I’ve been working on the copy-edited manuscript for Shattered Pillars, the sequel to Range of Ghosts. This is my last opportunity to make substantive edits to the novel, and so I’ve been picking over it with a fine-toothed comb for continuity, characterization, language, and where the emotional beats fall. I keep finding myself adding and removing bits of exposition and clarification and character internalizations–tiny things, but they can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the book.
There’s this tremendous tension for me as a writer between making things too easy and making them too hard. Or not even hard, because that implies some intent to confound–but rather it seems as if the entire course of my self-training has been a see-saw back and forth between obscurity and hand-holding.
The problem, of course, is that readers are all different. People are all different, although this little fact does not jibe with the modern view of us all as consumers, interchangeable widgets with standardized desires. The fact of the matter is that I can write a scene which one reader will find tiresomely blatant and on-the-nose, another will find shallow and themeless, a third will be utterly confused by, and which will make the fourth one cry with its pathos and cleverness. And moreover, I can write a scene that one reader will, over the course of a lifetime and four rereads, have all four of those reactions to.
And not just can–but in fact, cannot avoid doing this… because on some level, this will be the reaction to every scene, given enough readers.
This is, I believe, the thing that Kurt Vonnegut was talking about when he famously said that you must write to one person. “If you open the window and make love to the world, so to speak, you’ll catch cold.”
You’ll denature your passion. You’ll denature your voice. In trying to be all things to everyone, you will succeed in being nothing except a homogenized lump of consumer goods.
I firmly believe that accessibility is a literary value. I have very little use for obscurity for its own sake–but of course, too much hand-holding will frustrate readers as much as too little. Does this writer think I’m an idiot? Also, add in the fact that accessibility is in tension with complexity–and complexity is also a literary value.
And then there’s the issue of emotional impact. Stories mean something to the reader in direct proportion to how much she invests in them, and she invests in them in direct proportion to how much she figures out–or feels like she has figured out–on her own. This is the deep root behind show, don’t tell, which might as easily be phrased demonstrate, don’t narrate.
Of course sometimes we narrate. If we showed everything, we’d be writing very long books in which not a lot happened. Sometimes, you need to get the characters from point A to point B, and nothing interesting happens in the middle. It’s okay to say, “The drove to the funeral in silence.” What’s not okay, however, is to say, “At the funeral, Eunice felt sad,” and leave it at that. First of all, it’s in no way unexpected or revelatory. Second, it’s just telling. It doesn’t encourage the reader to feel what the character feels. And it doesn’t encourage the reader to figure stuff out.
We get a little endorphin cookie when we get the right answer to something. It’s our brain’s way of rewarding us for coming up with a solution that, under other circumstances, might lead to us surviving another day. Congratulations, that plant is wild carrot and not hemlock! Congratulations, you correctly identified the bear before it noticed you! Congratulations, you figured out the character motivation of somebody who might be a mate, or an enemy, or a leader.
As readers, we want to receive those cookies. As writers, we want to provide them.
But because every reader approaches the text with slightly different protocols and interests and skills and intellectual capacities, what’s just perfect for one–(cookie cookie cookie)–makes another irritated because she feels the author is condescending to her, and leaves a third hopelessly confused.
And I guess the answer is really to write the story I want to read, but try to make it as open as I can while still meeting my own needs as a reader. To embrace my own quirks and transmit them honestly, because anything else results in self-homogenization, and since my readers aren’t widgets, it doesn’t help me any to try to be a widget myself.