Who shall I wear my hat at today?
I think it was easier in the old days. A woman’s hat announced to the world—or at least to the eagle eyes of her fellow women, which really was the same thing—just who and what she was. Change the hat; change the woman.
“Hats divide generally into three classes: offensive hats, defensive hats, and shrapnel” — Katharine Whitehorn
They say that in seven years, every cell of our skeleton has replaced itself. (Stanford Medicine). How often have you reinvented yourself, changed hats as it were? Today’s guest, Wendy Janes, has been thinking about this.
On such a cold winter morning, please grab a cup of coffee, one of these wonderful hats my sister makes, and sit over here with us by the fireplace while Wendy tells us about the difference a hat can make.
Wearing different hats
Guest Post by Wendy Janes
After my formal education ended, I read novels purely for pleasure, and my literary criticism extended no further than chats with family and friends about likes and dislikes of a particular book. Stories were for losing myself in. They could be an escape from, or a mirror on, the everyday. They were written by strangers whose skills at weaving magic with the written word I admired and enjoyed.
Then I was given the opportunity to review newly published novels for a magazine, and I needed to think more analytically about the books I was given to review; considering plot, characterisation, and style. While reading I might jot down some notes, which left me feeling slightly distanced from these stories. Whether reading for review or not, I found myself pondering more about the relationship between author and reader. What did the author want the reader to feel? What message (if any) was the author trying to get across? Was the author trying to educate, be the reader’s friend, unsettle the reader, and how effectively did he or she manage this?
When I started work as a freelance proofreader I worked mainly on non-fiction titles. I was surprised at the extent of the differences between proofreading non-fiction and reading fiction for pleasure. The former required a thorough double-checking of sources, notes, references and bibliographies, and an in-depth analysis of elements of the text that most readers wouldn’t think twice about when curling up with their favourite book. For example, reading the imprint page, checking for a logical hierarchy of headings, and looking oh so carefully at the punctuation of quotes. All this, in addition to watching out for typos and questionable grammar. As well as an eagle eye, I found an emotional distance was required. Emotional distance was also required with the few fiction titles I proofread at that time. Getting carried away by a story wouldn’t help me do my job properly.
After a day of proofreading I’d look forward to unwinding with a novel. Removing my proofreader’s hat, I’d have to actively stop myself from hunting down errors and inconsistencies, and within in a chapter or two I could settle down to fully enjoy the story.
After a decade of proofreading for publishers, I expanded my business and offered my services directly to authors. At that point it became more difficult to stop proofreading the books I read for pleasure. Spotting things such as inconsistent and incorrect hyphenation had become so ingrained, it took a serious act of will to try and stop noticing them and tutting every time an author used a spaced hyphen, or a mix of straight and curly quotes. Sometimes I wish I could go back to not noticing such things, but on the other hand, shouldn’t all books be as error free as possible?
I now write fiction myself. And my reading experience has shifted again. I often spot similar storylines and characters to my own. While reading a novel where the lead character suffers from post-natal depression, I wanted to tell the author that I had completed writing my as-yet unpublished short story about the same subject before I started reading her book. In the scene when the baby’s name is chosen without the mother being fully consulted, I was torn between admiration for how authentic that felt and annoyance that it was my idea in my short story. A case of great minds thinking alike, or an indication of a lack of imagination? I prefer to believe the former.
My critical faculties have gone into overdrive. All too frequently I find I’m editing while reading, thinking that I would have used a different word or phrase, or written a different conclusion to a scene. Repeated phrases and words jump out at me, especially the ones I tend to overuse myself, such as ‘she smiled’ and ‘just’.
I notice things that I struggle with in my own writing. For example, I sense when an author is frantically engineering the story to make a character behave in a certain way: there are too many leading questions and internal dialogue sounds strained or stilted. When I see this happening it feels like the bones of the plot are poking through. As a reader I don’t want to see the skeleton of the plot, it’s meant to be covered by the smooth skin of the storytelling.
There is a bit of me that enjoys the intellectual exercise of editing while reading for pleasure, but often I wish I could take off my author hat, feel the heart of a story and recapture the original romance of reading. However, it’s not completely lost. When I read a beautifully written book with a carefully crafted storyline that is so engaging or powerful that I suspend my critical faculties, then I know I’m reading something very special, and the romance returns.
Wendy Janes lives in London with her husband and youngest son. A number of her short stories have recently appeared in anthologies, and 2015 saw the launch of her first solo novel, What Jennifer Knows. Her writing is inspired by family, friends, and everyday events that only need a little twist to become entertaining fiction.
As well as writing contemporary fiction, she loves to read it too, and spreads
the word about good books online and in the real world.
Wendy is also a freelance proofreader, and a caseworker for The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service.
Note from Barb: Are you all still warm enough in those hats? Maybe it’s time to change them?
So how about you, coffee guests? How often do you change your reader hat? Do you tend to stick with one genre, move from one genre to another, or read across multiple genres? And how about you writers? Do you read the genre you write in?
Special News! Until 18 January, you can buy Wendy Janes’ critically acclaimed contemporary romance, What Jennifer Knows at the special sale price of £0.99.
What Jennifer Knows by Wendy Janes
A vital member of her Surrey community, Jennifer Jacobs is dedicated to her job as a dance therapist, helping children with special needs to express themselves through movement. Wife of a successful though reclusive sculptor, Gerald, she is known for having a deep sense of empathy, making her a trusted confidante. So when two very different friends, Freya and Abi, both share information with her that at first seems to be an awkward coincidence, she doesn’t tell them. But as the weeks roll by, the link revealed between the two women begins to escalate into a full-blown moral dilemma – and also brings to the surface a painful memory Jennifer believed she had long since forgotten. What is the right thing to do? Should she speak out or is the truth better left unsaid?