Reading & Writing

Lately I’ve been feeling detached from fiction. Neither reading it nor writing it holds much interest. Given that I’ve written about ten novels and have at least twenty shelves packed with novels by other people, this may seem odd, but I find that honoring one’s dissatisfactions is essential if one is to be free to change, or to create anything at all.

If you’re passionately committed to writing fiction, you may find today’s random ramble disturbing, but on the whole I prefer honesty to heedless enthusiasm.

Reading is a passive and solitary activity. You’re sitting in a chair, essentially alone. If there are other people in the room, not only are you not interacting with them, you pretty much can’t interact with them, and you need them to be quiet. You’re staring at a bunch of marks on a piece of paper or a screen.

The subject matter of a novel or short story is, in a nutshell, some people are doing stuff. They’re happy, or miserable, or angry, or frightened. Sometimes they fight. In the end, they either succeed (and that’s usually the outcome) or they fail. And that’s just about it. Even when the specific events in a story are unpredictable, at a higher level it’s always the same.

I know there are people who re-read their favorite novels. I’ve done it myself, usually with mysteries where it’s been so long that I don’t remember who done it. But when you re-read, the experience is going to be the same the second time through. A novel is set in stone. There are, to be sure, hypertext stories with branching narratives, but while the details of your experiences may be different the second or third time through a hypertext story, the differences are likely to be trivial, and also frustrating: What if I never noticed the branch that led to a really cool dramatic moment?

Contrast the experience of reading with the experience of playing a board game. A board game is social, not solitary. The components are both colorful and tactile, they’re not just black marks on a white background. In most games there’s a lot of replayability, so you can return to the game again and again and have a variety of fresh experiences. The excitement of winning or the sorrow of losing is your own emotion, not the emotion of a person who doesn’t even exist except on paper. And you have to take actions in order to play the game at all: Playing the game is active, not passive.

Writing fiction is just as odd as reading it, though in different ways. Writing is the easiest and least demanding of the art forms. Anybody can do it! (And millions of people do.) All you need is some paper and a pencil. You don’t have to buy paint or an expensive musical instrument. You don’t have to audition actors or hire a lighting technician. You already know your native language, so you don’t have to learn any special skills such as blending the pigments or reading a page full of notes. You don’t even have to know proper spelling or grammar; just write!

And yet, to write well is insanely difficult. Pacing, dialog, viewpoint, there are so many things to keep track of. Possibly the most important is plausibility. If your characters don’t do the things that they would naturally do (or that your reader imagines they would naturally do) in the circumstances in which they find themselves, your story will fail. Plausibility is the Procrustean bed of fiction.

Not that some well-known writers don’t ride roughshod over the need for plausibility. There’s a mystery by Agatha Christie, I think it’s What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, in which the final explanation of the puzzling events requires the murderer to have done several preposterously implausible things. Christie was probably trying to make a living, maybe writing to a deadline, and trusted that most of her readers wouldn’t notice. Keeping things plausible while also producing manuscripts on schedule and keeping the stories entertaining is a bit like juggling knives, bowling balls, flaming torches, and live kittens.

In truth, plausibility is only the second most important part of writing fiction. The most important is the commandment, “Thou shalt not bore thy reader.” But what fascinates one reader will surely bore another. It’s a no-win game.

And in the end, the material itself becomes tedious. You’re using words and sentences. You’re writing about people who don’t exist, but who do stuff and have feelings. Wouldn’t you rather paint a painting full of reds and greens and blues, or stand on stage in front of an audience and sway them with the sound of your voice, or maybe bang on a drum set?

I started writing fiction more than 40 years ago because I couldn’t find a band to play in. If today’s amazing music software had existed then, I don’t think I would ever have started writing stories. I’m not sorry; I wrote some good stuff along the way. But honestly, composing and recording music is a whole lot more gratifying, for several reasons. It’s more sensual, experimenting with the software is more fun, and nobody can listen to your piece and say it’s not plausible. If that chord sounds good to you, nobody can say it’s the wrong chord! Plus, I can do a piece of music in a week or two — and there’s no advance planning. No plot outline or world-building. You just launch the software and start.

Of course, I have quite a lot of technical skill in this area that most people don’t have. Also a fast computer, good speakers, lots of wonderful music software, and a MIDI keyboard controller. Not everyone can compose and record using software synthesizers. But anybody can write.

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