How to write a book · My Memories of a Future Life

Readers’ reasons; writers’ reasons – do they ever agree?

I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.

Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined. 

For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.

My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.

My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.

Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.

Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?

I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.

Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.

That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.

Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.

This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.

One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.

I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach.   Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.

Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.

In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.

So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.

More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.

Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.

Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.

26 thoughts on “Readers’ reasons; writers’ reasons – do they ever agree?

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Sometimes those writing classes/coaches expend so much energy on beat sheets and outlines and analysis it destroys the elegant flow of words from an untrained mind. I don’t mean words vomited onto a page and never cleaned up, but the writer who uses their life experiences and reading habits to create characters, settings, mood…all without prior planning.
    It seems for some writers structure and planning prior to starting the book are critical; for others they only create road blocks.

  2. Very well said! In college lit classes (and I was a creative writing major, so there were a lot of them) I was always annoyed by the amount of intent that was ascribed to authors’ choices, when it was obvious from class discussion that we all had different responses to everything in it, and if we couldn’t agree on what the author meant, how could we ever know what effects the author had made consciously? Which is why I went to library school instead of continuing in writing or English lit. 😉

    In the last ten years, in which I’ve been working more on the editing, publishing, and promotion side of things, I’ve come to understand that the reality of the writing/reading process is that it’s collaborative. Authors create the maps, but readers take the journeys. Rookie writers are often very concerned with readers understanding their meaning exactly, without the slightest room for misinterpretation; veterans know their job is to suggest and lead, not to dictate — at least, that’s been my experience. Perhaps yours has been different. 😉

    1. Janey, I love your observations here! Especially ‘authors create the maps but readers take the journeys’. I studied English literature at college and found it to be rather sterile. I was hoping for a wealth of transforming experiences, but instead the texts seemed to be squeezed dry of all life. I definitely prefer the mystery of craft and the wonder of reading.

      1. I agree completely, and “sterile” is a good word for it. It’s like the difference between lab work and field work, in a way. I’m not saying lab work has no value, but I want to be out in the field experiencing instead of in the lab dissecting.

  3. Great observations.

    I write wired on: Synchronicity, Gut hunches, Subliminal details and Dates, Intuition, and Historical facts mixed into parallel stories based on actual missing renaissance paintings and reincarnation.

    All of it comes together as a gestalt story that had to haunt me for a while in order to be heard, taken on board, and finally become an obsession to get it all down.

    That ‘natural’ process is what makes writing fun for me.

    Many thanks for this post.

    1. Do you read a lot, Veronica? For voracious readers, I think often our “hunches” and intuition are based on having soaked up decades of other writing that affected us, you know?

  4. Love this. As a former English major I love finding connections and themes and symbols as I readand I feel like novels that are all surface are a bit unsatisfying. I am purposeful on some level l as I write to use the whole English major arsenal, but many of those things arise organically and I only notice them on the tenth time through.

    1. Hi Erin! I also like to find rumblings below the surface, and it’s been so interesting to see the process applied to a book I thought I knew all the answers to. I like your phrase here about the meanings that arise organically. And who knows if we weren’t subconsciously planting them anyway.

  5. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog has Roz Morris doing a wonderfully refined analysis of what I call “the reader re-writes the book as they read”…

    And, the book she mentions at the very end is oh, so readable and is available now 🙂

  6. I really like’authors create the maps but readers take the journeys.’ I am concerned that i am making it less satisfying for my readers by simplifying my’maps.’ The ratio of dialogue to prose has changed since I started writing plays and now I think I need to up the amount of description and internal thought in my next novel. The answer, of course, is to go back to using an editor!
    You always give us plenty to think about, Roz.

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