I have to mention my other title choice for this piece: Action and the Tick
Notice: this is a piece about writing. Specifically, my writing. Ergo, the need to have a disclaimer, right here, ahead of the piece. The disclaimer is:
I’m not complaining.
I’m not despondent or depressed.
My life is pretty good, and Writing is only a small part of it.
Most of all, I’m not asking for sympathy, encouragement, or advice.
I sound out some things; no more, no less.
Finally, did I mention it’s about writing? There are no photos and it’s just me rambling on about stuff. Boring stuff; 2,713 words worth of boring stuff.
I’ve oft stated I write for myself. That’s true, but there’s an implied larger truth, a motive beyond entertaining myself when I share my writing. It’s the assumption that I’m not so unique as to have singular tastes; it assumes other readers like what I like.
How to define the breadth and scope of what I like? It’s one of them “I’ll know it when I see it things,” but if hard-pressed, I tend toward writing that reflects my understanding of the simple truths of human nature.
Truths. That’s a big word, but I use it in a small and plain way.
Readers should understand a few things about what I’m about to write. I’m not a philosopher, although I follow the discipline. I’m not a sociologist, although I follow the discipline. I’m not a historian, although I read history.
Without a shred of false modesty or excessive airs, I’m just a guy living my life and trying to get to old age and a natural death with as few problems as possible. To that end, I think I’ve figured out a few things about human beings and the lives we live.
I’ve figured out it’s not what people say they will do. It’s not what people say they want to do. It’s not about why people say they want to do something. It’s about what they actually do, and, I don’t care about what they say is the purpose, identity, and/or self-image driving them.
I care about what people do, and that’s what I write about; I write about people’s actions, and I like reading about people’s actions.
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For them who are not in on the nuances of the debate, it can be simplified into a couple of major camps: those who think we have agency and those who think our actions are nothing more than the sum total that has come before and we cannot but do the very next thing in the chain of actions and consequences. (HERE is a wordier summary; one of many that can find).
It’s a difficult debate because we are self-aware and “feel” like we have agency but there is compelling evidence we might not.
Remember when I said I don’t care? While I’m interested in the debate and listen to the various arguments for determinism versus free will, I ultimately don’t care because I live in what I perceive as the real world where my actions and those of others have consequences.
Before branding me as a Consequentialist, understand Consequentialism deals with moral judgments of one’s actions whereas I’m more practical. Morality has little to do with it; actions are something happening, usually something requiring my response or the response of others. Actions produce small and large ripples in our lives and the lives of people we know. Eventually, we die. Some ripples continue for a bit, but eventually, they too die off.
~ ~ ~
I said I care about people’s actions and that’s what I write, but that’s because actions are my preferred path to emotions and emotions are, for me, the payoff for both writing and reading.
Some will argue that emotions are equivalent to purpose; emotions are drivers; emotions are catalysts.
I find it faulty reasoning because there’s a bit of a circular argument going on; almost a chicken and egg conundrum. Emotions certainly are powerful and can drive our actions, but unless responding to an action, there’s seldom any emotion swirling in our consciousness.
For me, emotions are the result of something happening and I write to elicit an emotional response.
While I can — and do — readily use emotions as drivers to initiate the actions of my characters, I don’t dwell into the reasons for those emotions because my primary objective is the emotions at the tail end; emotions resulting from actions and not so much the emotions driving the action.
Mostly, I don’t explain much beyond the face value of emotions.
Wait, that’s not exactly true. I can and do explain more about the emotions of the “good characters” than I do the “bad characters.” That’s because I have more of an understanding of good traits than I do bad traits.
I mean, not to give myself airs, but I know what it’s like being honest. I have no clue of the mindset necessary to cheat or steal. I understand more about honor and personal codes of conduct than I do of greed. I understand more about empathy than I do of hate.
Even then, I might describe someone as honest without explaining “why” they’re honest. I don’t explain the character’s life’s history forming the basis for their honesty. I only have to say they’re honest.
Keep all the above in mind as I get to the main point of all these words . . .
In the last few years, I’ve received very good feedback on some of my writing. In the last two months, I’ve received especially good feedback on my Gin’s War novel. Feedback that has me looking to changing a few things in the book.
I seldom rewrite based on feedback (other than to fix plot problems) because while I listen to the feedback to pinpoint potential problems, I ignore things that would — in my opinion — substantially change the intent of the book.
What do I “intend” when I write something? To elicit an emotional reaction from the reader, and remember that the primary reader is me. Me — the writer — knows exactly what me — the reader — wants out of the book.
I may not be able to explain it, but I certainly know — as I’m writing — what I want to feel when I later read my novels. I want to feel certain emotions as a result of the character’s actions. Those emotions are the payoff for reading what the character does.
Based on the feedback, I have two action items for the novel:
- Simplify the plot — both readers mentioned difficulty with following the plot. This is difficult for an author to see because the author knows the book backward and forward, so I trust that feedback. One of the ways I could remedy that shortcoming is to add periodic reminders of what’s happening and why. Seeing as Gin is learning things as she goes, she’s constantly putting pieces together so this should be doable. Additionally, the initial plot was to have the eight on the run for noble reasons (revealing nefarious practices, Snowden-like) but that didn’t ring true. What rang true was greed. I could simplify the plot by removing the initial misdirection and go with greed right off from the get-go.
Caveat: that removes some of the discovery and key points in the story. I don’t know what I will replace them with, but I’ll figure something out.
- Better differentiation of the characters, especially the bad guys. This might involve Gin getting information earlier than she does. Not sure how to go about it because Gin has limited resources (hence why the initial interaction with the Geriatric Spies which, by the way, is different in the current manuscript than the version on the blog). I could make the story more personal by introducing additional history between Gin and the good guys and Gin and the bad guys.
Caveat: that changes the dynamics of the story a bit. Not a lot, but my preferred approach to protagonists is that of loners. People who may help others but are reluctant to ask for help, accepting it begrudgingly and only as a last resort. By introducing additional personal motives, I also change Gin’s motivation. Simplifying the plot may complicate the characters.
That’s all fine and good, and I can see how I might be able to work all that into the novel.
I don’t know if I’ll like the re-write more or less than the current version, but that’s not the concern right now, and it won’t be until I write the new material.
HOWEVER . . . The rest of the feedback is where I run into problems because addressing other issues raised by the reviewers means a substantial change to what I like about the characters and what they do.
Specifically, both reviewers addressed questions relating to “who” the characters are and “why” they are doing what they do. Both reviewers (although for different reasons) were left unsatisfied with what the character did and — I presume — why.
It’s a complaint I’ve heard before and while it’s all under the same umbrella, the complaint resolves itself into three specific areas: wanting to know more about Gin and why she does what she does (what makes her tick), wanting to know more about the bad guys (what makes them tick), and the fact that the resolution of any conflict is killing the bad guys. In fact, in my writing, the answer to everything often comes down to killing the bad guys and that appears less satisfactory to some than it does me. Me? I get giddy when the bad guys get wiped out.
I get requests for a physical description of the characters, an emotional description of the characters, and looking for ways to resolve things other than shoot first and step over the bodies later.
There are two problems with those parts of the feedback; roughly speaking, the information the reviewers ask for is already in the book, but it’s not explicit. There’s a fair amount of information about Gin in the narrative, but it’s divulged by her decisions and subsequent actions. Perhaps it’s too nuanced or perhaps I recognize it because I wrote it but it’s otherwise obscure to others.
Second, as a reader, I have near-zero interest in any of those things (remember: action and emotions are what hold my interest) and hence why that information is not center stage and slapping the reader in the face.
I even know why I feel like I do . . .
It’s because both when I read and when I write, I’m playing a movie in my head. But, not just a movie; a movie populated with protagonists who are mere placeholders for character traits.
The difference from a regular movie is that — in my head —the protagonists (actors) lack definition and distinguishing details. Perforce, I differentiate genders, but other than that, the protagonists don’t have faces, skin colors, hair color, and so on. Occasionally, I’ll mention eyes and perhaps height, but even then it’s brief and inconsequential.
In my head, what distinguishes the protagonists from each other are their character traits. Well, character traits and their names. The character traits are where I focus and where I want the reader’s focus. As far as physical attributes, readers can imagine whatever they want.
Gin is at least partially of Asian descent, but that’s all they know. But, she could just as well be Caucasian or African-American or Inuit, or whatever one might imagine. Ultimately, I want the reader to identify with the character traits of the protagonist and not the physical person.
That’s what allows me, the reader, to identify with and root for Gin. Start describing her in detail, add a backstory explaining her propensity for deadly violence, define more of her personality and motivation as relating to experiences, and each of those details takes me further away from identifying with her . . . because now I have to broaden my attention beyond what she does. Remember, I only care about what she does. The rest is just stuff people make up to rationalize other stuff.
Most readers want to know more about the background and “understand” the characters; that’s not me.
Take Navy Seals. I can read about what it takes to make the squad and read what they can do. I gain nothing by learning their path to becoming a Seal; it doesn’t help me explain the missions they undertake, the action they see. Basically, I don’t care if they are ultra-patriots fighting for flag and country or if they are psychopaths who love jumping out of helicopters and killing stuff.
Perhaps a better example is of a quarterback and a wide receiver. I can appreciate the skill required to throw a ball and connect with the hands of a person running downfield. I can appreciate the ability to catch the ball while running full blast and trying to avoid 300 pounds of flesh and gear barreling down on you.
I don’t understand why they do it. It may be money, it may be fame, it may be the love of the game, or it may be a combination of all those things. I don’t need to know the motivation; I’m happily admiring the action and voicing approval of the result.
In fact, the more I know about the players, coaches, and owners as people, the more I lose interest in the game. (Side note: I don’t watch any sports because my impression is professional sports are overwhelmingly populated by jerks, crooks, and more often than I ever imagined, criminals.)
The two reviewers — reviewers I trust — suggest changing the intent of the book from eliciting emotions through actions to embellishing those emotions by peeling layers from the characters and showing what’s beneath the visible layer.
I don’t know if I want to do that, let alone if I can. I mean, the reviewers are not asking me to do it, but they’re expressing what they thought the novel lacks relative to novels that sell. They point to the action as insufficient to carry the day.
As I mentioned, they are not the first to say it, and that worries me just a tad.
If that’s what it takes to publish, if that’s what publishers and readers want, I don’t know it’s even worth me trying to publish anything because to succeed I’d have to write something that not only I might not like, but that I might find uninteresting.
I say “might” but I pretty much “know” because I read a lot of books last year and there are none that crossed my path that I would re-read (re-reading is the mark of me liking something).
And yet, there are successful books I like that I think are at least a bit like mine. I read the Dresden Files books, and they are mostly action. Dresden doesn’t grow as a person. He gets more powerful and violent with each book, primarily in response to bigger threats, but that’s not growth. There’s little beyond his motivation besides “doing the right thing”. How do we know it’s the right thing? The end result. We don’t hate what he does.
I read Old Man’s War books, and they are mostly action. Some primary characters you learn almost nothing about, and they’re some of the most favorite characters. Jane Sagan in The Ghost Brigades is as close as one comes to the definition of inscrutable.
Go back to many of the classics, and it’s all action and little angst. Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Pournelle, Saberhagen. Heck, I’d re-read Saberhagen’s Berserker books right now had I not gotten rid of them when we moved two years ago.
Let me repeat the reviews very useful and resulted in actionable items, and in that respect, they were pure gold.
But, the reviews also make me wonder about the state of the current market. And, it makes me wonder about myself and my writing.
Perhaps fiction has “grown up,” and I haven’t. Perhaps, what used to require it be only an escape from reality now demands acknowledging said reality.
The other possibility is that I’m not “there” yet. Maybe I’ve not hit my stride but will eventually come up with a successful formula transcending the need for what I don’t like and buoyed strictly by what I enjoy writing. I better get cracking then, don’t I?
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