Like It’s the First Time

Sam,

Is it possible to read the same book, watch the same movie, do the same action repeatedly without getting bored with it? If the answer could ever be no, then those of us who comb the content of the stories we love with more scrutiny than our own history books are in trouble. It’s something I felt when the Harry Potter books were still being published and still feel to this day. Nothing ever seemed as enchanting or informative to me. Yet every time I came back to Hogwarts, there was something new I hadn’t picked up the last time I read a particular book. It became evident that over time and aging, I viewed the story as if I was reading it for the first time. In reality, it was probably the twelfth.

This befuddling phenomenon leaks into my own stories. Whenever I set to re-write a manuscript, I discover things wrote as if this is the first draft, or–eerily–as if they didn’t come from my hand. The characters seem to say things of their own accord, and I’m just the scribe who records them. Time and the events of life outside the page are quite effective at letting you forget things you thought up. So what am I getting at? Well, as confident as I am in myself to read stories like it’s the first time, I do have some difficulty thinking like this with others.

Whenever I reach out to my Beta Readers–I like to call them my Small Council–I have an uncanny dread they will be influenced by what they’ve read previously and be unable review what’s in front of them with fresh eyes. One of the main reasons we reach out to others to look over our work is to find out how an agent or publisher–someone who has never seen a word of our story–might perceive it. My Small Council is anything but a stranger to my words. However much I know in my head they will provide honest feedback, my heart is not so easily convinced of superstition when it comes to my writing. I fear their familiarity would cloud a serious, skeptical review. I forget that they too had re-read books like Harry Potter with the same enthusiasm as me.

‘The Readers’ by Theresa Bernstein

The past few years showed me how foolish this paranoia is. Of course my Small Council can read like it’s the first time. In fact, their familiarity with my writing style and how the story was before helps them compare and see growth in my ability to tell the story more efficiently. They see me making improvements. They can see me listening to their critiques and applying them to my vision. It’s quite a good idea as an artist to be diplomatic when others comment on your work. While you should never change your entire story every time somebody gives their opinion–it would never get published–you should also not pump the brakes whenever you get feedback. Hold fast to your big vision and sculpt your own Small Council’s critiques to make it more accessible for your readership. As I’ve learned from a recent query workshop, agents will want to know how malleable you are to work with agents and editors to shape the manuscript for publication.

People are going to read your work differently than you, interpret things differently than you meant it, and pay attention to aspects you may or may not have intended to be the focus. Listen to their observations while still remembering what YOU want the story to be. Prepare yourself to accept an individual’s reading as part of the Law that Art Is Subjective.

We return to the stories and actions we love as a ritual to re-experience why we fell for them in the first place. For many artists, we return to them to re-discover what inspired us to pursue our ambitions. The same can be said about athletes of any level who do the same action with repetition, so they may master their skill. We may have the damned things memorized word-for-word, our muscle memory putting us in auto-pilot, yet we can still experience them with the same joy as the first occurrence. It’s one of the few mysteries I have no desire to investigate further. So long as it keeps working, we can recycle the same magic time and time again doing what fulfills us.

Cheers.

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