|If you read enough books, you start noticing when the writer isn't paying attention to the words he is using....|
All right... Apparently it had to be said...
In the summer of 2013, I wrote a post that was mostly me venting about observations in areas that I had begun to notice in general: my three main points were aimed primarily at those authors who wrote novels with no discernible message ("Think first, then write"), no momentum between the "exciting bits" that don't all actually fit together, but they ended up in the same book "by hook or by crook" (to which I begged, "Don't neglect your lines!"), and those tales that were side-tracked and often derailed by the pursuit of the vague metaphysical side of their characters and the story they might have been attempting to get across. ("Reading should feed the mind and enrich the life, not isolate and confuse.")
Over the last year, I have made a decided foray into the world of independently-published books, where I have connected with the author personally before receiving a copy of their book to feature on my blog. While those independent books ranked among some of the best books I had read in 2014... others I was not so pleased with, and after beta-reading a few more, recently, I thought it was time for a follow-up "How To Book" post. (As I did before, I will not disclose the title or the author, whether the example is positive or negative; if you have read and recognize the book or the author, so be it; you are free to agree or disagree with my position)
Whereas the three points in the first "How To Book" post dealt with my reaction to certain professionally-published books in terms of weakness in their content, the main issues prompting this post--and the predominate feature I will typically judge an independently-published book on--is the style of the work. Not the "voice", as that will naturally vary from person to person--nor the format, insofar as it extends to whether the author chooses an epistolary or narrative style, or things like first-person or third-person. I am talking about the way the author writes within the style he or she has chosen. It is a good follow-up for the first "How To Book" because, naturally, after you have been through the guidelines of what you are planning to write, the next step to understanding and producing great-quality literature is taking care of how you are going to write it.
Therefore, I present to you....
The Three Roles of A Writer
A writer plays many roles in the process of writing their fiction novel. (I read predominantly fiction, and so that is the main category I will be focused on; these guidelines may or may not apply to nonfiction writing) The most devoted writer (and I say this from personal experience as well as observation) will mentally portray just about every character they have in the novel, and give a play-by-play of every scene. Sometimes they'll even step back and place themselves in the position of spectator within their own imagination, watching the action unfold as an uninvolved third-party.
The issue I have noticed is when I can detect a profound discrepancy between what is no doubt running through the writer's head, and what exactly ends up on the paper.
Mankind has not really achieved telepathy yet--the ability to impose one's consciousness upon another--but I have said often that perhaps writing is the closest thing that we have to that... or, at least, writing in its best, most polished form.
In trying to figure out the best way to get my point across, I decided that there are really three main roles that a conscientious writer must employ--in addition to being every character in the novel--in order to ensure that the resulting novel is clear enough and easy for the reader to grasp and enjoy.
Role #1: Representative
Here's the thing every writer needs to understand: you are not just any one character in your novel. You are the representative for this alternate, fictional world you have envisioned. You are the one liaison between the characters you have invented and the readers who will learn of their existence and come to believe in them as "real"--or at least real enough to enjoy reading about them.
It has recently begun to peeve me when a writer claims to have "let the characters tell the story"--and yet the novel itself displays such a lack of true understanding of the art of story-telling that it makes me wonder if the writer hasn't just sat back and let the "head-voices" do all the work.
My friends and fellow-writers, we are not the puppets on the strings, being danced across the stage at the hands of characters who--in all honesty--did not exist till we invented them. Storytelling from the time of its first invention was for the purpose of representing external or past (or nonexistent) events to those who had not witnessed it. Would you, as the representative and the only demonstration we have of this amazing world that has sprung into existence in your head, not want to give as full an effect of the enjoyment you have experienced as you possibly can? Why on earth would you content yourself with holding these vivid images in your own head and yet giving us the bare minimum of all the wealth of your imagination? If you are not thorough in your representation, why, then, should we care as much as you do about these characters we still don't know, and indeed cannot know, because they are not in our heads? Must we seek you out for an in-depth interview to understand the motivation behind your publishing of this story? Or can you not provide such a just representation of your own characters in the book, the first time around?
I was severely disappointed on a couple different counts, since at least twice, the writer had an incredible idea and a promising premise that drew me to read the first page--yet the more I read, the more confused I became, and at no point did the characters spring to life in my head. From the first to the last, it was only words on a page. The story was there; I fully engaged my imagination and resorted to creating my own story based on the few "representative details" given, instead of receiving the account that the original author had worked so hard to produce--merely because the writer might have been likely so taken with the story happening in his or her head, that they forgot their duty to be a good representative to their readers. Thus the story lay buried under layers of poor communication and sheer "bad writing"--when reading should have "transported" the reader right out of the "real" world and into the fictional one.
Writers, please represent your world! The real world needs to know about it, and so it is up to you to give the fullest picture of your setting and its function and purpose!
Role #2: Reporter
The second role a writer plays in presenting his or her story is that of a "reporter." Imagine this: you opened your newspaper and the headline decried some great catastrophe--yet the article itself merely said, "Something happened and it was terrible and people died and we were all sad."
Murder! Mayhem! Desolation! Wait... Really?
You can bet that reporter just might be out of a job if that's all they did--and yet, in some of the novels that I read, this was essentially all the "detail" the author provided. I was told that something was sad, or that these two characters were "in love", or that there was a tense near-death moment where one character was almost dismembered alive--
Informed after the fact.
Receiving the message from a dispassionate robot with not even an opportunity of empathy with the characters.
"But everything turned out okay."
Now I feel jaded. That's not even fair.
My literary friends--what is the reason you are telling the story if not to get us to feel something? And how can we feel something when you don't use words strong enough to do that? There are so many words available to us in the English language--so many, in fact, that you'll find there are probably about as many "extinct" words as there are words that we use every day--so why on earth would you not at least try and use the ones that would make the reader feel the same emotions that your character is feeling--especially if you're not going to give us enough information about the events to let us know what those emotions are?
The key is to center on what the world feels like, sounds like, smells like--not just what it all looks like.
"The wound made a red stripe across his chest. The soldier did not cry out, because he was very brave."
Okay... Red stripe... nice start... but not quite strong enough to match the force of a word like "wound."
"Troy felt his stomach heave as he witnessed the thick red trench in Doran's chest. The warrior's face showed no pain--except that the skin had gone deathly-white, and the muscles in his neck stretched taut with suppressed agony."
There! Words like "heave" and "trench", "stretched taut" and "suppressed agony" are all nice, strong words--and can't you feel the way your stomach suddenly agrees with that of Troy--
Even though till now you had no idea who Troy is? Who is Doran? Even I don't know... but didn't you feel that? And all I did was change a few words.
Writers, please make an effort to give clear and thorough reports on the doings of your world, as told through the events of your novel. Without this effort on your part (and with practice--only with practice--it comes easier!) the reader has little to no idea what is actually going on in your world, and so they miss out on the wonderful, heart-wrenching story you have for them!
Role #3: Ringmaster
To all you writers who claim to have a "hands-off" approach to your writing, and claim that your strategy is to set up the environment and "let your characters go"...
Guess what? Not only is that irresponsible writing, but it's also very much not true! If you really did let your characters tell the story, it wouldn't ever make it to print--because who is going to submit YOUR story? Your character? The very fact that your book exists in print is not through any of their effort--so don't blame the obvious lack of effort on them!
The writer, in addition to being the reporter and the representative is also the ringmaster. The story might pop into your head without an invitation--but then it is your responsibility to make sure that the story is actually written well, and things like grammar, spelling and punctuation (for the love of sanity!) are properly attended to. Even if you're the type of writer who likes to write on the fly, who doesn't want to plan out the novel but leave it to the characters' responses to decide where the story is going to go--at the very least you should exercise proper use of the English language!
I saved this one for last because it seemed like the biggest issue I had a problem with--for those (albeit very few!) novels that I actually had a problem with. There were characters aplenty, and (three times out of five) there was actually a relatively solid setting within which the characters could function. But--two times out of five--the characters, when "left to their own devices" did little else but wander around the setting, talking, arguing, saying the same things over again, making verbal observations about things that the narrator (wait, so the writer is involved in the story!) already explained...
And the author had us convinced that there was going to be a story in there somewhere...
I chose the term "ringmaster" very deliberately. A ringmaster doesn't know how each show is going to turn out; he is not the one to do any of the stunts himself.
But it is the ringmaster's job to make sure all of the performers are going through their acts in a way that will bring the most entertainment to the audience.
The ringmaster is calling the shots. The ringmaster can direct any one performer to slow their movements down to a pace where he can see all of the actions, and decide which ones to include in his show before the audience ever sees it. The ringmaster knows all the magician's secret pockets; the tricks may move too fast for the unsuspecting audience, but the ringmaster knows every inch of it.
Fellow writers, We are all ringmasters, and each novel is our very own "circus." The characters may come to us like performers auditioning for their shot at fame--but in the end we decide whether to include them, and we make sure that their inclusion fits seamlessly into our show. That is our job. You cannot leave something like a story in the hands of a fictional character--any more than you would want a total stranger to start writing your biography. They're going to do a shoddy job of it... and I have seen some "characters" do a "shoddy job" of certain novels I've read!
I believe in Intelligent Design. I believe that anything made--a painting, a building, a song--has some kind of intentional creativity behind it. The pen did not move itself, the keys did not type themselves--and we know that your fictional characters don't exist outside of the page! So please stop shrugging it off and getting careless when errors "appear" in your novel. That was your doing; at every single point just before striking the keys, the words you wrote spun through your head first, and then out of your fingers. At any point you could have selected a different word if you were actually paying attention to your writing. The fact that you didn't is not the fault of "the story" or "the characters."
A million monkeys banging on a million typewriters for a million years MIGHT reproduce the works of Shakespeare.... but it will NEVER be crafted with that same deliberation as Shakespeare himself used in the original productions! When was the last time you have been so fixated on a certain feeling or notion that you decided there were not enough words to describe it, so you made your own rather than use a half-baked term?
Our job is to make sure that we are giving a full and clear representation of the world we are creating. Our job is to make sure we are being thorough and precise as a reporter of the events in our novels. Our job is to be the ringmaster of our stories, to have the final say in all of it, to affirm that we are in control of every syllable, every letter, and take full responsibility for everything that happens, to make it the very best we can create.
Let me finish by repeating the final paragraph from the first "How To Book" post. It's cheesy, I know, not coming up with something new to say... but it bears repeating, because it still applies:
In short, it boils down to this: write consciously. The questions "Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?" shouldn't just apply to the plot itself; a writer should consider, when they sit down to write, "What am I writing? Where am I going with it? What is it's purpose and message? How am I communicating that message? Why is it important?" If you don't have a satisfactory answer for each of these questions, think about it a bit more before you start slamming words onto a page.
May you all go forth and produce lasting literature!