The difference between …

If I was one of those no-nonsense, hard hitting, no punches pulled kind of editor, this is one of those posts where I'd claim that I was trying to get you to "face up" to a "harsh reality".

Thankfully, I don't believe in natural talent or that some writers are "innately special".

Some writers are special. It's just that there are reasons for it.

And here's why this might not be about facing a harsh reality: you might be one of them.

There is a difference. The difference between a story and "things that happen". The difference between a character and a person. The difference between narration and "saying what happened". The difference between, yes, art and reporting.

Again, I don't think art  is magical. Great artists are usually extraordinary people, but it takes an extraordinary person to study their art obsessively for their whole life, in an unending and insatiable search for ever-shifting perfection. So it's hardly surprising that the people who become great artists usually bend that way.

Today, there are a lot of writers who are doing something that not everyone can do. They are inventing intriguing and engaging sequences of events involving intriguing and engaging personages, and writing those into novels using sound, clear and often lively and engaging English.

And don't get me wrong - there is room on the virtual bookshelf for them. But what they are creating is, to put it dryly, lacking an extra dimension that is found in the classics of literary art. To put it more colourfully, what they are creating is a microwave lasagna.

The common factor in everything that I have grown accustomed to calling art, is that it uses its medium to communicate ideas or feelings that are difficult to express otherwise, and which is some cases are more strongly expressed through the chosen artistic medium than they would have been if expressed (the way I, a non-artist, generally expresses them) through a few carefully selected words.

Novels are no different. The medium of the novel is the narration, characters and plot, in the same way that the medium of a painting is paint. The message of a novel can be as subtle and subjective or as blatant and obvious as the message of a painting.

Am I saying that a novel without a message isn't art?

Yes, I suppose I am.

One of my clients wrote a science fiction short story; it has spaceships and monsters and clones in it (but no ray-guns). I know it was art because I could sum it up with:

This is a story about motherhood.

If I took the time (and I try not to deconstruct my clients' work too much), I could show that there were clues in every layer of the story: choice of words; sentence structure, paragraph structure, imagery, metaphor, scenery, action both as itself and as a symbol for the theme. Conscious and unconscious imagery abounds in the story, and while part of the plot is (in a very limited way) about a mother-daughter relationship, the story's underlying message is about a universal ideal of motherhood.

Not every writer, either consciously or unconsciously, even attempts this level of thematic integration. However it has come as something of a surprise, dipping into some of the better known indie successes of the last couple of years, that some writers make no attempt whatever at even having a message, let alone thinking of it as a theme and introducing resonant symbolism and harmonic (or discordant) language.

I have gone on record as saying that you can learn to be a better writer by reading, writing and telling stories aloud. But if your stories do nothing beyond saying "this is what happened to these folks" then you are a reporter, not an artist.

Even if your stated purpose is "just to entertain", you should know that many, if not most, readers will be more entertained by a book with a message than one without.

But as I say; no harsh realities. My job (thank goodness) is not to tell you you're no good. It is to teach you how to get better. Without a message, all art is meaningless*. The first step to getting a message is to find a theme. You can "end up" with a theme "unconsciously". But don't count on it. Better to select one.

To begin with, there's no need to be clever or complex. Pick a character trait that annoys you in others; pick an aspect of being alive that fills you with joy; think about something that's fundamentally wrong with the world; think of something good that is undervalued.

You will soon discover that incorporating this idea into the events, the characters and even the very words of your story is remarkably easy. It's so easy, indeed, that sometimes the difficult part can be avoiding laying it on too thickly.

As you start to develop the idea, start thinking of ways to represent it visually. This can become a motif. An image that is repeated in different forms.

Exemplum: your theme is the way that people repeat their past mistakes. You select as a visual motif a circle. The circle appears in the events of the book as a roundabout; a water wheel, a racetrack, a coin. The plot involves a McGuffin that the main character has at the start, loses, and regains by the end. The first and last chapters have remarkably similar titles. You begin and end one of the chapters with the same sentence. One of the characters tends to keep using certain words, in different contexts, but always in the same order, cyclically.

It can begin to sound like this is playing a rather exclusive and somewhat academic game, like the Times Cryptic. But the above example isn't an example of how to do it well, so much as how to do it at all. As you practice your touch gets lighter, your motif harder to spot and more changeable, you introduce uncertainty to the theme as you try to strike an ever finer balance between communicating your message and convincing the reader to keep going to the end.

Maybe you don't want to create art. Edward Lear (of the nonsense poems) created some of the most astonishing illustrations of birds ever made; each hand-coloured lithograph strikingly vivid and alive. These illustrations demonstrate prodigious skill with the lithographer's toolkit. I really don't know whether they have a message at all, but when I compare them with Lear's poetry I'm left in very little doubt that they aren't what I think of as art, since each illustration communicates as much as possible of what is needed to identify the bird, but nothing more.

It is the same if what you do when you write a story is communicate as much as possible of what is needed to give the reader an experience of what happens in the story, but nothing more.

So don't tell me you're not an artist. I won't complain, however, if you tell me you're not an artist yet.

* Unless, Tristan, since art must reflect life and life is absurd, art must also be absurd.


Unknown said...

I don't feel that I was really as eloquent in this post as the subject matter deserves. To me it reads back as a little equivocal.

K. J. Colt said...

I actually really liked this post Harry. I'm becoming an artist. That means sometimes there's an overall message in my story, and sometimes there isn't. In that respect I sometimes feel like I fail. Not in the self-defeating sense of the word, but that I should know better. And one day I will, but until then...practise, practise, practise.