Friday, September 30, 2005

The Truth in Writing

There have been variations on this question going around lately. There are several levels and types of truth. I'm going to deal with only one type here and that's about the 'truth' of writing realistically. It's all pretty obvious stuff. Most of you are just going to nod and say it's obvious. But sometimes I write this stuff for myself because I need the reminders that I say to others.

The question is what you owe the reader.

You don't owe the reader anything because in this case 'the reader' is a mythical creature that writers imagine reading their books, nodding at every nuance, thrilled with ever scene, and following the plot and the characters with understanding and excitement. That reader does not exist and never will, no matter how hard you work on your novel. There are, instead, groups of people who like your work to varying degrees. Some will love the stories, and they are closest to this 'mythical reader,' although there will still be times when they let you know that something just didn't work right for them. However, the majority of readers will like this part but dislike that part; some will think you were too harsh on your characters, and others who think you didn't put your characters through nearly enough hell.

Some will tell you that your world was too simple, and others will tell you that you spent too much time on the details and not enough on the plot and characters.

You cannot please everyone. We know this on one level, and yet people still sometimes look at the idea of owing the reader as though if you are 'truthful enough' you will somehow win them all over and no one will ever have reason to complain.

It doesn't work that way. People who have never even read your books will complain about your writing skills. Plots and characters that you love will be trite and childish to others. That's all right. Get used to the idea. You are not writing for them. Don't try to adapt your work for someone who complains about the very things you love.

You owe nothing to that reader or to the mythical reader.

However, there is one reader for whom you absolute have to write the best book, not skimp on any of the emotional levels, or turn aside from the hard decisions your characters have to make. You have to do the absolute best for this person, who is your first reader.

That first reader is you.

Many of us fail ourselves on some level because we don't try hard enough. I often fail because I don't put enough depth on paper compared to what I see in my mind. It is an easy laziness, and I try to overcome it as best I can.

Tamara Siler Jones is one hell of a writer. I've read her first book, Ghosts in the Snow. The depth of her world is amazing. Everything is 'real' in ways that are extremely difficult to achieve. My only problem with her books (and I've told her this) is that I don't read horror, and that's what she's written on one important level. I don't get a shivery reaction to horror -- most of the time I either get a 'shrug' or a 'yuck.' That made reading Tamara's first book an interesting experience for me because I was in absolute awe of the writing and the world, but parts that others talked about didn't catch me the way they did for most of her readers. It's just not my type of book. If I didn't know her through FM I wouldn't have read it, and that would have been my loss, over all.

Holly Lisle is another hell of a writer, but with a completely different style. Looking at Midnight Rain in comparison to Tamara's book is interesting. There is terror in Midnight Rain, but not horror. There are scenes of blood and gore, but they are not the key parts of the plot like Tamara's book. There are even ghosts, and far more dangerous than those in Tamara's book.

Holly's world building is less obvious, mostly because the story takes place in modern day and she doesn't have to create the entire structure of society and build the castle floor by floor. What she does show us is easily woven into the plot and understandable without much extra because we know places like these. She walks us through a world with enough detail that we are never lost in it.

But if I didn't know Holly, I wouldn't have read this book either. Romantic suspense is not a genre I usually look at, either. Romance novels in general just don't interest me.

If I hadn't read this book, however, that would have also been my loss. This was another one that I really enjoyed. Yes, I know that means there are likely thousands of books out there that I would enjoy if I gave them a try, but despite having liked these two, I'm still not interested enough in the genres of horror or romance to look for much more.

Both of these writers don't pull any punches with the truth when it comes to writing, and comparing the two shows that there are many ways in which you can approach telling a story. Some of the basic elements are the same -- crazed killer, ghosts -- but the way in which the novels turn on these things is completely different.

What I mean to point out is that you can be truthful with your readers in different ways. Murder need not be about gore, and just because one writer creates a scene that shows every gruesome detail to show a murder doesn't mean that, for instance, a simple dead body with a splattering of blood can't be as effective in the right story.

Write what you want to tell, not what someone else has done for her story, especially if it doesn't fit yours. You need to be truthful with yourself about what is needed for your story. Would a scene like one of Tamara's fit into your book, or would it stand out and draw attention more because it is so different rather than being 'truthful' about the murder scene? There is at least one such scene in Holly's book as well, but we are led up to it in ways that make it a natural step in the story process. It shocks the reader, and raises the sudden level of terror. Tamara's murder scenes are a mirror of her murderer, filled with clues that include the 'gore' itself. But her novel is not about gore, and these scenes aren't as shocking after the first one. They are detailed, graphic examinations of brutal murders and they are done to a purpose and for a purpose.

Use the tools needed for description wisely, but don't do it to mimic. Find your own path that may be like one or the other, or neither. And it may -- and should -- change from book to book. (Though probably not within a series, of course.)

Those are the truths you owe to any reader -- to be yourself and write in your own way. Don't write things that you don't like just because someone else said that you aren't 'truthful enough.' At the same time, though, you can't be lazy and skip things just because it's easier.

Be truthful in what you're doing. Be truthful in what you want to create and what readers you want to draw.

Be truthful to yourself about what you want this story to do and learn the best ways to do it.


Debra Young said...

Good post and an excellent reminder. Thanks. d:)

Zette said...

I'm glad it helped!

Carter said...

Very well said.

If you don't like horror you sure better steer clear of tambo's latest! It's a lot darker and more intense than Ghosts.

Zoe said...

This is just what I needed. I think maybe that's why my stories often feel more alive when I'm planning them than when I'm actually writing them. When I'm actually writing, I start getting lazy instead of writing the story the way it needs to be written.