Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

The Rules of Vonnegut / 7

‘Write to please just one person. If you open a window on the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.’

Choose a reader, someone as like you as possible (same gender, same education, same temperament) and write for her – you may be a her: if you’re a him, take it as read that you’re included. Please her, enthuse her, keep her turning the page. Explain things she may not know but don’t talk down. And never assume your readers can read your mind. All they can know is what you have put upon the page so give it to them straight, clear and simple. Bear in mind what you’re going to say to the proverbial literary agent you’ll meet at a party once your novel is written; make sure while you are writing that you are doing what you set out to do, are sticking to the point and cutting to the chase. There’s a whole wide world out there, of course there is, but wise novelists set out to cover a little segment of it, and they keep the power of invention flowing strongly down a contained river bed, not breaking its banks and spreading wide and stagnant over adjoining fields. Lose the point and you lose the reader.

This party where you meet the agent is likely to be full of would-be novelists like yourself (or you wouldn’t have been invited in the first place), so there will be a lot of other people trying to bend the agent’s ear. It’s a buyers’ market. He or she will not be as interested in your novel’s fine literary quality as in it’s genre and its appeal to a certain market. Literary quality is an optional extra, though one I very much hope you are aiming for. You will say something like ‘I am writing a psychological thriller set in a market garden which will appeal to the 65% of readers who love gardening,’ or ‘I am writing a novel about body image. It concerns a slim girl who can never forget that once she was fat. Anyone who’s ever been on a diet will want to read it.’ Or ‘I am writing a novel from the viewpoint of a blind dog, based on recent research. It’s really cheerful, and dog owners everywhere will be fascinated.’ Or even ‘My novel? Oh, it’s mass market, about a love affair, perhaps better described as a liaison, between a pretty masochistic girl and a handsome man with very sadistic tastes.’ Only then go into the ‘There’s this man and she said that and he did this’ detail.

If you work out some such account of your novel and keep it in mind even as you write, it will keep you on track and remembering there is an actual reader at the end of the process. Also an actual agent. You might even have her as the one person you aim to please, as Vonnegut would put it – vile commercialism, I know, but a writer has to pay the rent. And you are at the same party as the agent, so probably have quite a lot in common.

Finding out what your novel is about, not just what the plot is, can require some quite painful introspection. Why have you chosen to write this particular novel at this time in your life and no other? Have you chosen the to validate some obsession of your own, whether it’s ‘I hate my mother and feel really bad about it’, or ‘I want to be revenged on climate deniers everywhere. I’ll soon show them what’s what!’ or ‘I deserve to be loved totally and overwhelmedly so why didn’t you?’ Whatever. The story of the novel is your story: however heavily in disguise: the plot is the sum of the events that prove your point. Understanding your story is what keeps your plot on track, and the reader hooked, which is why it’s important not to go wandering off into irrelevancies. Stick to the point. Irrelevancies may be torrid, erotic or lyrical scenes which flatter your literary skill and so charm and please you, but you’ve lost your reader.

Be businesslike. See yourself as writing so many novels in the future you could be in danger of running out of the source material. You only have so much life experience to call upon. Eke out what you have. These random scenes and sub plots may well may well belong in the next novel. Never delete – just keep them in an offcut file. You never know.

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