Reading, Writing and Rules

I write like a reader.

I don’t plot before writing– what reader diagrams the plot of a book he just picked up?  I enjoy writing as I go and seeing what the characters come up with, just like a reader.  I write what I think would be fun to read, not necessarily fun to write.  I’m constantly adding things that I would love to read.  And I can’t change the story halfway through.

Let me explain.  A week ago, I posted this post, which gave a link to a podcast on beginnings that I found quite interesting.  One of the things they covered in that podcast was the fact that the beginning scenes of a story make promises to the reader.  Almost infallibly, there’s a prologue to a fantasy/medieval story that tells what the story is like, but it then goes into some rather boring introductory stuff.  And that’s a promise to the reader that the rest of the book will look a lot like that first scene.

When I wrote the first scene of my current work in progress, it was horrible.  It was a verbose prologue in badly-done third-person omniscient.  It was a horrible first scene and I knew it when I was writing it, but it still set the tone for the rest of the story.  I realized about two chapters into the story that my writing style seemed really off, and I couldn’t change anything about it.  This is because that first scene set the tone, and once that tone was set I couldn’t do anything to change it.  I was writing like a reader.  I could have used executive powers and abruptly changed the story to third person limited, but I couldn’t do that to myself in good conscience.  It was quite strange.

When you’re writing like a reader, you’re writing for yourself.  You’re writing what you’d like to see on the shelf one day– you’re writing what you’d like to go into the bookstore and pick out of all the paranormal romances that people call fantasy these days.  You’re writing something that to you is better than all the other books on the shelves.  You’re writing your new favorite book.

But you’ve got to be careful.  There are rules that readers follow which, if you aren’t careful, you can be restricted by yourself.  If you write a first scene that’s nothing like what you want the book to be, and then you go on into the rest of the story, you’re never going to get anywhere.  Cut that first scene out– it’s chained you to a writing style that you don’t want.  Mine chained me to a mix of Terry Pratchett and 19th century historian, and I can’t say that I like either of them.

But sometimes it’s good to follow the rules of a reader.  Though it’s restricting at times, it keeps you from, say, killing your main character and overrunning the world with evil, making your main character a Twysdrn, or having your main character be awesome at everything.  All these things are extremely fun to write, but readers don’t like it when a main character isn’t identifiable, dies, or can’t be defeated.  If your main character has all of those qualities, make him your villain.

I think it’s good to write like a reader.  I will definitely keep trying to do so, but I’ll try to keep from being too restricted by them.

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43 Comments

  1. “All these things are extremely fun to write, but readers don’t like it when a main character isn’t identifiable, dies, or can’t be defeated.”

    i read that sentence and got all excited to leave a comment saying that someone ought to take that invincible person and make him/her the villain in the story, and then you wrote: “If your main character has all of those qualities, make him your villain,” and I just sat there staring at those words, stewing in my own frustration. Here I was with this big idea, and then BOOM, you had the idea before me. Phoo.

    Reply
  2. Charley R

     /  December 9, 2012

    A very good post, my friend! That’s what I tend to do with my first drafts nowadays – a few loose plot points, and stringing it together creatively as I go. Then, on the editing, I plan to go Writer Mode and shred and reorganise and fine tune et cetera.

    All writers started out as readers, after all. And it’s readers we write for. It’s no good trying to entertain one if you can’t think like one.

    Reply
  3. Robyn Hoode

     /  December 10, 2012

    Hmm… villans do have those qualities, don’t they?
    You have a point, Liam. Don’t write entirely for yourself or baby your charries (this does not make a good book). But don’t write always for the audience. You have to sometimes get rid of the wise man, show your MC’s weakness, and have terrible cliff-hangers at the end of most chapters (I am notorious for this last one, which I guess is writing for myself in a way).

    Reply
    • Indeed. It’s a delicate balance between the two that we all must strive to achieve. I’m just better at striving than others. (Just kidding.)

      Reply
  4. I agree completely with this. I started writing because I had an idea for a story that I’d love to read. I realised that for it to exist I would have to write it myself. I couldn’t imagine writing something I wouldn’t want to read.

    Reply
    • I can’t imagine it either, but it happens sometimes when we get too caught up in the glory of writing for ourselves.

      Reply
      • Robyn Hoode

         /  December 10, 2012

        I have trouble sluuging through scenes I just don’t want to write! I can’t even begin to imagine the tedious, insanity of attempting to write something I wouldn’t want to read!

      • Indeed. The only thing for it when that occurs is this: make it something you want to read, or write. It picks up after that.

  5. “You’re writing your new favorite book.”

    I think this is the key. Write something that you find amazing. I’ve created an entire world that I want to live. I want to see this world in my words. I love that world, and can’t wait to see it. That’s why I’m writing.

    Reply
  6. charliefarlie99

     /  December 18, 2012

    Interesting that you say you write as you go and don’t set out the plot- I’m trying this technique myself although at the moment, the pressure of the first scene is preventing anything from appearing on the page…. Do you tend to write a few versions? Do you usually have some sort of ‘big idea’ for the first scene?

    Reply
    • I usually have a good idea of what the first scene consists of before writing. If I don’t have an idea for a first scene, but I know the second scene, I either think about it until I find a first scene, or I write from the second scene and forget about the first one. But rewrites are uncommon in first drafts.

      As for a ‘big idea’ for the first scene… I do, but I don’t. I know what I need to do– set up this fantastical phenomenon, introduce these three characters, use this kind of writing style– but it’s always in my head. I sometimes call myself a mental plotter.

      Reply
  7. Opinions, opinions. I like your views on this, and how you put them into words, but I don’t exactly agree with them. That is to say, writing like a reader doesn’t seem to work for me. I’ve tried it. It’s ended in disaster.

    If I don’t outline before I begin, I end up getting writer’s block every few chapters. My first novel (51,000 words, which seems to be a cakewalk by both your standards and mine), took me over TWO YEARS to finish because I had no idea where it was going. I kept breaking off for months, not writing a word, because I genuinely didn’t know what to do next. And that was the easy part.

    In addition to writer’s blocks, I kept getting new ideas for the same novel. And it’s a pain when you’ve written 30,000 words only to realise there’s this incredible twist you can add, but to make it work, you need to rewrite the whole document. This happened more than once. To save time, I kept putting it off for the edits, just writing what came to me. By the time it was due for editing, it was a large, confused mass of text that seemed to have a serious identity crisis. Needless to say, I’ve given up on it. The outlining method seems to work for me much better.

    Now, speaking of outlines, I wanted to tell you something. I know you don’t outline, and that’s fine. But I just made an observation the other day. I was watching the televised version of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and I remembered something that both she and J.K Rowling taught me on two separate occasions.

    In a Poirot novel called ‘Death in the Sky’ (I don’t know if you’ve read it. If you haven’t, this is a spoiler), there is a murder on an airplane and all the suspects need to have their luggage examined. The contents of their bags are revealed to the reader. There’s this dentist on the plane and he’s going on vacation. He’s carrying his doctor’s coat with him. At first, this wouldn’t strike the reader as odd. He’s a doctor and he’s carrying his white coat. But wait, isn’t he going on holiday? It is then revealed that he is the killer. Poirot got suspicious of him because of that coat.

    This struck me as brilliant. Planting the smoking gun in an obvious way. The reader can *figure out* who the killer is all on their own, but they don’t. Because the writer has made it so inconspicuous, so natural.

    J.K Rowling did something similar in the 6th book. When that Mundungus guy (Was it Mundungus?) is selling Sirius’s possessions, Harry and his friends see the owner of the Hog ‘s Head Pub buying something off him and walking off. This man later turns out to be Dumbledore’s brother. The object he’s buying turns out to be Sirius’s mirror, like the one Harry has. Because of this, Harry’s life is saved in the 7th book. Rowling was showing the reader something *vital*, and yet she passed it off as something completely irrelevant. Something that only makes sense in hindsight. Forget sense. Something that you’d only *notice* in hindsight.

    Only if a writer had outlined their story beforehand would a trick like this become possible. That was one of the many things that convinced me to plot out the story before writing it.

    What are your views on this? Do you think it’s material worthy of a post? This sleight of hand continues to tickle my imagination as a reader. It makes me want to look at the little things in the story and see if they’re more important than they seem.

    (Oh god, another massive comment!)

    Reply
    • Actually, I don’t really agree. I see where you’re coming from, and I totally agree that would be easier if you outlined beforehand, but it isn’t the only way to do it. Just because I find it difficult to outline doesn’t mean outlining is wrong– and just because you found it difficult to add great plot twists through editing doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Personally, I think a pantser can do this just as well as a plotter. (I’ve done it before on a few occasions without realizing it.) The only difference is we don’t set out in the first draft to do it, whereas a plotter might. But whether plotter or pantser, there’s still a lot of work to be done through editing, and you can’t think that Christie’s and Rowling’s books turned out awesome just because they planned it beforehand.

      Reply
  8. I wrote this fat comment in response, but my smartphone decided not to be smart and erased the entire thing. Oh well.

    Anyway, I wasn’t saying that outlining is superior to discovery writing or anything of the sort. This is an art form, and can be done in millions of different ways. Ours just happens to be different, that’s all. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one style is better than the other. Outlining is what works for me, that’s what I was trying to convey.

    The best writers need to edit a dozen or more times before they get their stories to work. That’s a fact. Whether they’re discovery writers, outliners, bestsellers or bathroom singers. Doesn’t matter.

    What I was talking about was that trick that Rowling and Christie played on their readers. Wouldn’t that just happen to work better with outlining than discovery writing?

    Reply
    • I see. I don’t mind that at all.

      Yes, I understood the trick Rowling and Christie played, but I maintain that even a discovery writer can do that effectively– and have done it effectively many, many times. But none of them can claim to have known they were going to do it until they did it. So yes, it’s more hit-and-miss with discovery writers, but it still happens.

      Reply
  9. I see. Thanks for the insight. 🙂

    Will you be coming online (in the chatroom) tonight/today?

    Reply
  10. You know, I never actually notice my writing style changing significantly between works. I mean, there are small changes, like in certain periods, I find myself using a particular word a lot. (Like right now, I keep using the word “totally” everywhere. Now I just need to say “like” a bajillion times more, and then I’m your stereotypical California girl!) I think I’m also still improving, so looking at something I wrote, say, last week, is going to be better (I hope) than something I wrote a few months ago (…especially if the work you’re looking at is my NaNo novel, considering the typos and missing/extra words in weird places, hehe), but I don’t think even that is that significant. (Okay, something I wrote a few weeks ago is definitely going to be significantly better than something I wrote a few years ago, but I don’t think that counts.)

    I want to think that means I’ve found my style, but I really don’t know. The one thing I can say for sure, though, is that I am happy with my style. A year ago, I wasn’t, but then… this time last year, I wasn’t happy with anything about any of my writing. Even six months ago. I have changed a little, because now I’m aware of my lack of description and whenever I write, I do try to work on that, but is that improvement in my style or change in my style? So, if my style hasn’t changed, why am I happy with it now when I wasn’t before?

    I guess I’m just content with it. My writing, to me, sounds like myself. I don’t sound like somebody else when I write—I sound like me. (That’s not to say I don’t see small influences by people occasionally, but they aren’t overwhelming.) And I acknowledge that any of my writing will need micro-edits, so why should I be unhappy with my style?

    Okay, I’m totally rambling now. (See? Should I say, “I’m, like, totally, like, rambling, like, now”? …That is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve ever written. I am never going to do that again.) I guess I’ll stop now, hehe. Have a, um…nice long comment! Comment-essay? Essay-comment?

    Reply
  1. In the beginning there was……. | write me a novel

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