anghara (anghara) wrote,

A reader dishes advice to writers

Somebody by the name of Laura Miller, writing in Salon, came up with a "I"m a reader hear me roar" piece.

Here's part of her intro:

Readers are what every novelist really wants, so isn't it about time that a reader offered them some advice? I've never written a novel, and don't expect to ever do so, but I've read thousands. More to the point, I've started 10 times the number of books that I've finished. Much of the time, I'm sampling brand-new novels that aren't great -- that frequently aren't even very good -- each one written by someone sincerely hoping to make his or her mark. I can tell you why I keep reading, and why I don't, why I recommend one book to my fellow readers, but not another. I've also listened to a lot of other readers explain why they gave up on a book, as well as why they liked it. Here are my five recommendations for the flailing novice...

Yes, indeed. Readers ARE what every novelist wants.

But the contract between a writer and a reader is not what Laura Miller apparently thinks it is.

What she likes, and does not like, to read is very much related to her own taste and her proclivities - and if she does not like a book her options are limited to putting it aside or to eschewing work by a particular author in the future. It's the marketplace that then sends the author in question the message, if enough other readers agree with her. But a reader can't pick up a book and start telling the author about how much of a BETTER book it would make if only the author had followed these simple rules. For every ONE she lists there are a slew of exceptions that break it, and that other readers have loved anyway. She freely admits that she's never written a novel nor expects to (nor, apparently, wishes to) - but somehow the fact that she has sampled "brand new novels that aren't great" - in her own opinion - apparently seems to give her a platform to "improve" literature by telling writers what "readers" want.

Granted, she does qualify her advice as being directed to the "flailing novice". But let a more experienced author look at her points.

1. Make your main character want something. Writers tend to be introverted observers who equate reflection with insight and depth, yet a fictional character who does nothing but witness and contemplate is at best annoying and at worst, dull. There's a reason why Nick Carraway is the narrator of "The Great Gatsby" while Gatsby himself is the protagonist. Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative.

...Yes, dear. We know.

The definition of a story is "a character with a problem". Unless you've gone and buried yourself in purely angsty high-literature novel where the main character just drifts through the story fretting about the state of the world or (worse) riding it out wreathed in the fumes of the drug-du-jour - stories where NOTHING HAPPENS unless it's rearranging the furniture on the inside of someone's head - then sure, your point of censure is a valid one. But that isn't the end of it. Making a character want something is indeed the basis of a rollicking tale - but a badly written rollicking tale will make me toss a book aside just as fast as those angsty litrachur types. Just making a character want something is not the ultimate qualification. Characters want things in all stories. By definition. In other words, *this is a given*. It's what you do with it that matters.

2. Make your main character do something. For the reasons stated above, many writers gravitate toward characters to whom things happen, as opposed to characters who cause things to happen. It's not impossible to write a compelling novel or story in which the main character is entirely the victim of circumstances and events, but it's really, really hard, and chances are that readers will still find the character irritatingly passive. When you hear someone complain that "nothing happens" in a work of fiction, it's often because the central character doesn't drive the action.

...Yes, dear. We KNOW.

But see my response to #1, above. This is not the end of it. We have passive, we have passive-aggressive, we have gung-ho - it takes all kinds of characters to make a world. And yes it's annoying when your protag sits back and wrings his or her hands and basically dithers until something either falls in his/her lap or - in the manner of a cartoon baby grand - flattens him or her. Look at the subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - differences that permeate the character of Aragorn as seen by his original creator, Tokien, and by the man who brought him to the silver screen, Peter Jackson. Tolkien's Aragorn is a strong stern man who knows what his destiny is, and spends a lifetime working and sacrificing for it. Jackson's Aragorn kind of muddles through a lot of the time, and the rest of the time he's sitting in the corner being a Sensitive New Age Man and, yes, wringing his metaphorical and on at least one occasion literal hands while he intones "I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!"

It's what you do with the character that matters. And just like real people characters will find friends or detractors - there will be people who will flock to a character, and there will be people who will shun him. But making that character a complete action hero or a complete wimp really isn't the point. The point is to make a balanced character, or at the very least one that fits the parameters of your book - and that character may very well not be the kind of person (real or fictional) that you, as a person and as a reader, can identify with or like. But here's the thing... that character isn't yours. He's his own, and his creator's. And if you dislike the character or his attitudes or her opinions... your option is to tell that character, figuratively speaking, that you don't want to be friends with them. And then go and play with somebody else.

3. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting. Of course all these elements are interlinked, and in the best fiction they all contribute to and enhance each other. But if you were to eliminate these elements, starting at the end of the list and moving toward the beginning, you could still end up with a novel that lots of people wanted to read; the average mass-market thriller is nothing but story. If you sacrifice these elements starting from the beginning of the list, you will instead wind up with a sliver of arty experimentation that, if you're very, very good, a handful of other people might someday read and admire. There's honor in that, but it's daft to write something with the deliberate intention of denying readers what they love and want and then to be heartbroken when they aren't interested. If you want to engage with more than a tiny coterie, take storytelling seriously; if you think that's incompatible with art, you are in the wrong line of work.

Er. There is no "order". There are tales that depend entirely on "story" (I think you mean "plot") - driven purely by events. They're called thrillers. There are tales that depend almost entirely on character interactions. These cover the spectrum. There *are*, I suppose, tales that depend on a theme - but you simply cannot say that this is something that "readers" as a sweeping generality care about all that much. I am a reader as well as a writer, and a story with an overwhelming "theme" merely irritates me beyond belief - if the author wants to preach, there's a soapbox over there, go to it, but leave the STORY alone. Stories too top-heavy with message or theme are often too didactic or even bordering on propaganda. Sometimes allegory can be done well but I for one have never cared for it. And "theme" is such a difficult thing to write to, anyway - most authors kind of fall into one of those, and discover what it is once they're well into or have even finished with the book. Few people sit down to write with a shining THEME in front of them which they pursue with the passion of a Joan of Arc. And there are indeed stories out there which depend HUGELY on atmosphere and setting. This kind of covers the genre that I write in, as well, which is fantasy. Without good solid and believable atmosphere or setting these books are nothing more than folks dressed up as elves bashing each other with theatre-prop swords.

And the rest of that paragraph of yours... kind of reads... like you've gone through a dozen how-to articles from Writers Digest or one or two "This is the One True Way To Write A Novel" books, and just rearranged the wording...

4. Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can't recognize "good writing" or don't value it that much. Believe me, I wish this were otherwise, and I do urge all readers to polish their prose and avoid clichés. However, I've seen as many books ruined by too much emphasis on style as by too little. As Leonard himself notes at the end of his list, most of his advice can be summed up as, "if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." Or, as playwright David Hare put it in his list, "Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it." But whether you write lush or (please!) transparent prose, keep in mind that in most cases, style is largely a technical matter appreciated by specialists. You probably don't go to movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don't come to books in search of breathtaking sentences.

Possibly not. But - speaking as a writer - I work hard at being good at both style AND substance. This applies to too many of my writer friends to mention here. We take pride in our work. Beautiful language is more appreciated by far greater numbers of readers than you apparently believe. Those who are willing to spend the time to appreciate it, that is. Sure, you can breeze through any number of formulaic books in much shorter time than it would take you to read one beautifully written one - because the latter engages you in a way that the former never can. And sure, lots of the former DO get published because there is a place for them - sometimes you just want a quick read. But please don't tell me that "Readers" as a monolithic group don't care for beauty of style or language. Some do. Enough do. For the rest, there's the airplane thriller which gets left on the plane after your flight because you don't care to keep it.

I don't write those books. I never have. I don't WANT to. I prefer the immersive experience, both as a writer and as a reader.

5. A sense of humor couldn't hurt. American writers in particular are often anxious to be perceived as "serious," which they tend to equate with a mournful solemnity. Like most attempts to appear grown-up, it just makes you look childish. Comedy is as essential a lens on the human experience as tragedy, and furthermore it is an excellent ward against pretension. While readers may respect you for breaking our hearts, we will love you for making us laugh.

Agreed. But not everything is funny. And throwing in a banana peel just because you need comic relief is PRECISELY something that the "flailing novice" of your initial paragraph would actually do.

Being serious doesn't mean being funereal.

THis all makes me wonder, just what kind of books DO you read...?

Conclusion of article:

Naturally, writers of genius have broken these "rules" as well as every other rule ever conceived. But, let's face it, geniuses don't need lists like this and couldn't follow them even if they tried. Most writers are not geniuses, and most readers would be exhausted by a literary diet that consisted only of the works of geniuses. The novel can be a down-to-earth and companionable thing as well as an exalted one, and while management gurus like to go on about the good being the enemy of the great, they are in fact misquoting Voltaire. He said, "The perfect is the enemy of the good," which means exactly the opposite. And he, as you are no doubt aware, was a bona fide genius.

Writers have been breaking these rules left right and center, actually. Not all of them are genius-level. I guess none of them would quantify themselves in those terms. But what we writers do, is write the tales that muscle their way into our minds and demand to be told. HOW they are told, and WHAT they are, that is often way beyond our own conscious measure. And there are down-to-earth novels which HAVE been exalted, in your own parlance, and the two are NOT mutually exclusive at all - unless you're being coy and using "exalted" as a sort of mealy-mouthed way of saying, well, I couldn't understand or appreciate it so it must be all airy fairy and high-falutin' and, yes, well, exalted... but really, the writer doesn't write for the lowest common denominator. There are many kinds of writers and there, thank God, many kinds of readers, and usually the right couplings will happen on some literary field of valour.

Readers who dislike, or object to (on whatever grounds), certain types of books are free not to seek them out and read them. But telling a writer the equivalent of, "see, if you write your book THIS way then I'll buy your stuff" - it's, at best, disingenuous. If you don't write and don't want to or intend to, then your knowledge is limited to the reading side of the equation, and this is perfectly fine... so long as you don't try telling the books you read, "I love you, now change". It doesn't work in relationships, it works even less well in works of fiction.

Writers will write what they need to write, what they know how to write, and they will hope to find a publisher - and yes, an audience. But there is no test on any of this, and while readers remain perfectly free to "grade" the fiction they read by voting with their dollar, as it were, their bailiwick kind of stops short of giving writing advice. You are well within your rights to speak out on what kind of thing you want to read, and perhaps some writer will hear you and provide your perfect book for your enjoyment. Perhaps there's a dearth of books out there which deal with issues near and dear to your own heart, or which don't have protagonists (or even characters) who are remotely like you and therefore fail to garner your empathy and understanding, or maybe you've just travelled a lot and bought a lot of cheap paperback airplane fiction (which was never MEANT to be memorable or engage your interest for longer than those couple of hours the two of you are forced to share on a cramped flight.

But there are no "rules" that cover sweeping generalisations of what "readers" want. And stating such rules in the context of implying that if a writer writes THIS WAY then the reader will - yea, verily!- go out and buy their books... well, the "flailing novice" in the first paragraph will have their work cut out for them, trying to please all of the people all of the time and failing miserably.

Writers, write what's in your heart. The audience is out there. And if there isn't one... you won't find one by playing by these "rules".

Kipling said,
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

Do what is right for you, for the story. It will be right. For SOME reader. Somewhere.

Tags: rant

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