It kinda starts with what do you intend to do. I harp on this a lot because I feel it deeply. What is the "gift"? What are you presenting beyond two covers with pages to fill? Adventure, fun, love, insight, laughs, uneasiness, scares; it can be one of these, it can be all of these, but you as writer must feel it first. Without that mental/emotional connection you're just helping to pass time on the subway ride home, which I'll accept as your intent but you can do a lot more. You can start your zombie apocalypse book by telling me a ton of information like so:
“Ships never came to us anymore. It had been four years. Four long, terrible years of plague and death…and them. The zombies of Station Five. That’s where they first came out. The Midas Genetics lab in Station Five. It was the biggest medical renovation corporation allowed on-planet, nothing now but a huge mausoleum. There was no safe haven anywhere. We didn’t know what we would do, but we would survive…”
Or you can hit me with this:
"There weren't enough of us left to dispose of the bodies." Yes? Because that carries the dread of the situation, and that's what you want me to feel. In the first you described it to me. You wanted me to see your idea. You would have gone on to tell me the color of the doors, the exact look of Dr. Nina Haagen, and what model futuristic smart car took the space zombies to hospitals all over the world when they stumbled into them and mumbled, "Brains." In short, you wanted to create a movie in your reader's head complete with voice-over and tracking shot, and by then our relationship is already tenuous. We're just not connecting. Hush now. Don't speak. It's better this way. You don't trust me; what do we have without that?
More accurately, you don't trust my imagination. Listen, we're both adults. You're not my first zombie apocalypse and I'm not your first reader. Let's be real. I don't care about Dr. Nina's symmetrical freckles and neither do you. We both know Nina's cute, capable and, despite several close calls, will survive this story. So instead tell me about Nina's suppressed self doubt; tell me why the worst of humanity loves showing itself when situations are grim; clue me into the fact that Nina has no desire to save the colony at all but will do all she can because "failure is not an option" was the mantra that got her through high school and her current life of solitude.
The second example: you made me feel. As a reader I now love you. A wonderful writer friend of mine wrote about the problematic trap of needing to create a "movie in a reader's mind." Allow me to paraphrase:
Two major issues that seem to be a common thread with this tactic:
1. Describing every scene, every character, every movement in minute detail;
2. Providing far too much "historical" detail in large chunks, when it doesn’t serve to further the storyline.
In the first instance, novel-writing is being approached like writing a screenplay… but they are very different beasties entirely. With a screenplay, the goal is to provide as much minute detail as possible so that the directors can create the scene exactly as the writer has envisioned it, from the buttons on a frock coat to a head tilt. Every line of dialogue, every hand gesture, every step, all plotted out in order to bring the writer's world to life on screen.
With novels, one has to take a very different approach, and provide only as much information as necessary so that the readers can imagine the world themselves. That’s one of the greatest pleasures when reading a novel: conjuring what a character looks like, or what people might be wearing, according to one’s own preferences.
As for historical detail, it's a wonderful thing, and it’s great to be able to learn bits and pieces of history (whether real or purely fanciful) as we read, but it’s another thing entirely for the forward momentum of a story to be halted by a Wikipedia stub where a paragraph should be. The key really is to dole out tidbits sparingly (only the most relevant ones at that) and in such a way that they don’t appear to be a history lesson dressed up as prose. If they are of absolute relevance to the story and help to move it forward, wonderful: ease them in at the right moments. If they’re just “interesting”? Leave them out.
Coax the story out in such a way that you’re captivating the reader, piquing their interest and keeping their attention as little gems are revealed one by one. If there's one piece of advice I can impart, it's to read and read and read… and read some more. Immerse yourself in the kinds of novels you're aiming to write, and see what works and doesn't work in terms of other authors' approaches to world creation.
Wonderful advice. And so very correct. We all have different skill levels when it comes to writing and conjuring, but very often a writer commits the disservice of information-overload, leaving the reader with the impression of reading the author's notes, research, and early draft rather than the engaged final effort. This is where re-writing comes in. It comes hard.Think of writing as though you’re a human 3D printer. First draft is you pre-scanning the source material: you want all the details you can glean of your imaginary world in order to present a usable replica. Second draft, you’ve adjusted the preview scan and tightened the parameters; now you can go for it. You can hit ‘scan’.Third draft: you are a multi-handed printhead working like crazy to mold that scan into something a reader will ooh and ahh over. Your goal as writer is to get in my head. Direct where those oohs and ahhs occur. See, just as in movies, you’re a director (a good director; no jerky cam jump cuts), but where cinema gets to show Rosario Dawson in her glory, you get to impart the feeling of that awesome glory as concisely as possible. Find your inner Akira Kurosawa. Rather than trying too hard to describe what's in your head, make your reader feel *why* it's there and why the reader should care. Don't spend so much time setting the scene that you forget to heed that important nuance. Personally, I run from writers who want their vision so clear in my head I might as well not be there. It contributes to lazy writing (and lazy reading, which we’ll get to another time).
In my own work I generally give few descriptors. I tend more toward the Harryhausen mode of visual imagination than the goal of today’s current CG artists who give us both spittle and snot on conjured beasties. I love technical prowess, I love research and the artistry needed to create wonders. However, for an effect to be "special" one must be judicious with it no matter the art form. I like to think Ray Harryhausen, given 21st century computing power, would still go for the feel of the monster rather than just hyper-reality. Today's effects guys detail their pieces all the way down to random spittle and snot flying from the maw of every roaring dragon. That's not your job as a novel writer. Everybody wants dragons. We love dragons. Space dragons. Historically accurate dragons. Well-realized rom-com dragons. Even zombie dragons.
Nobody wants spittle and snot.
Question: What does music do for your writing?
Well, music is emotion, so music fuels me.
Question: Have you ever written anything you’re ashamed of?
Question: How often?
Question: You’re on a road trip with Matthew McConaughey in his brand new Lincoln--
Oh hellz no.
Question: Who’s the most famous person to have held any of your books in their hands, and which book?
Pam Grier. Book is Neon Lights, an urban comedy. I won’t say she read it but I gave her a copy during dinner. True story.
No, really. Absolute church truth. You can read about it here:
Question: Tell us about your most recent novel, The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan.
It’s a sweeping, fun, adventure book that hugs Buckaroo Banzai and says thanks. I miss fun in my diet, don’t you? Enough with irony deficiencies! It’s about two brothers who are adventurers, who are black, don’t die, and aren’t magical (not in that way), fighting an eternal war against the False Prophet Buford. It rocks, son, and that’s a plug.
Drop the T, son.
Question: Do you enjoy writing? Like cheesecake, sex, and good sci fi?
Question: And you have a goal of world literary domination and supple book groupies?
That’s called ‘incentive,’ son.
Question: If Rosario Dawson never reads Jetstreams?
Question: Biggest writing goal?
That there’s fun in our lives, the reader’s and mine. Even with serious stuff. Or the not so serious.
Question: Tell us about your alter ego, Thor MF Jones, erotic writer and part-time plumber.
Y’all ain’t ready.
Question: Favorite books you’ve read in the last 2 years?
Archangel by Marguerite Reed. Science fiction for grown, feeling folks. There Is No Lovely End by Patty Templeton. Fun, macabre, imaginative and sharp.
Question: Favorite song of the last 2 years?
Prince, Way Back Home.
Question: Spock or--
Question: Buddha or Jesus?
Bare knuckle fight? Buddha could take him.
Question: What is best in life?
To get out of your own way. To chill, to write, to have people dig the words and buy the books. The paintings. The records. The woodwork. The sculpture. The life. The life is best in life. Can you dig it?
Question: I can dig it.
Life, the universe, and everything creative
Towel Photo credit: EvelynGiggles via Foter.com / CC BY