a novel idea

Have you ever tried to write a novel?

The trick of it, apparently, has a lot to do with figuring out where to jump into the story, and what to include in the details of the story.

Conventional wisdom (which may be a hideous oxymoron) is that when writing a novel you have to stick to the story and use nary a word that doesn’t participate in moving the story forward.  In addition, a novel-writer should refrain from being overly descriptive, which is only a slightly different principle, I suppose.

All of that, of course, reminds me of the scene from The Princess Bride in which Westley, having just been revived by Miracle Max from being mostly dead, is trying to understand why he, Inigo, and Fezzik are about to storm the castle gate, so that he can come up with the plan (which is the whole reason Inigo had to find Westley and have him revived).  Inigo, in a hurry to storm the castle and find the six-fingered man who killed his father, says to Westley, who is also in a hurry to storm the castle and stop the wedding of Prince Humperdinck and Buttercup, his true love, “Let me explain.”  Then he pauses, shakes his head, and starts again with, “No, it’s too much.  Let me sum up.”

Now, I realize that, as Christians, we’re uncomfortable with the idea of spending valuable time reading, much less writing, novels because we’re serious people about serious business, and novels, being make-believe and all, are hardly serious, unless of course, they are allegories and devoid of profanity and/or sexual references and/or sarcasm.

So, I suppose the same principles can be applied to nonfiction, or even creative nonfiction, based on the evidence presented in the Gospel of St. John, in which John himself confesses to leaving out some elements of the life of Jesus from his account, by saying in the very last verse of his last chapter, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.  Amen.”

I’m not one to criticize Biblical authors, but I have to roll my eyes a bit at John for that exaggeration about the whole world not being able to contain the books.  On the other hand, John’s awareness of the actual size of the whole world may have been a bit misinformed.

Nonetheless, I get his point.  He had to stick to the central story, as he saw it, either for lack of knowledge, lack of parchment, lack of time, or lack of the ability to otherwise keep the interest of readers.

Beyond all of that, though, there’s another point we have to consider, if we have to consider this topic at all.  We have to consider the idea of engaging the readers in the creative process in at least as much as they are translating the symbols we call letters into ideas and mental images of those ideas.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, the reader is going to envision the story based on his or her interpretation of the written words.

This is dangerous, but necessary.

In the same way that every reader has distinct fingerprints, and DNA, and odors, they will have a distinct interpretation of every element of a story.  They must.  And not only is that a factor for consideration in the writing, it’s a necessity.  You have to stick with the story, using words as economically as possible, knowing that readers will each have unique images of what you’re describing, and in order to keep them engaged in the story, you have to leave out just the right elements to engage their imaginative processes and envision whatever it is that will keep them interested enough to keep reading.

Or, so I’m told.

Too much descriptive information, and they’re sleeping on you.  Too much boring dialogue, and they lose track of the point.  Too many pages, with obscure, ancient maritime references, as I found with my most recent attempt to digest Moby Dick, and they put the books back on their respective shelves, probably in the wrong locations, with disgusted looks on their faces.

But – and that’s a very big but – this is of critical consideration for all of writing, reading, and life.

We are constantly editing in the process of writing, reading, and living.  Constantly.  Always.

Some of us are not good at this.  Others are better.  None of us are perfect.

Take a minute and look around the room in which you’re sitting.  Try to think about how you would describe the room.  Try to think about every detail and imagine putting words to it.

Or, take your experiences today.  Think about describing every detail of every step of everything you’ve done today to someone else who has no contextual reference for your life.

Yep.  I know.  Maybe John was right, after all, about filling the whole world with books, right?

We take a lot for granted.  We filter out a lot of noisy details without ever recognizing we’re doing it.  Our minds do this instinctively – constantly translating data perceived through our senses, imaginations, desires, and abilities of spiritual discernment.  It’s a necessity and we’re better for it.  We don’t, and can’t, consciously process every data point that enters our realms of experience.  Thank God, we don’t.

Of course, and here’s the rub, if we, either acutely or chronically, filter incorrectly, perceive incorrectly, or imagine incorrectly, in this incessant dance between writer and reader, transmitter and receiver, leader and follower, savior and sinner, we may alter the story to something that bears no resemblance to the author’s intent.

Our contribution to the story, even as writers for whom the prerequisite of all writing is reading, in more ways than merely literally, is absolutely critical.

Stick to the story.  Use words economically.  Balance description with room for interpretation.  Do so with precision and skill.

This is a nearly impossible task, which great writers complete with the illusion of ease.  I’m listening to the audiobook version of Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.  He’s a great writer, and his work is classic for that reason.

John was a great, or at least good, writer, and his subject matter makes up for any of his shortcomings, and that’s why his work is classic, even though he left out so much stuff.  I wish I knew more of that story, more of those unnecessary details.

As a reader, I can get distracted.  I skim, I skip, I rewind, I misunderstand, I misinterpret, I give up, I want less, and I want more.  I am also moved and inspired and enlightened and humbled.

As a writer, I write too many words, trying to convey an idea without risk of misinterpretation because I have difficulty trusting readers to get it right.  Then, I lose the story, and the reader.

See, I did it again.

I have to keep telling myself:  trust the story, trust the reader, trust the heart . . . trust the friend, trust the child, trust the vision, trust the author.

Trust the author.  Let the author tell the story.  That’s a novel idea.

7 thoughts on “a novel idea”

  1. I especially like your point about trusting the reader. I saw Junot Diaz read recently, and that was his advice. Actually, I think his exact words were, “Leave room for your reader.” He went on to explain that it’s good to leave a little bit of ambiguity and room for interpretation, because this allows the reader to meet the author halfway, or to participate in creating the imaginary world of the text along with the author.

  2. Excellent!

    I think it is interesting that you say that Christians shouldn’t waste time reading or writing. In my opinion, Christians have the most reason for learning, for reading, and for writing. Of all people, we are the only ones who are allowed to continue to learn after death. As we continue to learn about life and love and everything else, we continue to know God better.

    What an exciting thing we get to be a part of!

    As someone who writes (I’d hardly call myself a writer) I do have to say I like the ending, the trusting of the reader and of the story. Sometimes, I get so excited about the telling of the story, that I shirk away from criticism. Stuff to think about for sure.

    Thanks so much for writing this!

    1. Paul, thanks for the appreciation! That bit I included about Christians and novels was sarcastic. I guess I’m still working on effectively conveying sarcasm!

  3. Sarchasm – the distance between the teller of the joke and the guy that didn’t get it… 🙂

    I am one who really, really wishes for a Sarcasm font because of how many of my jokes fall flat when written.

    As a matter of fact, the only folks that really get my humor know me already. It seems to be the only way…

    Which, I guess, ties back into letting the author tell the story and requiring the faithful reader to know the author well enough to get it… Blessings to you and yours!

  4. What a wonderfully placed “h”, Jonathan. That’s hilarious. I bet I’ve even spelled the word that way before. And the emoticon may have to suffice for your special font…

    Reading the above comments, I detect a chance to drop the e-bomb: empathy. As Marc says, “to meet the author half way,” and Jonathan says, “to know the author well enough to get it,” it seems empathy is the most fundamental principal in the author-reader exchange. It must happen on both ends, but perhaps it is largely the responsibility of the reader. (If the author doesn’t empathize with humanity, than perhaps he or she should not be “officially” writing in the first place.) I say it’s mainly the responsibility of the reader because I believe authors who produce artful literature are producing idiosyncratic self-expressions: they are writing for themselves–and rightly so. They are likely writing (or should be, in my opinion) because something in them burns to be recorded. But if he or she does it well, it will inevitably strike a chord in the empathetic reader’s own personal experience. This is the magic of our shared human experience and why art in general “works”… I think…

    So, D-Money, does something burn inside of you at novel length? Me, I’ve got nothin’ at the moment…

    Love you, bro…

    1. Timnath – a whole lot happens in me in response to your inquiry and insight regarding something burning to be recorded. The real answer: I don’t know, and I’m not sure the burning is necessary, or if it is, whether it’s the specific story that burns or the need for expressive writing, regardless of story, or both, but if the story is burning, surely the exercising of the storytelling muscles, as in any artistic expression, or marathoning for example, is a prerequisite and may have a flammable effect.

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