The Writing Life Cont’d: The Sccoby Doo Imperative

In a pre­vi­ous post, I indic­ated that my girl­friend was in the pro­cess of read­ing my latest nov­el, Flashback. Well, half an hour before we went out for din­ner yes­ter­day even­ing she fin­ished it. Even before she fin­ished speak­ing my mind was turn­ing to this blog: Should I write a post about this or not?

She didn’t like it. With the usu­al caveats, this is wor­ry­ing. Britta is an intel­li­gent woman — she has a PhD, is good at maths, and reg­u­larly wins argu­ments with me des­pite con­duct­ing them in her second lan­guage, is very cute, like animals…hang on, where was I? On the oth­er hand — here comes a caveat — one person’s opin­ion may or may not reflect the ‘true value’ (whatever the hell that means) of the book. One of my favour­ite dir­ect­ors, Robert Zemeckis, observed on his Back to the Future DVD com­ment­ary that if one per­son makes a crit­ic­al com­ment, you can feel free to ignore them; when you hear the same thing from a second per­son, you’d bet­ter pay atten­tion. But now for a caveat from the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion: very often, these cri­ti­cisms res­on­ate with half-cooked thoughts that the writer already has. When this kind of res­on­a­tion exists, the prob­lem is often crit­ic­al.

So many of Britta’s com­ments are, poten­tially, a very indi­vidu­al reac­tion to the work. I won’t be able to get a good handle on the applic­ab­il­ity of her com­ments until the book is read­er by a second per­son. However, giv­en the ser­i­ous­ness of her com­ments, the next draft will dif­fer in sig­ni­fic­ant respects.

When I was a boy, I used to think that a book was solely the product of a writer’s effort. That all words were chosen by him, and he thought of them in the order they were writ­ten down. My brief exper­i­ence with writ­ing, how­ever, sug­gests that the pro­cess is essen­tially col­lab­or­at­ive. Other writers provide input, as to friends and fam­ily, and, finally, the pro­fes­sion­al edit­or who picks up the manu­script. In short, a book-length work can be described as a series of prob­lems. First prob­lem: You need to write it. From there, the prob­lems explode to a galaxy of day-to-day niggles that you’ve just got to work through. When you find a solu­tion to a prob­lem, it makes the work an incre­ment bet­ter. Some prob­lems, like tone and char­ac­ter­isa­tion, are really a func­tion thou­sands of smal­ler prob­lems. At the low­est level, you’ve got maybe 100, 000 prob­lems: each word in the book. Right now, my book has 120, 000 prob­lems at this level.

So what did Britta think? I’ll out­line them here, in ascend­ing order of import­ance. They might be classed as spoil­ers, but I doubt you’ll remem­ber them if you read the even­tu­al book.

Too many sciffy ideas

Listed baldly, the book con­tains: smart mat­ter (which can fly to the hand of the vil­lain like a hawk to a hunter); time travel; brain chips; and nan­o­tech­no­logy. I’ve read books that have a high­er ‘sci­ffy car­at’ than Flashback, and they seem to work. Quite pos­sibly, I’m too cava­lier in jump­ing to the implic­a­tions of tech­no­logy. But it’s the implic­a­tions — i.e. how people would deal with them — that interests me. Still, you need to give the read­er space to breathe when a elec­tro­magen­t­ic pulse knocks out a character’s brain chip — which con­tains their per­son­al­ity, obvi­ously — and they resort to the per­son­al­ity of the bio­lo­gic­al brain, essen­tially becom­ing a dif­fer­ent per­son.

Too much philosophy

According to Britta, there are some scenes — includ­ing one where ‘our heroine’ and ‘our vil­lain’ con­duct a con­ver­sa­tion a la Pacino and De Niro in Heat — where the char­ac­ters appear to dis­cuss philo­sophy for no reas­on at all. In these places, I’ve prob­ably not made the motiv­a­tions of the char­ac­ters clear. Looking back on a scene, one can get away with a lot of expos­i­tion expressed as dia­logue provid­ing that the stakes are high enough — and thus the con­flict is peaked — for the char­ac­ters. Each has to be des­per­ate for inform­a­tion, like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in Harris’s nov­els. When that doesn’t work, you get the feel­ing that the writer is show­ing off.

Too many characters

We have one prin­ciple char­ac­ter — a female English con artist called Jem — and six minors: Saskia, mys­ter­i­ous woman; Karel, a police officer; Hrafn, an air­crash invest­ig­at­or; Danny, the broth­er of Jem; Kirby, stran­ded time-trav­el­ler. I’m not 100% sure what Britta meant by ‘too many’. This is likely to be a prob­lem with focus; when she was got inter­ested in one char­ac­ter, focus changed to anoth­er. A sep­ar­ate issue con­cerns the num­ber of char­ac­ters the story can ‘hold’. I think it can hold these sev­en because I’ve read books that have more char­ac­ters who are per­fectly mem­or­able (Stephen King’s The Stand had shed­loads; as did Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying). The test of wheth­er a char­ac­ter is import­ant to the story is simple: If you remove the char­ac­ter, does the story fall apart? This is some­what sim­il­ar to the test of the import­ance of a chunk of prose in the book: if you delete it and story no longer works, the chunk is prob­ably deserves to stay.

Wilfully oblique presentation

This, per­haps, is the most ser­i­ous cri­ti­cism because it is some­thing I may not be in a pos­i­tion to change without writ­ing a book with a dif­fer­ent iden­tity. One of my favour­ite authors, Hemmingway, often (per­haps always) sub­trac­ted the obvi­ous from his work. As a res­ult, there was often an ‘ele­phant in the room’ that pressed his char­ac­ters’ beha­viour into inter­est­ing shapes. As a writer, I think this forces a great­er engage­ment between the read­er and the text, and I use this pos­i­tion con­sist­ently in my short fic­tion. I’ve also developed the habit of squeez­ing my story to its abso­lute tight­est form. One scene may not make any sense until the read­er has worked the sig­ni­fic­ant change between this one and the last, and then under­stand­ing will dawn.

What are the implic­a­tions of this? First, the read­er has to work harder. I’m not say­ing that read­ers who don’t ‘get it’ aren’t work­ing hard enough. These days, books are read on the train, or with kids scream­ing in one ear, or in a doctor’s wait­ing room. The read­er has to want to put the effort in because they’re some­how beguiled — that’s what a storyteller should do. But I’m aware that this is not the most user-friendly mode in which to present a piece of fic­tion. It is, I think, a bet­ter product, but it is rari­fied and more demand­ing than Dan Brown or Joseph Kanon. Of course, demand is ant­ag­on­ist­ic to sheer enter­tain­ment, and a piece of (pub­lish­able) fic­tion should first and fore­most be a piece of enter­tain­ment. The trick is to enter­tain with dif­fer­ent things: ideas, prose style, hubris, fear.

The short ver­sion is this: I’m not the same per­son I was when I wrote Déjà Vu. I don’t read the same books. I get more sat­is­fac­tion from more demand­ing works these days (not Ulysses-cal­ibre stuff, but David Mitchell, Cormac McCarthy, and oth­ers who bend the form a little). It’s entirely pos­sible that I’m drift­ing from the Dan Brown type of thrill­er to the John le Carré type. I want a little Neuromancer or Ghost in the Shell com­plex­ity; one may not under­stand every turn of the story on first read­ing, but there should be a sense that con­fu­sion or the not-quite-explained is part of the read­ing exper­i­ence.

Anyway, I think the solu­tion to this prob­lem is to tie up the story with an art­ful scene or two that explains what happened with regards the pre­vi­ous 115,000 words. So, I think I must steer Flashback through the straits of cliche, with, on one side, the Scylla of Scooby-Doo’s Velma explain­ing how the care­taker did it, and, on the oth­er, the Charybdis of the obscure final epis­ode of Twin Peaks.

Oh, Britta said it’s ‘beau­ti­fully writ­ten’ and ‘grip­ping’, but I’ve ignored that.

Laughter. Fade to cred­its.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

8 thoughts on “The Writing Life Cont’d: The Sccoby Doo Imperative”

  1. How like a writer to ignore the pos­it­ive com­ments. I would think that beau­ti­fully writ­ten is good. Gripping is good. Gripping is very good.

  2. Of course, in a Barthesian sense, you can write the author out of the equa­tion, and a book becomes a col­lab­or­a­tion between the read­er and what he’s read before.

    So there.

  3. Thanks for your com­ment, Roger. Meh 🙂 Gripping is OK. This prob­ably just reflects the pace, which is pretty tight. There’s always some­thing new around the corner. I’ll see what my second read­er thinks…

  4. I’ve heard a lot of read­ers say that they HATE it when an author is very obvi­ously ‘explain­ing’ everything to them. It comes across as pat­ron­ising. One com­ment I got for a short story was that the read­er liked the fact “I assumed he could keep up.”

    In the same way, my col­league and I were dis­cuss­ing the west wing. What with the alco­hol murdered brain cells and the unfa­mil­i­ar American polit­ic­al sys­tem, we agreed that we prob­ably only ‘got’ about 70% of it. But we wouldn’t want it any sim­pler.

    I think the things you leave out are just as com­pel­ling as the bits you leave in.

    So please don’t have a Velma-esque explan­a­tion of who­dun­nit. I think you’d be sur­prised how many read­ers wouldn’t need or want one.

  5. Thanks for your com­ment, Roland. At present, this is only an idea I’m rolling around; I’ve just passed the manu­script to two good friends and I’ll hold fire to see what they think. If I were to have a Velma-esque sec­tion at the end, I’d try to make it as integ­ral as pos­sible. Or I might just remain will­fully obscure!

  6. Too many char­ac­ters could mean that too many were intro­duced all at once (i.e., you put them all in the first chapter).

  7. Thanks for your com­ment, Linda. They’re intro­duced over the course of the first chapters; the first two chapters, for example, have only the two prin­cip­al char­ac­ters. I’m cur­rently wait­ing on feed­back from two oth­er read­ers, so I’ll see what they think.

    Many thanks,

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