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Reading Like A Reader

Yesterday I was not in a writing mood. Dealing with a finicky decades-old air conditioner, unusable outsourced systems for filing my state taxes, and the early arrival of my monthly "friend" simultaneously tends to kill the creative impulse. So instead of working on my books, I hopped around the Interwebs considering what I might do with a book when (Sweetie would lovingly say "if") I finally finish one. Though I'm in the self-publishing camp on general principle, I'm thinking of selling one of the titles to a traditional publisher. I'm not making any money from my work anyway, so there's no material difference to me if someone else does...but at least I might launch some semblance of a career, and possibly self-publish more successfully in the future.

While surfing around the big names, I landed on the HarperCollins website. Their FAQs on submissions sent me to the infamous Authonomy. I had read that this place existed a while back, but I'd never encountered it myself. Basically, instead of paying young editors to spend hours sorting through the "slush pile" of manuscript submissions, the folks at HarperCollins found a way to get the public to do it for free. Hopeful authors post their stories on the site, and then they fight to rank in the top five that, once per month, are lucky enough to have their first 10,000 words briefly perused by the "editorial board."

Raw deal? You betcha. It's like a bunch of writers holding picket signs with their synopses outside of the HarperCollins offices, pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line where maybe, just maybe, an editor might glance their way as they go in to work. So the stories are of about the quality you would expect—not terrible, but for the most part written by unpracticed artists who don't have the savvy or the confidence to just leave the line, walk straight to the front door, and knock.

I read a few opening chapters for fun. If you manage to sort through the choppy sentences, run-on sentences, wannabe "poetic" sentences, cliches, melodrama, and comically bad spelling, there are a few interesting stories. And as I was reading through them, I noticed something about the way I was doing it: I was reading fast.

Most of what I read on a daily basis, I've written myself. So I'm used to reading slowly and carefully, mulling over every word and structure and matching it against a dozen other options to make sure I've made the best choices. But when I'm reading other things, I don't bother. I just zip on through for general meaning and tone unless the writer forces me to pause, which only the very skilled and the very unskilled do. And I must assume, based on the speed with which some have tended to swallow Bubbles Pop whole without chewing or tasting it as it goes down, other people approach my stories the same way.

So I tried a little experiment. I opened up WIP-B—the first half of which I had declared more or less "done" with some holes and room for elaboration—and I read it the same way: fast. And at first, I was impressed with myself. The passages flowed a lot better than I had thought when I was micro-analyzing them. Chapter one was pretty solid. Chapter two was okay, and became much better after I broke up some larger paragraphs and monologues to make it more readable.

And then I hit chapter three. There was nothing wrong with chapter three, per se, except that there seemed to be an entire chapter missing before it. Chapter three takes place one month after chapter two. And during that missing month, the dynamics between the two main characters change significantly. They end chapter two as people who had met only recently, and then they begin chapter three as comfortable friends. Since I don't write from point A to point Z, but hop around the letters, I didn't realize the shift was so jarring. I had to speed down the road and feel the bump of the pot hole to notice it was there.

Now I'm in a bit of a crisis. The book is a lot further from finished than I'd thought, and I also have to fill in an entire chapter near the beginning that was not originally supposed to be there. At least I have some things I know I'd like to accomplish with it, like introduce some characters and themes earlier and highlight relationships that I've left otherwise untouched. But the pacing of my subplots will be thrown off, which I'll probably fix by moving an event from chapter two to the end of the *new* three, leaving yet another gaping blank...all in all, it's a great big mess.

It would have been so much more convenient to close my eyes and barrel ahead blindly. I'd like to just blame the readers for lacking the imagination to fill in that month, so I don't have to. But this is what I get for slacking off.


Anonymous (April 17, 2012, 10:09 am)

a very productive "slack".

Mark Marnell (April 17, 2012, 4:27 pm)

Remember the scene in Shakespeare in Love, in which the lead actor similarly comments there was a scene missing in Romeo and Juliet between marriage and death -- the one that became one of the most popular scenes in the play

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What is the first letter of "California"?