Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Leaving Room For the Reader

Is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, do, does, did, may, might, must, can, could, shall, will, should, would, be, being, been.

You will have to take my word for it that I wrote that list from memory. Those are the twenty-three helping verbs in the English language. They also represent the one and only thing my freshman high school English teacher, Mrs. Corbin, made us memorize that year.

I honestly don’t know why that was the sole memorization task she gave us, but my point here is really about everything else that happened while we weren’t learning prescribed information by rote. Instead, we spent a lot of time in that classroom figuring things out for ourselves, in what I’d call the best possible way.

Vocabulary lists started with small group work, where we’d come up with our own definitions before anyone cracked a dictionary. Creative writing assignments gave us free rein over our story ideas before Mrs. Corbin ever lowered the boom on mechanics and structure. There was an inherent trust in her teaching, an implicit message that we brought something of value to the table, and that learning was a collaborative process.

It’s an idea I try to do justice to in my writing, as well. One of the tricky parts of creating middle grade fiction, for me, is in knowing how much information to give the reader, and how much they can (and should) figure out for themselves. Part of my job is to invite readers in as participants, not just observers. It’s up to me to trust them to fill in some of the gaps, using the power of their own imaginations.

The question is, what do I need on the page and what can I leave out? Which details are important enough to include? Which ones will readers willingly, even naturally, provide for themselves?

Beats me. It’s an art, not a science, and every reader is different. What might be implicit to one kid will feel like a frustrating lack of information to another. I’ll never get it 100% right because there’s no such thing. But I can work hard to ask myself the right questions as I'm drafting and revising. Do I need this detail? Have I already communicated it in some other way? Does it function as a story element, or is it merely decoration? 

If some aspect of the setting or a character's physicality is germane (think Camp Green Lake in Holes; think Harry Potter’s scar), I’ll put it in. But if I’m unsure, my default is toward the “less is more” side of the fence.

Voltaire said the best way to be boring is to leave nothing out. Einstein said that everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler. Those seem like a couple of good guideposts to me. Most of all, though, I go by my own taste, intuition, and gut feeling, with an eye on leaving the right amount of room inside the story for both of us—by which I mean the reader and me. It’s so much more fun that way.

I'd love to hear recommendations from any of you, in the comments section. What books do you think do this well? Which stories have that X factor that allows them to draw you (or readers you know) irresistibly inside? (I'll start: James and the Giant Peach; Out of the Dust; When You Reach Me.)

8 comments:

  1. I don't know-- considering that I can still decline amo in Latin in all six tenses, active AND passive, after almost 40 years, perhaps we ought to spend more time having high school students memorizing things. They should all have a poem to recite to themselves at times of stress or boredom!

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  2. Fair enough. I hope everyone has a teacher as gifted as I had, in any case. (She turned me into a writer!)

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  3. I wish I'd had your teacher. An early dose of creative writing would have served me well. Two other points:
    1. Three minutes ago, I was pondering whether or not to explain something or leave it to the reader. You helped me decide.
    2. A Whole New Ballgame by Phil Bildner, especially the unlabeled autism aspect.

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  4. Cool! And sounds good! That's an interesting wrinkle to all this, and plays out in lots of ways: the character who just happens to be ______.

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  5. This is a fascinating post. I love that statement about making the reader a participant.

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    1. Thanks, Holly. Coming from a theater background, I think I'm especially attuned to participation as a factor...

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  6. Loved the quotations from Voltaire and Einstein. And as student (and former student) I value both what I memorized and what I had to figure out for myself. My favorite memorized tidbit was: "ONE - OF PHRASE - RELATIVE PRONOUN- PLURAL AGREEMENT" from Miss O'Brien senior year in high school. I still go to it all the time: "She was one of those teachers who are still remembered." ("Are" not "is"!)

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    1. Awesome. May they (teachers) get to know, at least some of the time, how much they stick with us, years and decades later!

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