know each other), but you have to have characters people are going to give a crap about. Dex is a self-absorbed narcissist of the highest order, but he is deeply flawed and much more than his ego and bombast would suggest to the casual observer. Em’s bookish and mousy while also possessing a fire in her bones that is palpable on the rare occasions when she ends up letting it out in the story, and her internal struggle to have the balls to chase after her dreams and stop settling for less is highly universal. A bit of a summer read as some might call it, but it’s a strong love story through and through because these character aren’t caricatures, and their narratives are compelling. Again, something to aspire to with my own work.

ThrasherSky Blue, Travis Thrasher

I’ve read this book several times over the years, and in truth this book’s tone, emotional levels, occasionally jarring narrative structure and voice, and introspective sensibilities are far and away the biggest influence any book has had on A Silence Worth Breaking. I read it again when I was knee-deep in Pitch Wars mania, revisions, etc., and it helped get me in the right head space to make some of the additions and changes I made with my mentor. Thrasher runs his main character through the emotional ringer after the loss of his wife in a tragic accident, but the payoff is absolutely worth it.

LuThe Legend Trilogy, Marie Lu

Cheating. Yet Again. Somebody stop me. Seriously. There are many dystopian series I have not read, but of the ones i have read, the reason this one sticks out so much to me is because the series doesn’t just end, leaving you feeling hollowed out. The Hunger Games? There’s no happy ending here, folks. The Maze Runner? I won’t spoil it for folks who haven’t finished that series yet (and on a side note, the first two films they’ve made so far for this series…egad!), but no one’s happy. So it is odd that Lu’s futuristic tale, where America is more like Civil War-era America by way of North versus South Korea than anything we know today, does more than simply get to an end and call it good. There is actually hope springing forth from the ending, and you get a conclusion that, while unexpected and perhaps not as idealistically happy as readers might like, makes sense and doesn’t make you feel like the author just ran out of steam. Again, I’m reminded of how I want to try and do something with my books that will resonate in these and other ways.

If you made it to the end, congratulations! Let me know your thoughts on these or other books you read this year which struck you. Thanks for reading, and if I do not post again before January, I hope you all have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Pitch Wars Post #4 – Fifty Words or Bust!

Good grief is it difficult to write a catchy pitch! I mean I thought I had it mostly figured out early on in Pitch Wars, but once it actually came time to nail down those 50 or so words, I discovered how wrong I was.

How wrong? Put it to you this way, if you’ve ever seen Wonder Boys and recall the scene where Michael Douglas’s pot-addled writer is sitting down for his latest writing session on his 2,611-page neverending opus of a story, and he comments on how the ending “kept getting further away. But the ending was there, I knew it. I could almost see it,” then you have some sense of where I’ve been for the past week or two (minus the pot). The content needed for the pitch has been there, mostly, I just haven’t been able to string it together quite right for whatever reason. Hopefully that’s all about to change though.

At the time of this writing, I have emailed my mentor, Holly, a new suggested pitch that I believe finally hits the mark, but since she’s a few hours ahead of me she won’t see it until the morning. If she likes this, then I’ll be done several days ahead of the deadline (all materials need to be turned in by this Saturday), and I can work on trying to encourage and assist the other mentees who are still working on their pitches, first pages, etc. I’ve been able to help a little, and others have been able to help me out, so this whole things has been a fantastic blessing. I’d like to be able to help more as some of my fellow finalists come down to the wire with this deadline.

I need to figure out a way to fall asleep with my fingers crossed…

Red-Inkulous: Or, Why I Love Editing

So I’m dutifully–if inconsistently thanks to the busyness of my schedule–making my way through the first edit of my novel, and I am enjoying the experience. I always do, nowadays, but that wasn’t the case the first time around.

My first novel was a wretched Dawson’s Creek-style high school drama that will never, EVER, see the light of day (mostly because a chunk of the physical copy went missing at some point and I no longer have a saved copy of the original doc), and I can recall wanting nothing to do with the editing process because my goal had been more about seeing if I could actually complete the massive undertaking of completing a draft of a novel for the first time. I hadn’t really considered the editing side of things. Eventually I slogged through it and did some editing, but I didn’t exactly dive into it with any excitement.

Now I do. I’ll admit it’s a tricky balance, trying to remain as objective as possible while evaluating work you have created (Side note: It is hilarious to me when I have one of those moments where I read a section of a story I have written and realize that I have absolutely ZERO recollection of writing that part!), and editing without getting so wrapped up in reliving each scene that you forget to keep your critical eye sharp and ready, but editing is something I’m up for now. I’m using Track Changes as I go through and delete spaces, switch words around, add sentences, or otherwise slash entire paragraphs until there is more red on the page than a Korean action flick, and I find it to be a good help to me. It keeps me honest.

You can’t be afraid to critique your own work. I know, you have that really cool phrase you desperately wanted to slip into the story and can’t bear to delete now, or some gorgeous detail-heavy description you know you could have written in five words, but instead wrote in 55 (guilty…many times over), but you have to let those things go. Serve the story, not yourself.

I’m finding I’m having to change details to eliminate inconsistencies, get rid of clunky or unnecessary dialogue, and otherwise make sure the story doesn’t start unraveling like Professor Tripp’s never-ending, 2,600-plus page opus in Wonder Boys, and I like that. Hopefully one of the reasons you write is because you enjoy it, but when it comes to editing and perfecting your story, it’s important to remember that it isn’t about you. I didn’t get that at first, but now I do and this allows me to enjoy the editing process more than I could have dreamed I would be able to when I first started writing novels.