Four Ways Writing a Novel is Different than Reading One

outdoor steel staircase with blooming heather filling in the risers
One of my favorite collaborative efforts. Steel and heather. Alfter, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2018.

Reading is a collaborative and creative activity. The reader is in partnership with the writer, and they create an experience together. Writers are told to read, read, read. . .to improve their writing. Good advice. 🙂

But I’ve recently noticed four ways writing feels very different from reading.

  1. The set-up. Ideally, the early chapters go by in a kind of blur, so that later, readers never realize writers used up a quarter of the book to get them into the story. As readers we’re busy working, getting acclimated to the story world, figuring out who’s who, and what’s what. When we read, we don’t notice how long it takes.

This is why it’s easy to write the story set-up too short. Or way too long. If we aren’t allowed to write this story’s exciting part, we’ll write the exciting part of the one that happened before. This is called backstory or information-dumping. (Attractive, no?)

Re-reading is a much better way to find out what set-up is and how long it takes. If a writer can entice the reader in–all over again–with the ordinary part, that’s craft. The best writers leave a little space and time for the readers’ imagination to get cooking, without letting them notice.

2. Pacing. By definition, the writer is the first one to boldly go down the story path. Joyce Carol Oates describes writing fiction as slashing your way through the jungles with a machete. E. L. Doctorow compared it to driving by your headlights. Keeping writerly despair at bay must add something to the reader’s experience, but I don’t know what it is. Tension, voice, scope, meaning, pacing? (A finished book? 🙂

3. Foreshadowing. (A.K.A. why it’s annoying to watch movies with writers.) It’s really hard–impossible–to foreshadow as you write. Once you know the cannon is going off at the end, it’s easy to add a box of confetti in a dimly lit corner of your brilliant opening scene. 20:20 hindsight. You just “put it in”.

4. Writing things inside-out and backwards. Judging by dreams and first drafts, I think the imagination doesn’t care much about what comes first. For me, as a writer, ‘story stuff’ gets sent up any old which way.

In a recent draft of my middle grade fairy-tale/fantasy, several chapters were clearly *cough* in the wrong order. Switching them around made my main characters stronger. Suddenly, their actions set the plot dominoes in motion. Yay!

Some writing friends compare story-telling to pulling yarn out of a skein. Their imaginations must be better trained. Personally, I have to slice the story up and tie it together, again and again. Judging from the overwhelming reaction to this blog post, a lot of other writers have the same problem.

But aside from all of these technical difficulties–oops, challenges–writing can sometimes feel the same as reading. Writing ‘in the zone’ or ‘in flow’ or in the grip of a story feels like being taken on a journey.

I think that’s what makes writing so addictive. Imagination is both a muscle to exercise and a dream to follow.

What’s your take? Does this all seem hopelessly obvious? Have you ever wondered about particular differences between reading and writing?

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