Monday, April 14, 2014

Writers and Readers

Over the course of writing more than 20 books, I’ve become increasingly aware that though writers and readers are like yin and yang, there is a tendency for readers to be intimidated by writers. It truly disturbs me to hear a reader say, “Oh, I’m only a reader.” The fact is, of course, that without readers a writer is nothing, and the writer is much more beholden to the reader than the reverse. 

Given the tens of thousands of books there are out there, it’s infinitely easier for a reader to find a book to read than it is for writers to find readers for their books. As a result, I and most writers I know spend far more time than we would prefer playing carnival side-show barkers, trying to lure the milling crowds. “Right this way, Ladies and Gentlemen, to MY book(s)! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed at the artistry and dexterity to be found within these pages! Step right up!” 

Few readers are aware of the myriads of details and decisions that go into the writing of a book. Nor should they be. Each book is a story, but even before the first word is written, the writer must make the decision of who’s telling it—that is, in what “person” he is to write, first or third. Most novels, I’d judge, are written in third person, wherein the writer is like the Wizard of Oz standing behind a curtain, unseen. In third person, it is generally considered a serious “no-no” for the writer to interject himself directly into the narration. In first person, the writer, through his/her narrator, is talking directly to the reader. One advantage of the first person is that it provides the opportunity for the reader to identify more closely with the writer. But a major disadvantage to first person is that the reader is shown everything through the eyes of the narrator, which somewhat limits the writer’s flexibility; third person allows for much more flexibility and allows for the telling of the story from several different points of view.

Few readers, I’m sure, give much thought to the setting—the location and timeframe—of the story, but the writer must choose each and deal with the advantages and disadvantages of that choice. My Dick Hardesty mystery series, for example, is set in the 1980s, though I almost never make reference to specific dates, and I have to be careful to avoid anachronisms. In regards to location, I don’t know how many readers are aware that I have never, in the 15 books of the series, mentioned the name of the city in which he lives. A very deliberate decision, because Dick’s city exists on no map, but in the mind of the reader. But those who have followed the series have, I hope, been made to feel they know and are comfortable in it by the casual referencing of the same streets, restaurants, parks, in book after book.

By contrast, the Elliott Smith series is set in today’s Chicago, a fact which presents its own series of challenges. A lot more research is needed to be sure that if, for example, I refer to a particular area of the city, I have to have my facts right. I can’t say that someone lives in a two story house on Michigan Avenue because any reader who has ever been to Chicago knows there are no two-story houses on Michigan Avenue.

The writer has an advantage in that, as a general rule, the reader is willing to accept that the writer knows what he/she is talking about unless the reader has specific knowledge to the contrary. This is relatively easier, of course, in works of fantasy or science fiction, and to some degree in novels set in unspecified times or locations or dealing in subject matter generally unfamiliar to the average reader. But you can be sure that if a writer declares something as a fact and it indeed is not, some reader, somewhere, will catch it.

The average reader neither knows nor cares about all the considerations the writer has given to his/her book, or of the constant tweaking, changes, reworking and rewriting that goes on during the course of the writing. And if the writer has done his/her job, the reader will never know. But you can be fairly sure that the more smoothly the book reads, the more work the writer had to put into it.

I do believe the writer and reader are indeed yin and yang, with neither part more important the other, but I can’t help but feel that in my case, it is definitely the reader who has the upper hand.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

You describe the process beautifully. It's work and, like you said, the reader should never see that side.

The beauty for us, of course, is the force that inspires us to write down what the voices dictate, to be the conduit by which we help create. And when that's aligned? Ahh...