Face Value

 I’ve been thinking about the concept of surprise as it relates to fiction and specifically the relationship between writer and reader. Readers like to be surprised, as a general rule, but it has to be the right sort of surprise. We’re all familiar with the iconic “Twilight Zone” story where the payoff is an ironic twist. That works in small doses, but do it time and again and it becomes too much like a parlor trick everyone’s seen once too often. The punch goes away and the surprise is no longer surprising. I’ve talked about ending before, and how it has to be the “right” ending for the story. The right ending will always have a sense of inevitability about it, whether the reader sees it coming or not. But is it really better if they don’t? And, if so, what can be reasonably sacrificed to make that happen?

This is the balance that concerns me, because I find it’s one aspect of storytelling that we have to deal with all the time. Fiction is a consensus illusion created between the writer and the reader. As a writer you craft a dream that the reader, for a while, shares. Yet their experience reading will never be the same as yours writing. They will never quite see the characters as you do, and they will interpret intent and meanings with their own perspective. That’s not a problem, that’s just the way the game works and all writers have to be aware of it. But the writer who goes for surprise has to be especially aware of and, in a sense, manipulate that perspective, and the primary tools are omission and misdirection. Continue reading

The Downside of Persistence

We’ve all heard the classic view of persistence as a virtue when it comes to writing and I’m certainly not going to be contrarian there. Show me a writer with a little talent and a lot of persistence and one with talent bordering on genius who lacks the ability to stick with anything for long, and I know which one I’d bet on.             

That said, what we almost never talk about is the downside. You hear about “Oh, So and So’s book was rejected 45 times before it was published or “Whatzherface wrote for fifteen years before she sold her first story.” Anecdotes abound. Heck, I’m a walking anecdote: I made my first professional sale in 1980 but didn’t make another until 1993. Tell me that sort of thing won’t bang your confidence like a steel drum. Eventual success — any success, even minimal — is greeted like the natural ending to your average morality play. Virtue triumphant.

So. That’s what we hear. What we don’t hear are the ones like: “John Doe Tenacious wrote every day for forty years. Everything he wrote was rejected multiple times. He self-published a few things that went nowhere,  and he died of a heart attack at the age of sixty. They took his files to the landfill when they cleared out the house and sold his computer for scrap.” Forty years and all of it gone… including the forty years. I’ll guarantee you there are a lot more John Does out there than either So and Sos or Whatzherfaces.

So what’s my point other than being a party-pooper? I have a couple, actually. Let’s start with the obvious one, and I’m a long way from being the first to make it–when it comes to writing Nobody Frigging Knows.

There are people who believe differently. I’ve been told more than once and quite forcefully that “Anyone can have a career as a fiction writer; it doesn’t take any special gifts beyond a little imagination and work.” Simply put–they’re wrong. It also takes one other thing, and this is crucial–it takes the ability to improve. Some people, for whatever reason, just don’t have that. They will never be able to see the flaws in their own work that turns writing into the self-refining and correcting process it needs to be. They can spend their entire working lives rewriting the same basic story, and they’re never going to get any better. Yet even if we accept the premise that anyone can learn to write it is still quite likely that any single individual who takes up writing can, with dedication, hard work, and persistence, wind up spending years working at their craft with absolutely nothing tangible to show for it when the Reaper puts a check by their name and calls time.

There are no guarantees, period, and while almost every hopeful writer will say that they understand that, almost none of them really believes in their heart of hearts that it applies to them. So what’s the deal? “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter”? Not even close. Still, like any other major life decision, try to understand what you’re doing. Recognize that, however a writing career works out, there are trade-offs. Think of all the time you’re going to be writing. Think of all the time you’re not going to be spending with family and loved ones. Think of those near and dear to you with a legitimate claim on your attention who will — not “may,” will— be shortchanged over the years. Realize that some will understand and some won’t, and that no one, not even another writer, will understand all the time. Recognize what you’re giving up, what you’re risking, and be prepared for the consequences. The Muse is big on accountability and what you do actually matters.

Which brings me finally to my second point. I am certainly not saying “Don’t write.” I’m saying if you must write, do it for the right reasons. Only you’ll know what they are for you specifically, but be absolutely clear about this. In my case I write because I enjoy it and I’m a happier, healthier, saner person when I’m writing. I answered this question for myself a long time ago and if you haven’t done that yet you need to, and darn quick; this is your life we’re talking about. Be sure your reasons are good ones and, sappy as it sounds, make sure their foundation is a love of writing. Not “success” because success is a fickle thing and comes or not at whim. Not the respect and validation of your peers, because odds are you won’t get it. Not even publication, because, even though it’s very easy to get some form of publication these days if that’s all you want, know that the world turns merrily along whether you get a byline or not.

The love of writing is, like virtue, it’s own reward. John Doe Tenacious wrote with no impact and no real success for forty years. Was it a waste of time? Forty years down the drain? That all depends. If he was chasing the shibboleth of success, if he didn’t love what he was doing and kept going only out of stubbornness, then yes, it was a complete and total waste of time and he was a damn fool besides. His entire life becomes a tragedy. Yet if he wrote for the love and joy of it, to be a better person and to understand the world he lived in a little better, if he believed in what he did, then it doesn’t matter if he was the worst writer who ever touched a keyboard, because he spent forty years doing exactly what he wanted to do, and what he loved to do.

And if that’s tragedy, friends and neighbors, I’ll take a bushel.