Do you know who your reader is? Do you know what affects their reading pleasure? When you write, do you follow all the prescribed guidelines because you’ve been told they are what your reader wants? Funny that, I also thought I knew and I believed the guidelines to be truths.
I was talking to a professional lady about reading one of Terry Pratchett’s books as a light read whilst recovering after illness. Her answer, that she can’t read his books, surprised me. So I immediately directed the desk-light into her eyes and probed for more information. Her reason was;
“I have tried to read Pratchett many times but I always have to give up on them after a bit. I find them too hard to read.”
More probing and…
“I just don’t have the imagination to imagine all those creatures, and things, and weird places.”
She finished off saying,
“I find it too much hard work reading it so I can’t enjoy it.”
Remember, this is coming from a professional lady, one whose intelligence is above question. Yet whilst I myself find these books a relaxing read, she finds that the very same words are a complete obstacle to her enjoyment. This hit me hard because the two reactions are at totally opposite ends of the entire possible range of reactions; being a light read vs. being an impossible read.
My immediate thought was that maybe the dictate that we writers receive, the one to cut out or cut down descriptive portions of our work and leave more to the imagination of the reader, had caused an excessive burden on this lady. My second thought was that perhaps the characters were so fantastic in a fantastic world, that a rule of science fiction and fantasy had been broken. The rule being; either write about fantasy being(s) in an ordinary world or write about ordinary being(s) in a fantasy world. This rule is designed to ground your reader in the familiar and so make the reading less challenging. I had to know what it was and so I toddled off to pick up a copy of “Equal Rites” and have an enjoyable (light) read.
My findings? Are Pratchett’s characters so challenging? The characters actually are not fantastical inventions. In the book a wizard is as you would expect a wizard to be, witches wear black capes and black pointy hats, dwarfs live and mine underground, whilst blacksmiths are gentle giants that make up in muscle what they lack in brains. There is an ancient inherited wizard’s staff that has abilities and an intelligence of its own, but a clever old stick is not that hard to imagine. They are all characters that we have seen before, not ordinary normal, more ordinary fantasy.
As for the world, once you get past the improbability of four elephants standing still, for all eternity, it is kind of normal in an ordinary fantasy way. Ramshackle huts and houses, large black kettles on open fires, small isolated towns populated by rural folks, more swayed by superstition than education and apart from a small god who walks deep in the woods, much is as you might expect.
Yet it is too much for my lady friend and I am back at wondering why. She said she found it “hard work”, maybe it is her reading age and I have now to hope she never reads this and finds out I have questioned her reading age. OK, grab a section from the book and plug it into a Flesch score program.
“The staff stood upright in the snow and Granny got the feeling it was turning to face her as she walked carefully past it.
There was also a small heap in the centre of the circle, curled tightly up inside itself. Granny knelt down with some effort and reached out gently.
The staff moved. It was little more than a tremble, but her hand stopped just before it touched Esk’s shoulder. Granny glared up at the wooden carvings, and dared it to move again.”
For this excerpt the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 5.74 and the Flesch Reading Ease level is 78.82, so the writing is definitely not too high brow for a mere mortal. These figures are well inside the guideline targets quoted on the net and cannot possibly cast a shadow over the reading ability of my lady friend.
After all this where does it leave me? Exactly back where I started, a bit more aware of my readers and a lot more cynical of the “rules”, “advice” and “best practice” doled out as gospel and followed without heed to their actual relevance. How can a “rule” possibly state, “do this… because readers like/dislike…” when you have readers as diametrically opposed in their reactions to the same text as my lady friend and myself? Perhaps it is best to think of them as guidelines; mostly correct but never absolutely right.
I would argue that ease of comprehension and visualising depends on who your readers actually are, how “in to” your work they are and what they want from your work. There will be some readers, like me, who can perform the necessary mental gymnastics to visualise a novel as they read. Others can quickly tire of such toil and simply close the page, forever.
I would argue further that people are not all beige clones, each wanting to consume the same beige normalised material that has been washed with beige paint brewed from a simplistic recipe.
This leaves you as a writer with the old saying “you can’t please everyone” and the thought, “all of the rules can’t apply to all of the readers.” It is up to us to KNOW our readers and what they like, to seek out this information and then provide them with the goods. We may have to bend or ignore a few guidelines to provide them with this, after all our audience has not read the rule book.
Thank you for expending the effort needed to read this.
Rule: Keep “you” the author, out of the page, the reader does not want to be reminded of the author’s hand as he/she reads.
Equal Rites; Terry Pratchett.
“It may, however, help to explain why Gandalf never got married and why Merlin was a man. Because this is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense, unless the characters get totally beyond the author’s control. They might.”
Photo; Terracota Warriors, cc Revolution Cycle