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Marginal Notes

Playing on Trust


The Lutheran church where Iím organist uses an electronic instrument in a choir loft above the sanctuary. The organís three huge speaker banks are hung off the loft rail so they project out over the congregation. Which is fine, except that when the congregation is going all out (Lutherans tend to be full-throated singers), I canít hear myself play. Essentially, Iím playing on trust.

I thought about this as I read the comments on some of the Editorís Clinic pieces. So many readers would like to change the focus of the narrative — to cut a bit of character-building interior monologue in order to speed up the action, or to pause the action to explore a relationship that may or may not be important later. This raises the question: how do you know how your writing comes across to your readership? How do you tell when youíre feeding them so much information youíre boring them, or so little that youíre leaving them confused? Do your readers see your characters as the same people you do? Have your surprises come as a surprise, or were your readers just waiting for you to spring your reveal and move on? How do you know?

Well, you canít, not really. Remember, your readership isnít a monolithic block who will all feel the same way about your story. If you, say, leave out some of the more obvious steps in your detectiveís thinking, some readers will appreciate the way you assume they can follow along, while others will simply be lost and resentful. If you spend time developing a personal relationship that helps showcase your main character, some readers are going to appreciate knowing your protagonist better while others are going to be impatient for the story to keep moving.

This inability to please everyone is one reason why itís so hard to break into print and to build a readership after you do. Readers tend to buy books by writers they know are a good fit for them. When youíre a new voice, some more adventurous readers are going to give you a try, and youíre bound to lose some of them just to differences in taste. So building your readership means, in part, winnowing out readers who simply donít enjoy the kind of book you write until youíre left with a readership who knows what you can do and likes watching you do it.

Incidentally, this is why itís often easier to break into print in genre. When your book carries a clear label like ďromanceĒ or ďfantasy,Ē your potential readers can trust that youíll be following conventions theyíre familiar with. They already know, just from where youíre shelved in the bookstore, that they will like some elements of your story.

So given that you canít reach everyone, what can you do to reach as many as possible? The first step is to write as well, technically, as you can. Some of the choices youíll make as a storyteller will always alienate some readers, but there are some stylistic mistakes that will drive everybody away. So whatever your story might be, make sure youíre proficient enough that youíre not losing readers because of problems that have nothing to do with your story.

Note, some writers deliver so strongly on other storytelling elements that readers are willing to forgive their stylistic sins. Dan Brown weaves thriller plots so expertly paced that his shallow characterizations donít matter as much. Stephenie Meyer captures the bad-boy boyfriend so well that readers are willing to overlook the clunky dialogue and description.

Once youíve got the mechanics down, the next step is to make sure that what you want to convey is actually getting across. This is what beta readers and professional editors are for. But you have to be careful with the feedback you get from outside sources. Some of it may be enlightening Ė all writers have some blind spots about their writing. But some suggestions will come out of differences in taste. (The same applies to Amazon reviews. If you donít believe me, read the one-star reviews on The Great Gatsby.) If you try to listen to all your critics, you can tie yourself in knots that may make you give up on your novel entirely. This is why I always tell clients to only take the suggestions that inspire them, and to only start paying attention to reviews and critiques when they all start saying the same thing.

Which brings me back to the console in the choir loft. The way I manage to play when I canít hear myself is to stop thinking about how I sound to the congregation Ė to forget the audio feedback entirely Ė and simply play for myself. I know how the hymn is supposed to sound, and Iím familiar enough with the instrument to know how to get the sounds I want out of it. So I focus on the keyboards in front of me and hear the hymn in my head as I play. Performance as an act of faith.

The best way to reach your readership is to forget theyíre there. Keep your focus on the story you want to tell. And on the characters who inhabit it. Iíve recently had a couple of clients ask me about word choice in a particular passage, and my answer is always the same: ďWhat would your viewpoint character say?Ē If you tell the story that you want to tell, follow the threads that interest you, immerse yourself in the literary moment rather than thinking about how it will sound to others, then you are most likely to write the sort of story that will reach the most readers.

Playing on trust is really the only way to do it.