There are a number of bits of wisdom that nonwriters frequently impart to writers, usually with the best of intentions. Some of them are useful and very true, like “You need to send that out, you know.” Other times…not so much.
One of the not-so-much categories comes in the form “If you (the writer) do X, the reader will also do X.” For instance, if the writer likes/dislikes the characters, the reader will dislike the characters. If the writer loses track of the plot, the reader will lose track of the plot. If the writer is having fun, the reader will have fun.
The trouble with this kind of pronouncement is that it confuses product with process. On the most basic level, there’s the matter of time. Most writers spend months or years producing a manuscript; most readers buzz through the same manuscript in days or hours. It’s relatively easy to remember the key hint or the bit of foreshadowing in Chapter Two if you read it within the last day; it’s not so simply if you wrote that bit two or three months ago. It’s even worse if you wrote it four months ago in Chapter Ten, moved it to Chapter Eight a month later, deleted it entirely when the front end of the story got reshuffled a week after that, then changed your mind and decided it needed to go in somewhere and tried it in three or four places before settling on Chapter Two as the right spot (for now) a month ago.
By the same token, the writer has to live with the characters – and their quirks – a lot longer than the readers do. The protagonist who was charming and fascinating at the start of the series can start to feel old and stale after the writer has lived with him/her for four or five years…but the readers, who’ve only had four or five weeks of the character over those same four or five years, frequently still find the character fresh and appealing.
In other words, what works in fiction that is read over a relatively short period – say a week – does not necessarily have the same effect when it is spread over months or years. What works for the reader may well not work in the same way for the writer.
Conversely, what works for the writer (or what the writer thinks is working) may not work for a reader who hasn’t been steeped in the story for weeks and months. Things a writer thinks are blindingly obvious (because he/she has been pondering the character’s motivation or the series of plot twists) may be totally opaque to most readers because the writer forgot (or didn’t think it necessary) to put it on the page. Things a writer thinks are just the right level of incluing may strike the reader as being beaten about the head and shoulders with hints (because the hints that the writer put in weeks apart, the reader is running across within minutes of each other).
Which brings me to the second part of the product-process confusion: the writer and the reader are not looking at the same thing. The reader has a finished product; the writer is working with an unfinished product, right up to the very end.
A story that’s in process is frequently very different from the final version. Not only does it change, it keeps on changing. As a result, the writer’s relationship to the story is very different from even the most dedicated and fanatical reader’s relationship to the story. The reader is looking at a porcelain teacup, finished and glazed. The writer is looking, at various times, at a lump of clay, a lopsided bowl that has to be squished down and reshaped, a mug-like cylinder that’s closer but still too tall, an unfinished cup that still needs to be fired and painted and glazed but that’s at least the right shape, and, eventually, the finished teacup…which may be a lovely and pleasing teacup, but which is nothing at all like the water pitcher the writer had in mind when she sat down with that lump of clay at the beginning of the process.
For writers, it’s as much about the journey as it is about the end result.