It took me till I’d been published for seven years or so, before I realized I was doing it all wrong. Now this is fairly normal. Okay, it’s fairly normal for me – I don’t know about the rest of you zombies. I’m either unusually dense, or I need to have some sort of a running start to get the rest of the view of the field.
Anyway. here’s the thing: I’d been published for going on seven years before I realized that writing was not about ideas.
By then, I’d sort of gotten used to the idea that it wasn’t about words. Okay, that took Dean Wesley Smith telling me to get over the word thing, but you get my meaning. I’d got it. I’d realized that while writing can use incredibly beautiful words, the one thing I got for free in the craft – words – were of little or no value. Spending my entire day crafting a perfectly crafted sentence about turnips did nothing, if my audience didn’t like turnips, or couldn’t care less about turnips. Particularly if the turnips didn’t advance the plot.
So, then, of course, I thought that writing was about words.
Look, guys, I’m a Heinlein fan. I love the big ideas in his books. So, I figured that was my job: big ideas.
And since I couldn’t play with the big ideas I wanted to play with: how should humanity govern itself? Or How much individual freedom should we have? Or Is it right to take from one person to give to the other? In what circumstances is that right? – because all those stories would reveal I was less than enamored with the ideas that were popular amid my publishers – I played with history, and how to use history for modern audiences.
If the most essential part of a novel was in there it was because it fell in and I didn’t know how to take it out.
The most essential part? You ask. Of course.
The most essential part of a novel is emotion. Arguably it’s also the most important part of any form of fiction, including movies. But the novels have the upper hand because they can make you as close to BE someone as you can. Movies, it’s more watching someone, no matter what level of identification you achieve, or try to achieve.
My problem is that I was raised in a time and place where emotion was considered uncouth. Certainly public emotion, and for our purposes there is nothing more public than the pages of a book.
So, I tried to suppress it. I tried to avoid taking my characters to highs and lows, and when I did I tried to write it in as understated a way as possible. Because I didn’t want to be crass or melodramatic. Even my humor was understated to the point most people missed it.
And then I got it. Look, guys, yeah, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is about ideas. But would I give a hang about the ideas if they didn’t matter to Manny Garcia O’Kelly? If it didn’t make a difference to how he lived, and those he loved? When the professor died I almost cried, and I did cry when Mike stopped answering him.
The dime dropped. Yes, it’s fine to have your story be about ideas. I’m fairly sure that Jane Austen meant to say things about income, social class, child rearing, social demeanor, and other issues of the regency, but we remember Pride and Prejudice because of Darcy’s and Lizzie’s “against all odds” love.
Words, sure, words are fine, as are plots and all the other tools of the craft, but that’s just the knives and stilettos you sculpt emotion with. Your goal is to cause your reader to FEEL. That’s what will keep him coming back.
This is where the New Wave by and large failed to connect with the public. They thought that their job was to write “far out” ideas. Far out ideas are all very well, but they’re ideas. Ideas are very well, and if you can get them in your novel, you definitely should. But if that’s all your novel is, perhaps you should write a non fiction book instead. (Or for a lot of New Wave, a pamphlet.)
Note that among the New Wave authors, Phil Dick is arguably the most successful. Why? Well, his words were fine, but the man couldn’t carry a logical plot in a stainless steel basket. So why?
Because he has emotion. It’s often odd and despairing, but it is there.
Think of words/description/setting, even to an extent plot as the panning in and out of a camera showing a landscape. You can make it look happy, sad, despairing, hopeful. It’s all in the lighting and the panning.
And you don’t want it to be all one emotion. You want to build fear or sadness or tender moments, until it explodes in a climax that often brings about the opposite. There is an emotional mapping to a novel – and often a short story – though those can sometimes be about “mere” ideas.
The tempo is also dictated by the emotion you wish to evoke. But you should give your reader a good two or three strong thwacks in the “strong emotion” – fear or tragedy or… even love.
Now, go grab your favorite novel and read it slowly, making notes on how by word choice or arrangement of events (like making a kid unbearably adorable just before you kill him) the author is playing with your emotions and tugging at your heart.
And then go you and do likewise.