RORee Dirk Flinthart compiled today’s post in reply to an email from a would-be writer.
Your confession that you do not read novels is, I admit, a little daunting. Storytelling is an art form. The true art does not belong entirely to the writer. Each person who reads a story recreates it in their own mind as they go, and therefore each reading is a personal experience. It’s this necessary act of re-creation which makes the novel a form which can be more powerful than cinematic art – because the art of cinema happens on screen, in front of you. You experience a movie, rather than re-creating it. A novel forces you to be complicit in its own existence.
The point I’m making is that in order to reach your audience effectively enough that they can read your work and re-create the piece successfully for themselves, you must have a visceral understanding of the dance that goes on between reader and writer. I’m not being colourful here to make myself look smart, or to obscure the subject: I’m trying the best I can to help you understand what it is you’ve set yourself to do.
Transitions occur in a novel when you close one scene, and open another. A character has a conversation in one room, then says ‘Oh, shit, look at the time! I’ve got to pick up my girlfriend from the airport’. The scene closes, and the next scene picks up… where?
An experienced or confident writer will jump to the airport, and have the character greet his girlfriend as she steps off the airplane. This writer knows instinctively that the readers will simply accept the transition, without blinking. On the other hand, beginning novelists very frequently lack this confidence. They forget how it is to be a reader, and they feel they have to add the details to offer verisimilitude, and to make sure the reader doesn’t lose the thread. And so this less-confident writer will create another scene in which the protagonist leaves the room, goes to his car, drives across town, curses the heavy traffic, glances at his watch to see if he’s late, parks carelessly and sprints into the airport building just in time…
… none of which adds anything significant to the story.
But it’s the instinct that counts. The experienced writer makes the quick transition because the experienced writer is also a deeply experienced reader. Not just a casual reader-for-enjoyment, but someone who has picked apart the very act of reading, and has understood what is vital to the narrative, and what becomes lead-weight ballast because of its tedious irrelevance.
Transitions are merely an example. They are just one small part of the complex transaction which goes on between writer and reader. The point is that to create a novel successfully, a writer must either be fortunate enough to have an instinctive understanding of the process — or must serve a considerable apprenticeship, learning to see, taste and feel the hidden rules of storytelling.
Very few of us come aboard with that instinct full-blown. Some are lucky enough to find helpful publishers and editors who can assist them in developing those instincts. Others have to serve a difficult, demanding apprenticeship, relying on the help of fellow writers — and most importantly, on the examples they can see in the published works they read.
If you’re really planning to write a novel, you’re going to have to become a reader. Preferably not just of one genre, but of anything and everything. Most writers are so compulsive about their reading that they will literally pick up a bus-timetable and browse the advertising around the edges if they’re caught short of reading material.
Grab some novels. Read them from start to finish, the way you normally would. Now, go back and read them again. This time, look at the words on the page, and ask yourself how they make you think and feel. Ask yourself what images you see in your head, and why. Think about the cover of the book, and the ideas it sets in motion even before you pick up the novel itself. Pick adjectives and nouns and verbs at random from the prose, and ask yourself why the author chose those very specific words, and not their synonyms. Think about the POV characters: ask yourself what job they do in the story, and how the nature of the characters causes the story to unfold in specific ways. Then look at the characters who don’t provide a POV, and ask the same set of questions.
There are dozens of other things you can try, but this is a good start. Be careful, though. In some senses, this practice of analysis and observation can become a problem. Fill your head with it, and you’ll find it impossible to write with the freedom that you had when you were just ‘telling a story’. But on the other hand, the MS is only the first step. All these other things become necessary when you go on to convert the MS into a real, complete, functioning story.
Editing is the hardest part of the job, I’m afraid…
What books inspired you to start writing?