You didn’t believe that, did you?

But here’s my answer to a question I get asked all the time:

Is there any deeper meaning to all this stuff?

There’s a Facebook page called English teachers put more thought into a novel than the actual author did.

Don’t believe it.

When you’re writing, things don’t just appear on the page. Every word is a conscious decision that builds on earlier decisions and that will support later ones. Nothing simply “happens”—every scene, every character, every line of dialogue is there for a reason. It may have been simply that an author is trying to move the plot along—fine, but why those words, said by that person at that point in the book? There is a reason.

Authors know (usually) why we make the choices we do, and we put far more thought into these decisions than your English teacher does. That’s not a dig at teachers, it’s just that what they have to work with is the finished product—they have no way of knowing how many hundreds of options we considered before choosing the ones that ended up in the book.

Some authors will say that they don’t take an active role in making these decisions, that they really do just end up on the page. Yeah, right. They may not be consciously aware of the choices, but choices are being made between this word and that word, this tone and that. Most authors, however, are painfully aware of how hard it is to make writing look simple.

Now here’s the important thing: It really doesn’t matter what the author thinks. The only thing that matters is what the reader thinks. Once a book is published, an author has no control of how people interpret the words on the page. The fact is, you the reader decide what the symbols mean, you decide what the metaphors are trying to say, you determine the moral of the story. If you can use specific information from the book to intelligently support your idea, your idea is not only “right,” it’s just as “right” as anything the author was trying to say. But you have to have that information from the book to support your idea. For example, you can’t say that in my book, Ashley represents Chinese ecology movements because your cousin named Ashley went to China to help start a recycling program. You can say it, just don’t expect any credit for it on a test. But if you wanted to argue that Zack’s main motivation in doing the things he does is to win approval from the very people and institutions he hates—even though that’s not at all what I meant when I wrote it—and you can support it with evidence in the book, then your interpretation is as valid as anything I claim.

My book—like all books—happened for a reason. I made decisions, I set the action into motion and I chose how it would all come out. I know what it means to me, but what I want to know is this—what does it mean to you?