You can buy any number of books on the basic techniques of fiction — and you should. Instruction on how to handle point of view, flashbacks, and dialog tags, on how to develop characters and plot, is readily available, and every aspiring writer needs to master the basics.
What’s in strikingly short supply is instruction on how to write well.
The result is all around us. Thousands of self-published authors are pumping out novels one after another, novels in which these basic mechanical aspects of craft may be handled rather well (or not), but in most cases it’s clear that the author has never aspired to anything higher than being competitive in the hurly-burly of today’s book market. The same could be said of numerous authors whose books stream from the corporate headquarters of the big New York publishers.
Writers and publishers are taking the wide view: How many books can we sell? What genre does this novel fit into, and how shall we make sure it meets the desires of readers who love that genre? The long view gets short shrift. The long view might be characterized as, “Where does my book float on the great river of literature? From what sources does it spring?”
Rather to my surprise, I’ve found a how-to-write book that invites the aspiring author to take the long view. And not just “invites.” This book digs into the nuts and bolts of what makes memorable novels memorable. It’s called Write Like the Masters, and it was written by William Cane.
In 21 chapters, Cane tells us something about the effects achieved by Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky, Maugham, Faulkner, Hemingway, and others. Surprising inclusions in the list: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming. From this you can fairly conclude that Cane isn’t addressing the rarefied needs of blue-blooded purveyors of capital-L Literature. (There’s no chapter about James Joyce, and thank God for that.) No, this is a book about telling stories, and telling them in masterful ways.
The series of novels I’ve been working on started out with the Young Adult market in mind. YA fantasy is a hot market. But at some point I realized I had outgrown the restrictions of the YA genre. When your story includes 20 different viewpoint characters and a sprawling plot, some YA readers are likely to get restless. So I decided the story would sit more happily in the adult fantasy genre (while perhaps still appealing to more sophisticated or adventurous teens).
After reading Cane’s chapter on how Melville used symbolism, I’m starting to question whether I’m even writing genre fantasy. I’ve now noticed two hugely important symbols in my story. They’ve been there all along; I just never noticed they were symbols. (My unconscious has evidently been hard at work.) I’m now thinking I may need to add bits of dialog or imagery, or even a whole new scene here or there, to tease out the ramifications of these symbols.
Cane has also prodded me to think more deeply about my characters. They are who they are — at this stage of the editing/revision process, that’s not likely to change. But for example (spoiler alert!), when Robner betrays Kyura, I had him doing it because he’s naive and idealistic. It now occurs to me that he may be harboring a resentment and doing it deliberately while kidding himself about his own motivation. I’ll need to edit a certain scene to make his resentment apparent. It will deepen his character. And what about Meery? How does she feel when she discovers just how easily she can kill people? Have I cheated the reader by failing to put her complicated feelings on the page?
The story is drifting away from genre fantasy. I’m in danger of committing literature.
This is not actually an anti-marketing path to take. Writing well may even help my books float up to the surface of the self-publishing swamp. More important, though — I’m basically writing to please myself, not to please some hypothetical reader whose tastes have been botoxed by Hollywood. I enjoy learning new things. Right now I think I’ll probably enjoy learning how to write in a more literary manner.
Literature doesn’t have to be stuffy; Dickens had a sense of humor. Literature doesn’t have to follow the “rules” those other books drill into us, because literature is organic. It’s not cranked out on an assembly line.
I’m less than halfway through Cane’s book. Further revelations will doubtless follow, so don’t touch that dial!