It’s the end of the year so I thought I’d give those budding writers out there some not-so-pro tips about writing. I’m going to do this in three sections: as a reader, as a language student and as a writer. I can also do it as a top-hat wearing movie addict, but I thought that was too much. Although, after deep introspection, how does one know if they don’t try?
That’s enough intro though. Let’s get down to it.
Part 1: The Reader.
Long debut novels are not (this) reader’s friend.
There’s no way to be empathetic about this so I’ll just say it: there are a lot of good authors out there. From the classics, Jane Austen, to the modern classics, Kurt Vonnegut, to the current Japanese sci-fi authors being translated, Project Itoh, there are numerous people I want to read. There are perspectives from immigrant cultures, feminist writers, non-feminist women and hard-core right believers that are all profound and are all waiting to be enjoyed. And that’s just in novels, that’s before we get to non-fiction.
I don’t have enough time in the day. I don’t have enough time in my life.
And, here’s the thing, I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy your work until I read it. Sure, I skim the pages. I read the blurb. I raise my hipster glasses and snort my nose at your sweat and soul. However, I have no concept if I’m going to like it until I’m flicking through the pages on the train and imagination deep in your land of elves with laser rifles fighting zombie sharks.
Even if you’re super famous (and critically acclaimed), your thing of beauty might turn out to be zirconia in my hands. You can scream, you can yell, and beat the keyboard that I’m wrong but it doesn’t matter. In my house, in my tiny world, the only opinion that counts is mine.
And if I think your book is boring, then it is. A boring novel that I’m stuck with until I finish it. All 590 pages of your morbid, self-congratulatory text. All that time wasted which I could’ve spent, I don’t know, reading someone else.
Even a novel that’s mediocre-to-decent can turn infuriating after 200 extra leafs of prose. Here’s an example, I loved Catch-22, for the first 400 pages. Then I wanted it to be over. Except it didn’t end. It went on and on and on and on. Maybe the story needed those extra pages, maybe the narrative wouldn’t have been as satisfying without the additional troubles Yossarian goes through. Who knows? All I know is that I don’t want to read another Joseph Heller novel.
So, let me ask you a question. Do you believe you’re a better writer than Joseph Heller? Do you believe, with your whole soul, that your prose and wit is elevated beyond his? Cause he’s a damn fine author. If not, cut those pages. Cut your first novel into the tiniest of sizes.
Do you know whose books I love? Whose books I not only want to return to but crave? Kurt Vonnegut.
Slaughterhouse-five (215 pages). Cat’s Cradle (206 pages).
Do you know who else rips me to emotional shreds? George Orwell. 1984 (328 pages.)
Sapphire. Push (192 pages.)
I look at a 400+page novel with a sigh and a hint of resignation now. It affects my purchase choices too. As much as I love new authors (and I do, there’s so many freshly printed names on my shelf space at home), I hesitate when they creep over 400 pages. This means if your book is not super duper awesomely recommended, it gets the pass over. It gets the sigh and added to the bottom of the list.
This is from a person who (outside of comics and Harry Potter) hardly buys a second book from the same author. You may not think that counts, but it does. I’m not hanging out for my favourites, I’m willing to wade through sublime awful to get to that great tome by a debut novelist. As long as it’s under that word count.
My shelf is not infinite in size, width or depth.
I don’t understand the book-marketing machine. There’s a chance that the Big 5 or 6 or 3 have some magical data analysis I don’t, but I as the Kindle has come to dominate the market, I doubt it. What I don’t understand is why so many of their books are of such varying sizes. Novels go from the tiny to the gigantic.
Do they think I’m a wizard that can change the size of my bookcase? Or do they think I’ll buy an entirely different bookcase to meet their new marketing strategies’ needs? Is their arrogance so all encompassing they imagine we use books for furniture? Large art tomes for the tabletop, inspirational / quote books for the legs?
Here it is: my shelf is 21 cm high. That’s tall enough for a DVD to fit into, tall enough for my Xbox One games and tall enough for my comics. There’s very little empty space between any of these and the bottom of the next shelf. It’s perfect. I can fit a lot of things in this space and it makes my apartment look tidy. Why should a book be any different?
Your novel shouldn’t be any larger than that. If you want me to keep it, make it 20cm. Hell, if you want me to buy it, you should make it 20 cm. I look at larger novels now with suspicion. I don’t know where I’m going to store them while they wait to be read. I don’t know where I’m going to put them (if they’re any good) after I’ve finished. So I just don’t pick them up anymore.
Maybe you like the larger look. Maybe you think it’s a ‘coffee table’ manuscript. Maybe you just want to irritate me. That’s fine, make it bigger. Make it 40cm high. Make it 100 feet high. Do what you want. However, if you’re an indie author trying to sell a few then think about where the uni student is going to store it. Where’s the outspoken female reader going to keep your fantastic adventure when she moves in with five other young women in New York? Where’s the father of two living in a small 1 bedroom, 2 bathroom going to stash your rip-rolling tale of love and abandonment when he has all his daughters things to find a place for?
Contemplate on these people’s lives before you decide on the size of your tome.
The bed is not my reading friend.
At home I have many things to engage me. You may not like this, you may believe the written word is the highest form of art, but that’s in your house. In mine, I have a best-friend and partner who teases me and shares about her day. I have unfinished Xbox One games. I have unwatched movies bought years ago and Netflix. There are shows I want to watch one more time, comedy hits on YouTube and iTunes music videos I love to scroll through. There’s TripleJ. There’s iMac apps.
Hell, there’s my writing. This blog. My Japanese study. There are things that I don’t even want to do like washing dishes and ironing shirts. All of those time sinks listed above gurgle with my chronos as it washes down them.
Yes, I do read at home. This is true. But only for the best. Only for most powerful and dynamic of word creators (see part 1 of this essay), or if I’m hate reading. Could be either really.
Where I truly read though is on the train. I get 40 minutes one-way. 40 minutes crammed up against some sweaty office worker who is as disgruntled as I am. I’m not reading to enjoy it (although I am), I’m reading primarily to escape. To escape from the 40 minutes and the bodies hard-pressed against me. I’m reading because I hate wasting time when it could be used better.
This is where your precious literature is consumed. Not by some elegant, yet down-to-earth, top-10% grad student who came from a humble background but still has enough money to go to Harvard. Not by a person with a slow smile, seductive walk and gangly arms. On the train, shoved against an overweight woman who isn’t sure why she had kids 13 years ago.
I do this because crap fiction is easier to read in 40-minute periods. I do this because it’s the only time I can spend focussed on a single world. I do this because … I think devouring ego-shattering ideas should be done without an escape hatch.
So, here’s the thing. Your novel should be designed for that reader. For the person who carries it. The person who trudges up and down the stairs in the rain and on humid days. I don’t care about your novel’s paper quality. Even though I’m a hobbyist typographer, I don’t care if the pages are 80gsm or 110gsm. I’m going to read your work and cram it on the shelf next to everything else I own. It’s going to be manhandled and mistreated.
I care very little about your precious love for the look of the work. I may not like the Kindle version because they hurt my eyes, but I like books that are heavy and awkward to lug around even less.
I read about so much hand-wringing in online communities when authors discuss ‘book quality’ and ‘production values’. What’s the right font? The right width to make it look good? The right paper thickness? For some sophisticated readers that might be a thing. Perhaps it is. Unfortunately for this pleb, none of that matters.
I ask if it’s cheap, if it’s expendable, durable and portable. If you’re designing a POD book (and I recommend you do because that’s how I purchase mine now), think about those things. The book industry forgot where its readers consume their material long ago and look where it got them. I recommend not forgetting it yourself You might just pick up a new reader.
Introspection is not depth.
Let’s finish on something more friendly: story and character. I’ve read two books this year, Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the author(s) seem(s) to have gotten lost on the path of introspection.
It’s difficult to describe story, motivation and character. Cthulhu knows better writers and teachers have tried. It’s almost impossible to discover that sweet (and billion dollar) spot for people to love your work, but one thing’s for sure, having the main character describe their thoughts about something to the reader does not make it profound or deep.
It does not make me sympathise more with the main character either. The character must do something. They must take their knowledge that they’ve discovered by their inner-gaze and turn it into a weapon of action.
This is what motivates me to read on. It’s what galvanises me as a person to turn the page. Precious is introspective. She sees the world through her lens, but each revelation jolts the story forward. It tells us about her friends, her family, her obstacles. We see the way she navigates them (or fails to) because of her thought process.
In Wool and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms we get to read a lot of thoughts that are just that … thoughts. Sure, they’re good thoughts. They might even be well-written thoughts, but as Stephen King said, “It’s supposed to be good. That’s your job.” You shouldn’t bore the reader with a character’s thoughts because they’re well written, that’s not what’s important. Do they add to the character? Do they layer them more? Do they change the course of the plot?
Then out they go.
They’re not deep. They’re not profound. They’re not worth anything. They are a racket or static which distracts from the important parts of your symphony. They are the long lulls that make me disengage with the text because nothing is happening. If I want to hear a teenage girl’s thoughts without story, I’ll go talk to a teenage girl. If I want to hear a left-wing group of young women discuss gender politics, I’ll read Jezebel. It’Il be both more interesting and more enlightening When I read a novel, I want those characters to be part of a story, a statement, a hook, an arc, and that means cutting things. It means making sure their voices add to the wild road of the narrative instead of overriding it.
Otherwise, what am I reading your work for? I should watch a documentary instead.
(Image by: CrazyMedia. Licensed under Dollar Photo Club’s Standard Agreement.)