We have a Dark Angels writers discussion group organised by Richard Pelletier of Lucid Content in Seattle. Richard’s a terrific writer and photographer. Another dark angel, John Dodds of Air Products in Pennsylvania, recently asked the question of the group: “Why read fiction?” The photo here is John shot by Richard on our course in Oxford this April.
As the discussion developed over many weeks, my own recent experience has made me redirect the question to myself as “Why write fiction?” After all, I’ve been writing poems and stories for 26 projects as well as a novel for the Dark Angels collective, while continuing to write in the business world. Are the two worlds completely unrelated? Is one just an escape from the other? So my question became more specific: “Why, as a business writer, should you write fiction?” The short answer is to learn. But what have I learnt?
To be involved in the writing of a collective novel has been an extraordinary experience not just of writing but of reading. This week we are at an intriguing stage. The first draft of the novel is written. Now we – all fifteen dark angels writers involved – have a two-week pause to read the whole, to assess our chapters and characters in the context of the complete narrative. We are each writing in the voice of a character who plays a role in the story. Now we have a chance to see how other writers have interpreted the characters each of us initiated. And, of course, you see that the interaction changes the characters and the characters do develop a life of their own beyond your own imaginings. I find myself strangely affectionate towards the unlikable character I’ve created. Writing helps you see other people in a different way, it’s good for our humanity. That’s lesson one for me.
So we have fifteen characters with fifteen distinctive tones of voice. I don’t think you would describe any of those tones by the generic descriptions given to many brands. These voices are not simple, warm and fresh, as the brand world generally expects. What a liberating joy to try different approaches to tone of voice – lesson two.
Lesson three might be the pleasure that’s gained from surprise, time and again, both in the writing and the reading, I was caught by the surprise of an unexpected phrase, a character insight, a story twist. It made me realise even more clearly that if you want to be read, you need to keep surprising the reader. Yet the norm in the business world is to write the completely expected. But with no surprises, your reader might be snoozing and your writing isn’t working.
There’s a fourth lesson about point of view. We often talk about it, and advocate it, in workshops. But it’s never been brought home to me so forcibly before as it has been by the collective novel. The characters have their own personal points of view, expressed to themselves. But the other characters see them differently, from different perspectives. There’s a fascination in the playing with perspectives.
Lesson five is about structure. The fact that we have a coherent novel written by fifteen writers is something of a miracle. I wondered at it. others wondered too. One of our writers – the brilliant Jonathan Holt – offered me an explanation the other day. “If the whole thing hangs together, a lot of the credit for that lies in the story outline. Working to prompts like that, to a fixed deadline, was a new experience for me, and one that I liked.”
Those are five lessons but there are many more. I’ve been saying that there is actually a book to be written about the process of writing the book. That will have to wait. First there is a novel to be edited, writing to be rewritten. There’s still time for you to support it – please do, we’re getting tantalisingly close to our target and you can help us get there.
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