I recently did a fleeting trip to Melbourne and decided to take my car over so I could catch up with a bunch of friends (apologies if you are reading this and you were not one of the visited friends). I knew I was going to be covering a few kilometres (turned out to be nearly 1900) so I decided to borrow my parent’s TomTom GPS navigator.
Things were probably not helped by the over 40 degree temperatures and 7 years out of date maps, but TomTom and I had some major disagreements. I yelled some colourful words at him and questioned his skills as a navigator, while he tersely kept replying ‘take the next left’ no matter how many times I ignored him.
It was only on reflection that I realised driving with TomTom is like reading a novel. As you drive you only get shown a little piece of road at a time, never getting the big picture. You know where you have been, but what you are seeing at the moment may not make sense. Why would you turn down this road leading into an industrial estate?
As authors I think we sometimes forget that others are reading our books with a TomTom, not an A3 map. We know where the characters are travelling, we have seen the whole journey (even if only from a great distance and we don’t yet know the road names), so we know what is important to the story and what is not. Our readers do not have such insight.
I submitted a novel chapter to my writers group and they all picked up on a throwaway line I had my character saying, they said they were intrigued about how this would factor into the story later. Short answer; it wouldn’t. It had no double-meaning, I just put it in because it was funny. I knew this, I have the map, but they just have the TomTom and thought that green icon might actually mean something.
I wonder how often I do this? In an attempt to make my world building more vivid, do I plant red herrings? In banter between characters do I forget to show their ages, dress or gender because I’m seeing it all in my own mind, when these facts are key to understanding? I have the map, I see the terrain, the hazards, the roadblocks, do I make sure the TomTom drives within viewing distance of these things?
I guess this shows again the importance of beta readers. No matter how much of a seat-of-the-pants writer you are, you always have more information than the reader. The key is working out how much of this you can and must give them.