Tell Us about Yourself

The mixture of smarts, literary talent, and ego is a dangerous one. An intelligent author realizes that his novel must stake out new ground. He chooses a unique subject and employs his talent to write about it well. He also knows that a good writer stays close to the truth, and that appeals to his ego. Yet the end result of all of these sterling positives may well be a disaster of a book.

What can go wrong? For starters, consider the length of a novel. A minimum effort needs to total 250 double-spaced manuscript pages. That’s a lot of pages to fill up. You can write a smattering of personal stories about your unique topic—say, abalone diving—and still have a hard time getting anywhere near that length. The circle of people participating must expand, and they too are given stories. As a result, somewhere along the way the protagonist may be lost in the proceedings.

A second obstacle is a smart author’s bent toward self-correction. She is not satisfied with just any sentence; it has to be a terrific sentence. She knows that the books she likes have a distinct narrative voice, so she imbues her story with the same. Yet the end result may be a flashy exercise of wordplay with few deeply felt emotions.

Perhaps the most negative factor is the desire to be unique. This is where self-regard can be so destructive. In fashioning prose that is smart and snappy, about a topic that hasn’t been explored, an author can end up trying to reinvent the wheel. Oh no, they can’t just fall in love. They have to banter wittily. They must pursue other affairs—achieving togetherness via repulsion to others. Of course, what is the reader thinking? It runs something like: Are they really in love at all?

How can a smart writer can make his book different? All intellectual deliberations aside, consider this question first. What have you discovered about life and how can you formulate those observations in ways that shine a new light on everyday behavior? People fall in love, for example, but why is it so hard to stay in love? Success is the same vanishing chimera it always was. Such common pursuits barely change from generation to generation. So you can describe all the helter-skelter activities of your unique topic, but they will be merely distractions until you tell us what they mean to you.

Exercise: Review your manuscript looking for through lines. By that I mean activities that happen to a small core of characters, hopefully centered on the protagonist. How many different characters are helming a funny or outrageous story? Is your heroine merely an observer in many of them? That should tell you that you’re avoiding your main enterprise: writing a book-long exploration from the heart.

“The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness.” 
—Nikos Kazantzakis

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.