When readers don't "get" your story, or, take courage writers

Current Theme Song (aka what's playing on my ipod right now): The Reluctant Warrior by The Immediate.

If I am not posting (like I haven't been), then you can tell I am deep in the throws of writing right now and I absolutely love it, but I don't want to leave you hanging either. And I do have some great stuff to post, just as soon as I can get my head out of my book.

I was having a conversation on twitter not too long ago (yesterday, in fact) that went from Malcolm Reynolds to sci-fi to authorship vs. readership that was rather interesting, and it got me thinking again of something I've believed for a long time - writers only write 50% of their book.

When I read a book, I know there are just some things that will immediately turn me off to a book. It has nothing to do with their novel, their characters or their ability to tell a story. If they have it in it, I almost immediately dislike it. One of them is "love at first sight." It grates me to no end because it is in conflict with how I believe love is developed. That is a part of me personally as a reader.

Another example is dragons. Fantastic, amazing creatures, freaking awesome in fantasy, and well-loved for a reason, but if you have one in there, it will be a hard sell for me. Tack on defeating a dragon to win the day/save the girl, or a dragon with telepathic abilities and a "special bond" to main character and seriously, good luck. There are exceptions of course. Jane Yolen's Heartblood series where dragons are used as pit fighting creatures immediately comes to mind, as does the brilliant movie How To Train Your Dragon (I can't say enough good things about that movie). So see? There are also always exceptions, so authors, take heart.

But even better, this also works in the reverse as well. You give me a fantasy based on a different culture ("different" meaning non-medieval Western Europe) and you almost immediately have me sold, every time. I will almost always give any book with those parameters a chance. Double goes if you use non-western fantasy elements/creatures (no trolls, ogres, fairies, elves, mermaids, werewolves, and the like. Give me some Ijiraq, Tengu, and Bunyip people!).

Because the fact of the matter is, when you write a story, you only bring 50% of the work to the table. I learned this a long time ago, and I keep relearning it with greater clarity. Now stop! you may say. I wrote every stinking word of that manuscript! Of course I brought 100%! I brought 110%, baby! Well… yes, it's true. But (and this is a really big but) - you are not there to tell the story to your readers. They bring the other 50% with them - all of their prejudices, knowledge, and entire life experiences. They bring that to the table and you have absolutely no control over that.

The amazing and exuberant Shannon Hale said something along these lines way back in 2008 with far greater clarity and grace than I.

I've always believed that as an author, I do 50% of the work of storytelling, and the reader does the other 50%. There's no way I can control the story you tell yourself from my book. Your own experiences, preferences, prejudices, mood at the moment, current events in your life, needs and wants influence how you read my every word. I wish I could write a story that would appeal to everyone, but that is so impossible.

Here is Samuel Johnson's take on it, and he says it so succinctly - "A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it."

They will see your story and your world in a way you never imagined. And that is okay. Because they are part creator in this story too. It is a collaborative effort because it all happens within the mind. Why do you think reading is such an intimate and personal experience? Why do you think readers will follow an author they love into story after story they create? It is because they are equal partners, invested in this world you created together, and I can think of no greater honor than a reader allowing an author entrance into such a personal and private part of their lives. They open themselves up to you and let this world you've created in, side by side, together.

So when a reader doesn't "get" your story, don't worry. They are bringing their own part to the story as well. But when you do make that connection, it is something wonderful, and one of the greatest honors we can have.


Tere Kirkland said...

This is so true, Heather! I think the sign of a great book is one that the reader winds up bringing even more to the story, where the author's words only make the characters and colors brighter than before.

Great post.

Vanessa said...

Fantastic, smart, eloquent post, Heather!

Michelle Flick said...

I agree with this, whole-heartedly. I also believe giving to much description and detail takes away from the imagination brought by the reader. He/She has all the pre-concieved, prejudices, and things they like in his/her head when they are reading and it adds to what they want the story to be.

Meg said...

Wonderful post! Congrats on the flurry of writing that is going on. I agree with that idea of 50/50 from the writer and reader. I always love seeing how my students can interpret a story differently from one another!