Hey Authocrats! Lucas here.
In a previous entry, Geographies of the Creative Mind, one of the major takeaways that I tried to convince burgeoning writers about was the importance of not shopping around a manuscript to friends and family until it is complete to the best of your abilities.
That is quite a hard ask, and it can be difficult to know whether or not you’re even going in the right direction without a little feedback, right?
Well, yes, and no. On the one hand, you certainly do need a strategy in place regarding content development that puts your work under a critical lense. Yet I often find that when young or inexperienced writers seek out this kind of help, it’s ordinarily less to do with some objective improvement being sought and more to do with a sense of insecurity. That can damage your work, and slow up progress markedly.
So, what is a creative to do? Let’s find out…
It’s easier to be an impartial self-critic than the critic of a friend or loved one. Bold claim, I know, but think about it: your focus is on the narrative itself. Theirs simply can’t be. No matter how interested these folks are, it will always be your manuscript to them, before it is ever a story in its own right. Ever done something embarassing or self-effacing in front of them? They can’t unsee that in the narrative voice, period. Sorry.
So what’s left is to know how to be effective in approaching your own work. There are some things you won’t be able to do for yourself, namely that you won’t be able to read your story through the eyes of a stranger who comes to your tale for the first time and takes it at face-value.
However, there is objectively a way to check and see if you’re going in the right direction with the current stage of development in your work-in-progress.
Have an Original Narrative Arc
“But I thought there’s no such thing. Isn’t it all just the Hero’s Journey?” the well-meaning amatuer writer asks.
Well, that’s certainly the spirit of the times.
It’s a gross oversimplification though. You’ll find the Hero’s Journey in both Gilgamesh and Green Eggs and Ham, but no one is rushing to equivocate those…
But then why is it so hard to make something new nowadays?
Well, older stories—from Crime and Punishment to Lord of the Rings—were able to lay claim to unmarked ideas and meanings which had previously yet to be mastered. They were fundamentals, encapsulated in themes as simple as ‘redemption’ or as literal as ‘globalization and human frailty.’
The boundaries of all such immediate meanings have been set. There is a book or genre for every major human experience or emotion as currently articulated.
All the territory has been siezed here. If you want to go somewhere new, you’ll need a spaceship or a submarine. You have to embark somewhere radically new, profoundly underdeveloped, and relentlessly insightful. That’s all there is to it! *insert tongue in cheek*
Put another way: we’ll never have another Tolkien in the same sense that Physics will never have another Isaac Newton: there is a before, and an after. The value of the work is also what makes it inimitable by anything which seeks to be called art.
I know that might feel overwhelming, but truly if you’re aiming for anything less: there is already someone telling your story somewhere else and they’ve filled that need in the market. Write your heart out! But know that at best, it’s for your own edification.
Now I’m not going to sugar-coat this: there is a certain potency of arrogance that one requires in order to approach such a tall order and say, “oh yeah, I can do that!” I am not saying that anyone can just jump right in after reading this and whip up a worthy work of fiction. What I am saying is only what is required for one to walk into their project clear-eyed about what is required for success.
Get it down and keep it down
In a salient way, works of literature are aesthetic representations of a philosopher or theologian at work. They are the natural evolution of the tales of old, etiologies which were created to get at the cause or heart of something shared in human experience.
So that’s how you determine if your narrative is productive: parse each sentence, each paragraph, each page, each chapter, each arc. Reflect on if it passes the bar set above. If you genuinely believe it does, then answer these questions:
- How does this section advance what I’m trying to communicate?
- Are my characters positioned to compellingly accomplish this task?
- How does my setting contribute to the exploration of these ideas?
- How do my characters and settings provide space in which to explore the complexities which arise from the ideas considered? What are the questions that readers might have about them? How does my narrative address them?
If it doesn’t pass the bar, then it’s back to the drawing board. It’s tough love, I know, but the task of the writer is often as thankless as it is grueling.