Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Reading Writer

Novelists are cursed. Where the average reader can approach a book with the willing suspension of disbelief, novelists tend to pick books apart. This is why we pick up a bestselling novel and ask why a publisher would publish that trash when they won’t even look at ours. It is also why we can hand a manuscript to a family member than they believe it’s great, but hand the same manuscript to an agent and she’s already made up her mind to reject it before she reads the first paragraph. Children are much more willing to suspend disbelief while the suspension of disbelief is more difficult for adults and even more so for novelists and agents. Children have no problem reading a somewhat poorly written book and calling it good, while an adult may read a book by a multi-published author and question the sanity of the publisher.


The suspension of disbelief is largely a matter of respect. People complain because children don’t respect their elders, but children respect adults more than you might think. Hand a child a book about flying pigs and they are willing to suspend disbelief. An adult has written it in a book, so it must be okay to accept it as true for the space of the story. For adults, the willingness to suspend disbelief hinges on how much respect the adult has for the author. If we little respect for the author, we may quickly find fault with a book. If we respect the author, we may over look some issues, believing the author will entertain us. As authors, we may try to answer the question of whether the author is a better writer than we are. We want to find fault, so that we can assure ourselves that we are better.

Agents don’t respect unpublished authors. We see this in how they treat potential clients. Many agents treat these people as children. I know of one agent who actually addresses the people who frequent her blog, hoping for representation, as “kiddos.” I don’t mention that because I wish to make the argument that agents should respect potential clients more, but rather to highlight the challenge that authors face. To get people to suspend disbelief, we have to persuade them that we are worthy of their respect. If we want to enjoy a book, we must find a reason to respect the author. If we can do that, we can turn off our internal editor and actually enjoy the book.


The suspension of disbelief also requires consistency. Some space movies, such as Star Wars, show explosions and include a sound effect. Being knowledgeable people, we know that there is so little matter in space that we shouldn’t hear the explosion, but out of respect for the artistic license of the creator, we willingly suspend disbelief and enjoy the show. But what if after a few explosions one of them was silent? Now it is a mistake. Or maybe it is written into the script and the fact that we wouldn’t hear an explosion in space is an important plot point. That would make the other explosions a mistake. It’s ironic that the explosion that acts as we would expect in real life would be considered a mistake. But in the imagined universe of our story, that is the case. That mistake also reduces the respect we might have had for the creator.

To allow the willing suspension of disbelief a story must stay consistent with the rules of the story. Often, the rules match up with the rules of our world, but then we might throw in some things that don’t, such as flying pigs. If pigs can fly in chapter one, then they had better be able to fly in chapter ten, unless we have a good explanation of why that has changed.

Writers who read are bound to find some inconsistencies in the work of other people and it may be more difficult for us to respect people we see as equals. When we are reading the work of others, it would be good to turn off that internal editor. It’s okay for there to be mistakes. Maybe the author didn’t do it like we think she should have, but that’s okay. Let it slide and look for the story. Maybe the author had a bad day or was looking for filler, but look for what the author is trying to tell us.