Monday, April 12, 2010

Don't Mess with My Readers!

How do you know which editorial changes are worth fighting?

Simple. I go back to the best piece of writing advice I ever received, given to me by Jeffery Deaver. He told me to always remember: The Reader IS God!

I try to keep that in mind while doing revisions. After the first draft, the book is no longer for me or all about me, it's about the reader and how best to entertainment. How to earn the time and money they've invested in me and my story.

How to transport them to another world, give them a compelling, powerful experience while there, and how to leave them feeling so connected to my world that they're still thinking about it once they close the book.

Not asking for much, eh?

But that's what us writers ask a reader to do every time they open a book: to leave their world and come into ours, trusting us to guide them as well as entertain them and then bring them back home a better person for the experience.

Which is why there's only one rule I write by: never bore and never confuse.

So with those three sentiments in mind, I launch into edits. At every point where I disagree with my editor, I return to those three statements. Will the change create a better experience for my reader, will it slow the pace (risk boring them), or will it confuse the narrative by jumbling the timeline or throwing in too much explanation at the wrong place?

It's a balancing act. But it's a little easier because I'm not defending myself or my words, I'm defending my readers.

After all, when I write a book for publication, I'm making a promise to the reader to give them a particular emotional experience and it's up to me to deliver that.

And since both my editor and I are on the same team as far as wanting the reader to be happy and willing to invest future time and money into my books, it doesn't have to be an adversarial process either. Although sometimes the art department may not seem to be fully on board, lol! But that's a post for another time.

I doubt if readers ever sense most of this tug-o-war—which is as it should be if I and my editor are doing our jobs well.

But you tell me. Ever read a book where you felt the writer broke one of these "golden rules" and went off the rails, seeming to not care about the experience they promised you as a reader?

Go ahead, rant, you don't have to name names. We'll listen! Because here at 7CM, we think you ARE gods!

Thanks for reading,

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, October, 2009. Her newest project is as co-author of the first in a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich. To learn more about CJ and her work, go to


Sophie Littlefield said...

great post cj. I actually spend a lot of time thinking about the "reader contract" - which is the idea that we have promised, by the very act of writing a book, to deliver on certain expectations held by our readers. It's easy to criticize this notion as writing to "formula" but that is far from the case and I would say that it works for every genre, from the densest and most high-handed literary novel to the pulp noir.

I do *not* mean things like "by page thirty there must be a kiss/body/intellectual betrayal". What I mean is that readers and writers, over the course of many decades of honing our collective national fictional taste, have come to agree that certain hints, setups, styles, ordering, exposition, etc. imply certain outcomes. The first sympathetic man on the page in certain romances will be assumed to be the hero. The presence of a secondary character with a lot of page space will be assumed to have a role in the outcome. A character's deepening confusion or self-loathing will have a resolution that is somehow related to the larger resolution of the story.

These are not rules. In fact, some of the most satisfying fiction comes from turning expectations on their heads. But it must be done with intent. What readers do NOT like is being misled with no clear deliberate outcome. I don't know how many romance contest entries I've judged where I've written in giant (if figurative) red pen IS THIS GUY THE HERO???? because his actions were muddled and contrary to heroic behavior or his behavior with the heroine were misleading or indifferent.

I think it comes down to one basic tenet, which I may well write in marker above the screen. Cause I am having that kind of day.

O ye writers:

Sophie Littlefield said...

urrrr... just realized i basically just stole your idea cj. sorry!!!!

CJ Lyons said...

LOL! Sophie, no worries--like I said in the post, I learned this "commandment" from Jeffery Deaver.

It is awe-inspiring to realize the power we have and the responsibility to our readers.

Writing for myself, prior to publication, was great fun--but not half as fulfilling as writing for readers...not to market or trends but to provide real life folks with real entertainment, and hopefully in a way that makes them think or see the world in a new way.

Wow, makes my head rush just thinking of the possibilities!

Unknown said...

I agree, Sophie, you can break a specific contract IF you make it worth the reader's while, and if you play fair in some sense. I'm thinking now of how I threw The Murder of Roger Ackroyd across the room when I got to the end -- but I also played the book over in my mind and damn if she hadn't played fair. And I did keep reading Ms. Christie ;)

I've been reading a book lately that is full of passion but the political agendas of the writer have wreaked havoc on the story and characterization. So that the things this writer subverted on purpose are lost in the wash of things subverted accidentally.

I like the rug pulled out from under me a little bit (I hardly ever throw books these days) as a reader. As a writer, I want to make damn sure it's worth the reader's time & effort :)

CJ Lyons said...

That's the challenge, isn't it? Giving the reader something new and different, yet still satisfying....tough tightrope to walk!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post, CJ!

I love the bit about a good edit not being adversarial. I've been lucky enough to have always had editors on the same side as me: the book's side (which one must always remember is the reader's side too).

CJ Lyons said...

Exactly, Becky!
Thanks for stopping by!

Shane Gericke said...

But sometimes the reader's side is not the publisher's side, in which case sparks can fly. While we all aim to give the reader a great read, commercial aspects can and do conflict with creative.

Shane Gericke said...

Mysti, I threw a Jodi Picault book a couple of months ago because she killed a character that I loved, and more important didn't need killing. It seemed done for shock value rather than story necessity. My wife Jerrle thinks the killing was necessary for the story. I threw the book anyway cause I was PISSED.

I can only hope my readers throw my books someday because they're so powerfully engaged with my characters. It would make me very happy to replace their shredded books for free!