On over-engineering writing
Everybody’s got a novel in them, so they say. And as I’ve mentioned before, the novel writing business has become an industry in its own right. Everywhere you look you’ll find another course on how to come up with plots, write convincing characters, create a scene that ‘hooks’, edit your book so that every word counts. Writers blog about ‘how to’, things you should do, things you shouldn’t. What your novel must have to sell. Books have been written on how to market, how to sell, how to use the internet to create your ‘brand’. And so it goes. I wouldn’t say all of this is useless; far from it. I’ve done quite a few courses, read a few ‘how to’ books. But you know, I think the danger is that a novel can become over-engineered.
I wonder if Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Jules Verne or more modern well-known authors like McCaffrey, Asimov, Stephanie Meyers and J.K. Rowling ever took much notice of ‘theme’ or ending every scene with the MC worse off. I don’t have to ask about Tolkien. He made his position very clear – he wanted to try his hand at writing a very long story that would entertain.
Let me give you an analogy. I would have loved to have been good at painting. I had a certain limited talent but (let’s face it) I wasn’t very good. That’s okay. I’m good at lots of other stuff. In the art world, though, I resorted to a few ‘paint by number’ kits. You know what I mean. A ‘real’ artist has created a painting of something (let’s say a horse) and the kit you buy shows the outline of the horse and its surroundings on a canvas and then various shapes are drawn, each with a number in them. You get a couple of paint brushes and little jars of paint, each with a number corresponding to the numbers on the canvas. And away you go. You carefully colour in each little shape and end up with a recognisable horse. But it isn’t art. Sure, you could improve your input by mixing the colours and blending them together, so it’s not so obviously a colour-in. That’s what it is, though – a colour-in.
I did one year of English at university. I’d always enjoyed writing and reading and I thought I’d enjoy English lit. But I very soon discovered that the profs weren’t interested in MY opinion of the books we were given to read. I was supposed to go off and regurgitate what other learned folk had to say about them. I walked away because I didn’t care. I don’t analyse books I read. I read for entertainment. And nobody can tell me I have to read Dickens if I don’t want to, if I find his style overblown, if I can’t relate to his characters. On the other hand, I LOVED Tolkien, even if his style was narrative and he went off into tangents that didn’t relate to the overall story.
I’d take a guess that among those hugely successful authors it wasn’t only Tolkien who ‘just wanted to write a story’. I fear that if we all go along with the ‘template for novels’ approach we’ll lose our spontaneity, even our creativity. Yes, I guess this is yet another rant about the Rules of Writing. Follow them slavishly and you have a paint by numbers kit.
I’m very interested to know what others think.