The Mythical Reader

The reading public has been dragged into all sorts of discussions about how to make a book better. An author can claim to know their readers better than an agent, or editor, or publisher—who all then watch the book sink like a stone once released to such readers. More commonly, the process works the other way around: an author is advised by said publishing professionals what will sell a book to readers—and often the book still sinks like a stone.

By contrast, in my editing practice I have found that “the reader” is a very useful tool in enjoining an author to push themselves to greater efforts. That’s because an author is encased in a cocoon during the writing process. The made-up world gains definition in the author’s mind; characters start to develop beyond names on a page. That’s all fine, but the size of the cocoon is determined by both the writer’s ability and experience. When the author emerges from the gauzy sac, they often find that the reading public doesn’t care much for their butterfly.

I use the paradigm of “the reader” to inculcate better efforts. That’s because so many authors in my earlier years would respond to my suggestions as though I was speaking only for myself. I have had more than one author respond to my suggestions (balloons in the right-hand margin) with their own balloons—and not a single changed word on the page. They seem to think I inhabit my own cocoon, barking out my personal opinions as I poke my head out of my little hole to communicate with them.

That’s because criticism hurts. Writing is deeply personal. When I talk to an author for the first time, I hear so often: “You can say anything about the book you like. I want you to be honest with me.” Being the wily psychologist that any adviser must be in order to survive, I thereby take away the opposite meaning: this writer must be handled delicately.

“The reader” became the megaphone I use to shatter the illusion. Rather than “I don’t understand why,” I write,“The reader may not understand why . . .” a character performs or reacts to a plot event. Same point, but without the threat of a personal attack. Better yet, it helps to break through the writer’s self-absorption. They may think they don’t want to please anyone, that they’re just writing for themselves. But as the merest child sitting on their parent’s lap could tell you, writing is the art of touching someone.

Exercise: As you review the draft, keep asking yourself one question: would the reader I imagine would like my book understand why this is happening? If you’re not sure, you probably need to make the point clearer. Don’t worry about pellucid prose. Make sure, even if the reader has to work harder, that the point can be grasped.

“What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.”
—William Blake

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Invitation to Participate

As an editor, I have to search for ways to motivate authors to bring their characters fully to life. In the early stages of an edit I will try different tactics. On a large scale, I might suggest composing character sketches. On a granular level, I might edit one scene with a dozen prompts that say: What is the character feeling now? Authors have varying abilities to respond with anything that truly reveals character. So sometimes the editorial prism itself has to be altered in order to produce results. Here is one method that works.

Most authors understand that a unified point of view in the narration can produce greater personal depth. Simply being with a character more allows a reader to get to know them better. An author can use that principle to apportion how often a character rules the point of view in a scene. If a lead character does not control the point of view of a scene he is in, the scene can be rewritten to use his POV. If you do that for even a half dozen scenes, the reader is going to see things his way more often. 

A narrative that contains indirect quotations most likely indicates that the author is standing outside her own story. Unless your protagonist clearly has a distinctive voice, indirect quotes should be changed to dialogue. The immediacy can draw a reader to a character. The words are not cloaked any longer by the author reporting on the scene. They are given directly, the way words emerge from within all of us. As a plus, a reader can often imagine that she would say the same thing in that situation. I cannot tell you how many times a scene that seemed dead became sparked with personality after making this basic change.

Another technique is derived from the direct-dialogue principle. Words do not need to be spoken aloud to evince character. If a character has a thought that is almost exactly what he would say—“I wish that guy would go to hell”—you have penetrated inside the character’s mind. Many authors like to put these “quoted” thoughts in italic type, to set them off from the omniscient narration. The reader grasps the meaning, with the added benefit that he feels he is an insider as the action is occurring. Once an author becomes comfortable with this technique, the story can become filled with thoughts. Even better, the author can start to devise unspoken worries prior to a plot event that drive anticipation of what will happen.

Exercise: Review the text with a single goal in mind: I am going to invite the reader into the story. When you see a sentence that strikes you as bland, or too neutral, your first thought should be the lead character in the scene. Could I convey the idea through her point of view? The plot point is supposed to matter to her, not you.

“People know things and have a remarkable capacity to act in their individual immediate interests all the time.”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


The Groundplan

Most Americans who emerge from college think they know it all. That brashness stems partly from the natural exuberance of youth and partly from the general excellence of our institutions of higher education. I often find, however, a strange gap in that all-encompassing knowledge: an ignorance of basic grammar rules. That cause might be attributed to another dominant American trait: the desire to rebel. Grammar belongs to the hoary old days of junior high; it tries to confine your freedom of expression. Rules are made to be broken, right?

Throughout my twenties, when I was primarily a writer, I paid not the slightest attention to grammar. I knew all that stuff—because I basically knew everything. The very word conjured up the image of an older English teacher who walked with a slight stoop and had a comical formality in her elocution. I wasn’t like that. I was blazing new frontiers. I should add that I have since worked with authors who are much older but still retain the same vague loathing for those days of main stems and subordinate clauses.

Like a chameleon, we all change our skin to suit new circumstances. When I first joined publishing, I became a copy editor. That is the person below an editor, tasked with correcting a manuscript’s spelling and punctuation, primarily. Many authors hate these creatures. Alice Kahn famously remarked, “It is wonderful that our society can find a place for the criminally literal-minded.” While I have certainly seen extreme pettifogging, on more occasions than I would like to count, when I had to review the work of freelance copy editors, I was surprised by how often I agreed with them. 

What happened to my youthful dreams of freedom? Absolutely nothing. What I came to realize was that grammar rules are ever mutable. Although they can be applied rigidly, they were (and are) developed in the first place as a means to enable people to communicate effectively with others. Why should you use active verbs? Because they most effectively propel your sentence forward. Why should you avoid adverbs? Because you should first examine the sentence to see if you can employ a stronger active verb. All of these tiny calculations, which I make as a matter of course as I’m line editing, are a wonderful aid in trying to help writers get the maximum force out of every sentence. In the case of grammar, knowledge truly will set you free.

Exercise: How well do you know your grammar? When was the last time you looked at a grammar book? When was the last time you looked at Strunk and White? Rather than regarding grammar as a set of rules, you can take their principles as a roadmap as you become more fluent in your writing. Sure, rules are made to be broken, but you should know what they are first. What you may find is that you’ve been following many of the “rules” of grammar all along.

“Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’. Otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
—C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.