Misplaced Confidence

Among the legions of authors who wish to be published are those who have retired. They welcome their hard-earned days of leisure as a chance to finally write that novel that’s been kicking around in their heads all these years. Yet they face a special challenge precisely because of their past accomplishments: the same confidence that made them successful.

People who appreciate literature know that most great novels are written before the age of 40. That is because youth’s wonder at discovering how the world works is combined with the desperate passion to be someone they’re not. An older person may have read good books ad nauseam, but that surfeit of knowledge does not produce the wisdom to write great books. I have read entire manuscripts in which the characters engage in a series of meetings. I have read novels in which the author’s political persuasions are enacted in fake life. This is the drawback to knowing so much.

More to the point, it shows a self-indulgent lassitude toward what might interest other readers. It is possible for a retiree to write an original novel like Harriett Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, but it requires humility and hard work. The question isn’t What can readers learn from me? but What have I learned from other books? If you don’t bother to read books in the genre you’re writing, it can be safely concluded that your readers know more about what should be in your book than you do.

That is the fulcrum around which a writer’s efforts should revolve. What would a reader think? We all know, for instance, that meetings are boring, so if you want to have one in your book, it’d better be the most interesting meeting ever, with the wildest participants. That’s the only way to entertain your readers.

The question governs not only the imagining and the writing out of a scene. It comes into play even more in the revision stage. Now that you have a string of scenes, which ones truly rivet your attention? Those are the only ones you should keep. If you find you’re not as interested, for example, in the long phone call needed to set up a good scene, forget about the realism of the call, which you know from long experience. Simply summarize the gist of it in a paragraph and place it at the beginning of the good scene.

Writing is a lot more difficult than a job, no matter how many hours a week you put into it. I don’t know if you should don a robe and cowl, but that’s the right spirit entering into a writing session. Write about what you don’t know. Write about what has always fascinated you, what has lain beyond your grasp.

“The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.”
—Fyodor Dostoevsky

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.