The Writer as Reader

For writers, it’s tempting and perhaps inevitable to notice the nuts and bolts while reading a novel. Enjoying a novel, even a good one, can become difficult, because we’re distracted by thinking, “Is that how I would have done it? Wait, does this character’s motivation make sense?”

I’m pretty sure this is not how most readers read novels. The reader just wants to be swept along — immersed in the story.

This week I reread Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I first read it 15 years ago, and had forgotten everything but the basic plot premise. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much the second time, because I started noticing how very passive the main character is.

When I hired a developmental editor last year to read through my series and make suggestions, she pointed out (quite correctly) that my lead character was often passive — that she (the lead character) did not have “agency,” that events happened to her and around her rather than as a result of her taking action. I spent quite a lot of time and effort fixing that problem, and the story is much stronger as a result.

But would Neverwhere have been stronger if Gaiman’s lead character had been a take-charge sort of person? No. The core idea of the book is that Richard Mayhew is the sort of person he is. Forcing him to have agency would have destroyed the story.

There are two morals in this, I think. The first is that when an editor makes a suggestion, the author has to examine it closely to determine whether it fits. Your editor is reading your book the way a writer would — looking at technique. And it’s not the case that every technique can be applied successfully to every book!

The second moral arises from the first. A novel, any novel, begins with an idea. The writer’s task, ultimately, is to be true to the idea. If the techniques you learned in your graduate-level fiction-writing seminar are getting in the way of your idea, cling tightly to the idea! Apply or discard techniques as needed in order to bring forth the idea.

Of course, it’s also the case that not all ideas are equal. Great writers have great ideas. Inferior writers have inferior ideas. I don’t know if anyone can teach you to have great ideas. Reading a lot of novels will probably help, but if your mind is not swift and sure, you may not learn much from your reading. People like Neil Gaiman and Charles Dickens were probably born with the capacity to become great writers.

Ideas come from the unconscious mind. You can feed the unconscious, and if you feed it and are kind to it, it may grow stronger and produce better ideas. The point of technique is to water and prune the idea until it flowers. If you’re using technique to try to beat your unconscious into submission, it’s very unlikely that you’ll do good work.

Trust your ideas, whatever they are.

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