Writing that is intended for anyone other than the author is a strange phenomenon. It assumes that fanciful notions in the brain can be adequately expressed in text and absorbed by others, and that others will for some reason be interested in these fanciful notions. That in itself is really weird if you think about it, but it gets weirder. Will you offend? Do you want to? Do you care if you do?
I subscribe to various blogs, newsletters and magazines that deal with writing and I’m also a member of the London Writers Society. Over the years I have observed the ‘writing for your audience’ debate carry on in various forms with a smug sense of removed comfort. I do not write for my audience, I write for myself. If what I write happens to find an audience, bonus for me. If not, aw shucks.
I still think this is largely the truth for me, at least when it comes to fiction. I never start a project thinking about the potential audience, but as I near the completion of my manuscript and prepare to hand it over to my beta readers, I have started to think more about this audience question.
The truth is that this manuscript has never had an audience. For four years, I have been the sole member of the crowd, cheering, booing, clapping and writing scathing reviews alternatively. A long time ago, my critique group saw a few chapters and I think my mom read the first two chapters in their first draft, that’s all. I’m excited for it to have an audience of five people, thrilled, actually, and also nervous.
Part of the work I’m doing before I start sending it to agents and publishers is to read books that are similar to mine, books in the same genre, with the same sort of notions behind them. I’ve been at that very consciously for the last year and a half or so and it’s inspiring, encouraging and a little scary. What were those authors thinking when they wrote their books? What audience were they writing for, or did they care? I’ve really started thinking about this as I’ve edited my ending. No one likes a book to have a crappy ending, on the other hand, I personally don’t like endings that are so neat and tidy they’re ludicrous. This is when I started thinking about the people who will read my book, that vague, odd concept of an audience. How would they want the book to end, what would satisfy them?
I pretty quickly shoved the idea out of my mind, to me it seems like a slippery slope. If I’m writing to satisfy others, vague, non-existent others, I might add, then doesn’t that detract from the whole point of writing in the first place, which is taking weird notions out of my mind and putting them into text so that others can check them out? If I tailor things for these ill-defined people, I seem to be missing a crucial element of what makes writing good in the first place, the intimacy of it. Reading someone else’s honest, passionate words is about as close as you can get to knowing that persons thoughts.
No doubt I will encounter this audience question more and more as my manuscript makes its way to more and more people. All I want to ask other authors now is, who were you writing for? Seems like a very good question that doesn’t have a very satisfying answer.
I have always tried to like poetry. Since I enjoy the company of words so much, it makes sense that I would like poetry too, but I don’t. I never hated poetry exactly, I just never ‘got’ it, no matter how hard I tried. No matter what poem I read, I just couldn’t make that elusive connection with it that I can make with fiction, that sweet beautiful zone where the words flow effortlessly through your eyes and into your brain, taking you away to another world, filling your mind with a different reality. My shallow, narrative brain just read through the words, trying to understand what they were getting at, trying to see the story, the scene, the emotion and just saw the words. I read poems, nodded at them and put them aside. That has pretty much been my relationship with poetry – smile, and nod.
Turns out, I was doing it wrong.
I have always wanted to read The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This is a classic I have been gunning to get through for a very long time. I finally went for it, bought that book and dove right in. Now as you may or may not know, The Divine Comedy is really a bloody long poem. Still, I pride myself on stubborn resourcefulness, so I did a little research to get my bearings and then jumped right in, and failed miserably. I did not put The Divine Comedy aside with a smile and nod, I put it aside with a huh? Abject and total failure.
I was complaining about this sometime last year and someone who is a lot smarter than me informed me that poems are often at their best when read aloud and since I was having trouble getting a handle on the material, that might be something for me to try. I’m sure I have mentioned before that I live in some kind of weird bubble where I can’t access known facts, and this was one that had been kept from me, kept from as in never heard of before. Poems should be read aloud? What’s the difference, are you some kind of weird nut? How could reading it out loud, or listening to it read out loud, make that big of a difference?
I am almost done The Divine Comedy, Paradiso – Canto XI to be exact. I am not going to say it was easy or that I understood it all flawlessly, but I got the gist and it has been an amazing read, out loud. Here is an elegant warning from Paradiso – Canto II
O Ye, who in some pretty little boat,
Eager to listen, have been following
Behind my ship, that singing sails along,
Turn back to look again upon your shores;
Do not put out to sea, lest peradventure,
In losing me, you might yourselves be lost.
This revelation has even inspired me to revisit poems I failed to get in university. This is from The Pride by John Newlove.
But what image, bewildered
son of all men
under the hot sun,
do you worship,
do you hope to have
from these tales,
a half-understood massiveness, mirage,
in men’s minds – what
is your purpose;
with what force
will you proceed
along a line
neither straight nor short,
you cannot know
or result foretell,
whose meaning is still obscured as the incidents
occur and accumulate?
And this short, yet poignant selection from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
I obviously have a long way to go exploring poetry, but if none of these selections move you even a little bit, I humbly suggest reading them out loud, or better yet, get somebody to read them to you. Turns out, poetry makes a lot more sense that way.
In March, it will be two years since I started editing my manuscript, two bloody years of my life that seems both very long and not long at all in the scheme of things. I finally reached the second last chapter, the illustrious chapter 41 a few weeks ago. As with every other chapter during this rewrite, I had a clean paper copy of the chapter, a chapter summary listing the chapter’s pertinent information and a brief summary of its contents and then a stack of notes pertaining to the chapter.
Chapter 41 has the most notes. Let me count them.
Thirty-three, there are thirty-three pieces of paper covered in my scribble to help guide me through this chapter.
For every other chapter I started by reading the hard copy and marking the crap out of it with things I wanted to change. Then I went through my notes quickly to see what meshed. Happily, much of the time the changes I felt I wanted to make were in line with the changes I originally thought the chapter needed, that made life a little bit easier.
I make the changes I made on the paper copy first. That can take an hour or a few weeks depending on the nature of said changes. Once I’m done that, I go through the notes again, one by one, putting the notes I’ve dealt with into a pile, and contemplating the rest and making more changes if I feel they are warranted. If I don’t make the suggested change, I write that I didn’t make that change and why I didn’t on the paper and put it in the dealt with pile. This is how I’ve been going along.
For some reason when I originally wrote chapter 41, I did a crappy job. Chapter 41 is the climax and even during my first draft I suspected that whatever happened within its borders would probably change at least somewhat as the book grew and changed. I suppose that’s why I just sketched it out and did a crappy job. It was weird though, in a manuscript that had needed work, but was at least complete, this odd, sore thumb chapter, so poorly written, a shoddy skeleton missing essential bones and flesh and everything else. I was disappointed. This is the climax, after all, this is it, what four years of work has been building too, what all of these words have been leading toward, and then…nothing, just an um, yep and then some stuff happens, next! I don’t know why I do these things to myself.
Thankfully, I have thirty-three pages of notes to help me out.
I went through my usual chapter rewriting routine. By this point, the climax is pretty secure in my brain, if not on paper, so I wasn’t too worried. Maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t originally write some long, drawn out affair that I would now just have to trash as my story has developed, maybe I am an awesome ninja that actually subconsciously suspected that all along, I don’t know. Things went a long all right, but then I got stuck for a while, stuck on the sequence of events.
I knew everything I wanted to happen in the chapter, that had been slowing solidifying itself as I worked on the rest of the book. When I got there though, chapter 41, and went to rewrite it, I wasn’t sure what order I wanted things to happen in. I got stuck on this for a few days.
I’m not sure how I figured it out, I really don’t know how my writing brain works. I took a lot of hot showers, stared blankly out a lot of windows, walked my dogs aimlessly around the neighbourhood, but eventually I just realized what the order was. I played the scenario out in my brain over and over again with differing orders of events and just stumbled idiotically on the one that was right. Sometimes I wonder how much I have to do with this process at all.
Through a fluke at work I ended up having almost a week off right as I came to chapter 41, sometimes the writing gods are kind. That got me through the bulk of it. I wrote it out, rewrote it, rewrote it a few more times, tweaked it, spend two days reading the entire book all the way through to make sure that when you hit chapter 41, that sucker delivers. I only have six pages of notes left dealing with this chapter. I hope to finish it by the end of next week. Chapter 41 is the climax and should in many ways be the best chapter in the book. Maybe after all of this it will be, but then again, maybe not. Sometimes the writing gods are cruel.