An inconvenient truth…

I was reminded the other day of some writing wisdom which I came across at the start of my career:  That it was infinitely easier to make a character cry than to make the reader cry, likewise it was easier to write, “he laughed” than to make the reader laugh; in both cases, strive to achieve the latter because it was always far more effective.

A while ago, an author I don’t know asked me to read a manuscript of historical fiction in order to give my opinion on it and suggest where it might need some work, if at all.  So I read about half.

It had a great deal of potential, I thought, and said so.  The period and setting were fine and not over-used.

But I also said that at this point, although the story was interesting enough, it was still just the bare bones of a plot–there needed to be colour, description so I could see the places being referred to and get some sense of time and place, etc.  More importantly however, the characters needed substantial work because they were, without exception, flat and one-dimensional, and the reader, I said, needs to be given something to engage with, some emotional hook, some reason to care about them and thus continue reading. 

I was, ah, shouted down about this, shall we say.  Okay, roundly abused.  Which is fine.  Mine is only one opinion.

However, I subsequently learned by way of a rather convoluted grapevine that others had been asked to read this same manuscript and had felt the same thing and had also been shouted down.

So now for the inconvenient truth:  If your glib and golden words and works are criticised by one or even two readers, you may ignore it.  If you have several readers saying the same thing, pay attention, the work needs more, er, work, because they’re probably right.

Another inconvenient truth–and this one is even more unpalatable.  The fact is readers do not owe writers a living.  Readers don’t owe us anything.

We, by virtue of our profession, are already asking readers to give up the little spare time they have–which these days is less and less–to read our work.  We are asking them for a commitment of not just their money (not much of that about), but also that most precious commodity, their time.

It is therefore our job to give them a dashed good reason for so doing.  We must engage their attention, their emotional responses, their imaginations.  If we fail to do so, we will ultimately fail as novelists.

And it’s no good to say, “Oh, that’s hard work…”

Yes, it is hard work.

It is hard to construct a fascinating, unpredictable, yet believable plot.

It is hard to write nuanced characters whom readers can love, loathe, fear, like, despise, or adore–characters, most importantly, with whom readers engage, with whom they will want to spend their precious spare moments.

(You get brownie points if readers want to invite your character to lunch…Dick Francis, Alexander McCall Smith and Dorothy L. Sayers are all great at this.  Thomas Hardy, not so much.)

If an author can also throw in some splendid writing or literary style, that’s a tremendous bonus.

To do all of the above, in one book, sometimes feels like it will require divine interference at the very least.  However, that’s our job.

(It’s also somewhat necessary to be able to punctuate correctly.  Grammar is also helpful…but this is like saying it’s useful for a builder to know how to use a hammer and nails.)

Yet that’s the deal.

But isn’t that pandering?  Selling out?  Aren’t we meant to be writing what’s in our hearts, writing as dictated by our muse, not just catering to the popular fads?

Er, no.  And, yes.

Basically it’s like this:  if a cook wants the diners to eat the meal, what’s on the plate has to be recognisably food and it has to appeal to their taste buds.  Otherwise, forget it.  Piling a collection of sea shells on a plate, however beautiful they might be, calling it dinner and then getting cross (or bolshie) because no one’s eating, isn’t going to make people pick up their forks and chow down.

A novel is a specific kind of work requiring the components of plot, writing, setting, characters.  To get all these component parts working in harmony together so that they comprise an integral whole is difficult on the best of days.

It is hard.  It is always hard.  Indeed, there are some days and weeks when it feels like an interminable trip to the dentist for root canal.  But it is what it is.

I’m frequently asked how many drafts one of my novels goes through, or how many rewrites I do?  At a rough guess, at least a dozen.  Maybe twenty.  Sometimes a single chapter will take a month or more before it’s right–perhaps even a year.  It is what it is.

Few authors write so well the at the first pass that their work doesn’t need substantial rewriting and editing.  And when I’m in doubt about this, I remind myself that Beethoven used to rewrite and redraft each of his compositions many, many times…

However, it’s vital to remember that readers don’t owe us anything–it is our job to inveigle them into loving giving up their precious time and their money to spend their hours with us.  Not the other way around.


4 comments on “An inconvenient truth…

  1. I’d like to re-post this on my blog sometime, in its entirety. 🙂

  2. M M Bennetts says:

    They do have blue cheese pizza over here. Haven’t tried it myself though.

    As for the too much salt or mold in the dough problem, that’s part of the hard work–figuring out what’s wrong with the recipe or the ingredients and fixing it. We may not always manage to get it right. But that is a very different thing from thinking that just because one wrote a thing, it’s automatically an oven-ready Beef Wellington.

  3. Mignon Fahr says:

    What! You don’t want to munch on my lovely seashells? Well, I never. . .take trips to dentists for root canals in some convoluted way related to a steady diet of seashells, spiny or shiny. Or flat, for that matter.

    Really, Bennetts! There ought to be some sort of fund for people who wish to loll their lives away writing absolutely unpalatable fiction.

    And I would invite Thomas Hardy’s heroines over for a picnic, somewhere on a nicely set Stonehenge table or such. . .Beats tripping with those pesky German philologists on some decrepit porch in Hotel Lisboa. . .maybe. Discussing Portuguese syntax, regular or irregular.

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