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The grey stuff

As a species we do a lot of thinking. It’s our big thing. It’s what got us to the top of the food chain, enabling us to render other species extinct, and pollute the environment that nurtures us. For all this thinking, we think so highly of, we are no better than a virus, destroying our host. That’s what thinking gets you. So, in what do we place our hope for survival? Scientists will think of a solution. So far, the signs aren’t good. Thinking is over-rated. People look at a dog and wonder what it's thinking. Probably not much is the answer. But that’s not a bad thing, doesn’t make it a lesser creature, I refer you to the above.

When you read a book, do you think about every word, do you examine all those funny dots and squiggles that combine to facilitate remote communication? Because if you do, you aren’t reading, you are studying. Reading is all about absorption, diving into the world created by the text, not standing back and examining it. Reading is about emotion, not intellect.

Great swathes of a novel are simply grey stuff that add space between the half a dozen major (if you are lucky) plot points. Einstein explained time as being necessary to stop everything happening at once. In seeming contradiction, Elmore Leonard said you should leave out the bits people won’t read. Do that and books would be slim indeed. Not his, I hasten to add. Writers must reconcile themselves to the inevitable and obvious. Readers won’t read (as in register, understand and retain) every word. Who knows what the average is? I’d guess its way less than 10%.

The best a novel can do is convey a mood. And that has very little to do with academic reading. Writers may cherish every one of their words, readers won’t. But that’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way we are. How we process the complex interaction between intellect and emotion, stimulated by all those dots and squiggles on the page. Thinking gives birth to communication, gives birth to verbalisation, gives birth to the written word. Dogs don’t write. They don’t have to. They are already excellent communicators. They make sounds which bypass our intellect, to resonate directly with our intuitive core. If a dog is anxious the sounds it makes are unmistakable. If humans are anxious, they express their mood in words. But all they are doing is making sounds. Another human will concentrate on the words, missing the underlying anxiety. Sometimes words get in the way of communication.

Why do I think this rat’s nest of thoughts of interest to writers? Sometimes what you write, the logic of it, the rationale, is not important. What is important are abstractions: sounds, shapes, density, texture, rhythm, flow. No one expects a music composer to be literal, why should we expect that of a writer? If you are portraying anxiety, you don’t have to have your character articulating the cause. You write in such a way that communicates the mood, knowing that not every word, sentence, or paragraph will be retained, or even registered. But, if you are skilful, the way you shape your novel will generate the appropriate mood at the appropriate moment, and amplify your key plot points when they eventually occur. And that, incidentally, is why adverbs should be used with restraint, if at all. He said, anxiously.

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