Friday, November 23, 2007

Weighing Entertainment Value, The Message and Realism in Novel Writing

The Chicago Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop had something of a negative reaction to my recent submission. Understandable, considering that I wrote it years ago and see that I will have to go back to do some major revisions at some point later.

One part of the negative reaction they gave me, however, strikes at the heart of an intentional effect I aimed for. I left the connotation and denotation of a word, used relatively regularly and even redundantly, vague in an attempt to make a point in the realm of social psychology. My fellow workshoppers cited the redundancy and lack of definition often, and my guess is that they feel that it takes away from the piece.

Dealing with this critique certainly puts me into an interesting scenario. In one sense, it creates tension between entertaining the audience and trying to transfer some important message, which can take away from the entertainment side. If not handled well, having the important message become heavier than the entertainment can lead down a slippery slide of "what's the point of trying to impart an important message when someone doesn't read the piece in the first place?"

The workshoppers, on the other hand, either had their first exposure to this story through this submission or haven't read previous submissions in months. Such phenomena is the drawback of trying to have a novel workshopped in a very informal workshop that can cancel individual workshops on a moments notice. The people familiar with the story hadn't even recognized a major character, mainly because they hadn't kept up with the story for months. Not really a big deal for me, at the moment. I'm not ready for the story to face serious, major critiquing, anyway.

Weighing these two factors really makes for an interesting exercise, especially when also trying to consider aspects of realism. It's a science fiction (I consider it a bit of fantasy, at times), but the characters in it should be acting like real human beings with their pasts and in their situations. Scary or surprising (well, maybe not as surprising, if you know me), the realistic part has proven very difficult for me and the novel. . .especially since, at times, I have tried too hard to write realistically. . .for a piece of science fiction.

My first reaction to the consistent critique of at least 2 or 3 people on the redundancy of a term without proper definition was resistance. I want to entertain the audience, sure, but I also want to get that message across. These people might be something of a subset of people, too, who have certain tastes that may not represent a lot of people. I don't want the novel to get committeed to death by trying to please everyone. At some point, an author has to put their foot down and ignore some critiques. . .even though there might be a special except for a publisher that says "do this or the book dies."

The context aspect comes into the debate at this point. Do these critiques come from not having read the previous excerpts ever or recently? Or what if after reading a chapter later or by the end of the novel, a reader would go "Oh, that really does work for the novel! At first, I didn't think it did, but it did. It couldn't have been any other way." That aspect, I really can't know until I've finished the novel, and people have read the entirety of it to provide feedback. Working with this in mind, however, falls back on the dependence on committee.

Before the novel gets submitted to a publisher and hopefully once it gets released to the market, it should come down to the novelist's intuition meeting that of an editor's intuition. Market research shouldn't enter into the equation. With anywhere between 6 million to 6 billion people to fill such a market, the tastes of the market would tug a novel in so many directions that in the attempt to please everyone, it wouldn't frustrate them all and please no one. Yes, try to write for as many people as possible, but trying to please EVERYONE is a fool's errand.

I think the reason I have contention with my fellow workshoppers giving me the critique they did is because they're critiquing something I did intentionally. If they saw something that I didn't in my own piece, I would just write down the issue and weigh the pros and cons of it without any internal conflict. Since I meant to do what I've done and it made the critiquers uncomfortable, like the situation would do to me in real life (and I think does happen a fair amount of time), I think the effect has been accomplished, but not to a good extent that it could reach.

Elements of realism enter the equation at this point, and it becomes a useful tool. I believe that I can pull off a useful effect in the novel without compromising the entertainment of my audience. The critiquers will get what they want. At least, depending on the critquer, they'll get part of what they want. I don't plan on denoting the vagueness for the words used by this character. Plenty of connotations will be presented, but nothing completely and utterly clear will be given. Such denotations get made in academic and scientific spheres and for the law, but even then, the denotations change in adaptations to reality.

To accomplish this goal satisfactorily for the audience, I'm going to have to do a fair amount of research and experimentation. I will have to push my brain to its limits and beyond. Already, I have touched upon the topic and even crtiqued one or two other people's works based on this research, but I still have a fair amount to do. Some ideas are form in my mind, but trial and error will have to occur to see if the novel will accept it or some kind of immune response will try to reject it. Something good will come out of all this, though, and hopefully moreso than just satisfactory.

I will have to face a lot of work and frustration. That's what's fun about writing a novel and taking on these big projects, though. The work, the frustration, the engagement and, in the end, the accomplishments. Unfortunately, I would be happy with admiring my accomplishments of a finished novel and project at the moment. Oh well, at least there's something to look forward to.

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