Seeing What You Read: An Author’s Perspective – Guest Post from Kristy Kiernan, author of “Between Friends”

Earlier this week, I told you a little bit about how I read, and asked how you read – specifically about whether or not you visualize characters as you read and, if so, if you use the author’s descriptions to do so – in my post entitled: “Seeing What You Read.” This post emerged from divergent opinions held by Natalie and I about the book “Between Friends” by Kristy Kiernan. Well, the topic elicited a fair amount of discussion, with people coming down on both sides of the issue. A few hours after I posted, I received an email from Kristy Kiernan, who had been following the discussion. She had written out a response, since this is clearly something she has a vested interest in, but hesitated to post it because it got quite long she didn’t want to kill the discussion (as an author posting occasionally is want to do). After a couple of emails back and forth, we decided that I would post her comments as a guest post. I think this is a worthwhile post both because it is interesting to see why she does not choose to describe her characters in detail and also because she raises some bigger questions about publishing and an author’s responsibility to be responsive to her readers. So, without further ado, I give you Kristy’s take on this topic:

It’s difficult to decide if I should pipe up here or not, as it was my book that sparked this discussion, but at the risk of being misread as defensive, I’d love to talk about this, too!

First a disclaimer: A writer is always (or at least by his/her sixth or seventh book!) aware that everyone has their own reading quirks and that s/he won’t always please everyone. The best we can do is to please ourselves first and hope we’re somewhere near the target for a large percentage of other people. I am a reader, first and foremost. I have opinions like any other reader, and that will naturally spill over into what I write. I have great respect for others’ opinions, and offer my own only to add to the discussion of a topic that interests me, a topic that I’ve given a good amount of thought to over the years, not as a defense of my choices as an author.

As a reader I completely skip over character description unless it’s integral to the plot for some reason. Like, say, it’s important to know some physical characteristics of Owen Meany. But other than that, it has been my reader experience that character description is often substituted for character development, and lack of character development is the main reason I will put a book down. I actively dislike it, and it is a deliberate choice to leave it out of my own books.

This is such a point with me, in fact, that I’ve even named it: auburn curls tumbling over the back of her green sweater syndrome. And it loses me as a reader every time. Tumbling auburn curls tell me nothing about a character. How she speaks to her family, how she goes about doing her job, how she feels about the choices she’s made in life, how she deals with the obstacles the author has deviously placed in her way–those are the things that give me a fully-rounded idea of who a character is.

And that takes time. Which, is, of course, why it’s called “development.” Characters are like friends to me, and I don’t care about what my friends look like (though all of mine are shockingly gorgeous, of course!). It has nothing to do with who they are, and who they are won’t be fully revealed to me until we’ve been friends for a while.

However, and this is a big however, this is certainly not the first time this particular criticism has been leveled at one of my books, and I do feel myself beginning to break. Unless you’re in a rarefied position in your publishing career, you’d be a fool to not take note of the things that seem to consistently crop up as issues for readers. And since criticism is nearly always more specific than praise (I frequently hear: “I didn’t like that I didn’t know what the characters looked like.” I rarely hear: “I loved that she left it up to me to visualize what the characters looked like.”), writers do tend to hear specific criticisms whispering in their ear when they start a new book.

So the question turns to: how much do you adjust your own writing style in order to please the largest number of readers? Is it selling out, or being smart? Is it capitulating, or is it learning? It’s a fine line, and it’s something that almost every writer I know struggles with.

Believe it or not, most of us do read nearly everything out there about our books. We read the reviews on Amazon and GoodReads and blogs, we read the responses, we read it all. And we want to please readers – heck, we want to please a lot of readers…or we simply won’t be in this business for long.

So, with my third novel published, and still hearing this criticism from readers (interestingly, I’ve never heard it from anyone within the industry itself, which brings up a whole other issue–are those in the industry in touch with what readers want?), there’s no question that it’s one of those choices I struggle with when writing my new book.

Do I actively change my writing style to suit more readers, despite the fact that I don’t personally like whatever it is? Or is that just stubborn? Am I saying I have nothing left to learn about how to write a book? That seems a little arrogant. Do I, instead, try to learn from it, and then look for a way to include it, but in a way that fits my style? After all, surely I don’t have to use tumbling auburn curls? If I’m talented, shouldn’t I be able to figure out how to balance the cheesiness factor of that kind of construction (my opinion) with my own, more subtle sensibilities?

And that’s where I’m at now. It’s been mentioned too many times for me to ignore it. I am not yet in that rarefied position in which I can. Few are, really, and even if I were, would I want to ignore readers? Another fine line. You can’t please everyone, and trying to is a mighty short trip to insanity.

I’m more than halfway through my new novel, and I have made an effort to include more character description, while trying to not use it as a crutch for character development. We’ll see how it goes.

I know I’ll be reading about it when it comes out though.

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Seeing What You Read

So last week I was finally spending some time really going through my Google Reader, which at been at 1,000+ posts for at least a week – seriously people, there were posts from before the Readathon in there!

Anyway, while I was reading, I came across a book review by Natalie of Book, Line, and Sinker of a book I really enjoyed, “Between Friends” by Kristy Kiernan. It seemed that one of Natalie’s biggest issues with the book was that she wasn’t able to get a good feel for the characters, partly because the author did not describe their physical appearance adequately. Natalie says:

As a reader, I like to visualize characters but had trouble doing so with this novel because physical description of many of the main characters is spartan or introduced too far into the book.  I never fully connected with Ali because I couldn’t get a bead on her appearance.

Now, this wasn’t a problem for me at ALL, but it did get me thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about Natalie’s review and what it means about the different ways that people read for over a week now.  I pay pretty much no attention at all to an author’s description of physical characteristics. I pay slightly more attention to landscape details, but still not a whole lot, if they’re sort of mentioned in passing.

For instance, when I first saw the “Harry Potter” movies, I was shocked to see Malfoy with blond hair. Shocked. I saw him as this dark, creepy character, blonde hair was not in the picture at all. Of course, when I went back and reread the book and, sure enough, Malfoy has blond hair. Huh.

So it isn’t exactly that I don’t picture the characters of a book in my head, but I don’t do it explicitly, and I don’t necessarily use the author’s descriptions to do it. Instead, I tend to build up a mental image of the character just from some of their personality traits (which is sort of weird, I guess, but that’s what I do).

But now I’m really curious about how others read, whether you need to be able to picture characters to feel connected to them, whether you explicitly picture them at all. Simply put, do you have to be able to picture what you’re reading?

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