Writing Fiction: The Truth Bone

The question that occurs to me as I watch someone singing a fantastically-flat version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ on X-Factor is, why don’t they know? When the producers at the real audition tell them they have been selected to appear before Simon Cowell et al, and they look around at the other contestants practising perfect octaves and superbly-choreographed routines, then catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror and fail to remember anyone ever telling them they can sing, why doesn’t it occur to them that they might be the sacrificial lambs for next-week’s show? Maybe they do know. Perhaps it’s the gung-ho, I’ll show them, spirit. Most likely, they have about as much self-awareness as the rest of us.

Six months into writing a new character for my novel, I am getting feedback that suggests she is working. As one fellow-writer said, ‘It feels as if you’re really enjoying writing her.’ I am. That should be the give-away, shouldn’t it? So, why did I spend six years writing the character she replaced, when I was repeatedly told by agents and editors that he was the weak spot? Partly, because I started the novel with him. And, as he was a version of myself, I had a strong emotional connection. Also, I kept producing writing about him that I was very proud of. Any advice to change the character, I interpreted as requiring a change to an aspect of him, rather starting again.

I produced eleven drafts of the novel before replacing him. At each, I must have felt that it was as good as I could get it. I certainly put the work in.

This is not just to say that the secret is to listen to what other people say. That would make it easy, wouldn’t it? There are more than enough examples of those who defied other people’s opinions and went on to write classics.

So, how do you know when what you are doing is the best that it can be? Probably, you don’t. There have been many useless artists who believed that what they had produced was genius, and many geniuses who killed themselves because they thought they were useless.

What I want is a truth bone. A simple emotional reaction that will tell me I am definitely on the right track. But I haven’t found it yet.

Clues might be consistent feedback from several respected quarters. Also, enjoyment. Not just having fun in the writing, but genuinely liking the characters, plots and descriptions. Most often, it’s trial and error. Learning hard lessons about what works and what doesn’t. But, it is easy for me to deceive myself, queuing up behind the X-Factor stage, never really knowing whether I’m going to get the bum’s rush or the standing O.

At the end of Ed Wood, the eponymous director sits at the premiere for his film Plan 9 from Outer Space. As viewers, we know that it will later be voted the worst film of all time. He stares at the screen with a broad, hopeful smile. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is the one I’ll be remembered for.’

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