Writing by Numbers

OK, so…

Yeah, alright, I get it. For anyone who actually is reading this, they will see that my posts have become so irregular, I may as well consider myself a spontaneous occasional producer rather than a regular blogger, and to improve upon that, I will have to get a better grip with what a schedule is, and find appropriate subject matter to talk about. Book reviews and opinions of writing seem to be a good start, though whether I should also get more controversial on everyone is also an interesting question, especially with all the nonsense that’s happening at the moment that I have strong opinions about…

But until then, I did want to post this, if only to have some kind of outlet for myself if nobody else will read this. Because it relates to a lot of the thought processes that go on whenever I sit down to write.

As of right now, I am still waiting for contacted agents to get back to me about my Private Tuition manuscript. I’m well aware that this is par the course for new writers, but I’m sure all those who have been in that situation would also agree that it can get quite demoralizing. Especially when you’re also looking for a job and get a whole heap of rejections or silence ad nauseum, but never mind that right now…

In waiting, I haven’t just ceased writing and am now working on the first draft of another novel, this one within the young adult contemporary genre, and I’m glad that the category it fits into is a little clearer this time. Perhaps more on that in another post at another time.

However, this particular work has been subject to intense review, as I made it the bulk of my major project for my postgraduate Creative Writing course! And as a result, it got some hefty scrutiny. As it is, I ended up passing with merit, but what was said about my earliest draft was definitely interesting, and it got me thinking, sometimes in enthusiasm about my work, other times in despair. Because, as of right now, I have no idea if what I write is remotely marketable. I can only know if people actually decide to sell it, and and people actually buy. And for all that people say about what makes a marketable read, I honestly think it might be one of the great unpredictables.

There is a ton of advice on writing out there, much of which I consume and much of which I give out myself (like, uh, right now), and most of it is well-meaning and good chunk of it is extremely useful. The problem is is that there is by no means any one-size-fits-all approach to writing anything, and this is especially true of fiction, and anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding themselves. Following every single rule you’re ever given as rigidly as possible with no allowing for wiggle room will just render you the ultimate example of someone who paints by numbers, or, as the title suggests, writes by numbers. Whilst it may be a story a lot of people want to buy, is it worth it if it’s not your story? For anyone who says yes…well, great, but if money’s all your care about, you shouldn’t have tried to make it by writing, for God’s sake. Furthermore, it never seems to be the formulaic works that find success (with exceptions, sure), rather those that actually make the imitators want to imitate it. Think of the wave of dystopian YA fiction that followed the success of The Hunger Games – how many of them really had a lasting impact?

Of course, this isn’t an absolute metric. Magical schools were very much a regular feature in children’s fantasy literature before Harry Potter came along, but nevertheless, I do feel there was something about this series in particular that it had in terms of wide appeal and storytelling that previous examples, such as Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch and Anthony Horowitz’s Groosham Grange lacked, for whatever reason. Obviously, that’s quite subjective, and discussing the successes and merits of the Harry Potter series is honestly something that deserves probably several posts. But the point stands – determining what will guarantee a work’s success is so contingent on other factors, it seems futile to put it down to a formula. There’s a quote relevant to this by the successful Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami that I found on one of my bookmarks, because, y’know, random stationery is the perfect thing to find inspiring. And, I’m going to quote it with the beautiful quote tool WordPress has that I was too much of an incompetent dork to use before:

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

Yeah, that didn’t go entirely according to plan, but now at least you can see where the quote is…

And I think he’s right about this, and it also stands to reason that this follows for writing advice – if you only write based on the advice people have given you, you’ll only be able to write what everyone else is writing.

Now, I exaggerated a little in this case, because actually, some advice when it comes to basic grammar, syntax and other foundational matters is pretty fundamental to follow. However, the more abstract and nuanced the subject matters become, the less fundamental the advice seems to be.

There is a lot of advice out there on hooks and inciting incidents when it comes to your story’s opening, and any normal three-act structure whatsit will tell you as much. For someone who had always enjoyed slow burn stories as much as fast-paced ones, and began to write a lot in the former category, partially because I seemed to enjoy the experience so much, this made me feel a little despondent. I couldn’t see ways for my story to serve a fast-paced plot. Now, hooking your reader early on is important, but what I eventually realized was how you do it is subject to a lot of different factors, primarily, what kind of audience you’re catering to and what they would find enticing. If you’re not sure on your audience, consider what you would consider enticing. They say you should write what you’d want to read, after all. Bear in mind that you’re already privy to the plot and will know if exciting moments occur later, but remember – the audience doesn’t know that. You will have to give them something to look forward to. Try and put yourself in their shoes. But, and this is a really important but, don’t fall into the trap of mistaking a hook or inciting incident for something massive, dramatic, action-packed, or fast-paced.

You may be tempted to make the hook or inciting incident the formerly mentioned things because you’re afraid of boring your audience. But honestly, audiences and readers are unpleasable, which I know, because I am an avid member of both categories. Besides, being bored of certain aspects of something doesn’t translate to disliking a work. As of the time of writing, the book I’m currently reading is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I’m enjoying it, but by all accounts it’s certainly not a fast-paced read. Apart from being over 600 pages in length, so many scenes are dedicated to well-timed reflections of characters and the important conversations they have. Some people don’t enjoy people chatting for ages in a work of fiction, but I do (possibly influenced by growing up with Harry Potter, where the ends of each book are usually filled with massive info dumps that I kind of just got used to), and so for me, that’s engaging enough. That’s not to say that everything is – New York 2140 is unabashedly socialist, and whilst I definitely have sympathies with that point of view, it does mean a lot of the book is given over to talk of markets, financing, business cycles, funding and all the rest of it, and to be honest, that side of it is just straight-up boring. It doesn’t help that one of the book’s POV characters works at a hedge fund and won’t fucking talk about anything else unless he’s distracted by his sexual frustration or having to constantly rescue two boys from drowning (it makes sense in context), and he is a desperate bore of a character. That said, the rest of the book is enjoyable enough for me to get to nearly the end of it.

This point about hooks is particularly poignant for the fact that I’m writing within the young adult contemporary genre this time around. That particularly section of literary works is absolutely filled of character-driven stories, and people who enjoy reading character-driven stories, so it seems entirely sensible that any hooks of enticing incidents in the early pages of such books should be character-based – internal and emotional, rather than fast-paced and bombastic. This seemed to be the impression made with John Green’s Looking for Alaska (which I have reviewed here), where the first chapter is merely dedicated to the protagonist’s internal ponderings, where he eventually concludes he wants to go to boarding school to seek a ‘Great Perhaps’ which gives you an insight into how he views the world. For me, though, the bigger hook was the fact that the first chapter was not called ‘chapter one’, but rather ‘one hundred and thirty-six days before’. Before what? The question isn’t answered until you’re well into the novel. By many an assessment, not a great deal happens in that book, it’s mostly the day-to-day life of this particular school, but, as mentioned before, it is the characters and how they all interact that really makes the plot.

This became much clearer upon reading Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay (reviewed here), which, in my opinion, does an even better job in telling an engaging story via very little happening externally, but a whole lot happening internally with the main characters. I won’t go into too much detail here, but check out my review for fuller details.

Given that I opened this particular topic by framing it in advice and feedback I had been given at uni, I just want to affirm that this isn’t to say what the advice and feedback I had been given was basically useless. Most of it was pretty informative, and to be honest, I still feel like more has to be done regarding developing characters in a sensible way and giving enough of an impression of them at the correct moment. It’s the first draft still, so I should be fine given enough time (which, y’know, is something we can never be sure of how much we’ve got, nice and morbid for you). I guess sometimes looking at what other people were writing and being asked specific questions about certain story beats made me despair of my work, because I had too closely associated these kinds of questions with stories that followed formulaic structures. If you feel your story cannot be pigeon-holed into any specific description, relish in it. The concerns for marketing can wait, just write what you want to. First and foremost, the most important thing is getting it all down. And, as I was wisely advised, take risks. You are in complete control of this world and its characters, do whatever you want with it, until you find a solution.

And on that megalomaniacal note, I bid you farewell and thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment, and I may return to this…at some point…



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s