One fine evening here in the Rogue Valley, I went to a reading by a book-design client who is a writer/editor/publisher with terrific writing chops. The setting was intimate, a smallish room in a local winery with five or so tables. There were maybe ten people there.
After we’d wined and cheesed and chatted for a while, she read a selection from her thriller. I had read that same part in the process of designing her book–it was description of a place, and it went on and on and on and on and on and . . . But she was a pro, so I figured she knew what she was doing.
When she was midway through the passage, she stopped reading and said to her audience, “I find myself wishing this would get on with it.” And then she skipped ahead.
Until that moment, despite all the writing and rewriting she had done, she had not felt that her narrative was weighed down by what caused Elmore Leonard to say, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Which takes us to a lesson from my WIP.
As of this writing, my second novel featuring my vampire kitty-cat protagonist, The Hollywood Unmurders, is finished but unpublished. Several beta readers have been through it, and I’ve incorporated their feedback, including notes from Don Maass, who kindly read chapters for me.
While Don found the world, the voice, the characters, and the storyline engaging, he also said this:
“My main stumble in reading these pages has been with pacing. The narrative voices, especially Patch’s, spend a lot of time ‘talking’ and less time telling us what happens . . . I felt a bit impatient as I read.“
Well, that was one bit of feedback I didn’t respond to with changes. Y’see, since much of the “talking” had to do with character and building the world of what it’s REALLY like to be a vampire, I felt righteous in thinking, “Yeah, Don, but it all contributes, it’s all necessary.”
And then came a reading.
I was invited to a salon where artists, playwrights, photographers, and writers gather for an evening of sharing what they’re working on. I decided to see how my novel’s opening would play.
Five minutes is about as long as a chunk of reading should be, so I read aloud at home, trying for some performance values, to find the five-minute mark.
As I read, I found myself stopping to cross out chunks of narrative from the “talking” parts Don had referred to, points at which, just as he had, I felt a bit impatient as I read.
What? I had read it aloud before and thought it was fine. All that stuff is NECESSARY! That first chapter had been honed and polished to a gleaming narrative machine.
Or maybe not.
It’s not just reading out loud.
So what caused me to start deleting? What caused my author friend to stop reading and skip ahead?
Unlike the last time I had read it aloud during the editing process, this time I had visualized myself sitting in a living room with seven or eight people listening to me.
Not my cat, not my computer monitor. People. And what did those people want and expect from me? You know what I’m going to say.
Reading to listeners changed the “feel” of the narrative for me. I think performing before an audience hyper-sensitized me to anything that lessened their story experience.
Where the pace was snappy, I was confident that the audience would be tuned in and listening. But then I came to slower segments where I sensed that their attention would drift (mine started to). The parts people skip. That make them a bit impatient.
Lesson learned. The next time I read my stuff aloud in the privacy of my office, I’m going to invite a collection of imaginary readers to attend and stare at me, waiting for me to deliver a story.
By the way, the reading went well (with me skipping still a little bit more on the fly) and several in the audience said “Oh, no” when I stopped mid-chapter. One asked to read the novel, and I’ll be sending an ebook file soon—it’s never too late to learn how it works with readers.
For what it’s worth.