So this week my goal is to make good progress into Chapter Five, instead.
Anyway, I said yesterday that I was going to talk about my attitude to writing, which I described as "literary busker". As you'll know if you followed the link from last night's post, I see myself as standing on an imaginary street corner, strumming (or in this case, typing) away in the hope that somebody, somewhere, will like what I'm doing and toss me a few coins of feedback.
Of course, now that I'm working on original fiction, I naturally look forward to receiving a few coins of the literal sort as well. But I didn't get into writing for the money (nobody in their right mind does), and dreaming about advances and royalties isn't what motivates me to keep writing, either.
No, it's all about the readership -- which is what has led me to the realization of what I'm finding most difficult about profic after several years of fandom. It's not the challenge of creating my own worlds and characters, because I'd already written two original novels before I got seriously involved with fanfic.
It's the lack of an immediate audience.
Let me explain what I mean by this. My first book was written without any audience except myself, and it showed. I was telling myself the story chapter by chapter, with little or no thought given to anyone else, and the result was a terrible novel. Still, I figured that the problem was the concept, or the characters, or the fact that I was a mere nineteen when I wrote it -- all of which were undoubtedly factors in the equation, but not the whole story.
When I started writing Knife, however, I was sharing a house (and a computer) with several other students. They were curious about what I was working on night after night, and when I explained that I was writing a fantasy novel one of them asked if he could see what I'd written so far. I was flattered by his interest (yeah, okay, he was cute), so I let him read the first couple of chapters -- and soon he was back with a friend in tow, wanting to know what happened next. Then one of my female housemates said she'd like to read it too -- so I ended up with an audience of three, all reading my chapters as fast as I could write them and demanding more.
Not only was this a great encouragement to me to keep working on Knife even when I felt tempted to slack off, it provided me with ongoing assurance that I was telling a story other people wanted to read. It forced me to think not only of how to tell the story to myself, but how best to communicate it to people with different interests and personalities. I had to keep asking myself whether what I was writing would make sense to my fellow students, and whether it would hold their attention. And they were quick to let me know when it didn't; at least once I discovered that a particular scene or chapter wasn't working for them, which me to go back and rework that section before moving on to the next.
In short, I did what many knowledgeable and experienced authors say not to do (and not without reason, either) -- I let a bunch of amateurs loose on the first draft of my book as it was being written. If I'd been of a different creative mindset, or had less encouraging critiquers, this could have been a disaster. But in my case it not only led to me completing the novel (including revisions) in six months, but I had great fun doing it. I was excited and curious about the feedback I would get on what I'd just written, and that kept me working at a steady pace. It even helped to counterbalance my sometimes-crippling perfectionism -- I couldn't spend day after day fiddling with the same bit of prose, because my readers would want to know why I hadn't finished the chapter. And their reactions reminded me that in the end, the story and the characters mattered more than any number of painstakingly constructed and polished sentences.
My experience in fandom -- where I went through a similar process of writing a chapter every week or so, sending it to my beta-readers for comment, and making revisions accordingly before starting on the next chapter -- served to cement my feelings about the value of feedback to my personal creative process. I am a storyteller, and a storyteller needs an audience. I want to know that someone is listening to the tale I want to tell, and that they're interested in hearing more about that world and those characters even if the story isn't perfect. I want to see their reactions, good and bad and indifferent, so I have an idea whether the direction I'm going is a good one or whether I should stop and retrace my steps. Of course, I know that the story is ultimately mine and not theirs, and that not all of my readers are going to like everything I write. But if there seems to be widespread agreement that a certain element or character either works or doesn't -- yes, that is going to affect me, and it should.
I am not recommending this approach generally, mind, because it only works if you are, like me, an inveterate polish-as-you-go writer. I'm not embarrassed to show my first drafts to people because by the time I'm finished a chapter it's as good as I know how to make that part of the story at that particular time -- plot, prose, characterization, everything. (Of course it can and will be improved by further revision, but my point is that it isn't messy or incoherent or missing large chunks of information, as typical first drafts tend to be.)
Also, this method depends on regular communication with people whose literary judgment you respect, who not only like your writing in general but are interested in the particular story and characters you want them to critique. If you try to hang on to an otherwise good critiquer who just doesn't happen to like this particular project, nothing good can come of it. It's very hard for someone in that position to know the difference between "this is a seriously flawed book which needs major changes to be readable" and "this is just not the type of book I enjoy," and so their criticisms are unlikely to do anything but frustrate everyone involved. (C.S. Lewis refused to critique mystery novels, even those written by his dear friend Dorothy L. Sayers, for this very reason.)
In my case, however, I write coherent first drafts, and I also know a fair number of insightful folk whom I can trust to tell me if a story is really working, or not working, or just Not Their Kind of Thing. So I'm thinking that perhaps I should put out an APB and see if I can enlist a small but dedicated audience (say, three to five people) who would be interested in reading Touching Indigo chapter by chapter as it's written, and letting me know what they think.
This wouldn't have to be a major commitment, either. All it would take is being willing to read the chapter more or less promptly when it arrives, and say something about it afterward. The response could be anything from an in-depth critique with suggestions for improvement to a simple "I'm hooked! Write more!", depending on the reader's inclinations and ability, but I would like to know that when I send out a chapter I can count on some kind of answer within the next few days, and that the people reading it are genuinely interested in the story and not disappointed that I'm not writing something completely different.