Friday, 3 October 2014

On Self-Revelation in Fiction Writing

It's a truism in writing fiction that you must show, not tell, your reader what is happening. And a good writer either bears that constantly in mind, or it comes naturally to him. 

What we don't always realise, however, is what else you are showing your reader with every word that comes out of your keyboard. 

To write is to expose yourself. This is particularly true of fiction. In a textbook or treatise, tight focus on the subject matter may leave the writer entirely out of it, but with fiction this cannot be so. Your book is the product of your mind, and just as observing a dog or child can tell you a lot about the person who's brought him up, so in our fiction do we reveal ourselves.

Now I am not speaking here of writers such as Robert Heinlein and John Norman, who keep pausing in their books to deliver a fourteen page lecture about their own social, political, or sexual views. That kind of exposure is quite deliberate (although in fiction, always a mistake, but we are not concerned with it here). I refer rather to the unconscious revelations that infuse every piece of fiction, and have generally been made unconsciously. 

Like most things in life, this is a two-edged sword. 

On the positive side, a writer's personality can shine through, illuminating his work with warmth and kindness. A good example of this is Could You But Find It, by Robert Cilley. The author's deep and kindly knowledge of human nature infuses the whole work and adds gloss to his writing.

Other knowledge about a writer may also be a necessary result of the work. For instance, you don't read my own story, User Pays, without discovering that I'm a Socialist. A lawyer can't read Lynne Cantwell's Pipe Woman series without realising that she is in the law herself, and knows her way around a mediation. Political stances and specialist knowledge, where present in a substantial degree, will always be observable, and that's by no means a bad thing. And I don't read much erotic fiction, but I'd be willing to bet that reading a number of books of that kind by the same author would give you a pretty fair idea of where his own sexual tastes lie, or even of his unfulfilled fantasies.

What, though, of the less pleasant revelations we may make about ourselves? I have an example in mind, a book I read recently: Cherry Cobbler, by Jo Hannah Reardon.

This book falls into the pseudo-genre of Christian Fiction, or Inspirational Fiction as I prefer to call it, for this kind of work could just as easily be concerned with some other faith. I'd already read another of Reardon's books (Crispens Point), liked it a lot and given it four stars in my review. That book was a charming romance, squeaky clean and full of good Christian principles. A delightful book, and so when I came to read Cherry Cobbler, the second book in that series, I was fairly confident of what I would find. 

In fact I did find all the things I expected to find; competent writing, sympathetic characters, a nice leavening of humour, lots of good Christian messages. All good. But I also found something else, something not so nice. In three places in this book, incidents of cruelty to an animal were treated by the protagonist as unimportant or even mildly amusing. This impaired my enjoyment of the book to such a great extent that, although in every other way it was just like Crispen's Point, I gave it only one star.

Now this is exactly the kind of thing I am talking about when I say that we constantly reveal ourselves to the reader. The three incidents of animal cruelty in Cherry Cobbler were all minor incidents, just a little texture, nothing at all relevant to the plot in any way. They could have just as easily been taken out and left not a ripple. But the cost of leaving them in was high. I'm just one reader, but not only has this writer gained a one star instead of a four star review, but she has lost a reader. Lost a reader who would have gone on buying her books. And I'm not an unusual person. I'm pretty average, really. If I had this reaction, then so, probably, did a lot of other people.

How to avoid this happening to you? It's the kind of thing you need to be picking up in revisions. If you use beta readers, ask them what, if anything, they learned about you in reading the book. If you don't, you need to be looking very carefully for it in your read-through. Your editor might pick up this kind of thing for you, but you shouldn't rely on it. It should be eliminated before the book goes to the editor.

So, bottom line, people - when you're going to strip yourself in public - make sure you have nice underwear on.

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