Bear with me on this one, because I’m going to wander a bit.
First, there’s a great new post from Chuck Wendig up: Writing Is A Profane, Irrational, Imperfect Act
Here’s a quick quote from the article that I loved:
“Those who try to master perfection will always fall to those who iterate, and reiterate, and create, and recreate.”
It’s a good article in general about how you’ll never write the story that’s in your head. That the whole process of taking an idea and putting it into words creates a flawed product.
It was this quote that has me going off on another tangent, though:
“…to get our stories out of our heads and into your heads we first need to translate them into mundane language. And when you translate one language into another, you introduce imperfections, inaccuracies, misunderstandings.”
I recently took some classes from Dean Wesley Smith. (That were excellent, by the way.) One of the things he talks about is that when writers get good enough they control the readers’ experience of the story. They find a way to project to the reader the specific story they want to tell the reader.
When he said that, though, it sat wrong with me.
Because I think there may be another level of storytelling above that. And it goes back to Wendig’s quote above in an indirect way.
I think that the best writers actually find a way to tell five stories at once. Or hundreds of stories at once. They tell so many stories that something in what they’ve written appeals to everyone. But it’s not the same story for each reader.
I think of Tolstoy when I think of this. (Admittedly, it’s been twenty-five plus years since I read War and Peace or Anna Karenina. The luxury of youth to read books like that.)
On one level those books are about Russian history. They’re a snapshot of Russia during a certain period of time. They’re a cultural and social study.
But Tolstoy’s religious beliefs are woven throughout the novels as well, so they can also be read for their philosophical and religious content. (I have whole paragraphs of War and Peace highlighted for that reason.)
And then they’re about people. Tragedy, romance, war, struggle. It’s all there.
If I were to actually go back and read them again, I’m sure I’d find even more layers. More entry points for readers.
Now, granted, when you think of a book that appeals to a wide array of people War and Peace doesn’t top the list.
But I think that maybe the best novelists, the ones who sell millions of copies and continue to sell copies for decades or centuries after they die, are the ones who manage to touch hundreds of readers.
Not by finding a way to nail down ONE vision or ONE story and force that onto all their readers, but the ones who manage to tell so many stories in that one set of words that everyone can find something in there that appeals to them.
And maybe it’s not about the words, but about the spaces between the words. Maybe that’s how a writer manages to take what’s in their head and pass it across to a reader. By leaving space for that magic to happen instead of putting so many words between them and the reader that there’s no space for the story to breathe in.