Did you really mean that?

img_0019One of the hardest things to spot in your writing I think is when something hasn’t come out on the page the way you intended when you wrote it.

So you imply one thing, the reader infers another. It can happen in small subtle ways, or great big clunking ones – the character you intend as a noble hero can seem more of a villain for example. Why is it hard for the writer to spot? Because it’s still you doing the rewrites, and you still have your initial perception colouring your view.

Here’s an example, not from art but from life, of this effect in motion.

My Mrs is very good at buying presents, she prides herself on it. Usually they are remarkably thoughtful and hit the mark, but everyone makes mistakes. I remember once she bought me a mug which had a photo printed on it of me and our dog Murphy. But when it arrived, all you could see when someone was drinking from it was a massive picture of my face.

Now, I’m not fond of telling people I don’t like their presents, essentially it’s a bit rude. So when she showed it to me I just made those little noises people do when they want to tell you they’re on a different page from you without actually, you know, telling you.

She wouldn’t have it that the mug did not work. She was glued to the idea it featured a sweet picture of me and my furry companion, who only appeared on the rear as a kind of brown blur. She wouldn’t believe the evidence of her eyes, she knew what she had intended.

We went around the houses with it a few times, me trying to be diplomatic, while she stuck to her guns. Finally, to bring things to a head (pun alert), she said: “You have to take it in to work.”

That was a red line. I declined. She wanted to know why.

“I’m not going into work with a mug with a big picture of my own head on it,” I told her, “They’ll think I’m mad. Well, madder than they do already.”

Eventually she realised I wasn’t going to budge on muggate. The mug is still in the cupboard, I use it for measuring things, I’ve included a picture so you can see I’m not making this up.

As in life, so in art. It’s tough, when you have a draft of your story, or book, to become aware that other people will not see it as you do.

398px-john_miltonIt happens even to the best of us. Top literary example – John Milton, Paradise Lost. Yep, I’m going in there with Milton – take that Times Literary Supplement.

Milton’s intention, we must assume, was to make Satan the bad guy in Paradise Lost. It’s the standard telling after all – devil bad, god good. That’s the way the story goes.

But in his version the devil is the best character. The one who isn’t wooden and two dimensional. He’s the hero. You’re not supposed to be rooting for Satan, it’s like wanting the Nazis to win in The Sound of Music – the thought must never, ever, cross our minds.

But that’s what Milton ended up with. A Promethean hero pitting himself against an unjust god. William Blake said Milton was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’

So that shows it can happen to the best of us writers. It also shows you can write a great book which wasn’t quite the book you set out to write.

How do we avoid the author thinking one thing and the reader another? To an extent you can’t. Samuel Johnson said ‘A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.’

I found this to be particularly true with my first book Song of the Sea God which is something of a moral maze and can have as many interpretations as there are readers.

But one way of making sure what you write translates to the rest of humanity is to have people read it before it is published. This is straightforward if you have a traditional publisher of course. Your editor goes through the manuscript with due diligence. But even then I quite like to have others read the book early on as well. Beta readers they call them in the trade jargon.

I find ‘did you really mean that?’ is one of the key questions these readers and editors ask me. And it’s always a good question to have to answer.

puacoverMy latest book The Pick-Up Artist is out on Kindle and paperback.

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4 thoughts on “Did you really mean that?”

  1. Haha, yes, Chris! That is so true! Not only in books, but in Social Media too. From a reader’s perspective it is very easy to project our own interpretations onto something someone says or has written that they never intended – just because of the way it is written or words they might have omitted that would make the meaning clearer. And yes, Beta readers are worth their weight in gold for this. I do see what you mean about the mug though! A real mug shot indeed 😄

    1. Oh gosh – don’t let’s get started on social media, that’s a total minefield isn’t it? One word out of place and you can be hung drawn and quartered. It’s not really a forum for detailed debate but people get drawn in and that way lies madness.

  2. I love that quote about the writer only begins the book – the reader finishes it. And then another reader sees something different in it, and another reader will see something different again. The writer just starts the argument! I remember when I chaired a book group, eight or nine of all read the same book and yet we usually had at least two or three quite different ‘takes’ on it – so different that sometimes I had to ask myself, ‘Did you read the same book as I did’ Which suggests that, as readers, we bring a lot more to the party than we realize when we open a new book! And the writer can’t do much about that!

    1. Very true. It’s great if you can write a book which actively encourages people to make of it what they will. Often I think I’m at my best as a writer if I avoid giving answers in what I write as much as possible and instead just try to ask questions.

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