In the previous article in this series - a series which, by the way, will one day become a book so that you can use it as a reference - I asked you to write down what you want to communicate. This is quite different from what you want to write: you might be full of desire to write a space fantasy, or a love story, or a vampire novel, or the world’s funniest Western, or whatever, but that’s not what I mean.
Great authors have something to say. Whether they ever sat down like this and tried to sum up what that thing was exactly is debatable - but this is where we are starting, primarily because I have found many, many writers don’t have a clue what they are trying to say and this has consequences.
The first consequence is, quite frankly, their writing suffers for it. You can tell immediately when a writer has permitted the ‘horse’ of his or her imagination to wander ‘whithersoever he would’, like the Green Knight at the end of the mediaeval poem Gawain and the Green Knight: the resulting story is a little aimless, padded, meanders in a meaningless fashion and like the Green Knight vanishes into the mists. Stories that wander like this end up falling back on commonplace tropes because they don’t know where they want to go.
The second consequence, just as significant, is that the writer doesn’t manage to build up the horsepower (to stretch the horse analogy in a different direction) to actually get any writing done with sufficient passion and volume so as to ever be able to make it as a writer. They just trundle along, and get tangled up in Life, and their writing appears only sporadically or dwindles away to nothing. In pours Life; out pours Time. Procrastination rules.
We have spoken earlier about the ‘boxes’, tangible and intangible, which writers permit to grow up around themselves until their freedom to write is seriously impeded. These things have varying degrees of solidity and reality, ranging from income needs and family commitments to packed schedules to mundane routines which eat up all the available time to mental attitudes which have grown up over years and which seem as daunting as physical barriers. Whether these boxes are solid or not, they require energy and persistence to shift out of the way.
I think that I have moved house about 27 times in my life. I envy those who have been able to remain in one location for decades: my nomadic existence up until about four years ago meant that, every couple of years or so, I would be faced with the formidable task of packing up all my earthly belongings and lugging them to some new home. This mainly consisted of carefully transferring shelf after shelf of books, including my collection of over 5,000 rare comic books, into suitable boxes and consigning them to delivery vehicles. On occasion, as when I lived in a motorhome for three years (see an earlier article), all of this stuff would disappear into storage, shut into the darkness ready for the day when I would muster up the effort to move it again. In my youth I could do things like this regularly without feeling the strain, but as I grew older, each box became a tiresome burden, each journey to and from these places became an ordeal.
Moving the ‘boxes’ which constitute the lifestyles we have constructed around ourselves can be equally challenging, if not more so. Some of the boxes that we have to move out of the way contain not books or comics but dearly held ideas, coveted beliefs, things which have apparently given us support over long periods of time. How do we gather the energy to get through this rearrangement of our lives?
We have to recognise that we have something to say.
At first, when you try to grab the reins of the imagination horse and assert that you are still there and are supposed to be in control, the results may be puzzling. As you engage that other part of your mind, the rational part, and ponder what it is that you are trying to communicate as a writer, it can seem as though you are getting further and further away from writing, and perhaps even wandering into the quagmire of philosophy and personal values and all that sort of thing. So let me try and help you out by giving you some simple pointers.
The first thing is that, in writing a piece of fiction, you are usually trying to affect at least one reader. That initial reader might be yourself; you might graduate in time to someone else, perhaps a friend or someone you have mentally constructed, or some vague idea of ‘your readers’, a concept upon which you probably haven’t spent much time. But the basic point is that You, the Writer, are trying to get something across to Them, The Readers.
Second point: there are really only two broad effects which can apply - you are either trying to leave the reader feeling uplifted, entertained, enlightened in some way, happy, smiling and that kind of thing; or you are trying to have him or her feel thoughtful, downbeat, afraid, perhaps giving him or her some insight into the grimness of the world, bestowing a feeling of sadness or horror or something like that. If you are ambitious and clever, you might be trying to do both at the same time, which the master authors can occasionally pull off, as in a Shakespearian play or one of Dickens’ greatest novels - but generally you are aiming to leave the reader feeling happy or sad: happy with the book and perhaps a little happier about Life; or sad about the events of the story and perhaps a little more cynical about Life. (You obviously don’t want them sad or cynical because the story was badly written - that’s another thing altogether.)
Which type of ending are you going for?
If the first, then your broad genres are going to be Comedy or Epic, as defined in my book How Stories Really Work.
If the second, then your genres will be Tragedy or Irony, also outlined in my book.
As soon as you can define things this much, and determine into which of the four all-embracing genres your intended writing falls, the easier this all becomes. If you’re after a happy or a sad ending, you can put this into your own words without too much more trouble.
Note that you don’t have to come up with some grand and correctly worded statement in order to move on - a series of scribbled, disjointed notes will do fine. You might end up with something like:
‘I want readers to feel happy - feel good about Life- want to carry on living, enjoy life, read more of this, have a laugh.’
‘I want readers to feel sad - Life is dark - wary of strangers - recognise that Life is empty in its core - get thinking about stuff for real.’
Or something in between, either more fully developed or more scrambled. Let’s face it: if you could reduce your entire fictive output to a few non-fictional words completely and adequately, what’s the point of writing stories about it? Part of what fiction does which rational statements like this can never hope to approach is to add the depth of meaning, the shades, the nuances, the interpretations, the colour, to a set of thoughts which rational-sounding words fall short of by definition.
It’s an interesting point that our modern division of the mind into ‘rational’ and ‘imaginative’ sections is something that this kind of exercise exposes as something of a sham. Beneath both of the ‘halves’ of the mind lies an unnamed unity, a working together of rationality and imagination, a joining of forces, much like the image of the horse and rider.
When you pick up the reins of your imagination horse, then, you are not going to be trying to pull the beast out of the woods onto some kind of coldly rational highway leading straight to your message. Not at all: what you are trying to do is both co-operate with and guide the horse, steering the imagination through the wonderful woods into which the creature has led you, while all the time keeping your eye on the mountaintop of your message, which you should always keep visible over the treetops.
One sure sign of any truly great piece of fiction is that you can pick it up and open it at any page and you will be immersed in imaginary woods while also being able to clearly see the mountaintop of what the author is trying to say. Don’t take my word for it - grab any novel that is considered a ‘classic’ and see for yourself: the writer will have entranced the reader with images, dialogue, setting, scenes, while at all times hinting at the mountain of meaning in the background.
Developing what you want to communicate as opposed to simply what you want to write instantly lifts you onto the same plane, potentially, as the master authors. Instead of permitting your imagination horse to get lost in the images, dialogue, setting, scenes and so on of your writing, you will be able to nudge the beast along a path which keeps your overall meaning and purpose in view.
If you have that intended end at all times in view as a writer, it’s a pretty good bet that the reader will be able to see it too. Now your job as a writer is not just to 'say' it, but to have the reader experience it.
What does this have to do with the greatest challenges of writers, which are Time and Procrastination?
We’ll get to that next.