By Peggy Morehouse
I’ll never forget the first time I took my son, Max, to see the ocean. He was seven months old and we were vacationing on the outer banks of North Carolina. The morning after our arrival, I dressed Max in his cute little sweat suit and told him that he was about to meet one of nature’s most spectacular scenes. I carried him up a weathered wooden staircase a few yards from our house rental and voila, the glistening green sea and pristine white sand greeted us. Instead of bursting with squeals of excitement like I imagined however, Max screeched, gripped my shoulders, and buried his face into my neck.
It never occurred to me that this massive body of water with its crashing waves would frighten him. I assumed Max would view it with a sense of wonder not like a monster that might swallow him whole. We both witnessed the same sight, but we viewed it differently. I’d walked and played on hundreds of ocean beaches on the east and west coast during my life and regarded the shore as a place to contemplate, relax, and enjoy. Max reminded me that it also had ferocious side. I changed my plan of strolling toward the surf and instead, sat on the top step and comforted him with a gentle hug and soothing words.
A shift occurred as I took the perspective of my young son. That is exactly what I needed to do when I left the writing phase of my novel and entered the editing phase. It was no longer all about the story I wanted to tell. I needed to examine it from a reader’s viewpoint.
As I read the story, I asked myself questions like:
- Do I understand the main character’s motivation?
- Do I find myself rooting for the character?
- Do I laugh a little?
- Do I cry a little?
- Do I feel scared at certain points and happy at others?
- Am I ever confused?
- Am I ever bored?
- Do I want to continue reading at the end of every chapter?
- Do I feel I’ve changed a bit when I reach the end?
And on and on. Personally, I didn’t find shifting from being the writer to the reader to be all that simple. After a few rounds of fine tuning, the story seemed clear to me, but it was my creation. I found it impossible to be objective so I hired a professional editor.
I sent my manuscript off to Ms. Editor on December 15 and she returned it on December 26 with a developmental evaluation, a line by line edit, and her compliments for a job well done. Of course she made some grammatical corrections, which I expected. But as I reviewed her notes I was amazed at some of the other things she found. Just like I was surprised at Max’s reaction when he first saw the ocean, Ms. Editor found shortcomings that I totally missed.
For example, in one instance she questioned why a certain character suddenly appeared in a scene, asking, “Where did she come from?”
My response: I mentioned she was coming along in the previous chapter.
Not good enough. The reader doesn’t remember every detail, like the writer. They need reminders without being repetitive. A one sentence cue at the beginning of the chapter like, “Lani glanced at Paige who was thumbing through a magazine…” is all the reader needs to indicate that Paige did indeed come along.
Ms. Editor was also intrigued by a side character that I almost cut from the story. She even suggested that I include her in at least one more scene.
Luckily my list of content edits was short. I will be ready to start querying literary agents by the end of next week. With Ms. Editor’s guidance I added the subtle touches that will keep the pages turning.
Like introducing a child to the ocean, a reader must be led through a story with sensitivity and precision. Details must be carefully woven, reminders must be subtly given, and the pacing has to seamless. A writer must be acutely aware of a reader’s perceptions. As with Max on the seashore twenty-five years ago, I sensed when his body relaxed as I held him on the steps that led to the ocean. I noticed when he lifted his head and looked out more in awe than fear. I felt his hands lift off my shoulder and saw his feet flutter in anticipation. It was then that I knew he was ready to inch toward this new wonder.