Monday, April 25, 2011

On Writing, Part IV — Creating Reality. Whose Reality Is It? And Can you Sustain It?

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the fourth in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

Are you God or a mere mortal?

Other than the cover, which you likely had little to do with, the narrative point of view is the first connection you make with the reader. It is also the first thing you choose when you start to write, whether you do so consciously or not. Who is telling the story? At its most fundamental level, there are only two choices.

One is the story told through a single character, many times the main character, either actively or implied. It is his or her voice alone. This can be a powerful way to tell the story. The character is talking directly to the reader. It is intimate. The reader is seeing, feeling, smelling the world through that character. Quite often the reader becomes that character. The downside — and it’s a steep one — is that unless your narrating character is God, him, or herself — anything that happens outside the character’s natural purview cannot logically be told. Switching back and forth can be dodgy for everyone.

The second is the omniscient narrator. This approach provides optimum freedom for the writer, but (and I ask this seriously) how much freedom is too much freedom? How many minds do you feel comfortable wandering around in? When do you, as the writer, know what someone is thinking or doing and when not? What you might lose taking this option is the sense of a personal relationship with the reader. You might also lose the benefit of a single, simple thrust of plot that comes when one human being tells the reader what happened from his or her perspective. However, a complicated story may require greater room to innovate.

There are all sorts of variations on the theme of narration. Some can get pretty tricky. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. My guess is that most beginning writers intuitively know what works best for them. The important thing here is consistency, not just throughout the book, but also throughout the series.

As I mentioned earlier, series readers have a completely different sense of expectation. The reason why they are reading the third book featuring incisive Detective Smith or the bumbling P.I Jones is the comfort they take in the familiar. Just as that includes time and place, it also includes who tells the story and the people who live in that story. This is part of the writer’s construct of a reality that readers choose to revisit.

I have to warn you. This is a half-baked theory; but it is my theory and I’m sticking to it. If a writer sells a million books it is because he or she creates a reality that a lot of people enjoy being in. It may not be a pretty reality or a comforting one and by various standards, it may not even be a well-written reality. Perhaps the literary quality of the writing doesn’t matter if the reader wants to spend time there.

This construct of reality includes all of the characters, especially those who reappear. Maybe the characters are people readers would want to know, personally. They become friends. And the reader enjoys visiting them from time to time. Maybe the readers wouldn’t want your characters in their day-to-day lives, but they are curious about them and, reader-voyeurs, enjoy watching them, the humble or the heroic, vicariously. In any event, characters, their habits and personalities and their voices, must be sustained. And just as you must be careful when killing dogs and children, heaven help you if you kill the wrong recurring character.

Next question on the reality train: In what world does the story take place? Is it a gritty drama on the mean streets of a tough city? Or is it in a polite and quaint village that some ghastly event occurs? In a series, I suspect, readers come to expect a familiar environment. Some readers prefer their murders happen in dark, cold and lonely, places, done in with an axe, others in the parlor, smited by an unexpectedly potent cup of tea.

Many series writers eventually feel trapped by all these expectations, these limitations. And we can get particularly excited when our publisher allows us to do what is currently being called a “one-off,” with a clean sheet of paper. Other writers will do more than one series, often just to have a little more freedom. Unfortunately, another set of characters will upset those readers who have come to know and love the first set. The loyal reader might feel as if the author has betrayed them. And reviewers, too, may have trouble understanding that the writer is going for something different in tone, and yes, “reality.”

But I digress. More About Your Chosen Reality

Riding the buses and trolleys in San Francisco, at my age and combined with my Midwestern upbringing sets me up for the constant shock of seeing and hearing students, many of them in school uniforms talking about sex openly, out loud, in ways I might not have even understood when I was that young. But this is the reality. If I should choose to write a contemporary, young adult mystery, I’d better have a better understanding of that world than I do now.

In that spirit, if you are writing about what goes on in neighborhoods you dare not walk after dark, do you know anything about the people who inhabit those streets? Do you have a sense of how they talk? The same goes for all those who populate your books. Ex-cons, society matrons, soccer moms, the Wal-Mart clerk, Vietnamese immigrants. There might be times when I make smart-ass remarks about people who write about cats solving murders. Objectively, I am wrong to be critical. The point is to write what is real for your characters in the reality you set forth and, I hope, from the world you know. If cats are your world, write about them. It is better to have that smart Siamese discover critical evidence than to embark upon a story about gang-banger killings when you stay locked in your flat, tossing a cloth mouse across the room.

No comments: