One Ideal Reader

So. We’re back to the first draft. After several months of ponderings and musings and “woe-is-me”-ings, we’re back.

I’ve been editing fairly consistently for the past week or so, working from my new writing set-up (iPad + folio keyboard = mobile writer go!). I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet — but that’s mostly because the first chapter needs a lot of work. Ultimately, it needs to do some serious heavy lifting. Introducing characters, establishing a mood, setting the scene. And it’s that LAST part — the scene — that’s been a sticking point.

Re-reading my first draft, a big thing that stuck out at me was the science. Or rather, the “science” — vague, elusive and inaccurate even to my untrained eye. I started out this book with a very specific setting in mind: a futuristic desert landscape that shapes the characters and their actions. I didn’t worry (or even think about) the science behind such a setting when I wrote the first draft. The story was tied up with the setting — I couldn’t untangle the two. So I just wrote it as I felt it needed to be told.

Kids, learn from your elders — this may have been a mistake. I wrote myself into a scientific quandary: a setting that is not actually possible here on earth. Which would be fine if the book were set somewhere else! But it’s not. It’s here, it’s earth, it is what it is. And I wanted to fix this — I wanted to make it “right.” After reviewing the first draft, I was determined to make the science believable, albeit possibly a bit of a stretch.

My friend Tara offered to help. A former college roommate, Tara has been a plant nerd for as long as I’ve known her (plant nerds are the best kind of people), and now she’s turning that plant nerdery into a career as a scientist. She and her husband offered to take a look at the premise behind the book, chat about the science, and get back to me.

And chat they did — along with several of their scientist friends. General consensus? Nope. Does not compute. Science presented not possible. In any way, shape or form.

Cue the tiny violin.

Now, if that sounds defeatist — well, I was feeling a bit defeatist. But Tara and Nick were not, bless their science-y hearts. They offered up a bunch of other possible scenarios, ways the setting could be changed, ways that I could correct the science. And I listened, I took notes, I pondered… and I questioned. “Well, what if this had happened? This? Ok, not that one, how about this?” I sought the one answer that would get it “right,” when I was missing the one big, important, obvious thing: I was unwilling to alter the setting.

It sounds so childish typing that out. “I DON’T CARE IF IT’S WRONG, IT’S HOW I WANT IT.” But that’s how I felt. Changing the setting just felt wrong — a different setting wasn’t part of the story I wanted to tell — but I so desperately wanted the science to be right. I worried about getting it wrong, I worried about readers saying, “No, this isn’t possible. This could never happen.” I didn’t want readers to call me out on it.

Feeling stuck and confused, I emailed Tara more follow-up questions… and she responded with something that gave me pause:

I feel like you can say anything you want to set up a situation that works for your book. As a reader, I feel like I generally accept whatever premise the author presents. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal right now and there’s all kinds of ridiculous things that exist and are happening. I’m more interested in relationships than in the setting that exists behind them. — Tara, lovely scientist and friend

Hello, light bulb. It feels silly to admit it… but I had never thought of it from that angle before. Stephen King talks about figuring out who your Ideal Reader is, and writing for that person. I had been fixated on ALL THE READERS — all the people who would say I was doing it wrong. But as King writes:

You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. — Stephen King, On Writing

Maybe the science didn’t HAVE to be 100% right. Maybe I could ask the reader to take a leap of faith with me. Yes, there will be readers who are distracted and annoyed by the lack of scientific accuracy, but… maybe at the end of the day I’m not writing for those readers (or CAN’T write for them). I have to decide what type of story I want to tell and run with it, committed and ready to roll.

So no — this book is not going to be scientifically accurate. Edits and revisions will hopefully get it closer to plausibility, but I’m not going to worry too much about getting it all “right.” The setting will work to further the overarching themes of the book — themes of survival and community and responsibility to one’s self versus the greater good. THAT’s what I want to talk about with this book. That’s what I want to focus on. So to the scientists of the world, I apologize — this book may not be for you. But I’m hoping for that one Ideal Reader, it will be.

Write What You Know, Know What You Know

Byron surprised me with tickets to an upcoming John Hodgman show this Friday  (aka, the Deranged Millionaire), and in researching the show I stumbled across this video — John Hodgman’s Advice to Writers.

In addition to featuring Hodgman’s lovely dry wit, there are some good little wisdom nuggets in there — namely, the problems with “write what you know.” Hodgman says that if you want to write what you know, you’d better know some interesting things. We writers unfortunately can’t be shut-ins all the time — you have to get out there and live some life. The real heart of his argument, however, comes down to “know what you know”:

And then you also have to know what you know, and I think that’s even the hardest thing. Writing what you know is fine, but knowing what you know is the key to actually writing or creating any piece of art, because you have to know what it is that is driving you to do this completely narcissistic and asocial act of creating — forcing your thoughts and feelings upon a world that does not care. And you have to honestly figure out what it is you care about.

This struck a cord with me, because um, if we’re going with the whole “honesty” thing? I never know what I’m writing about. Not really. I mean, I know the characters, and the setting, and the plot (hopefully!). But I rarely know what the driving force is behind a piece — not until I’m finished and can see the forest for the trees.

It seems to me that Hodgman is talking about theme — that all-powerful yet enigmatic word that is supposed to pull a writer’s work together. Stephen King has a chapter in On Writing about theme. He starts off:

Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered — why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important.

Key there? When you’ve finished. I really don’t know how I could ever pick up the theme of a piece when I’m in the middle of it, wrestling with the characters and the plot and the “oh my god, did I really write that?” After I’ve finished and had some time away from the piece, that’s when I can lean back and say, “Oh. So that’s what it was all about.”

But it is entirely possible (even probable) that this is just me. Others may write with theme at the forefront — they may already know what they know and are ready to write about it. Does this put writers into two different camps? Plot-driven and theme-driven?

My guess is that this is something that applies to all creative types, not just writers (if you’re a painter, for example, you may not truly know what you’re going for until after you’ve slapped some paint on the canvas). So I’ll pose the question to all creative types — do you create with theme in mind? Or is it something you stumble upon after the fact?