By John Gilstrap

Have you ever stopped to think about what the reading process really is? We process spots on the page as letters, which we then combine to form words. Each word has a precise meaning, and when we combine them in our heads, the words form images that can be every bit as vivid as an image projected onto a screen. When you sit down to read a “good book” (the phrase means different things to different people), the images become more real than the physical environment in which you are reading. The plight of the characters who are trying to survive become far more compelling than the reality of your reading chair.

When I teach writing classes, I refer to this process as the magical transference, and I try to get students to recognize just how fragile it is. As a reader, when you’re in The Zone, it only takes a single word, or a single abberant act on the part of a single character to eject you out of the story. Once ejected, you may or may not return. For me, when I look back on a terrific read, my judgement has a lot to do with how thoroughly I have felt connected with the story.

As an author, I realize that none of that is coincidental. Just as my connection with the stories I love was intentionally engineered by the authors of the books I love, I bear the sole responsibility for providing that same experience to my readers.

It’s about “voice.”

People who know me tell me that when they read my books, they hear my voice telling the story in their heads, and it sort of creeps them out. From where I sit, it’s the highest compliment. And it’s not accidental.

When I write a scene I’m always keenly and consciously aware of what the scene is meant o convey. If it’s a relationship scene, I can take my time. I can use longer sentences with more complicated structure. If it’s an action scene, on the other hand–say a shootout–then rapid-fire staccatto sentences are the order of the day. And through it all, I strive to be invisible. I have no interest in impressing readers with my vocabulary (as if it were big enough to do that), and I have no plan for them to marvel at my turns of phrase. At the end of the day, I just want them to become lost in my stories.

My formula is to bond readers to my work through my characters. A friend of mine, whose books outsell mine by a factor of ten, freely admits that his chacaters are an afterthought–that plot twists drive his plots. At then end of the day, we both get to the same place–a good story well-told–but our routes of travel couldn’t be more different.

What do you think? How important is the magic spell that defines reading? How aware are you at every moment when writing that every new word threatens the magical spell? How do you make it all work for you?

At the end of the day, is it all just pure f%$#ing magic?

8 thoughts on “PFM

  1. This is why I rarely enjoy books that switch POV from first to third to first ad nauseum. It removes me from what John Gardiner referred to as the “vivid fictional dream,” and reminds me I’m reading a book.

  2. I think it’s all about that magic spell, John.

    One of the reasons the craft — e.g., consistent POV — is important is not only to avoid the big mistakes. I have a theory that little ones, say jumping heads within a scene, are not consciously noticed by readers, but are like potholes in the road. There’s a bump, a tick, and while the reader might keep going, there’s been a subtle interruption. If there are too many of these, they may finish the book and think, “I guess it was OK.”

    Whereas, if they kept the same plot and characters but were consistent on the little things too, the readers are more likely to say, “Wow, that was a great read.”

    And I agree that character bonding is what makes the magic happen. I would hold out Nathan’s Run as one of the exemplars of how it’s done.

  3. Dana,
    I don’t mind shifting 3rd-person points of view (that’s how I write), but the first person to third person jump always proves too jarring to me. It always feels like a trick that better serves the writer than the reader.

    As Harry Potter demjonstrated so well during his seven tumultuous years at Hogwarts, it turns out that even the purest magic is largely craft.

    That’s a lovely thing for you to say. Thank you.

  4. Like you said John, when done right its like a movie inside the readers head.

    When the writer does that, it truly is like pure fishing magic.

    (f%$#ing = fishing right?…or did I get colloquialisms wrong again.)

Comments are closed.