The art of becoming invisible to the reader

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The first professional editor’s review of my first novel was devastating. It seemed I had to rewrite 75% percent of the book. Naturally, this did NOT land well with me. Why? What was the editor aiming at with her harsh  slashes? And WHY was I resisting them?

Consider this:

“Vision is the most distancing of senses. After all, we must step back from anything in order to see it. Alone among the senses, vision invites us to objectify the world, to coodly observe the event around us rather than participate in those events”. (Sight and Sensibility by Laura Sewall)

Isn’t this the exact opposite of what we, as writers, seek? Don’t we hope and aim to have the reader so fully immersed in our work that she gets to be in the ocean with our character, feel the swell of the waves, or smell the salty air of the coming storm?

I have been in a boat, along with Hemingway’s old man (even though I didn’t like the book). I have felt time moving so slowly that a word took eons with Orson Scott Card’s A Planet Called Treason. I have wept in despair at the countless deaths of beloved characters. (Damn you, George R.R. Martin.)

Isn’t that the level of involvement we try to achieve as writers? That our readers can curl up with our book and be lost to the world around them because they are in OUR world?

And what does THAT have to do with vision or with my editor’s report? What does vision or editing have to do with anything when we fear for a character’s life?

Everything, I would think, and I’ll tell you why. It seems to me that the editor’s (and proofreader’s) role  is to render the text INVISIBLE in order for the reader to be able to go PAST her sense of sight and become immersed in the text.  If vision is NOT needed, then other senses and emotions can come in.

Bear with me a minute (or two).

It might sound obvious that typographical errors will “stop” the reader’s experience, take him out your world and force him to SEE the text again. Thus, making sure that there are no such errors is quite a straightforward first step. I had a proof reader fix my text BEFORE sending my manuscript to the editor.

But then came the editor’s report. Because she is a personal friend, she was able to tell me, outside the report, just how ANGRY she was at my text.

Yes, ANGRY.

Because I had failed the main character, because I was making the text unreadable, because she had to keep focusing on details and lost the feeling of the world.

As writers, we ARE immersed in our words and our worlds. I dream about them sometimes. Characters whisper to me while I am walking my kids to school and when I try to do the dishes (yes, THEY are to blame for my crappy housework!). I wake up with the perfect phrase, the one I have been trying to get right for MONTHS. And then the editor wants me to change them?

Step back, I told myself. Step back and don’t argue. She is seeing something you don’t. And because I really could not understand her suggestions but KNEW they were of the utmost importance, I pondered them for 5 years. FIVE YEARS… Until I understood.

I was IN the world. She was SEEING it. I wanted her to be in it, too, but she couldn’t. When a reader has to stop and step back to consider a badly written word, a poorly defined character, she SEES your work. She is no longer in it. And as the quote above says, vision is quite a distancing sense.

To stress the importance of this point, let me tell you this: I have read thousands of readers’ reviews at Amazon. (It’s sort of an obsession/pastime/research project). Some of the most usual causes of negative reviews for self-published authors are:

  • Grammar mistakes and typos
  • Plain, two dimensional characters
  • Unbelievable plot twists
  • “High school level” language

“Plain, two dimensional characters.” Isn’t this like the very description of a character that can be seen but not felt?  Characters that you see on a flat screen, not characters that you can shake hands with. Characters that, if they were a forest, would have no shades of green, just ONE type of tree and no sunsets. A review like this shows that a reader WANTED to be immersed in your work, but could not, because your work had no depth.

It goes without saying that grammar mistakes and typos will “kick out” most educated readers in no time. But beyond that, I humbly believe that the now trite (but fundamental) advice “find your own voice” has done a lot of harm. When I received my first editor’s report, I thought “my voice” was unique and the editor just didn’t get it. (Thank the gods I still stopped and rethought things!) The advice, at least for me, should have been: “Write, let the editor render your text invisible, and then fine tune to a voice the reader can listen to with no danger of hearing off-pitch tones.”

But how does one become invisible, while delivering a 3D world?

This is what have I learned (I hope .Take it with a grain a salt, I’m almost 50 and have only been published once… in a compilation):

  • Think of your text as a forest. You want the reader IN the forest, not looking at a photo of it.
  • To do this, step into an actual forest (or urban setting) and consider this: How do you notice things? I, at least, do not notice everything at once. BEING in a forest, all your senses are involved: you feel the wind, you see the leaves, and notice different details in them as if the world was unfolding. Take one step and your entire perception changes. You are surrounded, but you do not feel trapped.

Conversely, in an urban setting, you might become overwhelmed by stimuli. Looooong descriptions or too many things happening at once will have the same effect on the reader. Making descriptions accurate but invisible is an art. Orson Scott Card is a master at it, I think. He “hides” the character’s descriptions in actions, spreads snippets of them over several paragraphs, shows them through another character’s remarks or thoughts. You hardly NOTICE how the character takes shape in your mind. NOTE: I no longer support, read or mention Card. He is homophobic as f.

  • Ask your editor to specifically note every time something took her out of the text. And BELIEVE her. YOU cannot do this. YOU are forever IN your work and know so much more than is written. Trust an expert.

Zoom out, I tell myself. The story, not me, is the star here. Hand it over to your readers gently, and humbly allow yourself to be invisible.

It seems to me that in doing so, I am in the process of becoming a writer. And that has made all the difference.