The Second Draft, Revision: What Does the Reader Want? with Tracey Kathryn
I’m an early riser. I adore the morning hours when no one else is awake; it’s the best time of day. I have a routine: I stretch my back, drink a mug of warm lemon water, then step outside to my wonderful backyard for fresh air. After that, it’s coffee and writing. The consistent process helps me stay on track. It’s what I need to get words on the page.
Becoming aware of that need, that process, gave me a lightbulb moment; it provided enlightenment as I revised my mystery novel. There are certain things I require—movement, hydration, and fresh air—to start my writing day. I thought of other writers and asked myself, What do other novelists need to write?
Then, given that I’m revising the first chapters of my mystery novel, I took the question further to consider readers and asked, What do readers need to engage with my story?
Tips about writing initial chapters include limiting backstory (no prologues!); being concise with a novel’s setting; and using a pivotal moment to bring the reader into the action. All great ideas that are focused on what a writer should do; the audience for such advice is the novelist.
But, I put myself in the place of a reader and considered what that person needs. If I have a morning routine that serves my purpose, what process would serve a reader while he’s reading my books?
I thought about my ideal reader and jumped into that person’s head. I read my initial chapters from that point of view. Thinking about that person helped me strip unnecessary information, create intensity, and underscore my book’s themes. Adopting an outsider’s persona improved my first chapters; it was unlike any other strategy I’ve tried. The switch in perspective truly enhanced my work.
Just the facts
I had a friend who, when asked for directions, would provide enough details for a novel. She meant well, but her guidance was so overwhelming it was impossible to use. The same thing happens to a reader if too much information is offered in the opening paragraphs.
While I revised my first chapter (for the tenth time), I asked, What does my reader need to know? That’s a different question than What do I want to write?
Focusing on my writing-craft skills and creating a story does not mean I will write what a reader needs. Most likely, I will offer too much information about setting, descriptions, and story. Like my friend who gives directions, I’ll overwhelm the reader with details that don’t matter.
With a reader’s perspective in mind, I edited my first chapter. Rewrote it completely, in fact. I wrote it from the perspective of a reader and included what that person needed to know. Not everything I wanted her to know. Only what she needed to know. There’s a difference. I provided just enough details to ground the reader in time and place. I used dialogue to further the story and stripped out voice tags. Then, I created intensity by focusing on action.
The reader needs to be compelled; he needs to engage with the story enough to keep turning pages. Advice for creating intensity includes:
• Keeping sentences and paragraphs short for establishing a quick pace
• Keeping the narrative “camera” tight
• Writing short chapters, especially at the start of a novel
What happens, however, is the opposite. Authors offer lengthy descriptions in the opening pages because they want to bring the reader into time and place. Then, authors introduce populations of characters and dump backstory into the narrative to share what the author knows. The reader gets overwhelmed with imagining the new people; their relationships with one another; and the physical description of where they are.
I am guilty of the above—because I think like a writer. I eagerly want to share my people and plot with readers. However, while revising my novel, I flipped my point of view and thought like a reader.
That allowed me to edit my story and present information in a new way. I asked, What does the reader need to know in this paragraph? Then, I’d provide that information—and only that information. I offered short lines that were easy to read. Short sections that kept the pace flowing. And, I stayed tight to my protagonist, offering her vision of what was happening, and introduced only a few new characters. I immersed my reader in the protagonist’s world for the first chapters.
I love how Shakespeare used themes in his work. It was masterful. Each play focuses on observations about human nature such as power, revenge, or friendship. Themes add an extra dimension that boost satisfaction. They offer a more profound meaning about humans and why we behave the way we do. Trust, love, or fate, we all have issues with them, good or bad. Themes study the human condition, and well-written books underscore that knowledge.
During my exercise of thinking like a reader, I wondered, Why does this story matter to my reader? Themes answer why. I asked, Why is it essential that my main character solve this mystery? Because crime never pays—and greed is never good; it ultimately destroys.
I also brought two other thematic elements into my story: Time and its impact on our lives. Also, friendship. How do two people maintain it when one of them is hiding something?
By adopting the fresh eyes of a reader—not a writer—I identified the major themes of my mystery novel. I got out of my way, outside of my head, to see what the reader sees, to understand what he needs to engage with my story.
I’ve written several blog posts about revision. I’ve discussed a novel’s setting (specifically, avoid coffee shops!); identifying and repairing holes in the plot; and adopting the persona of a reader to improve the first chapters. All have been valuable exercises in revision. But the most enlightening strategy has been to open my eyes to the reader’s point of view.
The first step toward thinking critically is to strip away one’s personal bias and analyze a situation from an outsider’s perspective. That strategy improved my first chapters, unlike any other revision tact I attempted. My work became more concise, fast-paced, and thematically meaningful after seeing it with new eyes.
I hope this series of blog posts about revision has assisted with your writing endeavors. Most importantly, I hope the blogs have provided a sense of perseverance. Major revision hasn’t stopped me. I still am meeting my writing goals, even if it seems as though I’m looking backward rather than forward.
Happy beginning of summer—and happy writing and revising—all. ~ Tracey Kathryn, MA
P.S. Are you a member of a writing group where you review one another’s chapters? What tips can you provide about feedback? What advice do you have if it appears that feedback is unwelcome? I’d love to compose a blog series about writers’ groups. Thanks for your input!