On Writing 2: The Man Behind the Curtain.

I’m a pretty straightforward guy. I say that with a little bit of my tongue in my cheek because I’m a fairly accomplished liar. Working for years in the intelligence community will do that for you. It’s definitely a learned skill though, not one that I was born with.

Author’s are accomplished liars. That statement is true on many levels. Fictioneers get paid to make stuff up that is patently not true. Lying, making up stories, is what we do, by definition. At the same time, everyone knows it’s all lies so we’re not deceiving anyone.

But authors are liars in another sense too. We deliberately mislead and deceive our readers. Lately, I’ve been thinking of this as ‘operating behind the curtain.’ And I’ve been thinking about it because I am not comfortable operating behind the curtain yet, as an author.

There’s something in me that feels that if I know it, the reader should know it. I think it comes from being a reader for so long that I naturally occupy the reader headspace. In the reader headspace the reader must know at least as much as the characters know, usually more, or the story feels false and contrived. An author who lets his characters know something that the reader doesn’t and uses that to build tension or mystery is breaking the agreement that I, as a reader, expect him to adhere to. I hate it when authors do it and I really don’t want to do it as an author. It leads me to feel that if I, the author, know it, the reader should know it. But that’s obviously ridiculous when I say it out loud like that.

This gets particularly silly when I feel that I should be surprised, as a reader would be, by my own stories. It’s not something I do consciously, but I’ve started to identify this tendency in myself as an author. Heck, looking back, it makes it obvious why I didn’t know how my first novel was going to end until I was actually faced with writing the last few chapters. Discovering this about myself is good in a ‘knowing is half the battle’ kind of way, but also bad in that it’s a problem I have, since it binds my hands as an author.

Intellectually I know that an author manipulates his readers through misdirection and manipulation but I’ve been having trouble doing it. I daresay Tolkien knew Gandalf wasn’t really dead, or at least that he would come back, long before he wrote that bit. Operating behind the curtain, keeping secrets from the reader, is something I have been unconsciously avoiding when, as an author, I should be embracing it.

As I say, now that I can see what I’ve been doing I can fix it. Heck, I can turn it into a strength. I thought it was interesting, though, that I had the trouble in the first place, considering how much I lie.

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