June 16th, 2006

A Pocket Full of Murder

I'm not the writer I thought I was, apparently

It's funny how skewed self-perception can be. Yeah, yeah, I know that's ridiculously obvious, but I'm talking specifically about authorial self-perception. Over the last few weeks I've been trying to come to terms with the realization that nearly everything I've believed about my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer is wrong, and what that means to the revision process.

I used to think I wasn't very good with plot -- surely I couldn't be. Good plot writers work from detailed outlines, they make charts and whatnot. They don't just sit down and start writing with little or no idea of what happens next. So I always thought I had to be extra conscientious about my plotting. But enough people have assured me that my plots are perfectly fine (indeed, poor longsuffering lizbee says she's been telling me this for years, but I never seemed to be listening) that I've had to revise my thinking on that score.

On the other hand, I always believed that I was pretty decent with character, because certainly I enjoy writing that kind of thing a lot more than I enjoy writing action or exposition. Indeed, thought I, if I weren't careful on this point, my characters would just sit around endlessly conversing and revealing more aspects of their personalities to each other, and nothing would ever happen. However, faced with a manuscript which appears to suffer from a deficiency in that very area -- oh, the characters are there, but there's a lack of emotional resonance -- I'm starting to think I need to stop trying to exercise quite so much self-restraint in that regard.

I also believed that I had to be very vigilant against any kind of preachiness or didacticism creeping into my writing. After all, having been exposed to a lot of awful religious fiction, in which a host of cardboard characters plod through the narrative on their way to the inevitable trite and heavy-handed conversion scenario, I feared that I might go and do likewise if I weren't exceedingly careful. I reminded myself often of C.S. Lewis's dictum about not writing for the didactic purpose but rather allowing the story to take shape from the whole cast of the author's mind. But when I got my first set of comments from the editor about Knife, one of the questions she felt the book had left unanswered was, "What is this book trying to say about what makes life worth living?" And even after the most recent redraft, that question still apparently remains. So evidently in my anxiety to be subtle, I managed to write a book practically devoid of spiritual emphasis. Is there some kind of award for that?

The upshot of all this is that with the latest draft of Knife I'm going to have to work at all the things I'd been taking for granted I didn't need to worry about, and stop worrying about all the things I'd been working hardest on. And the more I think about it, the more muddled and uncertain of myself I become, until I wonder if this book will ever amount to anything worthwhile at all.

Sigh. I know that writing is a learning process. I just hope that the learning curve on subsequent novels, if there are any, is a lot shorter than it has been with this one.