How aware are you of the creative process while writing?
Do you really consciously control what comes out of your fingers onto the page?
Even when writing happens “naturally”, while the words are pouring forth, the author is probably already performing a first level check that precedes the more detached and critical control of rewriting. If you want to make yourself more conscious of this process, consider putting an imaginary parrot on your shoulder every time you sit down to write.
Well, the creature of your choice. At Beemgee, it’s a parrot.
The parrot reads what you write as you write it and squawks a running commentary into your ear. It might commend a good sentence or it might censure. It might suggest alternative words or phrases. It may like or hate a paragraph.
The parrot has three main hobbyhorses: relevance, surprise, and recognition.
The parrot wants you to write only what matters in the story. It will moan at any extraneous information or sentences, indeed even at words that do not have a function. Furthermore it may whisper questions into your shell-like, such as, “Is this aspect of the story pertinent and understandable for somebody from another culture? Would this text have a bearing on the interests of a reader from another time?” If you don’t try to make your story universally relevant, the parrot might exhort, why bother writing it at all?
The audience likes to be surprised, according to the parrot. Is what the character is doing now interesting? Or is this action predictable? If so, the reader may get bored. Is this simile or comparison fresh and new, or is it stale and a cliché? And overall, does your story defy pre-interpretation? That is, does the meaning of your text conform to convention? Or is it surprising and new in its understanding and interpretation of life, conflicting with existing assumptions and expectations?
“The reader’s recognition of what the book says is the proof of its truth,” said Marcel Proust. Many stories are successful because they show what life is like. Marcel Proust held up a mirror to his readers, and the worlds Gustave Flaubert created were recognisable to his audience. Entire sub-genres, such as chic-lit, work by depicting versions – perhaps idealized – of the readers in settings the readers can relate to. Nick Hornby’s books and the films based on them are well-loved because readers and viewers remember aspects of their own pasts in the protagonist’s struggles and worries. All this is not to say that a story must be directly about the world the reader lives in – France is no longer as Proust or Flaubert described it, and yet their books are just as good if not better today than when they were written (consider the parrot’s advice about universal relevance). The truth a work conveys may be indirect. Be it in Flaubert’s Salammbô, the books of Vladimir Nabokov, or a science fiction story, the point is that within the story the reader on some level recognizes a truth about life.