A few years ago I was talking to a friend and a light bulb landed in my lap. Not a real one – that would have been weird – but an idea I couldn’t ignore. It was a premise for the book I’m writing, whole as a nut.
The idea didn’t magically appear. It came after years of unearthing what on the surface seemed to be nothing at all. Until one day I understood a situation I couldn’t ignore, asking to be written.
Here’s a thing: Sitting with an idea is beautiful; crafting it into a tale is something else.
At the time, I was passionate for people to know what I thought about my subject. So much so that having laboured for months on the first draft, I realised my book – all 60,000 words of it – was in fact a lecture.
It got me thinking: Was I writing a novel or a manifesto? How could I give the reader space to think for themselves?
I didn’t have an answer.
But as I worked on draft three, some principles became apparent. So I’ve put together my notes on toning down message and amping up story. In case you’re going through similar (or curious!) here they are:
- The reader is everything. When crafting a story, being like a courteous date and keeping their experience in mind shifts the focus to their journey (instead of the writer’s opinion).
- When I wrote a manifesto for my beliefs (rather than a properly constructed story), feeding characters lofty speeches, I knew deep down that the part of my reader who was fired up to go on a journey would likely drift off…
Instead, I considered:
- Asking questions. What if ones preferably. I just read a wonderful book (reviewed here) where the writer never answered her central question: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even? She generously left it up to the reader and her idea has remained with me ever since.
- Investing in a brilliant book on plot (like the one in this post – here). Most writers need a map of some sort, to know where we’re leading you. Whatever your system, constructing a story which works will serve as a vehicle for your idea (and then you won’t have to lecture anyone!)
- Your characters, after a while, may stop sitting on the page and instead fill your thoughts at the most inopportune moments. Let them. The more real they are, the more they will carry the story’s weight. There is an advantage in writing multiple drafts. You’ll really get to know the people in your story and they’ll start to work harder for you.
- Research as much as you can. For me this involved travelling back to Madrid twice (here), note-taking verbally with a mobile phone at every location (feeling like Kermit the Frog in his reporting moments).
- Readers like to travel without getting on a plane – if you can get them so immersed with the sights, sounds and smells of the story that they don’t notice your message until after they’ve put the book down, you’ve done it!
Storytelling – they say – is crucial to human survival. The strange thing that happened to me, might trouble you too. Or maybe you’re looking for a window into something you’ve never thought about before. Stories remind us who we are and were and want to be. They contain the type of glue that can stick whole lives back together.
So what are you waiting for? The manifesto in your mind, that premise you’re longing to explore, make a start. You never know whose life you might touch with your art.
I’d love to read your tips – writers – on how – if you’ve got a premise or a point to make – not to lecture your reader in a novel!
Thank you to Quinn Dombrowski for the image, ‘Pontificating’ at the top of this post via creativecommons.org
16 thoughts on “Crafting a light bulb: Are you writing a novel or a manifesto?”
Great post. Thanks for sharing.
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Great, and thought-provoking, post. As a reader, I hate it when I feel that a writer is trying to lecture me. Writers have their opinions, just like anyone, and those opinions might well inform a story, but I prefer it when that influence is subtle and understated. Using a work of fiction as a thinly-veiled manifesto seems to me, apart from anything, dishonest, and disrespectful to the reader.
As a writer, however, I have to admit that I’ve occasionally found myself falling into this trap! I try to avoid it by toning down the statements and, as you suggest, turning them into questions. Maybe I can get a reader to think about something, which has the advantage of turning the piece of writing into a two-way process, a conversation of sorts. Also, I try to let character and story lead the way; in fact, I quite like my characters to have their own opinions, whether or not they correspond to mine.
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Reblogged this on and commented:
A very thought-provoking post from J. Rose about the dangers of lecturing your readers.
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I love your comment. I never really thought about how it feels to be lectured as a reader – I think I choose books which aren’t very ‘issue-based’. But I know when I’m writing a story and keen to share a point of view, that’s my cue to dial it back!
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I’m glad you reblogged this instructive post, Mari. I try and avoid baldly stating my message, but the temptation is there, and now I am doing the background reading for a novella on the Peterloo Massacre…Well, I’m just going to have ot be careful, that’s all.
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Great post! I’m sharing on twitter. I’m sure an element of this crept into my novel. I aware, but it was so linked to my character’s feelings and opinions, that I decided to let myself off the hook. I won’t be doing it again, however! Thanking you for the follow and I’m more than happy to reciprocate 🙂
Thank you very much!
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Much to ponder in today’s re-blog 🙂
Thank you for this post, Josephine . I think it has been a long, long time since in fiction I gave into the–misguided–need to lecture the reader. in any way. I am devoted modernist “no lectures, no messages, no didactic bones to pick” writer.. At times, such as in a piece I’m finishing now, I’ve had to explain something technical. The explanations of that kind of stuff must be very brief, and because of their brevity must be laid on lightly and written with deft skill. They should be written generally in the tone of an informed friend telling you, and not an “expert.” unless the tone of “expert” will help your more. (Well, a writer should always in the text maintain the tone of a dispassionate, but caring friend, shouldn’t she?)
Josephine, I was just listening to a song titled “Josephine” and thought of you, friend. How are you?