01 September, 2011

Speaking the Same Language

The first time I finished my novel I was amazed that I had managed to create a vaguely coherent entire book. After the first edit I was still pretty excited. Following the second draft I was quietly contented. This time, I put the last full-stop in and went to hang the laundry out. It's not that I'm not glad to have finished, it's just that the euphoria of having written a novel is somewhat dampened when it's the third time you've written it. Finishing a children's novel is becoming a familiar feeling!

It's not just finishing either. With the completion of another version comes the familiar insecurities as well. Suddenly, what seemed like scintillating dialogue feels cliched. The fast-paced fight scene is something you're sure everyone's seen before. The touching moment of re-union is not so much tear-jerking as vomit-inducing. That's when the fiddling starts - a tweak here, a tweak there. I've had to send it to my Mum to proof-read for me to stop myself playing around with it and making it worse!

Being objective, I'm pleased with it. Every draft has been better and richer than the previous one. It is by no means the best book ever written, but it's alright you know. Some bits, I'm even quite proud of. The thing I most worry about though is getting the balance right. Have I explained everything properly? Have I over-explained things? This is particularly tricky when you are creating a fantasy world (or five in my case). How do you get the message across without being patronising?

We humans are pretty bad at getting a message over when it's something close to our hearts - like a first novel! Take Christianity for example. The message is insultingly simple:
  1. We may not all be murderers or adulterers, but none of us is perfect. We are all grumpy/angry/jealous/human somtimes.
  2. If there is to be true justice then everything we do wrong must be dealt with. We can't set some imaginary line and say that everything up to that point is fine and everything after it is not fine - everyone would draw the line somewhere different and we'd spend our whole lives making deals (I illegally downloaded a music track today, so I need to help an old lady across the road tomorrow)
  3. God is big enough to deal with this. He says, "OK guys, I kind of like you and I don't want you to spend your whole life feeling guilty and counting the stuff you do wrong. So here's what I'll do: I'll send my Son to deal with all those times you snapped at someone or lied to a charity collector in the street or parked inconsiderately. He'll take the responsibility.You just have to accept that that's what I've done and we can get on with life. Deal?"
(OK, I may have paraphrased the bible a little there!) Yet somehow, Christians (and I'm not excluding myself from this) have managed to take this message of, "you don't need to feel guilty any more" and let it come across as, "you need to feel really guilty about being a terrible person". I'm not saying there aren't important things to think about but we let something we never believed in obscure what we do believe in.

All that was rather a  lengthy illustration of how easy it is to get the message wrong. Can I be sure that the central theme of my book - approximately, 'being a hero isn't about being good at stuff, it's about making the right choices' - won't come across as, 'being a hero is about being really good at stuff'?! Just like God is probably banging His head against a brick wall sometimes when He watches His message being mangled, perhaps all writers have to accept that once the story comes out of our heads and on to a page, it doesn't just belong to us any more.

What do you worry about most in your writing or work? Does it bother you or excite you that something you create can be interpreted differently? Are you an over-writer or an under-writer? (I'm definitely over!)

For anyone else about to start another draft of a novel, may I point you to this article for some helpful, last minute advice. Happy September everyone!


  1. It's very easy to get caught up with worrying about whether all your carefully-wrought themes will make it through to the reader. If it means a lot to you, it can be tempting to just add a little bit more, just to make sure. As a result you slip into beating the reader over the head with your message and, most probably, boring them senseless. Yep, I too am an over-writer...

    I think it must be even harder to get the balance right in writing for children / young adults, as although they may not have the wider experience you may rely on in adult fiction, they don't want to be patronised either.

    The thing that I've found is that as long as you make sure that the story is about whatever it is about (sometimes that's harder than it sounds), it will work. As soon as it's in the hands of a reader, though, entirely different themes will come through. People have found wonderful new interpretations of my stories, and in one or two cases, they discover genuinely clever stuff that I can only wish I'd thought of on my own!

  2. Ha! I love that last sentence, Dan! Whenever we had to study a book at school and were busy talking about imagery and stuff I always used to think that we probably made more out of it than the writer ever suspected!

    I think that's why I've done a lot of cutting. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more to get my story across then had to take the plunge and trust both my own writing and my audience's intelligence a bit more.

    If it's any comfort, Stephen King and others think it is a hundred times better to be an overwriter than an underwriter!

  3. It sounds like you've reached a good place about it, though - being able to, or at least trying to be able to trust your readers' intelligence.
    It's so true about the message being so easily interpereted in deifferent ways, but I think that's part of the beauty of writing or art of any genre - it can hold so many different meanings it doesn't have to be restricted to just what the writer thinks. Though I guess it's different when it's the difference between a hero making good choices and being good at stuff. So maybe feedback from the given audience is the way forward.

    I guess what I worry about most, and it's silly because it's inevitable, is how my readers will visualise the characters. Even with detailed descriptions, a reader often makes up their own mind about what someone looks or speaks like. (I know because I am one of said readers. I made Hermione Granger ginger.)

    You've reminded me - I found an article in the writing magazine about chapeltown books - they are accepting submissions for picture books based on Bible stories - I couldn't help but think of you, so I wondered if you'd seen it? The website is http://chapeltownbooks.co.uk/SomePointers.aspx
    I'm trying my hand at it too - much like a narrative sermon, I feel.
    Nari X

  4. Well done on getting to that magical last word. I like the premise that the first draft is for you and then the final draft - the one you settle for - is for the reader.

    And I think there's a big difference between Christianity and Churchianity.

    And finally, Hermione may not be ginger, but her kids will be!

  5. Thanks Nari and Derek! I like that "rule" about drafts, Derek - it takes the pressure off the first draft completely which I think is almost always going to be a good thing for creativity.

    I know what you mean, Nari. When I asked the friends who had read my novel to describe the characters, I was horrified. I really didn't want to write lengthy descriptions because I think that comes across as really false and slows things down but even things I HAD written down some people hadn't picked up on! It doesn't really matter at all but I did object when one of them told me I was wrong about what one of my characters looked like!

    Thanks for the link, I will take a look.

  6. Haha, yeah - I've had that. Rob is convinced I've got one particular character's looks all wrong. But I'm hearing him out, because he does seem to have a good grasp of the character himself, so I'm willing to look into it... :P
    Nari X


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