The Book You Write and the Book They Read

During one of my monthly Supernatural Tea Parties, my sister brought up the possibility that my novel, A Certain Slant of Light, might be read by a ghost looking over the shoulder of a living reader—perhaps that ghost might more easily find her way to the Hereafter by reading my dead protagonist’s journey to Heaven.  Maybe that human reader, who never knew a ghost was reading over his shoulder, would also recall my story someday on his deathbed and have a smoother passage to the other side. The idea seemed strange, almost funny, but I was so intrigued by the concept that in the companion novel to ACSOL, Under the Light, I had my ghost character, Helen, talk about how she wished the novels she’d read so voraciously in her youth  had taught her what to do when faced with death.

reading over shoulder

“No one teaches us how to die. No mother sits her daughter down beside her at the quilting frame and gives her this knowledge. No boy is given these facts by a thoughtful father while mending fences. Perhaps if the stories I read and reread all my life spoke more of the natural act of death I would have had an easier passage. What if the novels I loved, Daniel Deronda, Mansfield Park, Lord Jim, described entering the afterlife as readily as they described unfortunate engagements, unrequited love, and suspenseful misunderstandings? ”

The  passage was cut for the sake of pace, and I’ll probably never know if a spirit is ever helped along by my writing, but it got me thinking about the mystery of what happens to a novel once it leaves the page and goes into the minds of the readers.

When you write a novel it changes less from first draft to final product than a screenplay, a teleplay or a stage play does since they get filtered through directors, actors, sometimes cinematographers and editors. As novelists we think that (except for the refinements we make with the help of our editors) what you see on the page is what you get. But the real final versions are infinite because your book becomes part of each of your readers, filtered through each of his or her unique minds.

Fans will tell you that they loved exactly what you loved about your story. The trials that your hero overcame helped them deal with similar troubles of their own. Or your book gave them the courage to face a new challenge. But sometimes your fans will thank you for gifts you hadn’t intended to give them.  Maybe they’ll relate to a character who is gay that you did not write as gay. Maybe they’ll thank you for writing such a powerful mother-daughter story when you thought those two characters were estranged. For example, a reviewer of my second novel, The Fetch, said that I had borrowed heavily from Pilgrim’s Progress, a book I’ve never read. Significance is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s okay. People will also take things the wrong way and be offended. In A Certain Slant of Light one of my characters, Jenny, grows up in a conservative Christian family that is oppressive. I did not intend to imply that all Christian families are oppressive. Not even all conservative ones. But putting Jenny and the spirit of Helen in a dysfunctional Christian household worked for me as a storytelling element. I got about four or five “anti-fan” emails from folks who were angry at that choice. Which is okay. In my opinion, if 5% or less of your fan mail is negative, that’s healthy.

What people take away from your work will be a surprise. There are writers I love that I want to rewrite sometimes. For example, when I read Dr. Seuss books to my son, there are a couple of things I edit. In Scrambled Eggs Super I change the word “uncles” and the word “fellows” to “aunties” and “girlies” because males do not lay eggs. When Binny (only three and a half at the moment) gets old enough to read that book himself he can ask me why I read it “wrong” and I’ll be glad to explain. Also, in If I Ran the Zoo I change the couplet “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” to “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Torgeous with helpers who all wear their eyes simply gorgeous” because I find the original version racist.

And yet I love Dr. Seuss books. The first book I ever read all the way through by myself was One Fish Two Fish and Binny has made me read him If I Ran the Circus and The Cat in the Hat more times than I care to count. Maybe Dr. Seuss would be surprised at the bits of his writing I paraphrased, but Dr. S did his job. He wrote great stories. Bless his heart for making my kid (and millions of other kids) happy.

And that’s all you have to worry about. Write the stories that you want to write. Revel in what greatness your fans find and let the others complain about what they bring to the stories themselves. It’s all just part of the writer & reader dance.

(first published in the Willamette Writers newsletter)

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One Response to “The Book You Write and the Book They Read”

  1. Johnk689 Says:

    Your style is really unique compared to other folks I’ve read stuff from. edekdadkaeee

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