by Yordie Sands, originally published January 2017
I’ve had my writing voice for many years. I don’t know why it evolved the way it did, but it is easy for me to express my thoughts with this style. I write very fast most of the time and that means I have to go back and do a lot of self-editing. I sling sentences around until I’m okay with the way they sound, and have a rhythm that satisfies my sense of order. It’s comfortable for me and this voice is why I write in first person, present tense.
Blogging and other forms of social writing are relatively easy for me because there’s not much at stake aside from making a fool of yourself. Writing technical articles is a lot harder, but writing fiction demands something elusive, building interest and tension and suspense. And writing a novel requires managing many threads that weave in and out of the main story. Before I began writing this novel, I believed that after a decade of conceptualization and research, the actual writing of the novel would be relatively smooth flowing. And, maybe, the first draft was relatively easy. Although, in looking back at previous posts it, I did struggle. And on reflection, the first draft was awful across many dynamics.
Since the first draft I’ve been discovering about what this novel can be, and learning to focus on the basics of the story’s main arc. Each day I dig deeper into it and each day characters are becoming reveal themselves to be more complex, even characters I already knew would be complex. I use the term threads to describe the subplots in a story, and there are hundreds of story threads that must be weave their way in and out of the mainline, but ultimately and resolve their lines. If I knew in the beginning what I know now, I’d have built my outline around these threads. I’m not sure how I’ll do this, but its something I’ll strive for in follow-on books.
I’m also mindful that 90% of all science fiction novels are written in third person, although I believe that there are more first person sci-fi novels in the past decade. And there are subtleties in writing in first person; nuances that I hadn’t realized in the past. I don’t have enough insight into this to judge whether or not this will be a fatal flaw in this work. So, in my naivety I’ll stick with “the horse that brung me”.
Something Must Be Wrong
My editors have noted something in my writing that concerns me. All of them (four editors) seem to point this out; that is, I will say something that I don’t explain in more detail immediately. For example, I might say “It was the system controlling the [unique mechanism] surrounding the transport ships.” And editors might want to know what the ‘mechanism’ is or what it does, or words to that effect.
In my mind it is a simple question that suggests a complex system, it’s a curiosity, but doesn’t have to be answered for the story to work. It’s not intended to raise suspense in the story. I will explain the term later in the story because I feel it require further explanation, but I’m speaking in real-time, present tense. If I stop to explain it, I’ll be writing a lengthy descriptions or back story narrative. I believe this issue is part of the reason that first person is a difficult narrative form, and hope it won’t adversely impact readers who are comfortable with the fast flowing streams of life.
Are These Ideas Right or Wrong?
So what’s wrong with lengthy descriptions? I think it works okay for third person writing, where things are being explained in a more traditional narrative. But you are walking into my story and there’s a lot you’ll not know about the scenes because it is a complex plot. I’ve chosen to leave out details like what a ‘unique mechanism’ is because there are much more important things to reveal. My notion is that by adding to the ‘mechanism’ description later it will hit the reader as an, “Ah, I was wondering about that.”
There are two other reasons I don’t feel I can go into explanations, aside from “Show don’t Tell”. First, I have friends who are avid sci-fi readers and both of them dislike a lot of explaining or back story at the beginning of a story. In one case, the reader feels the same way about third person. The second reason deals with my changing view of stories; that is, I see my stories as if they are motion pictures or television series. For example, you can be dropped in a scene and the only thing you have is a couple of people talking about this or that, but you don’t have a clue as to what’s going on.
I write from the perspective of a movie. The problem is, when you see a story on-screen you can draw a lot of conclusions about place and characters from what you observe. This is where the editors are dead-on right, you have to describe the scene or the reader will be lost and confused. And I’m ready to acknowledge that I must be coming up lite on these descriptions, but I’m also convinced that my editors see my writing through the lens of third person. One editor went as far as to suggest that I don’t attempt to write in first person because it is very hard. Hmmm.
The Story of Max Perkins
Last night I watched a magnificent HBO movie, “Genius”. It’s a story of Scribner’s Sons editor, Max Perkins, editor to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and young Thomas Wolfe. If you enjoy the writing of that era, it will enrich your understanding. Basically, Max Perkins helps Tom Wolfe reduced the size of a giant manuscript (330,000 words) entitled O Lost into the highly successful Look Homeward, Angel. In my mind Perkins took a wildly undisciplined and self-centered young genius and helped him realize his potential.
For his second book, the film depicted Tom Wolfe bringing in three crates of writings, representing hundreds of thousands of words. It was everything I’ve read that you should not do if you want to get published. But Perkins believed in Wolfe’s genius and spent the next two years intensely helping Wolfe create his second novel, Of Time and the River, another great success. But there was an undercurrent in the story, Perkins wondered if all his editing might have destroyed the true value of Wolfe’s work.
Not mentioned in the film was the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Matthew Bruccoli, who reassembled the original manuscript for O Lost. It was finally published in 2000 because Bruccoli believed the Perkins’ editing resulted in an inferior work. I tend to believe that Thomas Wolfe was lucky to have been mentored by Max Perkins. I don’t have to read the original to be certain that the Perkins edited work was the true masterpiece. One reviewer of Wolfe’s first work said, “…the product of an immense exuberance, organic in its form, kinetic, and drenched with the love of life…” The book must have been a great event at the time and while I can appreciate Wolfe’s poetic genius, I’m inclined to feel “drenched” in Wolfe’s lack of discipline and self-indulgence. I know, I know. I’ve committed a sacrilege and I apologize to those with a better understanding of literary genius. Let me reiterate, Wolfe was damned lucky to have been mentored by Max Perkins.
One thing the HBO film has done, it has increased my sense that I must write the way I know how. However, I’m very mindful of what I’ve learned from my editors. Btw, I think I’m lucky to have done some early work with different editors.
Writing a novel is hard, for me that is. Some popular authors can create new books like clockwork, and maybe I’ll be there some day. But for now it is very hard work.