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Posts tagged ‘readers’

Look, what I really mean is…(reading the subtext)

The biggest problem with writing is it depends on words.
“Well Duh,” I hear you say, but what I mean is everything I write is mashed up into an approximation of meaning and delivered to you, the reader. You then put your understanding on the words and it is a miracle we ever communicate at all. Not only are there as many meanings for each word as there are people, there’s context, experience, bloody awful computer dictionaries and – THE SUBTEXT.

We might say one thing – “Go and make a cup of tea”, for example, but we actually mean something very different. What we really mean is “Go and make enough tea for us both/(insert as many people as are in the room at the time here). Get milk in a jug or some suitable container, bring sugar for the unreconstructed over 40s, remember teaspoons, put all on a tray preferably with saucers if you are actually using cups and bring it back here as fast as you can. And don’t forget the biscuits”.

Now most of us understand this type of verbal shorthand or pick it up as we go along. Some poor souls never get the hang of it and spend their lives in a fog of misery, probably in fairly menial jobs because exam papers are stuffed full of this sort of subtext.

And then there are things you see that tell a whole, horribly and often hilarious story in a single word. I understand there are signs under the gel dispensers in many southern hospitals warning people not to drink it (I know Рdisgusting).  Well, up here in the North-East we have neat little notices saying :

DO NOT SMOKE OR USE NAKED FLAMES FOR TEN MINUTES AFTER APPLICATION.

Nothing more needs to be said. Twelve words telling a vivid and rather horrible story.

I was visiting a minor stately home in Essex recently and picked up a leaflet outlining their summer attractions. Falconry displays! Oh, my favourite! Then I read down the page to see the following note.

PLEASE DO NOT BRING SMALL PETS TO THE FLYING DISPLAYS EVEN IF THEY ARE ON LEADS.

A vision flashed through my head – “Fluffy!!! Noooo….”

Fishing sign

Overhead power lines

On a recent trip to the Levels I came across a sign beside a lovely, calm bit of the canal. I am so stealing this one for a cameo in the fourth Somerset book.

Just two short sentences can mean so much and we all have our own pictures, conjured up by our own experiences and lives. Maybe this is what “Death of the Author” entails. I can be as descriptive and eloquent as I want but in the end what you, the reader, experience is not what I really mean but what it means to you. A symbiotic partnership, when it works. So thank you for all the work you put into my books. They wouldn’t be at all successful without you.

Finding your “helpful reader”

One of the more interesting aspects of writing is the arrival of the “helpful reader”. Formally identified by Bernard Cornwall of “Sharpe” fame, the helpful reader is more knowledgeable and even more eagle-eyed than your editor at their best (or worst). Helpful readers abound in all genres and eras but they flock to historical fiction with the greatest enthusiasm. Enthusiastic and vocal, these amateur experts are attuned to the smallest slip-up and always ready to offer some helpful advice.
Now, I write books set in the 1980s which can be particularly problematic. Within living memory, the 80s have not had time to settle into the homogenized lump that is history. Those that remember the 80s all had an individual experience. Some never encountered a computer or the Internet at all. Many people flourished under the Thatcher government, enjoying new opportunities and a rapidly improving life style. We do not have history’s verdict on the 1980s and so any description, any story, must be based on individual experience.
This is not to say the research needs to be any less meticulous. I recently had the happy experience of reading a dozen submissions to a publisher and the range and depth of material was a delight but I was very disappointed by the lack of background knowledge in some stories. Perhaps I am a pedant in disguise – or a “helpful reader” held in check by the demands of my own work – but writing demands a certain cold analytic rigour if it is to be successful. Terry Pratchett once wrote it was fine to create a world with flying pigs but you’d better make sure there were a lot of umbrella factories on your planet and he’s got it right. I originally trained to work in the theatre, backstage doing lighting and sound. It was impressed on us all how important it was to get everything right. Theatre, like writing, depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not real and you have to help your reader accept the world you present. A sudden glaring error shakes them out of that suspension and you risk losing them for ever so please – check, double check and ask stupid questions – get it right!
And my own “helpful reader”? I have a gentleman who is concerned the fish in “Death of the Elver Man” don’t act the way his fish do. He would really like to take me fishing to show me what he means. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ve never fished in my life (though I know a lot of people who do). I don’t think I’ll be taking him up on his kind offer but thanks anyway.

I received a compliment from a new reader last week. Well, I think it was a compliment, anyway. She came up to me in my favourite local cafe, stared hard and said, “I thought I knew you. I thought I knew what you were like.” There was a pause and she added, “Now every time I see a dead chicken, I think of you.”
If you’ve read “Death of the Elver Man”, you probably have an inkling of what she means. If you haven’t, well I’m not going to put any spoilers on here, just say I thought I was making it LESS gory. So much for all the psychology I studied.
It is a strange feeling, to know someone or something you made up is living and talking in someone else’s mind. Strange and really rather wonderful. No wonder I love my job.