I have always loved writing. I enjoy talking about it and learning about almost as much as I love doing it. I think you only stand to gain if you never stop studying and discovering more about the art form you love the most. Every time I read a novel I am learning, considering things to aspire to or avoid.
My BA and MA in creative writing gave me a framework of jargon and structured analysis in which to articulate this process. Once I had these tools I could barely help myself but think about everything I read in these terms, hoping to learn more about my own processes and improve them.
Language, structure, pace and themes were things I couldn’t help but analyse in anything I found and I now had the tools to form what had previously just been feelings and gut reactions into effective conclusions to use for the betterment of my own work.
Recently, with my resurgence of determination that has let me to properly crack into drafting The Road Elsewhere, I have found the hunger of my ‘Analytical Eye’ has been ratcheted up yet another notch. With everything I read now, or even watch, half my brain is analysing what I’m finding effective and what I’m not, whilst the other half is gamely just trying to enjoy. It is definitely a two-edged sword since I lately have somewhat lost the ability to just enjoy something for its own sake, without analysing why.
I am re-reading at the moment some of my favourite fantasy books that I have mentioned in posts before, The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. I have always enjoyed these books and they have been a great influence on me. I knew that, for me, they were the best way to write fantasy: human, dark, real and exciting. I always wanted my own writing to aim for the same level but only on this latest re-read, with the Analytical Eye working overtime, have I started to consider, almost on a word-by-word basis, what it is about these books that draws me so incessantly.
Whereas this does have an unfortunate downside in that I’m not enjoying my escapism in the way I used to, I’m too busy studying it to be reading it, it has helped reassure me on some of my deepest worries about my own work. One of my biggest fears with TREis that there’s not enough action. There’s too much character building and too much description. I worry that I’m 60,000 in and relatively little (in my mind) has happened.
This is where the Analytical Eye actually came in handy whilst reading the second instalment in The Farseer Trilogy, Royal Assassin. Previously, before my analytical tendancies weren’t quite so pronounced as they are now, I have just been swept away in the stories without really thinking about it. This, I thought at first, must be because the story was fast-paced and action-packed. But since re-reading The Royal Assassin with my Analytical Eye wide open and unwavering, I have noticed with something like relief that if the story is good, it doesn’t have to be thoroughly action-packed, conflict-ridden and plot-fuelling on every page. When I look at it objectively, I’m half way through this book and, in some terms, nothing much has really happened.
That is not meant at as a criticism. Obviously events have been unfolding, characters had been interacting, tension is being built and I haven’t been bored for a second, but in terms of action, twists and major events or discoveries, it’s been relatively low-key. And this has not once lessened my desire to read on.
It was then I realised, with something of a wash of relief, that, particularly with the fantasy genre, you do have room to explore and build and set a languid pace. Readers will stay with you, they will be patient. They will enjoy the laying of the scene and the getting to know the world and will read on to find out what happens next.
I’m not saying you can spend a hundred pages just describing the social structure of your world, nor have the main character just sit around staring at the walls. But, providing you are building details and characters have motivation, the reader will not be put off by the fact that no one has killed each other yet.
One of my tutors at university who I greatly admire, George Green, once gave me a very good piece of advice that explains why this is so and it is something I bear in mind constantly, particularly when editing: by the end of each sentence the reader should have discovered something new. Even if it is only subtle, just a character’s reaction or something in the room that they’ve noticed. If you have written a sentence and the reader hasn’t discovered something new, big or small, then it needs to go.
So, this way, even if the story takes a while to build up the action, so long as you’re keeping up the discovery as you go and keeping your characters’ motivations and conflicts in focus and there’s enough going on in the story to keep the characters moving, a reader will stay with you.
So whereas my inability to read something without analysing it as I go has recently put a dent in my ability to enjoy what I’m reading, it has helped me an awful lot. Not just on the surface level of taking lessons from good structure, pace, character development, imagery and dialogue, but also on deeper levels, discovering that most readers don’t use the Analytical Eye. They will read and if they enjoy, they will carry on. It’s that simple.
Getting the writing to the level where it is enjoyable might be an extremely complicated process (it is for me, anyway), but the reader just wants a well-written story. Pace and action are important but so long as there’s tension, conflict and motivation your reader will be patient and, hopefully, enjoy discovering as they go and will enjoy the action so much more once they reach that point.
It is possible to think too much, to be over-analytical. But for me, keeping the desire to be the best I can possibly be as the driving force behind everything I do and learn is what keeps me going. I’m not saying that this will make me produce the best work ever written, far from it. But it will make me produce the best work within my ability. If that is sub-standard to some, I won’t mind so long as I know I’ve given it my best possible shot. And to do that I don’t think I’ll ever stop analysing, learning and applying lessons on how to be the best I can possibly be.
I often wonder if other writers feel they have to put the same amount of thought into the process, or if it comes more easily to them. Maybe I am thinking too much, care too much? I would be interested to know how you find it when you read work you admire, or work you don’t. Are you consumed with the need to figure out the whys and the wherefores for you own development? And if so, to what sort of level?