Mom as First Reader

What does your mom think about your writing?

Is she pleased to have an offspring that’s creative? Is she supportive of your endeavors, or indifferent to them? Is she a fan, or a critic?

Do you write because of your mother, or in spite of her?

Is she your inspiration? Do you long for her to read your stories? Or does the thought of her reading your endeavors make you squirm with anticipated embarrassment?

Are you proud to have her read your work? Are you ashamed?

We are grateful to our mothers because without them we wouldn’t exist. They carried us, birthed us, fed and diapered us, sat with us through measles and fevers–and if we are very fortunate–loved us.

Recently I coached a young man who needed help with his manuscript. Each time I offered a corrective in how he was approaching a scene or chapter, he would nod and say, “That’s pretty much what my mom said.”

Curious, I asked about her and discovered that she’s a writer and a teacher. I thought of how wonderful it must be to have such a mother–one who’s creative like you, one who shares your language and imagination.

My mother’s talents ran in other directions. She was innovative in solving problems. She was fearless, direct, and a go-getter. What must she have thought of me–the dreamer who lived in a world of pretend, who spent glorious days immersed in books instead of playing outside, who sat hunched over notebooks and later keyboards, absorbed in my imagination? My caution, my shyness, my preference for reading instead of doing must have frustrated her at times.

Yet Mom supported me. Whatever I intended to do–and I was stubborn enough to let nothing stand in the way of my goal of becoming a writer–Mom wanted me to be good at it. She read every novel I published, whether it was to her taste or not. She couldn’t articulate how she felt about the characters and story beyond comments such as, “It was pretty good,” (high praise) or “I’ve liked some of your other books better,” (Mom-speak for awful!)

She worried about me working too hard for too little pay. She was thrilled when I did book signings. She faithfully purchased my books so I would get the royalty, and she always insisted that I autograph them.

It’s not easy to write with the awareness that eventually your mother is going to be reading what you’ve come up with. There is, of course, that time when you include your first written sex scene and you think you’ll die if she asks you any questions.

Beyond that, however, lies a different type of awareness. So often, our mother is our first audience, our first reader. Even if our relationship with her is rocky and she’s no fan of fiction, we still feel her ghostly presence at our shoulder. We either shy nervously from certain dialogue or plot situations, or we mentally defy her and plow forward.

She may or may not be in your life. She may or may not read your work. But somewhere–almost always–don’t we long for her to like what we do?

From this foundation of desiring Mom’s praise and approval, we commence our training of audience awareness. We may be busy learning our writing craft and trying to round up wayward characters or control an unruly plot, but we must also learn when to think of our potential readers and when to please ourselves.

It’s not an easy balancing act, this tightrope of ours. We’re given so much advice–some of it contradictory.

Write to please yourself!

Write to please your readership!

Which one do you follow? How do you keep yourself from falling–and failing?

You are, in effect, a performer in the circus of your fictional world. All you can do is try to align what you want to do with what most readers expect.

If you’re following the path laid down by an established genre and meeting its general expectations, fine and good. For example, if you’re writing a mystery, you need a crime, a victim, a perpetrator, and a sleuth. Readers expect those elements, and within their basic parameters you can make them as clever, creepy, quirky, and unpredictable as you please.

If you’re forging a new path, however, and there isn’t an established genre in front of you, what do you do? Think of Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse series. When her first novel appeared in publication, it was difficult to find a copy in bookstores–not because it wasn’t there but because no bookseller could figure out where to shelve it. It mixed several genres in a fresh way. Harris forged her own path. She pleased herself first, and thereby pleased the readers who discovered her.

Therein, I suppose, is the answer. We must be aware of our audience. We don’t go out of our way to disappoint or offend readers, yet we must find enough inner courage to trust our vision and follow where our story sense leads.

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