If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?


If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

I have at least one friend who has accused me of spoiling mystery novels for him. Every change of point of view, forced plot point, or Deus ex Machina moment kicked him out of the story. It spoiled his enjoyment of the whole book. Will this happen to you?


Unfortunately. At least, when you first start paying attention to your own choice of words and methods. As you perfect your technique, it’s natural to notice when others do it well or poorly.

So you project a future of reading pleasure destroyed just to build up a shaky repertoire of story-telling skills. Hardly seems worth it, does it?

Okay, bad news but the good news is that it is a temporary condition for two reasons: it eventually enhances your enjoyment of reading and there is a way to still enjoy novels short on craft.

Reading augmented

In the by-gone days when you were ‘just’ a reader, there would have been at least some novels of which you said, “I couldn’t get into it” or “It was kind of confusing” or “I didn’t like the main character.”

You put them away unsatisfied. It looked like it would have been a good story. Other books by this author have been. This leaves you with a vaguely uncomfortable feeling. However, since you have a life, you move onto the next novel on your list.

But as a writer, you start to see why the novel didn’t work. There wasn’t enough forward action. All that description slowed down the plot. The biker, the psychologist, and the fashion model all sounded the same (in a mystery novel I actually read).

Won’t make you like the novel any better but it provides you with the satisfaction of solving the puzzle of your reaction.

In fact, a good grasp of writing principles actually heightens your enjoyment of really fine novels. I first realized this when reading No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. Two parts of my brain were operating simultaneously. One part was crying and being completely with the character and the other was admiring. So that’s how he did it.

You can remark on how skillfully the author included scenes where the hero was a fine but troubled fellow so that your heart aches for him when he causes his own downfall. You can see why the marriage of two minor but charming characters is told rather than shown to allow the romance of the main characters to keep center stage by being shown

So in the end, understanding what makes a good story allows you to enjoy good ones more and identify mistakes in others’ writing which you can avoid in your own.

Getting around this problem

But you don’t want to spend the next however many years hating to read while you build up your writing skills.

I have a simple but effective answer. Pick what you like in the particular novel or author and read for that.

Agatha Christie was a great plotter but her character development (aside from caricature) was practically nil. But I go back to her again and again.

Other authors may write a nail-biting cliff-hanger by having his character do a completely unlikely thing. Enjoy the nail biting, ignore the pushed around heroine. The hero flourishes his hat with the plume of feathers in the novel set in the Victorian era. Ignore the historical anachronism and enjoy the romance.

If you focus on what the author does well, you can still enjoy her work even if she might be wanting on other fronts. After all, you’re not perfect either, are you?

Quality Versus Quantity


Quality Versus Quantity

Vey broadly, writers seem to fall into two categories in the initial creative process. Ones who emphasize quality in their first drafts and others quantity. Writers who aim for quality agonize over every word so it is perfect before they can write the next.

But me, I’m a quantity gal. Get a lot down as fast as you can and then fix it up later.

I’d like to discuss both approaches. However, since I am firmly in the quantity camp, you need to take my opinions with a grain of salt when required.

Quality first?

I think of writers who linger over every word to create are often focused on the beauty of the language or the completely apt word or phrase to capture the moment. Plot and even characters might take secondary place.

Not surprisingly, their output can be quite limited. But can work. A great example is Alistair MacLeod who wrote only one novel in his lifetime, No Great Mischief, and a series of very well-regarded long short stories. All of which were highly acclaimed.

I suppose another good thing is that you cut down on editing of the final draft. It is a jewel at the end rather that a hodgepodge of potential.

But I have to say, I find this approach (OPINION) a little constipating. I can imagine getting discouraged by the slow progress which can be plagued with disheartening doubts. And being thrown off by the lack of the right word so that advancement is impossible.

Quantity first

A quantity first approach can be useful for stories which are primarily plot or character driven. That is, you write what’s been burgeoning in your head—scenes, characters, bits of action—whatever comes up. If the right word doesn’t occur immediately, then stick in a synonym and search for the perfect one in the editing. If you have a sneaking suspicion that you’ve changed a key character’s name half-way through, ignore and continue writing.

I much prefer this approach as I think it frees up your mind to take you to unimagined nooks and crannies that might never have occurred with a more measured approach.

The downside is the editing phase can be as lengthy as the initial creation. It will require a lot of rewriting, rejiggering, remolding of plot lines or characters. And most importantly, you need to be able to toss a lot of the original work because a piece no longer works for the story, makes a duplicate point, or takes a twist that seems to move the novel in the wrong direction.

Not one or the other

Like all dichotomies, it’s not either/or. It is just a tendency you’ve developed. Mostly, however, I’d encourage you to try to lean your propensity to serve the type of novel you’re writing. A plot or character driven story written flawless word by flawless word is likely to lack the energy of one written as fast as it comes to you. A novel focused primarily on language probably isn’t going to be served by whatever—it’s the wrong word—but just keep going.

Whatever is in service of the novel.

Author Choices


Author Choices

Readers don’t necessarily realize that all along, an author is making choices. The story seems immutable and inevitable and actually speaks well of the writer’s ability to keep the reader in the continuous dream.

But I find that writers can unknowingly believe the same thing. When you’re in the throes of creation or know your characters so well that they take on a life of their own, there can be a sense of the foreordained.

But your choices have an impact that may not be immediately obvious. I want to use the British and Belgian Professor Ts, discussed in the last post, as an example.

Author, actor, director choices

First off, I know that the writer does not reign supreme in TV or films, wrong though that is. The final performance is shaped by the actor, director, etc. But for our purposes, let’s pretend that the writer is in complete control.

The Belgian Professor T has almost no facial expressions, except for a fixed slight grimace/grin like a clown before make-up. His movements are rigid and intonation flat. He makes no eye contact. He seems to have quite a severe case of OCD and/or Asperger’s syndrome.

I think that the British series decided to portray Professor T as less impaired. He has a wider, although still limited, range of emotion. He makes eye contact. His movements, while not fluid, are more a man with extremely controlled feelings rather than one unaware he has a body.

Why this makes a difference

These seem like relatively minor differences but they impact the show and, in my opinion, may even contribute to why the British series is not as fascinating as the Belgian one.

Because Brit Professor T is more connected to his colleagues (eye contact and more emotion), the supporting characters seem to have greater expectations of him for change. They pull him aside to urge him to be less awkward and more tactful.

But in the Belgian version, his coworkers have pretty much accepted him as is. He is so far out of the norm that they make little or no effort to ‘reform’ him. He is the outside observer.

I think the Belgian professor is therefore a more cohesive, if odd, character than the Brit who has one foot in the normal world and one in his own.  The Brit’s duality causes uneasiness in the viewer as you’re not quite sure what or who he is.

So, even a fairly benign choice in a character can affect its effectiveness.

An easier example

The example I just used is so subtle I’m afraid I haven’t been able to make the point. So for my sake, let’s have a more obvious one. The hero betrays his best friend on ethical grounds. The author can go any number of ways from here. The friend can see the error of his ways. Or try to get revenge. The hero might realize he’s been too judgmental. The friend might have a fatal accident as a result of the hero’s decision. Any of these choices take the novel down a unique and mutually exclusive path.

So, sometimes it can produce a better novel if you play with the idea of taking a pivotal moment in the plot and considering a different track. A huge pain in the neck but you may be surprised at how often this results in a better story.

Every Hero needs a Dr. Watson

WatsonEvery Hero needs a Dr. Watson

I had the revelation that I needed a Dr. Watson when I was writing my first novel. Which will never see the light of day but from which I nevertheless learned a lot. I realized that my heroine/detective was puzzling out the mystery almost entirely in her head. Lots of thinking, not so much action.  I suppose I could have had her discuss her conundrums with her cat, but as you know, cats don’t do supportive or empathetic. And certainly not second fiddle.

Then the revelation. That’s why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, wrote in the character of Dr. Watson, faithfully following Holmes everywhere. Yes, the conceit is that Watson is recording the stories for posterity, but in fact, it is a way to allow the protagonist to work through the issues of the novel in a more dynamic way.

Not to say that talking to someone is an adequate substitute for action which moves the plot forward, but it does have the advantage of being slightly more active than inner dialogue. It also introduces the possibility of conflict or debate if/when Watson disagrees with Holmes’ analysis. Which rarely happens with the omniscient Holmes, but you get what I mean.

 (Almost) every novel needs a Dr. Watson

I think most novels need a Dr. Watson. Can be a best friend, a colleague at work, even a stranger on the subway.

Look at your draft to see if you have a Watson-like character that not only can get the protagonist’s thoughts out of his head and into speech but also potentially challenge the logic, wisdom or even morality of the hero’s intentions. Or elaborate and refine his plans.

This Watson character can, in and of himself, add a dimension to the story by having a definite view which conflicts, or at least must be reconciled, with the hero’s. Action-oriented versus cautious; retiring or larger than life; pragmatic/principled; empathetic/hard-nosed. You get the picture.

You don’t need to go crazy either in the number of contrasts or extent of the difference. Otherwise, you risk falling into caricature or stereotype. But a strong secondary character can not only enhance the story but your reader’s interest in it.

When you don’t need one

Naturally, if your hero is primarily caught up in personal angst, a secondary character providing a listening ear and even objections, might not be appropriate. When the protagonist’s raison d’être is introspection and tangling himself in the weeds of his thoughts, then allowing the story to flow as intended may be the right answer.

But if you have a worry in the back of your mind that your hero is doing too much thinking and not enough action, Dr. Watson may be your ticket. The discussions don’t in and of themselves constitute action but they seem to promote it. Give it a try.

Shylock and the Genius of Shakespeare


Shylock and the Genius of Shakespeare

Okay, so it may not be breaking news that Shakespeare was a genius. But I was reminded  of what a fabulous study his character Shylock in the Merchant of Venice is by watching Shakespeare Uncovered, a PBS TV series with F. Murray Abrahams discussing the role of Shylock.

I know I don’t need to but it’ll make me feel better if I remind you of the plot. Bassanio wants to marry the rich Portia but needs the money to woo her. He asks his friend Antonio (the Merchant of Venice) for it and although Antonio is willing, his money is tied up in some ships soon to dock. Antonio borrows from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, even though they despise each other. Shylock agrees but if Antonio defaults, he demands to be allowed to recoup his losses by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. And things go downhill from there.

How did Shakespeare feel about Shylock?

There is a hot debate among scholars whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.

I think there is plenty to suggest he might have been. For one thing, Jews were forbidden to live in the England of Shakespeare’s time so he would have little direct experience but only the prevailing view across Europe which was profoundly anti-Semitic. Where the play is set, Venice, Jews were forced to live in a ghetto and were not allowed to practice most professions.

But the strongest evidence, to my mind, is that The Merchant of Venice is supposed to be a comedy and Shylock seems to be set up as the comic villain. We first see him as funny but defensive and full of hate. The pound of flesh idea is introduced early on, to add to our perception of Shylock as vindictive scoundrel. Antonio’s friends ridicule him (“my daughter, my ducats”). Worthy of contempt.

This is where the genius bit comes in

Shakespeare gives us the comic villain needed in a comedy but he also—and this is the genius bit—makes Shylock is a complete person. So much so that the five hundred years later, when attitudes have changed, he has morphed from a figure of ridicule for Elizabethans to a tragic one to a modern audience. For example, in Shylock’s most famous speech—If you prick us, do we not bleed—Elizabethans would probably have heard it as a justification for the violence Shylock hopes to wreak on Antonio. But modern audiences interpret the same passage as a plea for tolerance.

It’s not the words that have changed; we have. And Shylock is still a compelling character.

What can we learn from this?

Even if we can’t all be Shakespeares, we can try to emulate him in his ability to make fully human every character in our writing. The heroes are not all light but have dark shadows they must contend with to remain a worthwhile figure. The villains are nuanced—both evil and good, worthy of contempt and empathy.  Human, in fact.

The closer we can get to this ideal, the more memorable our work will be. Although five hundred years may be a stretch.