“When you’re a writer, you no longer see things with the freshness of a normal person. There are always two figures that work inside you, and if you are at all intelligent you realize that you have lost something. But I think there has always been this dichotomy in a real writer. He wants to be terribly human, and he responds emotionally, and at the same time there’s this cold observer who cannot cry.”
~ BRIAN MOORE
Let me begin by making one thing perfectly clear: I am a hobbyist author. For most of literary history, the term “author” has described both a professional and his or her profession, and by no means has that profession fallen by the wayside. But over the past decade or so, through the magic of the internet, it is the case that anyone can write anything they choose and, without regard to whether they have any idea what they’re doing, make a few mouse clicks, and voila, their opus is for sale on amazon.com. These are the hobbyists, myself among them, who publish 5,000 new books every day.
Those 5,000 new books run the gamut from “How does this guy not have a book deal?” to “This guy couldn’t write a grocery list.” The only statistic in question is how many of us admit that we’re hobbyists, and how many put that unedited, virtually unreadable first-draft up for sale, and immediately list “Author” as their profession on their tax return. But there is one area in which the professional and the hobbyist are indistinguishable. I refer here to those hobbyists who have put at least some level of effort into learning The Craft. You’ve taken a class, read some how-to books, or otherwise made some effort to grasp the basic principles of what you’re trying to do.
Once you understand how plots and characters are created and developed, you always have one eye out for another author’s technique. Now, when I read The Sword of Shannara, I’m no longer just on an epic quest through the wild with Shea Ohmsford. Part of me is standing behind Terry Brooks watching his technique, second-guessing his choices, trying to understand why he gave the reader this critical piece of the puzzle now, and not earlier or later.
You are told what the author feels you need to know at the time you need to know it. That’s all well and good, and when you are immersed in a tautly-crafted read, you aren’t even aware that you’re reading; the experience being described in the book is going on around you, and you aren’t just reading. You’re hearing the twig break in the darkness, smelling the prosecutor’s harsh after-shave lotion, feeling the sweet lips of your paramour, and even though there is nothing to hear or smell or feel, you are there!
Compare this to what happens on a movie set. The camera is dollied along a suburban street, and you as the viewer take in the details of everything from the house numbers to the garden gnomes, and maybe wonder what sort of life is lived in this house or that. But those houses are only the fronts, plywood cutouts hung on scaffolding, and as a writer, part of you is constantly trying to pull back the veil and see how this other writer built his scaffolds.
I myself write in third-person viewpoint, which means I tell a story in the form of “he did this,” and “she said that,” but I’m not completely omnipotent. Each scene has a “viewpoint,” a character through whose eyes that piece of the narrative is told. I aim for 80-100 scenes in a novel, generally four to a chapter, with plot twists at the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter marks, and never more than six viewpoints. The majority of the story is told through the eyes of the Protagonist, with a lesser number of scenes falling to the Opposition, the Confidant, and the Henchman. My protagonist always has a distraction going on, rats in the basement, so to speak, while he’s trying to deal with the wolf at the door. Sometimes this distraction takes the form of a fifth viewpoint character, and on rare occasions, I’ll use a sixth just to stir the pot, but never more than that, and when I see a well-established professional introduce that seventh main character, I’m out of the plot. I want to know why, what story point made it necessary, what was the author trying to accomplish, did she succeed, how did she make it work?
And that’s the burden. You’re a reader trying to have a good time, but you’re also a writer trying to improve your own Craft, and how better to do that than to crack the code of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Michael Crichton? If you’re a writer, you know that it never stops, and it does interfere with your enjoyment. I can’t say whether it’s worth it. Financially, certainly not. I often joke that one month, my book sales paid for my internet service, but that isn’t really a joke.
But as a hobbyist, it has been very much worth doing. I have a number of writing friends that I get to rub elbows and compare notes with, and the feeling you get when someone tells you in person, or better yet, posts a review praising your stellar work and divine skills is worth almost any sacrifice it might take to get it, even if the numbers aren’t that great. And in my case, they won’t be. I have turned down a book-signing, a couple of conventions, and a radio interview, because even though the chances are infinitesimal, there is that fraction of a percentage point of possibility that some unsuspected event could catapult me to celebrity, and I don’t want to live that life. I’m happily retired, have a great relationship with my family, and that’s the way I want to keep it.
None of that means that I don’t carry the burden, though. How about you, my writing friends? Do you experience anything like this? How do you maintain your enjoyment in the face of that “need to know?”