I have a confession to make – I don’t always finish the books that I start.
And it’s not necessarily because they’re not engaging or interesting, it’s not boredom, definitively, that’ll make me put something down. As a writer, I read for education as much as for entertainment, and I often find myself so inspired or my imagination so triggered by the way the book is written or a certain idea within the text, that I drift into my own work and move back to writing.
I imagine a lot of writers have the same, though definitely when I tell some people that I don’t finish every book I read, they can’t understand it. For some, starting a book or a movie also requires completion – you have to know how the story ends, it’s like a need, a compulsion. But the ending, for me, is hardly a consideration. If I’m inspired by a certain aspect, or taken by some element, then I try to run with that and use it as fuel for my own work.
That’s also not to say I don’t complete anything – I read plenty of books to completion. But it’s almost become a guilty admission, a shameful secret. I don’t always get all the way through to the last page of every story. Yet, I probably still get as much value from the process as somebody who has done so.
It also feels kind of hypocritical – I don’t finish every book I read, yet I pain over every single page of my work in the hopes that it’s engaging enough to keep people interested. That, of course, relies on people reading to completion, so I write for people who do read. But then again, I guess if there’s some aspect of my work that people find inspiring, that’s fine too – I’d be glad I was able to provide some level of value.
It is interesting though when people ask ‘What are you reading?’ or ‘What have you read this year?’ I’ve read lots and lots of things, and I always have several books on the go. But could I give you a full rundown of the plot of each one – no. But I can show what things I’m working on.
It’s not the same, but that’s kind of how I look at it.
I was amazed when I saw it, startled for a moment. It was right up near the roadside, behind the high fence of the reserve. A deer, a huge male. Antlers reaching up like dried lightning, poking from the side of its great head.
The fence surrounded the lake, a water source for the region, and the wire mesh was around eight feet high with twists of barbed wire crowned along the top. It traced the distance of the lake and its surrounds, kept it all in, a haven for animals like this.
The deer didn’t know about the fence, that it kept people out, and the big one – there were two others a distance behind. The large male stood looking out at the road, monitoring the cars flashing by. The others went about business, nudging at the leaves across the ground.
And the cars were rushing by. It’s an 80 kilometre zone, so normally you’d just zoom on through, but today, I saw the deer.
A sambar deer is what it was. Good eating, my uncle told me later.
I turned the car around and drove back along the road slow, scanning the forest, then I pulled over so I could see, so I could watch the animals as they moved between the trees. Till they faded away, merged into the thin trunks and dried leaves. Till they were gone.
I sat there, watching on, watching the other cars go by. And I felt like stopping them, like standing out in the roadway and pointing at the sambar deer, saying ‘Have you ever seen this?’ ‘Have you ever seen anything like it?’
A trend that’s developed in literary circles over time is the politicization of literary works, particularly through festivals, events, etc.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – all art, by some measure, is political in nature. But much of that is driven by surrounding circumstance, and comes through in capturing the authenticity of the world in which the work is set, as opposed to the author setting out to make a statement on the same.
Most authors – and I’m speaking in generalization here – start with the story first, the idea that sparks something in them, that compels them to explore further. That story will likely have political and societal elements, but the impetus for writing, in most cases, is not those factors. It’s the story first, the exploration of an idea, then the craft of writing to capture it in the right way. Definitely, if there’s a timely angle or element, and you can accentuate that within the context of the broader narrative, you should, but the driving force is the human heart, the experience at the core, the story that captures best what intrigues you, as the writer, about this tale.
I guess, my concern with the overt politicization of literature is that we risk amplifying elitism – already, literary fiction is seen as the domain of the well educated, the higher end of society. But literature is for everyone, it’s about sharing the world from a different perspective, and as such, we should be looking to share the idea of writing and literary creation to people at all levels of society, in order to encourage them to capture their own experiences in a way that best suits their message.
You don’t have to be an academic professor well versed in mythical theory to write a great novel, you can be anyone, anyone at all who has a passion for writing. That’s what we should seek to encourage. Given this, my view is that literary events, in the majority, should be more focused on the process of creation, the sparking of ideas, the method through which you learn the craft itself. The passion for the process is more important than the political drive behind the narrative.
That won’t universally be the case, I know, and there are many literary events that do focus on such. But the discussion around literature, at times, has been hijacked by the political movement/s of the times. There are positives and negatives to this, but really, focusing on the elements of the craft themselves is most crucially important.
Author Jonathan Franzen appears to have stirred up controversy with his ’10 Rules for Novelists’ piece recently published on LitHub.
And you can see why – people are upset because it challenges how they do things, it implies their approach will be less successful, and the listing takes a very elitist view, particularly through the use of the term ‘rules’.
But really, who cares?
If you don’t agree with Franzen’s ‘rules’, don’t apply them to your process.
It’d be hard to argue that there’s zero value to them – Franzen has published many critically acclaimed novels, he clearly knows a thing or two about the endeavour, likely more than most. But as with all things related to writing, you need to find what works for you, then work with that. Once you’ve established why you’re writing, what you’re trying to achieve, what you want to get out of the process, then you can adopt (or indeed ignore) outside recommendations and ideas in a more creatively beneficial way.
The truth is, there are no prescriptive ‘rules’ to writing. If there were a set of clear guidelines you could follow, then every aspiring novelist would do so, and we’d all be published and successful, etc. But that’s not how it works.
If someone says ‘you can’t do this’, someone else will be able to show you an example which defies it – some would say, for example, that you can’t have pictures in a literary novel. But ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ does just that, and it works perfectly to illustrate the relevant points. Every ‘rule’ can be broken if it fits into what you’re trying to achieve.
The truth of great writing is just that – that you need to find the truth of the story you want to tell, then expose that within the narrative.
Every story you write, or want to write, will have a personal connection to you, a reason that you connect with it, and if you can find that and link it back to your own psychology, then definitely, your work will be better for it (this is what Franzen’s referring to in his second rule above). Writing is a way of better understanding the world and your place within it, better understanding the human experience more broadly, and connecting with others. It’s the ‘why’, it’s viewing things from another perspective and not merely reading or writing the words, but feeling them too.
You need to find the voice of the characters, you have to understand them, you need to feel what they feel. Then you need to re-create that emotion within the body of your readers.
That’s no easy feat, but there are no prescriptive ‘rules’ on how to achieve this.
The more tangible you can make the world of your novel, the more effective it will be – and you do that through honesty, through knowing the story, the scenes, the characters. If you really, truly know these elements, and can translate them into the right words, through your learned experience and understanding of effective language, then your story will work.
Definitely, it’s worth noting how other authors go about doing this, but there are no ‘set in stone’ regulations on literary communication.
In a recent episode of The Garrett podcast, author Jessica Townsend – who’s book ‘Nevermoor’ is one of the biggest selling debut Australian children’s books on record – provided a great note of advice for aspiring writers, but it wasn’t a big focus.
Here’s what Jessica said:
This is so important – most people get so caught up with the story they want to get out and onto the page, that they neglect the more intricate details which enable users to connect with your characters and scenes.
This, I’d argue, is also one of the key strengths of George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘ series – while the setting is clearly fantasy, and there are events and elements which cannot exist in real life, the truly engaging aspects that really draw you in as a reader are based on how people would actually live in that reality.
For example, in most medieval fantasy stories, the princess gets rescued, the nobleman wins out, the kingdom is saved. But if you really consider the reality of such a world, it would truly be brutal. Justice is often based on strength, power can be wrested by combat. If this is how things really were, it wouldn’t be the good guys who would win, it would be the ones who had the fewest morals, who were willing to do whatever it took to exert dominance and control – which is exactly what happens.
That subverts the stereotypical fantasy format (at least in a mainstream sense), but it feels much more real, the responses and reactions that each character has feel more genuine, with each having his or her own motivations and ideas.
That level of detail is what makes a story come alive – the idea of fiction is to re-create the emotion of the scene, the world you’re creating, within the mind and body of the reader. The smells are important, the little elements that stand out, that trigger a response.
A description like:
“It was so dark he couldn’t see a thing.”
Is nowhere near as viscerally effective as:
“The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.”
Okay, that’s probably cheating – few can do so as well as Cormac McCarthy. But you get the point – you don’t have to go overboard and include every detail, but you do need to understand what’s actually happening, why every character is there. What people would notice if they were within the scene.
You might not think such details are hugely relevant, but if they stood out to you, they’ll likely help set the scene for your reader. Jessica hasn’t highlighted it a major point, but it is crucial, and it will make your writing ‘come alive’, to use an artsy cliche.
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be part of an art project with Tim and Zoe from ‘31 Days In‘. The duo are travelling to different parts of the world as part of an effort to capture the essence of each location with their art – and they’ve done some great stuff, worth checking out the link.
As part of the project, they created this great image of my and my dog Chester at home.
“Poetry is the biggest help in writing stories that I know. You learn so much about rhythm and acoustics and compression and selectivity. No wasted words, no “furniture moving.”
Her Body Like a Lantern Next to Me
There’s this movie I am watching: my love’s belly almost five months pregnant with cancer, more like a little rock wall piled and fitted inside her than some prenatal rounding. Over there’s her face near the frying pan she’s bent over, but there’s no water in the pan, and so, no reflection. No pool where I might gather such a thing as a face, or sew it there on a tablet made of water. To have and to haul it away, sometimes dipping into her in the next room that waits for me. • I am old at this. I am stretching the wick again into my throat when the flame burns down. She’s splashing in the tub and singing, I love him very much, though I’m old and tired and cancerous. It’s spring and now she’s stopping traffic, lifting one of her painted turtles across the road. Someone’s honking, pumping one arm out the window, cheering her on. She falls then like there’s a house on her back, hides her head in the bank grass and vomits into the ditch. • She keeps her radioactive linen, Bowl, and spoon separate. For seven days we sleep in different rooms. Over there’s the toilet she’s been heaving her roots into. One time I heard her through the door make a toast to it, Here’s to you, toilet bowl. There’s nothing poetic about this. I have one oar that hangs from our bedroom window, and I am rowing our hut in the same desperate circle. • I warm her tea then spread cream cheese over her bagel, and we lie together like two guitars, A rose like a screw in each of our mouths. There’s that liquid river of story that sometimes sweeps us away from all this, into the ha ha and the tender. At night the streetlights buzz on again with the stars, and the horses in the field swat their tails like we will go on forever. • I’m at my desk herding some lost language when I notice how quiet she has been. Twice I call her name and wait after my voice has lost its legs and she does not ring back. Dude, I’m still here, she says at last then the sound of her stretching her branches, and from them the rain falling thick through our house. I’m racing to place pots and pans everywhere. Bottle her in super canning jars. For seventeen years, I’ve lined the shelves of our root cellar with them. One drop for each jar. I’ll need them for later.
One of the hardest writing concepts to explain in an actionable way is ‘show don’t tell’. Sure, it sounds simple enough – don’t just communicate the detail, demonstrate it – but the true meaning and application can still seem vague.
So what does it mean? A simple example would be, don’t just write that ‘Brad felt terrible’, outline something which gives context to Brad’s response, without having to be so blunt.
‘Brad dropped his head and stared at the ground. He stayed staring for a long time, his body wilted, slumped over his bones. Unwilling to move.’
By providing the context, you give your audience a way in, allowing them to interpret the scene for themselves, to actually be part of it in their own mind. Yes, Brad felt bad, and I can tell that by reading his actual response, because I’ve dealt with human beings before. The additional detail helps to build emotional connection, and adds more weight to your words. It’s not just action and reaction we need as readers, its a feeling. Your aim is re-create the emotion of the moment within the mind of your reader – you can’t, in my opinion, do that by simply hitting them with blunt description.
But not everyone agrees with this.
I’ve seen more than one writer reject this concept outright – ‘we’re storytellers, not story ‘showers”, one writer I read explained. That is a ridiculously dismissive and ignorant approach. Sure, there are genres where simplification can absolutely work, it’s not to say its always necessary, I guess. But depending on what you’re trying to write, the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ will be hugely important – even in genres where it might be less relevant, being aware of, and applying the show don’t tell concept will still help make you a better writer.
Here’s another interpretation which might help – Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the excellent ‘Fight Club’, and a whole lot of other stuff since, has some really great, valuable insights into writing which are worth checking out.
In a post on Lit Reactor, published back in 2013, Palahniuk provided a simplified, streamlined process to help writers shift into ‘show don’t tell’ mode.
“In six seconds, you’ll hate me, but in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later. Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:
“Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:
“The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying:
“Adam knew Gwen liked him.”
You’ll have to say:
“Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
It’s pretty hard to argue against the logic here, and the results provided. Sure, you can simplify things down, but by forcing yourself to add more context, you expand your capacity to understand the scene, which also gives the audience more ways to connect with the concepts you’re writing about.
Palahniuk, as noted, has shared several gems like this (and is reportedly working on his own book about writing technique). You might not like his work, and I personally feel that some of his later works have focused on controversy over content, but there is a reason for that. He does have a logic as to what and why he writes, as he explained in a recent podcast with Joe Rogan.
And regardless of his output, his actual writing is still very crisp, and highly readable. Here’s another tip from Chuck P along similar lines:
“Nothing [should be] fed to the reader as fat or happy. You can only describe actions and appearances in a way that makes a judgment occur in the reader’s mind. Whatever it is, you unpack it into the details that will re-assemble themselves within the reader.
Amy Hempel does this. Instead of telling us the boyfriend in The Harvest is an asshole, we see him holding a sweater soaked with his girlfriend’s blood and telling her, “You’ll be okay, but this sweater is ruined.”
This, again, underlines the ‘show don’t tell’ approach – don’t just say what happened, feel through it, examine the detail, and allow your audience to do the same.
There will always be different interpretations on this, and it’ll remain a difficult concept to grasp – and an even harder one to continually practice. But next time you’re going over your work and you find a ‘thought verb’, or you notice that you’ve described an action directly, try re-thinking it. Try re-imagining the scene and describing what you see, not what you want your audience to think or feel.
They’ll get it, readers are clever. You’re not simply providing directions to your conclusion.
I have some concerns about the state of literary fiction in Australia. And what follows here is largely anecdotal – I haven’t done all the research via BookScan figures nor gone through all the data. But I have concerns, mostly about the exposure of literary content, and where commercialism inevitably appears to be shifting the market.
Also, this is not about my latest book. I mean, it is, but only by extension – I honestly don’t know how well ONE is selling, or isn’t as the case may be. But being an author of literary fiction, I am, of course, concerned from a selfish standpoint as well. But it’s not just that.
Here’s the thing: Several times in recent years, I’ve heard about a great novel, and I’ve gone looking for it in a bookstore and haven’t been able to find it. Now, more book sales have shifted online, so of course, I can find it there, but there’s something about physically holding a book, about smelling it, seeing the words right there on the paper. That experience can’t be replicated via digital means.
Has that stopped me buying said book? In some cases, yes, and that raises a concern about discovery. Are people buying fewer books – particularly literary works – because of lack of exposure? And does that, by extension, skew sales stats, which then leads to even fewer booksellers stocking more literary fiction?
Certainly, there’s an argument to be raised around this – the biggest bookseller in Australia is Big W, which only stocks commercial fiction. The biggest chain bookstores (QBD and Dymocks) also both increasingly emphasize commercial novels. And that makes sense, as that’s what makes them the most money, but it also means that when people go looking for a book, they’re now far less likely to discover a new literary fiction work, and that must also have an influence on upcoming and aspiring authors who see what’s in bookstores and factor that, inevitably, into what they need to write to become a published author.
Is that healthy for literary culture?
Last year, an Australia Council/Macquarie University study found that literary fiction was the least popular book category in Australia.
As reported by The Australian:
“The most popular genre is crime, mystery and thriller novels, followed by biography and memoir, cookbooks and historical fiction. A minority of readers, 48%, say they are interested in literary fiction, but here’s the knockout number: only 15% actually read it.”
You can see how that data is reflected in what the aforementioned retailers stock, and such findings have been reinforced by various other studies which have examined the slow demise of ‘lit fic’. Consequently, that also means there’s less money for literary writers – research conducted in 2015 showed that authors of literary fiction were the most likely to report that “insufficient income from their writing prevents them from spending more time on writing”.
Does that mean writers need to tailor their content to fit into a changing market, as opposed to writing what best fits their work? And if so, what does that mean in practice?
Chuck Palahniuk touched on this somewhat in a recent interview with Joe Rogan, using the example of Cheryl Strayed and her book ‘Wild’. Wild, which went on to become a major commercial hit (and was turned into a movie by Reese Witherspoon’s production company), originally included one particularly disturbing scene which Strayed’s publishers removed. Why? Because they wanted it to be a ‘big’ book, they wanted it in all the bookstores, and some of the major commercial outlets, they knew, wouldn’t stock it if it included such content.
That changes how people approach writing, right? And if all you see in bookstores is commercial, potentially gentrified content, that will then shape how others look to communicate. That’s a concerning, large-scale trend of note. Right?
It concerns me that our bookshops are being dominated by commercial fiction, and that literary culture is inevitably being diminished by such trends. That’s not to say there’s not a place for commercial works, for action thrillers, for romance, for historical fiction. This is not genre-based elitism, but in-depth literary fiction seeks to expose the heart of societal issues, and the varying capacity of language itself.
The best writing either raises something you weren’t aware of, confronts you with something you’d rather avoid or contextualizes a subject in a way you weren’t able to on your own. That then leads to new perspective, new discussion, a new way of looking at things that you hadn’t considered previously. Other forms of fiction are able to do this, it’s not exclusive to the literary genre, but the focus outside of lit fic is clearly more on quick-hit entertainment, a distraction from the daily grind. Again, that’s fine, but it often lacks the depth of purely literary work.
The question is, are readers less interested in literary fiction, or is the lack of exposure to literary fiction leading to a decline in popularity? And I don’t know the answer. No one does. But it’s a concern. It’s a concern that we may be losing something of our artistic culture to the swell of commercial trends.
I don’t know how this can be fixed, but it does feel like its something we can’t afford to lose. And definitely there are others who are working to address this. The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne is a good example, putting on a never-ending stream of literary and cultural events. I can also vouch for my own publishers at Random House and their passion for literature through my work – there’s never been a question of commercialisation or editing to fit my novels into a certain box. But the bottom line does have to come into play at some point, it has to be a consideration.
And as more and more commercial fiction gets sold over literature, are we going to reach a point where our best literary writers are being drowned out and forgotten within those shifting tides? Are we already missing out on a generation of new writers who are moulding their voices into genre-specific categories that don’t quite fit their artistic vision, but do match their commercial ambition?
What does that mean for our overall artistic health?
As I say, I don’t have the answers, but it is a concern. And I hope we don’t simply lose great work because “the dollars don’t make sense”.