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I've been working on the copy-edited manuscript for Shattered Pillars, the sequel to Range of Ghosts. This is my last opportunity to make substantive edits to the novel, and so I've been picking over it with a fine-toothed comb for continuity, characterization, language, and where the emotional beats fall. I keep finding myself adding and removing bits of exposition and clarification and character internalizations--tiny things, but they can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the book.

There's this tremendous tension for me as a writer between making things too easy and making them too hard. Or not even hard, because that implies some intent to confound--but rather it seems as if the entire course of my self-training has been a see-saw back and forth between obscurity and hand-holding.

The problem, of course, is that readers are all different. People are all different, although this little fact does not jibe with the modern view of us all as consumers, interchangeable widgets with standardized desires. The fact of the matter is that I can write a scene which one reader will find tiresomely blatant and on-the-nose, another will find shallow and themeless, a third will be utterly confused by, and which will make the fourth one cry with its pathos and cleverness. And moreover, I can write a scene that one reader will, over the course of a lifetime and four rereads, have all four of those reactions to.

And not just can--but in fact, cannot avoid doing this... because on some level, this will be the reaction to every scene, given enough readers.

This is, I believe, the thing that Kurt Vonnegut was talking about when he famously said that you must write to one person. "If you open the window and make love to the world, so to speak, you'll catch cold."

You'll denature your passion. You'll denature your voice. In trying to be all things to everyone, you will succeed in being nothing except a homogenized lump of consumer goods.

I firmly believe that accessibility is a literary value. I have very little use for obscurity for its own sake--but of course, too much hand-holding will frustrate readers as much as too little. Does this writer think I'm an idiot? Also, add in the fact that accessibility is in tension with complexity--and complexity is also a literary value.

And then there's the issue of emotional impact. Stories mean something to the reader in direct proportion to how much she invests in them, and she invests in them in direct proportion to how much she figures out--or feels like she has figured out--on her own. This is the deep root behind show, don't tell, which might as easily be phrased demonstrate, don't narrate.

Of course sometimes we narrate. If we showed everything, we'd be writing very long books in which not a lot happened. Sometimes, you need to get the characters from point A to point B, and nothing interesting happens in the middle. It's okay to say, "The drove to the funeral in silence." What's not okay, however, is to say, "At the funeral, Eunice felt sad," and leave it at that. First of all, it's in no way unexpected or revelatory. Second, it's just telling. It doesn't encourage the reader to feel what the character feels. And it doesn't encourage the reader to figure stuff out.

We get a little endorphin cookie when we get the right answer to something. It's our brain's way of rewarding us for coming up with a solution that, under other circumstances, might lead to us surviving another day. Congratulations, that plant is wild carrot and not hemlock! Congratulations, you correctly identified the bear before it noticed you! Congratulations, you figured out the character motivation of somebody who might be a mate, or an enemy, or a leader.

As readers, we want to receive those cookies. As writers, we want to provide them.

But because every reader approaches the text with slightly different protocols and interests and skills and intellectual capacities, what's just perfect for one--(cookie cookie cookie)--makes another irritated because she feels the author is condescending to her, and leaves a third hopelessly confused.

And I guess the answer is really to write the story I want to read, but try to make it as open as I can while still meeting my own needs as a reader. To embrace my own quirks and transmit them honestly, because anything else results in self-homogenization, and since my readers aren't widgets, it doesn't help me any to try to be a widget myself.

(crossposted from elizabethbear.com)

Comments

And I guess the answer is really to write the story I want to read, but try to make it as open as I can while still meeting my own needs as a reader. To embrace my own quirks and transmit them honestly, because anything else results in self-homogenization, and since my readers aren't widgets, it doesn't help me any to try to be a widget myself.

Amen.
And moreover, I can write a scene that one reader will, over the course of a lifetime and four rereads, have all four of those reactions to.

This is why you are one of my favorite writers.
But because every reader approaches the text with slightly different protocols and interests and skills and intellectual capacities, what's just perfect for one--(cookie cookie cookie)--makes another irritated because she feels the author is condescending to her, and leaves a third hopelessly confused.

I sometimes write LARPs, in a style in which the GMs pre-write characters and then cast players in those roles ("theater-style LARP"), rather than having the players write the characters as in a traditional tabletop RPG. Not every part is right for every player, so we as GMs usually outright ask our players, "What do you feel like playing?" in a casting questionnaire -- usually with more nuance, but common questions in my experience include "how much do you want to figure stuff out on your own?" So I'm now envisioning filling out a "casting questionnaire" before being given a novel to read and being amused at the thought. I suppose the author brand, book-blurb, reviews, recommendations etc. provide a lot of the same function of helping readers match themselves with books they will enjoy based on the reading experience they expect those books to provide.
You do a brilliant job of walking the tight-rope between the finger-puppets (so what you're saying is...) and the reverse vampires of obfuscation and cleverness for its own sake. Your books are challenging but very rewarding. I must confess, I sometimes get lost in the political discussions in your novels. This is mostly because I'm not as interested in that aspect of the story as I am in the characters, ideas and adventures. You play 3D chess and I'm still on checkers. There was a point in Carnival where I thought that maybe I just wasn't smart enough to read the book, but I kept going because I enjoyed the characters and scenario so much. I've learned to trust you, because I know that even if I can't make some of the strategic leaps, the story is still going to the same place. The integrity of the narrative and characterization keep me on the path, and I will find other yummy cookies and meet you at the campfire.
I feel your pain.

(I am, Cthulhu save me, in the midst of a six week period in which I get to do exactly the same thing to "Neptune's Brood", my next novel ... and to ALL SIX previously-published books in the Merchant Princes series, which are getting a new outing next year, and a chance to fix the flaws that have come to light since original publication. All I can say is, my will to live is fading ...)
The lyrics of the chorus to the Rick Nelson song "Garden Party" come to mind.
EARWORM! EARWORM! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

(yes)
This is, I believe, the thing that Kurt Vonnegut was talking about when he famously said that you must write to one person. "If you open the window and make love to the world, so to speak, you'll catch cold."

I have a quote I keep at my desk from John Steinbeck that says much the same thing:

"Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless faceless audience would scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader..."

(There was more to the quote that I did not copy over. It's been a while since I wrote it, but I'm pretty sure all those commas were his)

Edited at 2012-07-28 02:12 pm (UTC)