The crack of a never opened spine, the yellowing pages of a well-loved classic, the endless words set in Garamond or Sabon or Times, there are so many things to love about bookshops. They are among my favourite places. The little independent with the personalised recommendation, the dusty second hand seller with the price penciled inside the cover, the giant chain with the smell of coffee from the onsite cafe, I can literally spend hours perusing any of them, looking at covers and blurbs and reading snippets of work from authors I've loved forever and authors I've never heard of.
There's also something about being in a bookshop that brings me down, and it's to do with being a writer, in particular one who is aspiring to have a novel on those shelves. I don't mean the self-doubt I think all authors suffer from, the feeling that maybe I'm never going to have a book in this shop. The doubt that someone will ever come in and browse and perhaps pick it up and read the blurb and have a flick through and after all that take it to the counter and shell out their hard earned, and even if I do get my books published and in stores and readers actually read them they might not like them and I'm not a real writer anyway, and on and on it goes. I think every author has these feelings and I think they should, they're good doubts to have, because they're motivating. These doubts push you to become a better writer. The question I'm actually referring to, the one that I often feel in a bookstore is, 'Do I really have something to add to all of this?'
The answer, though in the midst of the bookshop blues it's not always easy to see, is yes. Me, you, every writer has something to add to all the hundreds of thousands of books that are already out there and this is because of what I'll call the inner part of your writing. The part of your writing behind the words, the part of your writing that is actually you.
The skills we focus on teaching writers are the mechanics of the art, like training a basketball player to jump higher and higher and then teaching him how to slam dunk. Sure he'll be able to do it but what we marvel at when we see Michael Jordan or Lebron James is that something else, the flair with which they do it. So too are there two halves to writing, the part you can learn from Strunk and White, the part that comes from outside yourself, but there's also the flair you put into your writing, the part that makes it uniquely yours, the aspect of your writing that no one can teach you but yourself, the inner part.
Discovering this inner part to yourself and your writing is far more difficult but also far more important. Sure, you can take a story you've got an idea for and read a book on how to create characters, then read a book on writing good description, then read a book about how to squeeze it into a well-defined (and far too overused) story structure like The Hero's Journey, but what are you trying to say? What will make people finish the book and not just forget it forever?
We all care about different things, we all love and hate and are indifferent to differing parts of the world around us, religion, politics, social issues, football teams and fashion, we all have opinions. You have experiences to share and insights to provide, together story and language give you the vehicle with which to do that.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is 'write what you know.' To me this doesn't mean if you're a lawyer you should solely write courtroom dramas, (if that were the case where would we get the great works of science fiction and fantasy?) it means you should tap into your life experiences and draw from them your own unique perspective on universal human qualities such as fear and love. How does the protagonist in your epic space opera overcome his fear of flying in space? Maybe it's the same way you overcame your fear of flying. As an author you can, scratch that, you should make us feel what you felt in times of great pain, or joy, or fear. Draw on your experiences to connect with your reader.
What is it that you enjoy about your favourite works of fiction? Great characters, sure. Terrific plot, absolutely. Beautiful prose, of course. But if you step back from these more technical aspects of the book and really examine it, what is the effect of all this? I'd be surprised if you didn't say something about how that book made you feel, some emotional connection to it. There's something in that book that you consider a truth about life, a truth that author has helped you find. The writing of that author has allowed you to experience life through someone else.
"I'm just writing something to entertain people."
This is a statement I've heard writers make when they wish to dismiss discussions of theme or message in their work. At best this is being naive to the deeper power of language, at worst this is insulting to their possible readers. Of course we want to entertain, people would not read fiction if it wasn't entertaining but there's a misunderstanding here about what it is that entertains us. Sure the motorcycle chase up the back ramp of the taking-off cargo plane in that thriller you're reading was pretty awesome but the subtle scene in the kitchen where the mother realises her children have been kidnapped, that's what moved you emotionally. That's what made you feel what she felt.
I'm not suggesting what we set out to write is purely 'high literature', whatever that is, this is true of any genre. What elevates the best science fiction and fantasy is the way that fantastic world turns a mirror to our own world, the way the characters are still human (even when they're not) and the way they can show us their life lessons and we can apply them to ourselves.
This may all sound like a bit of arm waving black magic hocus-pocus, but it's not. It's simply acknowledging the ability of story to generate emotion and understanding, after all that's the whole point isn't it? As you set out to write, be it novel, short-story, screenplay or poetry, think about what you're trying to share with your reader beyond simple entertainment. What will they feel and discover when your words are in their head? You can label it theme if you'd like, but consider the inner part of your work. You may not even be aware of what you're trying to say until you've written the first draft, but then when you embark on re-writing, before you consider reshaping dialogue and tightening prose consider the emotional story you're trying to convey, what's the point of the whole thing? If you can find what you're saying in the work and shape this just as much as you do the characters or plot your work will be more satisfying to you and certainly more satisfying to your reader.
By honestly sharing your view of the world you will ensure your writing adds to everything that is already out there. You can walk through the smell of fresh books and the quiet contemplation of a book shop safe in the knowledge that there is always space for more.