Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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It's a thousand pages, give or take a few, I'll be writing more in a week or two.

First of all, apologies to anyone who read yesterday's post and thought I was trying to say there was a Right Way that should be followed in order to get published. I did say I was just thinking aloud, but I probably should have made it totally clear that my ramblings of yesterday were just the first instalment of a much wider examination of what I think makes novels appealing to readers. As I'm trying to decide where to go next with my writing, this is something that's occupying my thoughts at the moment, so I'm blathering on here in an attempt to dump the ideas from my brain and make sense of them.

I will also say now (though I intend to return to it in my conclusion) that though in an ideal world a novel will contain every feature that I'll be examining over the next few days[1], perfectly enjoyable and saleable, nay even best-selling novels might only have 3 or 4 out of the total of 6 things that I'm suggesting are desirable.

So if you're currently writing or trying to sell a novel that misses out on one or two of the things I'm talking about, then I'm not suggesting for one moment that you should change anything. Though if it lacks too many of them and you're getting the, "It doesn't grab me," response, then it might be an idea to give the matter some thought. Also remember yesterday's disclaimer. I have only sold a handful of short stories. Please feel free to disregard this post as the crazed ramblings of a frustrated amateur writer. However, as I've been thinking about what makes novels work in the context of trying to make my next novel more appealing, I thought I'd share my conclusions here in case they're helpful or in case anyone has any better suggestions that I can apply!

Today I want to consider escapism. If you regard escapism as a dirty word, then please read no further, just scroll on to the next post. :)

I've never had any ambitions to write literary fiction. I generally read and therefore write popular fiction, more specifically genre (SF and fantasy). I personally see nothing wrong in reading to escape from our mundane existence to vicariously experience lives we can never know.

I suspect that those who condemn escapist reading just don't understand it or the readers. Firstly just because a novel possesses the ability to transport the reader to another world and make them forget their problems or helps them relax when they're exhausted and brain-fried after a long shift at work, it doesn't mean it's not well-written and thought provoking. Just because someone picks up an SF novel about human civilisation expanding throughout the universe on colony ships, it doesn't mean that they're stupid and that they'd be much better off reading some Lit Fic novel instead.

Despite what I said yesterday about novels needing to address current concerns, I still believe that if you have a Message or you want to expound some theory, then write an essay, for heaven's sake, not a novel. Novels are good at exploring situations, especially for exploring What if? questions. They're no good for explaining or expounding.

Escapist literature has been with since before the Victorians. Jane Austen sent up the sensational novels of her day in Northanger Abbey, but they were much loved by the readers. Sir Walter Scott enabled readers to escape to the Romantic Past. Writers like Tolkien, C S Lewis and Phillip Pulman show us fantastic worlds somewhat like, yet totally unlike ours. Other writers take a slightly different approach. Alan Garner and J K Rowling showed us that our own world might be stranger than we knew with elves still surviving in the Welsh forests and schools for wizards reached by a train departing from platform 9¾ at Kings Cross.

Also, as I'm sure we're already aware, readers looking for escapism don't just want comfy and fluffy. (I think this is where the people who don't get escapism go wrong) There are no doubt some who do. They're the people who in real life just want an all-details-arranged package holiday where they can lie in the sun by a swimming pool and sip pina coladas all day. (And heaven knows, there's a place even for that at times!) But a lot of people go on real life adventure holidays and many readers want the fictional equivalent. They want places that are genuinely new and strange. Even if they're similar to places they've visited before, they want something a little different, something new to discover. These places shouldn't be too safe either. A bit of vicarious suffering adds to the enjoyment.

This, of course, is where it gets tricky. Events that to one person are merely a bit of hardship might be a horrendous ordeal to another. Just as in real life, so it goes with the novel.

I do feel though that some writers, especially those who fancy they're at the more literary end of the genre feel that the more suffering and doom and gloom they pile on, the "better" the novel is in terms of literary merit. Personally, though I thought Gormenghast was wonderfully written and astoundingly vivid, I've never re-read it whereas I have read The Lord of the Rings many times and will no doubt read it several more times in the future. (Just as a data point so you know whereabouts on the scale I sit, Mary Gentle's Ash was at the extreme edge of my tolerance for grit, gloom and despair in novels. A bit less would have been better IMHO, more than that, forget it!)

So would a reader -- perhaps someone who's feverish and achy from 'flu or someone who can't sleep because they're worried about something totally beyond their control (such as the health of a loved one) -- would that someone find that they were transported beyond their present existence to a place that will delight, enchant and perhaps even terrify them?

Looking at my own novels, this is definitely one of my weak spots. Whatever I work on next, the escapist aspect is something I really need to think hard and long about if I want to avoid my setting and background being too bland and generic.

[1] And I think the greats like Lord of the Rings do hit all the targets. I'm sure it was done completely without conscious thought or planning on Tolkien's part, but he did it. However some of us don't have his genius and therefore have to work consciously on some aspects of our writing.

Tags: what sells?

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