As every year, I start January full of good intentions. Some will stick, some won’t and that’s OK.
One of the stickers will be my hardy perennial: to improve as a writer. It’s been a resolution for the last twenty years and will be for the next twenty.
To that end, I’ve been taking a series of writing MasterClasses. Established names such as David Baldacci, Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Brown and Margaret Atwood share their wisdom and offer concrete tips on everything from structure to style.
Not all of it is new or revelatory, but so each individual has taught me something; a technique, an approach or a mindset. Last week, Margaret Atwood said something that got me thinking all over the weekend.
To paraphrase: Writers have a limited set of tools: pen and paper, or keyboard and screen. What we write is inert, just marks on a page. To bring it to life we require a reader, with all their imagination, experience and expectation to turn those black marks into sounds, feelings, scents, tension, visions, emotions and characters. It takes a reader to turn your work into a story.
Whether I’m creating a character, structuring the plot, trying to evoke a sense of place or cranking up the tension, I’m leaning on my readers. These are the people who interpret an arrangement of 26 letters and find themselves relaxing in the heat of a lemon grove, racing along a freezing island beach or clenching their fists in fear when the police come to break down the door.
There is another factor in readers’ expertise – an understanding and appreciation of story. A quote I recall from when I took my first wobbly steps as a writer: this may be the first book you have ever written but it is certainly not the first book your reader has ever read. Eleven books later, that quote still puts me in my place.
Once a book is written and published, the writer relinquishes control over its reception, its interpretation. It belongs to the reader now. Whatever I thought I was writing, someone else will be the judge. Someone with a wealth of reading experience and a keen eye for when they are being disrespected or short-changed.
A few years ago, I interviewed Australian author Christos Tsiolkas. He said ‘Literature is a gift, so I write for the most intelligent, sensitive, enquiring, open-minded reader there is.’
Now that’s what I call a New Year’s Resolution.
Thanks to iamse7en, clay banks and bbh Singapore for their images via Unsplash.com