The Connection With Readers

August 8, 2015 | By | 8 Replies More

DSC_0131_863When my debut novel was published, the component of the writing life furthest from my mind was arguably the most obvious.


It wasn’t as if the novel was the first time my work that had made it into print. As a freelance journalist, I’d seen my byline for years, but the satisfaction it engendered was that of a task successfully completed. Word count, check. Spelling and grammar, check. Click Send. Deadline, met.

Then Playing St. Barbara was accepted by a small press. Elation soon gave way to the realization that I’d have to swiftly switch hats from writer to publicist. Getting the book “out there” was my new task, but, oddly enough, I never stopped to consider the primary reason I was busting my butt to do it. I was too busy freaking out at the mounting pile of publicity to-do lists and marketing notes on my desk.

The novel launched with a reading at a local indie bookstore. Each time I looked up from the page, I saw friends’ faces in the audience. Scattered among them, however, were unfamiliar ones. When the reading concluded, I finally wrapped my rookie author brain around the fact that getting my book “out there” meant getting it into the hands of people I didn’t know. Thanks to an especially nice advance review, people I didn’t know—people who lived hundreds, if not thousands of miles away—might already be reading it.

This concept flat-out astonished me.

I’ve long experienced what I call the “Wow! A writer!” response. I’ll be chatting with someone—perhaps seated next to me on a plane—and that someone asks, “What do you do?” The moment I answer, a friendly expression transforms into wide-eyed wonderment, as if I’ve transformed in a puff of smoke into Jane Austen. Several years ago, a physician I was seeing for the first time countered with, “A real writer?” (It was all I could do not to ask,” Are you a real neurologist?”) The “Wow!” response never fails to make me laugh at what appears to be a commonly held belief that writers are magical beings with powers unimaginable to mere mortals—even highly recommended neurologists.

Ironically, my reaction is much the same whenever I encounter, either in person or via the Internet, someone who’s read Playing St. Barbara. Perhaps it’s simply the hallmark of a rookie, this rush of delight at each fresh reminder that my novel is truly “out there.” Perhaps I’ll become indifferent, even impatient, when an unfamiliar name appears in my in-box and asks a question about the book. I’ll shrug off my resolution to respond to every reader’s email or Facebook message, to thank each one for his or her interest in my work and taking the time to contact me.

PSB_HI_RES (1) (1)For now, however, I still remember, all too vividly, the years of research and revision, the hundreds of pages reworked and reworked again and then, maddeningly, discarded altogether. The unrelenting determination to improve as both wordsmith and storyteller with each new draft. The dream and the striving to land a publisher and the frustration at each rejection, followed in short order by deep breaths and squared shoulders and rededication to the ultimate goal of a published novel.

Yes, Doctor, a real novel.

I love E.L Doctorow’s rubric: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I suspect it was my deep engagement–the obsession with the next word, the next phrase, the next lyrical, necessary sentence—that caused me to lose sight of what awaited me at my destination. I was concentrating like crazy on those headlights, and they didn’t afford even a glimmer of the people clustered at the end of the road.

Those people came into focus at my first book club visit. Their faces were small, since my visit was a virtual one courtesy of Face Time and a tablet screen. The club members’ comments and questions told me they had not just read my book, but also thought about it, and deeply, in a way that deepened my own understanding. One club member pointed out an incident at the beginning of the book that was mirrored by a different character at the end. This link, in her opinion, underscored the innate strength of the book’s heroine.            

I’d completely missed this connection. I’d neither planned these mirrored actions, nor noticed them after I’d completed the book. When brought to my attention by an astute reader, the link both surprised and delighted me.

Another memorable moment came months later when I visited a local club. A member showed me her “cheat sheet,” a page she’d covered, front and back, with a list of characters, descriptions of locations, and definitions of coal mining terms essential to the story. Her notes called to mind my own genealogy chart of my fictional town’s families. It thrilled me that a reader had so engaged with my story that she had expended time and effort to compile similar details.

The meeting’s conversation gradually moved from the book to the writing process. When I commented that characters often act in ways I don’t expect, the members’ faces registered a version of the “Wow!” response. After a long pause, someone ventured, “Really?”

I tried to explain that this happens only when a writer has fully imagined a character, but I could tell they weren’t buying it. These readers—my readers—regarded me as if I were a magician with extraordinary powers. And despite everything I know to the contrary, for a long, exquisite moment, I felt like one.


Marian Szczepanski holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and has received awards, grants, and fellowships from Clackamas Literary Review, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, and Houston Press Club. She teaches creative writing workshops in Houston at Writespace and beyond. Her website is

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (8)

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  1. I remember dissecting a story in some long-ago literature class, and my teacher/mentor claiming–ridiculously, in my all-knowing 14-year-old view–that the author had intentionally embedded whatever plot device we were discussing that week. I thought the very suggestion was preposterous. He was surely reading too much into it.

    Now that I’ve wised up a bit, enough to know that writers actually do things on purpose at least part of the time, your essay is a nice reminder that the best part of the story happens in the mind of the reader, beyond my hands and out of my control.

    • It’s so true, Brandy, that once your story goes out into the world, there is no way to limit to the interpretations of and opinions about it. In the end, however, the fact that my material IS “out there” and gaining a readership is so affirming. I don’t write purely for my own pleasure–although when I’m in the zone, there is absolutely nothing more pleasurable–but also for readers. Some may be entirely off-base about my characters’ motivations or the story overall, but when a reader truly connects with my work and takes the time to let me know, I am head-over-heels with joy. Even now, two years-plus post-pub, getting emails from readers still thrills me.

  2. Many thanks for this. You make some valuable observations. Particularly the fact that it is important to focus on people you don’t know. I needed to be reminded of that!
    Like you I will be trying my best to help my publisher (Driven Press) with publicity and marketing.
    You mention readers not buying the notion that fictional characters somehow develop a life of their own. I do think this is a problematic concept. I need to think some more about that.

    • So sorry not to have see your comment sooner, Barbara. Thanks for your response! And good luck with your publicity/marketing efforts with Driven Press. Authors are expected to shoulder much of that task these days, and it can be a steep learning curve. (At least it was for me.) The most important component, I think, is simply to believe in your book. If you’re 101% behind it, the publicity/marketing tasks become less onerous. When I was in the throes of post-pub marketing, I started to feel as if I was “on a mission” to get my book out there. I hope you catch that missionary zeal, too!

  3. Denise Pattiz Bogard says:

    Hi, Marian. I have just spent the past several hours drafting an essay in anticipation of my own High Hill Press novel’s debut. Upon taking a break, I was thrilled to see your own essay. I admit: I follow your postings and have awarded you the role of my mentor–or maybe as a more experienced sister.

    With this essay you have once again paved a way for me toward life as a published author.

    I hope to meet you in person soon. Until then, thanks for the lessons!

    Denise Pattiz Bogard
    THE MIDDLE STEP (High Hill Press, fall 2015)

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