10.15.2019

Inadequate for the Job

Every novel has an element of autobiography, if only because authors invest personal emotions in their characters. The investment can be more pronounced with inexperienced novelists who heed the dictum to write from the heart. Depending on the role, a character can benefit from having emotions the writer knows well. There is a but, however. But how well does the character lead the plot?

That is where the heart goes only so far. Unless you have the chops to write a literary novel, in which the plot can be secondary to a character’s ruminations, you are faced with the difficulty of creating simultaneously with those deeply felt characters a story that will entertain readers. For your level of writing, a novel about, say, your aunt’s slow decline into dementia may mean wearying hours for the reader.

Most writers understand that. Where I, as an editor, see the problem the most is in genre-driven vehicles such as suspense. A crime is committed and the main character, however obliquely, ends up solving it. Such a character has no investigative training or fighting skills or other talents that are interesting in such a pursuit. That’s because the author doesn’t, either.

That reliance on your own experience can lead to a wide variety of scenes featuring activities you yourself like to do. Depending on the age, that may lead to a subplot featuring a teenager playing in a rock band, or a plucky old lady piloting a motorboat. Not bad ideas, at least in brief. Not worth 15 subplot scenes, though, at least not while the criminal is still at large.

Why is that? That’s because plot stakes become more of a determining factor when the prose style is common. Place the search for a murderer on one side of the balance scale, and put riding down the river on the other. Which one will pull the reader more? Put another way, how much time can you afford to spend on the lesser objective while the greater one lies unattended?

Being true to yourself has now come in conflict with considering the desires of your readers. Maybe you are writing only for yourself and the hell with them. That is an entirely worthy attitude—if you are willing to spend the long years of writing struggles that a literary author undergoes. I don’t find that fanatical dedication in most authors, however. So that places the novel in a quasi zone: well-intentioned but middling. You need to weigh what truly is the heart of the book you’ve written.

Exercise: Just as characters and plot are balanced, so can be your approach to editing. You can count how many scenes are devoted to which plot line. When you are done, you can adjust the numbers. If you have 15 band scenes, for instance, could you cut five of them? You’re not giving up on the idea; you’re making it fit better within the overall scheme.

“If you don't want anyone to know anything about you, don't write anything.”
―Pete Townshend

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine



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