Clumsy title for a late career epiphany. But it has taken me a dozen novels with big and small publishers to fully understand a simple matter. Fiction must be written with the reader foremost in mind. Not the characters. Not the market. Not even one’s self. It’s the reader whose needs must always be front and center–if not for the first draft, then certainly for the last.
Today’s readers are pressed, subject to interruption, easily distracted. It is a victory for them to carve out a half hour for quiet, focused reading. Never have authors written for an audience whose lives are pulled in so many directions, an audience so jogged and pulled and tugged as readers today.
In this cultural context, is it up to us authors to adapt? To change our writing style to accommodate decreased attention span? Or, write like we always have, and like those authors who came before us–with our focus on story and characters, modern culture be damned?
The answer lies somewhere in between. Let’s never compromise in aiming for a good story, well told. But how about a reconsideration, perhaps–a re-view– of our prose style, with a focus on its readability. How, really, does our writing read? Does it flow? What are its sound qualities? How is its look on the page? The most common reaction to my new novel Power & Light has been, “I couldn’t put it down.” “I had to keep reading.” “I stayed up way too late to finish.” Or, the best one of all, “It read like silk.”
So let’s talk silk. What did that reader mean? Probably he meant smoothness, as in no “wrinkles” or folds. On silk cloth the hand slides easily. There’s no friction, no impediments, no rough spots, nothing to stop the movement of our touch along its soft planes. But how do we achieve such “flow?” Let’s look at a master, James Joyce:
“When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.” (From “Araby.”)
You just read it silently. Now read it aloud. Listen to the sound qualities, particularly the assonance (parallel vowel sounds), particularly the ‘o’ and ‘ou’ repetition later in excerpt. Also notice the sentence variety in length. Look how that last, long sentence matches its content. The lads are playing, ranging up and down the street, here and there, back again, and so a long sentence is only natural–a perfect pairing of form to content.
In Power & Light, which took three full years, my final revision were all about such prose matters. First, there is likely not one page without at least some dialogue. I never wanted the reader’s eye to be intimidated by a large block of prose without the visual relief of dialogue. Second, I concentrated providing a variety of length and types of sentences. Third, I attended, in key spots, to the sound qualities. How well does the sentence slide off the tongue? Is the paragraph at hand easy to “say”–that is, are they any tongue-twisting sentences? If so, I recast them.
The result, according to early reader reviews, has paid off. I never set out to write a “page-turner.” But through polish and refinement, over and over, I think I did. Some authors might hear “page-turner” as negative–the quality of a lesser novel. Of “genre” writing. But I hear it, well, like silk.
I’ll revisit this post and drop in a passage of my own prose that I think reads well, but for now I just wanted to get this idea out there. Remember your reader. Write so they have no reason to stop reading.
P.S. Here’s that promised sample of my prose. Its from the sequel (in-progress) to Power & Light. The writing doesn’t compete with James Joyce (above), but it’s pretty tight and I like its flow:
She roomed at Schreiber’s Boarding House with three other girls, two to a bed, the bathroom down the hall. They cooked on a hot plate and made endless cups of hot tea during the hard cold of January. They wore their clothes to bed, slept back-to-back. The airtight heater burned wood. Mr. Schreiber provided corncobs. The four of them took turns, every hour, feeding the beast but by morning they could see their breath. Yet by the end of the month she was able to send ten dollars home.