PH: I’m Falling For You, Baby
“Some readers don't like quiet subjects; others don't like bustling ones. Some enjoy a complete illusion; others revel in a complete deception. They choose their novels accordingly, and if they don't care about your idea they won't, a fortiori, care about your treatment.”
Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”
When a reader picks up a book, flips through the pages, and lays down the cash to own it, it’s like an engagement. The reader is agreeing to walk with that writer into his or her fictive world. The anticipation from store shelf to nightstand is high.
The reader may or may not be aware of the succession of words it took to make that story unfold. If it’s well written, they ought not to know or be aware of the actual words. But something about either the back cover copy or the early pages has made them aware of its story. And if they bought the book believing they’re in for a ride, they’re rooting for it.
But stringing together a bunch of words into scenes that tell a tale is a poor substitute to writing a story that works. And then believing that our story idea is “sellable” to the reader is secondary to actually delivering the goods. The reader comes with a list of expectations, and they expect a good story. They aren’t investing in words, but in story. But here we are as writers working with words, and yet knowing that the reader wants more.
The words that make up story ought to dazzle, but not as single gems. Think of a bag of gems and how difficult they are to cart around. They can’t look good on you unless they’re placed in a ring setting or some object d’art. It’s true of words that they can’t dazzle in purposeless isolation.
It is fun to play with words, their sounds, and how they slip off the tongue and sail off into the air. But when placed correctly into the narrative sentence, words take on function and speed. They join up with the next sentence and the next, pulling us into the river of story. It’s for that reason that the writer must take care that they don’t use words like poets. The poet can write words that in and of themselves are breathtaking. But the novelist must take great pains to use words less obviously. The words in a novel have a job and that is to keep the reader moving, motors wide open. The beauty of a well-told novel is that meaning is tucked deeply into the story. If we’re doing our job artfully, the reader is operating solely on sense rather than actuality. Not until the story’s finale is the reader aware of the story elements’ slow convergence.
I’m trying to resist the urge to say, “And this is really hard to do,” but it’s true. Words are a natural part of the writer’s life. We grow up using language, and then believe that writing a compelling story ought to be a natural birth. So we dream up the story, sit down to put it in front of us, and then our war with words begins. It doesn’t seem to matter that we’ve written fifteen novels, the sixteenth is as difficult to write as the first and for the simple reason that the words have to be nearly invisible.
A young man once approached my husband’s gorgeous cousin and told her that God told him that she was going to be his wife. No courtship, no sweet subtleties, just rush in and expect the girl to place the ring on her finger, say the “I do’s”, and be done with it. She turned him down flat, to say the least. The man wanted the wedding without all of the work.
Wouldn’t that be a schmaltzy writing job? Toss down a plot, throw in some character names from the Character-Naming Sourcebook, paste on some paper doll-like wardrobe, and there you have it—a story you can love. But wordsmithing is darkly exacting. Our words are held up for examination. If our language doesn’t take on force and movement, we’re out of the engagement party. The reader wants to be fully engaged by at least page three. Like I said, this is really hard to do. I have to remind myself that if I deeply desire for the reader to fall in love with the story that means that I have to take care that I don’t fall in love with my own words.
Coming November 2006, Earthly Vows, Faith Words.