Saturday, April 18, 2009

What readers read when they read.


I have not read a discussion dealing with what readers read. I do not mean what books they read. That might take forever, and is, for the most part, not relevant to this article.

My interest lies in what readers read, what their mind interprets from one story, or article. Non-fiction, it might seem, should be obvious, but I doubt that.

However, fiction is the place where one's imagination runs free and wild and this is what I want to discuss. Not that, readers have vivid imaginations, or that they allow their minds to roam through the words in a story, grazing and nibbling at phrases, images, or ideas to feed them mentally. That is after all, what fiction is about and does best.

A readers' group invited me to speak after I won the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award in 2004. Totally prepared -- I thought -- after several book signings, I brought a copy of my book for each person in attendance. This as it turned out was unnecessary. The woman, who organized the meeting, had handed out copies of my story two weeks earlier. None-the-less, the participants seemed to appreciate the gesture.

After we did the usual small talk, conversation focused on me, and my words. I do not enjoy telling personal anecdotes, but do enjoy Q&A. Therefore, without expending time explaining myself and why I write -- which is a silly question at best to ask an author -- I listened, learned, and did what I could to respond intelligently.

Halfway through, it occurred to me that not one person in the room, read the story as I wrote it. Each of them read a slightly different version and a couple people something astonishingly different. Yet, they all enjoyed the story, and seemed to appreciate reading it.

How fascinating the human mind is, I thought, and how difficult it is to write in a style that conveys the identical message to each reader.

The underlying plot thread all of them missed, but I had believed to be obvious, was that the story, basically, was a love story in the distant future in a setting that might make love impossible. Well the latter part seemed to have worked too well.

My listeners appeared stunned by the concept. Some murmured agreement after a moment of contemplation, but others stared as if I'd threatened to hit them with a hardcover book for not seeing what I saw when I wrote the story. (Yes, I am a visual writer. If I cannot see it, I can't write it.)

Moreover, there lies the dilemma. How, if it is even possible, can a writer write so each reader reads what he or she wants him or her to read?

I do not know, but am convinced that this also applies to writing a query letter or plot hook. No two people read exactly the same thing.

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