Who to Spend Time With

romancecoverThere are 7.349 billion people in the world about now, give or take a few million. Each is as unique as a snowflake. The most prolific fiction writer in the world can’t write about all of them. Which of them do you want to be with for the six months to a year that it takes to write a novel? Or for the two or three days that it takes to read one?

I found myself pondering this question yesterday in the auto dealership while I waited for the service guys to install my new airbag, one that wouldn’t spray shrapnel all over whoever was in the passenger seat when the airbag deployed. They took a couple of hours. It was an old fem-jep spy thriller from the seventies, full of creaky romance novel conventions.

The heroine was kind of aimless about her life and in my opinion too stupid to live. The villainous spy was a sociopath who lived for the thrill of killing people, to hear him talk, which we did for four or five pages as he and the gormless heroine teetered on the edge of a cliff. When she finally got the upper hand, did she kick him over the cliff? Never occurred to her to do so. She ran away and stole his car. Of course it would have been the end of the book if she killed him, and that would have turned it into a novella. But, still.

Do such people exist in nature? Probably. Do I want to read about them? Actually, no, although some thrilling chase scenes followed.

What sort of people do readers want to read about, out of an almost infinite selection of beings? People similar to themselves, I guess, and then antagonists who complement those people in a balanced way, strength for strength. People who are not stupider than the readers are. Witty people, maybe. Courageous people. People like the readers’  friends, but whose sufferings and struggles are greater.

It seems to me sometimes that the whole point of reading is to encounter other souls. Not the appalling souls we see on reality TV, but creatures with actual feelings. This is a glorious and terrifying goal to shoot for in your writing.

Making an Accurate Sketch

A Study of an Oak Tree, c. 1638, by Claude Lorrain. Black chalk, pen and brown ink with gray-brown wash on white paper, 13 by 8 7/8 inches. The British Museum, London

In the old days, when cameras were awkward and film development was expensive, young people wanted to learn to draw. Now they have their smartphone cameras, so that they don’t need to observe their surroundings and friends very closely, or remember what they just looked at that was so fascinating. It’s all safely put away, stored in bits and bytes. But we who had no cameras ready to hand tried to learn to draw.

The first thing a serious grown-up draughtsman has to learn to do is to distinguish between the object he is looking at and the stereotypical object in his mind. Children draw stick figures. These are understood to represent people, but visually they bear no relation to the play of light and shadow on a human form. You can get books that tell you how to draw horses, how to draw hands. If you study them carefully you will be able to draw a horse or a hand the way the person who wrote the book saw it.

In grade school I had an art teacher who taught us how to paint trees. first you make a dark-brown trunk and branches, then you stipple leaves all over the branches in three colors of green. Voila, your tree. But the fact is that trees are really hard. There are no short cuts to drawing a tree. You have to study the thing, its habit of growth, the time of year, the time of day, how the light hits it.

So it is with fiction. You write a scene. Are these actual people as you have observed them, or stick figures? Are they drawn from life, or are they borrowed from somebody else’s work, however successful? Are they interacting in a way that you recognize as human, or did you read a book on how to write that told you you have to have conflict all the time?

This is something to think about, if you are a young writer just starting out. I’ve been around the block a couple of times and I’m still working on it.