STORY TIME REDUX
We’ve already begun to think about stories and time and how they fit together, how they are sometimes the same thing – story-time.
Not all story-times are the same. And this is where I would like to propose a different way for you to think about your own writing, and a different way to think about different kinds of writing.
Different kinds of writing usually get called ‘genres’.
On Amazon.com, under Books & Audible -> Books -> Fiction we have a menu of thirty types of book. Some of these aren’t exactly genres, in the way I’m about to describe. Saying something is an ‘Anthology’ or ‘Contemporary Fiction’ doesn’t tell you anything about the kind of story-time you’re about to enter.
Other genres are are more descriptive of potential story-time. In a ‘Horror novel’, you will experience horror – that may include different kinds of horror, some more suspenseful, some more gory. But if you bought a book from beneath this heading and it didn’t horrify you in some way, it would have been mis-categorised and mis-sold. Other genre titles descriptive of effect would be ‘Erotica,’ ‘Political’ and ‘Romance.’
Mostly, writers in their early years ask themselves –
WHAT KIND OF WRITER AM I?
This is the wrong question. Too easily it turns into an aspiration. In fact, What kind of writer am I? is often a disguised version of What kind of books would I like to write?
The answer to What kind of writer am I? is always Not the writer I should be.
If you are happy with the writer you are, and don’t want to be another, better writer, I’m not sure why you’ve got this far into this blog.
(Maybe you’ve just joined us. In which case, welcome. Now go back to the beginning.)
What kind of books would I like to write? Is too daydreamy a question. It’s going to lead you into fantasies of achievement from which you’ll learn nothing about the writing itself.
For example, I’d like to write the kind of books that win big literary prizes. What can you learn from that? What, within that, can you examine in any way?
Literary aside: Surprisingly often, the books that win big literary prizes aren’t the kind of books that win big literary prizes. To take two examples from the UK’s Booker Prize, D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little was not a prizewinning kind of book. Neither was Marlon James’ A History of Seven Killings. Or at least, they weren’t a prizewinning kind of book until after they’d won a prize. Then they became that kind of book, because the prize had changed to accommodate them. But they weren’t like the kind of books that had won the prize the year before they did. They weren’t consensus books.
Obviously, if you’re trying to write a kind of book, you can only do it if that kind of book can be identified.
And that is how some writers end up thinking of themselves as genre writers before they’ve even finished a chapter.
I’m going to change the question for you to ask, and make it far more concrete.
Not What kind of writer am I? but What kind of reader am I?
To answer this, you need to say to yourself, What kind of books do I read? Not What kind of books do I like to think of myself as reading? And not What kind of books do I buy with good intentions but leave in the reading pile? But What kind of books to I read often and with pleasure?
Exercise: Write down the titles and authors and genres of the last five books you read from start to finish.
Not novels, not just fiction. The last five books. (Comics count. Magazines don’t.) If they were all non-fiction – memoirs, histories or biographies – but you still think you are a writer of literary fiction, there may be an issue.
(If you can’t remember reading five books, go and read five books. I’m serious. If you don’t regularly read, you’re not really a writer. I’m glad you’re reading this blog of mine – but, essentially, fuck off to the library, now.)
Look at the list. Take it as a self-portrait. Can you make it more honest? Less flattering?
What kind of reader are you?
I’d like to push this question further, by putting it into my own terms. As a reader, what kind of story-time or what kinds of story-time do you like to enter?
To help you be honest, I’d like you to write another list – I’d like you to write this
Exercise: Write down the titles and authors and genres of the last five books you started but didn’t finish.
It may be because you’re reading them very slowly, enjoying every word, but equally it may be because you found them bad, boring, pretentious or too intense.
Now put the two lists alongside one another, the recently read list to the left and the didn’t finish list to the right.
It’s almost certain that the books on the right hand side represent the kind of books you would like to write whereas those on the left represent the kind of writer you are because they represent the kind of reader you are.
Aside: Readers are rarely just one kind of reader. There are few people who read nothing but historical romance of the Elizabethan period or science fiction involving robots, but the likelihood is that most readers have books they read just for fun or on holiday and other books they read because they want to learn something or take on something big or read a really good book.
The list on the left may reveal you to be a number of different readers. Try to find links between the books on the left. Do they all involve mothers, confinement, wilderness, politics?
What kind of reader you are depends on what kind of story-time you habitually like to enter.
And, as a writer, as a storyteller, this is likely to be the kind of story-time you are best at creating for your own readers.