Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

The Rules of Vonnegut / 8

Give your reader as much information as you can as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. 

This is the Rule I spend most time discussing with my students, and the one with which they have most difficulty. That’s also, I suspect, the reason why I have left so long a time gap since writing about Rule no. 7!

‘But I thought a novel had to have suspense,’ the student says. ‘Surely you need to worry about what is going to happen next. It’s why the reader wants to turn the page. It’s what I pride myself on doing.’

‘There’s a difference between suspense and puzzle,’ I say. ‘And what you are doing is puzzle – there’s nothing more annoying for a reader than having to flick back through the pages to work out what on earth’s been going on. And in a e-book there’s not such a simple way of flicking back, remember.’

‘Yes, but I’ve been told in Eng. Lit. classes that’s what the great writers in the canon do – hold people in suspense – and I should try and do the same.’

‘But that applies to the whole book not individual pages, let alone paragraphs. And anyway that was then and this is now. Please do not try and write a great novel, just a good and saleable one. Great is for others to judge, not you.’

‘Yes, but – ’

‘I know your “yes, buts”, I reply, ‘from having read Eric Berne’s great book Games People Play about people’s compulsive tendencies (essential reading, by the way, for anyone writing a novel.) And not just other people’s either. Writers have them too, irritating habits we call fidgets. To be able to see oneself in one’s fictional characters and/or they in oneself is always a help. Thus self-knowledge is gained. All I can say is that setting a puzzle merely holds the reader up is when they’re wondering what is going to happen next to these characters in the situation you have so unkindly and otherwiseinterestingly put them in.’

‘But I’ve always written like this!’

‘I know. That’s why no-one has so far published you. Stop it. You annoy editors by mystifying, and so they’ll miss the whole point of an otherwise good novel. Just speak straight and clear (see Rule No 9. – the most important I think, of all the rules.) Do that and the readers will trust you. You are not playing silly games. They will pay attention to you if you have something to say and are proud of it. Again I say, stop trying to be a great and mystifying writer and see yourself as someone trying to sell books.’

‘Yes, but – ’

‘There you go again. The only time you need puzzles is when writing a detective story, when there is an acknowledged game going on between reader and writer, a contract, and the overall suspense lies in which of you is going to get the solution first. Otherwise, steer clear. Not for nothing are detective stories called “mysteries”.

‘And do remember that readers miss things. The writer writes carefully, along the line, word by word, and assumes that readers read in the same way. But only little children, tracing the words with their fingers, read like this. Accomplished readers read in blocks, and easily overlook what, to you, are key points. Be aware too that, should you head your chapters with a year date, few will ever notice: make sure you repeat it in the text.

‘You, the writer, are in command but must show mercy. Treat the reader as your best friend, not your enemy.’

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