Sunday, July 31, 2011

Magic Inside the Reader’s Mind

For Lois McMaster Bujold, whose many novels and short stories have brought her Hugo and Nebula Awards, a book is not a “sheaf of inked paper with the gaudy cover glued to the spine.... not an object on the table.”

Rather, it is an event that takes place in the reader’s mind, she writes in “The Unsung Collaborator,” one of her essays on writing that can be found in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma, a collection of her short stories and essays, edited by Suford Lewis.

“It’s a process, through which an idea in my mind triggers an idea, more-or-less corresponding, in yours. The words on the page are merely the means to this end, a think-by-numbers set, a bottled daydream.”

This view of writing (and reading) as a process where ideas are transferred from the mind of one person to the mind of another through the magic of words, ink, and paper is one of the keys to creating a compelling story.

That’s because such a view, as Bujold explains, requires a writer to understand the relationship between the words that the writer is putting on paper and a reader’s expectations of those words:

The book, if you like, is not the story buy merely the blueprint of the story, like the architect’s drawings of a house. The reader, then, is the contractor, the guy who does the actual sweat-work of building the dwelling. From the materials in his or her head, the ideas, the images, the previous knowledge, each one actively re-constructs the story-experience–each according to his measure, knowledge, gifts. And charity.
As Bujold notes, “It’s increasingly clear to me that the reader and the viewer–the active reader or viewer–does a lot more than he or she is ever given credit for. They fill in the blanks. From hope and charity, they explain away the plot holes to their own satisfaction. They add background from the slimmest of clues. They work.”

Indeed, they work so hard, according to Bujold, that “they end up remembering not the actual words on the page, but the events described as if they had been there.”

She describes how twenty years after reading a passage in one of her favorite books, she can still recall sitting behind one of the characters on the deck of a ship and tasting the sun-warmed plums that he puts in his mouth.

“I remember with clarity details I don’t think the author ever described anywhere on that page, the smell of the sun-heated deck planking, the exact sound of the water bubbling from under the hull–pulled, I believe, from my own sailing experiences.”

Bujold believes that "a book is only finished when someone reads it."

It’s why she doesn’t keep her manuscript hidden from others until it’s finished but prefers to seek out test readers. “I have to restrain myself from running out after every paragraph to find someone to try it out on to see if it works.”

Most amazing of all, she has found, that:

sometimes a very fascinating thing happens. Sometimes the reader doesn’t stop with your provided blueprint. Sometimes they continue building. The characters go on talking in their heads even after the book’s covers are closed; the universe continues to build around the edges. This is a creative event I’ve never heard discussed in any literature class. And yet it seems to be a common factor in all the great, truly beloved literature of the world. It’s not sterile. It doesn’t stop with the printed page.
It’s the kind of magic every writer hopes to create inside a reader’s mind, isn’t it?

For more information about Lois McMaster Bujold and her work, visit:

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