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?