Novelist Claire Dyer learnt the hard way how to give readers what they want. She shares her lightbulb moment and offers practical advice to help writers peer into the minds of readers.
In response to Alex Cooper’s 100 books, 1 year: What reading taught me about writing, all I can say is, ‘WOW!’ Not only do I stand in total awe at her achievement, but her blog has also got me thinking about the whole writer/reader relationship.
As a writer I am constantly advised to ‘put the reader first’, but I’ve had to learn how to do this and learn the hard way.
In one of my early, never-to-see-the-light-of-day novels, the opening scene showed my heroine, Daisy, going to her next-door-neighbour’s house to borrow a lemon. I won’t bore you with why, but instead of using the scene to reveal things about Daisy, I spent paragraphs talking about the neighbour (her name was Sylvia, she was a widow, she talked a lot). It wasn’t until a good friend who was reading the draft said to me, ‘I don’t want to know about Sylvia now. I want to know about Daisy!’
And then I had a Eureka moment. I asked myself, ‘How do other writers do it?’
Learning from other writers
In the opening chapter of Bleak House by Charles Dickens he takes five pages to describe London to his readers: its fog and mud, its fog-laden people and the ineffectual grind of the Court of Chancery. Everything is crushed by gloom. Nobody speaks until the sixth page. This might have been OK for the Victorian reader, but my experience is that it wouldn’t suit today’s.
Today’s readers want to be put straight into the action, to be taken into a scene late and taken out of it early so they don’t get stuck in it; they want snappy dialogue and not pages and pages of exposition.
As another example, take the opening lines of Where Love Lies by Julie Cohen, ‘I know exactly where I’m going …’: immediately readers can see Cohen’s heroine, Felicity, walking; they see the people she sees, hear the music she hears. And then, at the end of the first page everything gets redefined when Felicity realises she’s lost.
Dickens set up the premise for his whole novel in his opening pages. Cohen does too, but they do it in very different ways because they are writing for very different readers.
Using your readers’ eye
So my Eureka moment was this: I realised that, as a writer, I needed to be able to switch off my writer’s eye and switch on my readers’ eye and test my novel against a set of criteria different from the ones concerned with grammar, word choice and what I wanted to write. I had to helicopter above the manuscript and be able to summarise its concept in a sentence (the book I’m working on now is about, envy, so you see I think I’ve cracked it!) And I also had to test the scenes in my novel against the 5 W’s:
- Who is the action happening to?
- What is happening?
- When is the action happening?
- Where is the action happening?
And, most importantly:
- Why is it happening?
So, being a bit like Mel Gibson’s character in What Women Want, I have to peer into my readers’ minds, listen to them asking these questions and, if I can put a tick against each one, if I’ve given them enough material so that they can come to their own conclusions, make their own connections and want to read on, then there is some chance my novel may hang together OK, survive the scrutiny of my agent and editor and, hopefully, see the light of day!