It’s All About the Reader

Once upon a time, agents and publishers were the gatekeepers of published fiction.  They alone dictated which books made it into the hands of readers, yet with the recent advances in the digital market, authors can self-publish, deciding for themselves what they want to put in the hands of readers.  And readers can decide for themselves what they want to read.

Makes sense to me. I’m an indie author.  I enjoy reading indie books.  And my re-visit with the saga, Gone With the Wind has reinforced this notion. My first experience with this novel was during college. At my mother’s insistence, I picked up the book, one I would have otherwise ignored as it collected dust on our coffee table and gave it a read. At first I thought it was an old-fashioned story, set in a time when women lived at the mercy of men and the grace of manners, the veil of civility and the injustice of slavery. I was a twentieth-century independent young woman on her way to a career AND family. What on earth would I find interesting about that book?

Everything. Absolutely everything, from Margaret Mitchell’s elegant depiction of plantation life with its fond devotion between masters and slaves to her visceral description of war, tragedy and loss, you can’t help but sit riveted.  It promises romance and longing, bravery and duty and all intricately woven into the facts of our American history.  The kids and I listened to the audio version on our way through Georgia and on to Tennessee, cities along the way now familiar to them because they were part of the story.

But darn it if the author in me can’t help but listen with a critical ear, analyzing the story much the same way I now watch movies.  Take Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted in clear motion.  From the inciting incident to the journey back home, the rising stakes as they flee Madame Dubois, join forces in heroic moments between lion and circus crew, tiger and zoo gang, the formula works.  Yet as I listen to Gone With the Wind, I notice its dramatic arc is drawn with a lazy hand, sweeping strokes filled with back story and description that would drive today’s reader into a swirl of impatience.

Most of us have become accustomed to fast-paced action-packed reads. We want hero and heroine and we want them quick. Make it deep and meaningful, sexy and fun, but make it count—each and every word. Oh, and make us cry if you can, so the HEA is all the more rewarding (Disney has this formula down to a T—just ask my kids).  But whatever you do, don’t waste our time with non-essential detail, adjectives that repeat and characters we’ll never remember because they were sketched with too little detail.   

Entice us with memorable heroes we’ll covet for our own, settings we long to visit, lifestyles we can only dream about.  Make us yearn for more as we hungrily turn every page. Yes, this is the pleasure of Gone With the Wind.

Scarlet O’Hara is a self-centered, manipulative little beauty who can barely see past her own desire to care about anyone around her, let alone understand what it means to truly love (she reminds me of Erica Kane, the eternally youthful and infamous vixen from All My Children).  Then there’s Melanie Wilkes, the timid girl turned Lady of Steel and her husband Ashley, the elegant mild-mannered gentleman, lover of all things romantic and dreamy.  Rhett Butler stands in a category of his own, dashing and swarthy, mean as a snake, tender as a kitten.

Despite the fact that Mitchell head-hopped like a pro, repeated adjectives like a cheap thesaurus and intruded into the story like no one’s business—the author in me can’t help notice these things—I enjoyed it, immensely. Reading it at twenty-two, I don’t remember the death of Bonnie, but I do remember Scarlet’s willful personality—most likely a reflection of my stage in life.  As a forty-seven year old woman with a husband and two children, I now grasp the deeper themes of pride and loss, the redemption of childbirth, the dawn of unconditional love.

It’s heady stuff.  Gone With the Wind is epic in both scope and romance and I find myself missing Scarlet and Rhett.  As a romance reader I long for HEA, something Mitchell does not provide.  She ends his love and begins hers, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted them to fall into each others arms and build a better relationship.  But they didn’t, so instead I’ll cling to hope and believe that “tomorrow is another day” and Scarlet will indeed come up with a way to win him back.  After all, he’s older now and seeking different things from life; honor, tradition, reputation and the time to enjoy the little things.  And if I know Scarlet…

And that’s the crux of the matter. The characters came alive for me.  Although Mitchell wrote heavy description infused with unusual adjectives and extraneous adverbs, the story remains powerful; a classic by any standard. How did she manage this feat?

Because readers want to be engaged, entertained, even educated. They want to care about the characters, delight in their plight, suffer in their turmoil and remain gripped by a constant state of “what next?”  It’s the essence of an author’s mission:  make the emotional connection between story line and personal experience, join hearts and minds within the pages of a book.  When it’s done well, it’s memorable. 

How about you?  Do you have a story you cannot forget?  Characters you miss to this day?

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Posted on July 16, 2012, in Blog Posts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great post, Dianne, and a superb way to start my Monday because I’ve been thinking hard about how I’m letting social media rule my day and not writing enough. And what you say here is what I’ve been reading a lot lately – “it’s all about the book”. Yes, the writing of Gone With The Wind is different than what online classes tell us to do and all the books we just HAVE to read that tell us what to do in order to write a good book. However, when all is said and done, did the writer engage us and make us love the characters, whether theres’ an HEA or not?

  2. Exactly. That’s my takeaway. And I was thoroughly engaged and more than forgiving of those sections I skimmed. Doesn’t mean another reader will skim them. To each his own!! 🙂

  3. The Help and Hollowland are books I’ve recently read which have stuck with me. They are at totally opposite sides of the reader spectrum. The Help is women’s fiction, while Hollowland is a zombie story. Yet both had strong characterization that keept me rooted to the page, cheering on the characters, even frightened for them. They are books I will never forget because they engaged my emotions.

  4. It’s why we read isn’t it? We WANT to be engaged, engrossed, enthralled–and there’s more than one way to get there! Readers read because they WANT to connect. That’s why I do, anyway!

  5. Great post, Dianne. Believe it or not, I’ve never read Gone With The Wind or seen the movie. Living in the South, this is a mortal sin!

    Like you, I read differently now that I write and have little patience for the adverbs and flowing descriptions. I do hate that I can’t simply read for enjoyment anymore, but when I do get sucked into a book it is a real treat!

    I recently read On The Island and while there was nothing special about the writing (no beautiful sentences, not much description), the story sucked me in and stayed with me.

  6. And that’s the hallmark of a great book.

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