It seems that there are two broad breeds of fiction writer: those who write, and those who think about being a writer and perhaps occasionally commit some fragment to paper. In attempting to transform myself from the second into the first, I am going through an embarrassing process which isn’t over yet. But in the cause of forwarding fiction writing everywhere, here are three of the key harrowing realisations I have had so far:
1. I’ve never invented a convincing character -ever.
This is awkward. When I really sat down and thought about it, and with criteria to hand which I had myself established after twenty years of studying and teaching about the greatest works of literature in the English language, it turns out that the so-called ‘characters’ I’d created were thin, feeble shadows of well-known characters in other people’s fiction. Sometimes the similarities were cringeworthy: wizards whose names even resembled Gandalf’s; lonely protagonists who neither seemed lonely nor very good protagonists; female characters who were thinly disguised (and even occasionally thinly dressed) wish-fulfilment fantasies - I shiver just thinking about them. Not one of them stood out as in any way original; not one of them breathed. Even though I now know what drives characters and how to build a totally gripping and attractive one, I balked at the task when I saw that those I had attempted in the past were so derivative.
2. While we’re thinking of the word ‘derivative’ - I’ve never invented a convincing plot either.
I looked through the 600-page manuscripts I’d written and the notes for the other 600-page manuscripts that never got off the ground, and could instantly see, as though glimpsing them in a thunder flash, that they were either rambling and disjointed or hugging too closely to the plotlines of the books that had inspired them. This was dispiriting. To realise that every name I had ever put to anyone in a story was nothing more than a set of letters hung on a wire-frame of a person modelled on someone else’s creation was bad enough, but to register that the stories themselves were almost completely derivative was a challenge. It was like watching as the flesh fell off a Frankenstein monster that you were hoping would stand on its own feet, leaving nothing but a feebly trembling skeleton.
3. I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to attract readers.
So far I had discovered, in the space of a couple of depressing days, that everything that I had ever done as a writer rated like a scrawled couple of letters on a steamy window: it was fleeting, meaningless and unlikely ever to be read by anyone. And I fear that this is the case with the vast majority of fiction manuscripts that get started by would-be writers, and even a high percentage of those manuscripts that are somehow completed: despite all their creator’s passions and wishes, they lack any kind of substance that will attract readers. Basing this on my own case alone, only a forgiving reader who had time to spare and a compassionate heart would make it through any manuscript I have ever written. There is almost nothing to attract them or hold them in the work itself -their commitment would be entirely self-generated.
And that’s at the heart of the problem: fiction writers writing ‘writer-centric’ stuff depend by definition on readers who bring plenty of investment with them. Just like the creator of a small business depends on customers finding the place and then being willing to take a risk, most wannabe fiction writers are desperate for attention and dependent on too small a market. It’s like one of those small stalls which you walk by at a village fete, feeling the eyes of the purveyor on you, sensing the magnetic pull of his or her will as they mentally beg you to buy something. It’s not a workable business model for the stall-holder, nor is it for the fiction writer: there are techniques which have to be used and paths which have to be walked if the writer is ever to become un-desperate and actually have the droves of readers that they need to be viable.
Chief among these, funnily enough, is not a battle to ‘be original’. The clear and alarming fact that both my characters and my plots were totally derivative wasn’t the main issue to deal with. As C. S. Lewis said, ‘Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.’ Looked at under the cold light of reason, even in successful works, most plots are derivative; most characters hardly rounded at all. The point is that, in successful fiction, plots pull readers forward whether readers have made much of investment in the story or not; characters extract commitment whether characters are completely ‘original’ or not. Great authors use specific techniques which transform shallow shadows into breathing, motivated entities, and which mould rambling sequences of author-fantasy into page-turning engines of emotion.
Fortunately, the techniques themselves are now outlined in How Stories Really Work. It’s just a pity that the embarrassment of realising you’re not using them has to be so excruciating.