Today’s post resulted from one of life’s tangential moments. While trying to prepare a blog post on a different topic, I read the following excerpt from How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat and was reminded of my own recent experience.
Some writers dislike being reminded that they’re in charge of creating the reader’s experience. They prefer to think of the characters as taking over and writing the story, or they like to believe that an unseen hand reaches in and makes the story work… I think letting your unconscious write your books is like asking a group of nine-year-olds to design the next roller coaster at Disney World. The kids know what they like, but only a real pro can create that experience for them.
Regarding the issue of taking charge of the reader’s experience, within the last month my good friend and writing buddy, John Towler, wrote something that I think is relevant:
“Keeping a reader's interest is such a balancing act. You have to anticipate what they will want and when they will want it.”
While writing my novel, there came a point toward the end of December, when I realized something wasn’t quite right. One of the plot elements felt unresolved, like I had just offered the reader a bowl of ice cream, covered with hot fudge and a cherry, stem included to tongue-tie into a knot, and then suddenly took it all away. I tried to assure myself everything was okay; as long as the other plots kept rolling, the reader would be satisfied with the rest of it. The feeling never went away, and a week or so later it started howling like a dog to get my attention.
I remember when the break-through happened. I had been sitting in my office chair, pivoting from side to side like a pair of intermittent wipers. It was after hours, the rest of the building shrouded in darkness; even the cleaning crew had finished up and called it a night. Finally, it felt like a character’s hand shot up from the back of a gathering crowd, his excited voice shouting, “What about me?” I gave him a minute to consider the question. That one minute suddenly became two, five, and then more as I realized he played a crucial role in resolving that part of my novel. His motives were already there, his character already established; I just needed to work it out in order to complete the arc.
That experience, refreshed in my mind by the excerpt from Carolyn Wheat, raises an interesting question: Do writers craft plots because their characters take over, or do they take charge in order to achieve the one goal that will make their novel a success?
Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages.
Stephen King, On Writing (Emphasis mine)
To add context, Stephen King wrote the above while discussing how writers should connect with their readers by injecting life experiences into their work. The comment can stand alone, though. When writing a novel, while it’s important to tell your story, it’s also important to keep your focus on what book-buyers want—a story to give them a good experience. For my novel, the most troubling aspect of the unresolved plot device was its ability to leave the reader feeling empty and disgruntled about everything else. The worst thing I can do to a reader is leave her with a sinking feeling of wasted time. They just spent ten to fifteen hours of their life with my book, and that’s the best I could do? As a reader, I’ve experience that same emotion and I don’t want to put my readers through the same thing. I doubt any fiction writer does.
Looking back on my experience, I can tell I resolved my plot issue primarily as a result of my initiative and instinct. I recognized a problem, and it had to be fixed. Sure, the character helped; after all, it was his voice that refused to be silenced. However, if it wasn’t for my concern that the story was seeping air through a hole in the latex, that character probably wouldn’t have had the chance to shout his question.
As I move into revision mode, I plan to keep the reader ever more present in my thoughts. How does the information in this chapter help to reveal my characters? How does that plot device create suspense, thus pushing the reader forward to find the resolution? What can I do to make the experience better?
The thing to keep in mind about a roller coaster is that it’s a manufactured experience… Just as the engineer plans the roller-coaster rider’s thrills, so, too, does the suspense writer calculate and produce the effects her writing induces on her readers.
Carolyn Wheat, How to Write Killer Fiction
I believe that Carolyn’s advice is true for all fiction writers, not just those who craft tales of suspense. I would argue (and will) that every book has an element of suspense involved. But that’s another post, for another time.
Maybe you have a different opinion? Maybe you think Carolyn’s advice might be fine for some writers, the blueprint types, but to work that way would stifle your creativity—that your novel should just flow from the unconscious. Or maybe it’s a little of both. The first draft is for the unconscious, the revision where the manufacturing takes place. However you see it, feel free to share.
Addendum: After posting this, I received an update from Nathan Bransford's blog which is also relevant to the discussion.
I finished reading Night Passage by Robert B. Parker. A good read. I also read Dry Ice by Stephen White. Not as good. Now, I’m reading The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos, and I’m really impressed with his use of dialogue. Top notch stuff. In preparation for April, I have also purchased Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell. This will be one of the books I read in March. Just glancing through it, the book looks promising; and if it’s anything like Plot & Structure, also by Bell, then it will be a great asset on the bookshelf.
Finally, I’m dusting off and revising an old short story, “Because You Pay Me.” It’s not a crime story, but it deals with the human condition and I think it still has great promise. I just have to write it better.
Until next time…