One of the most important constants I have found in my time as a Polyphony HS editor has been that if the author does not know what they want to write, the final product will turn out poorly. This may seem obvious, but many a piece has come through the submission manager without meeting this criterion. Knowing what you want to write includes knowing what you want to convey to the reader, what your own strengths and weaknesses are, and what type of piece you wish to create. I will quickly focus on the last of these factors.
In my opinion, nearly all pieces of fiction fit along a one dimensional scale. At one end of the scale is “character/setting.” This means a focus on developing complex and realistic characters that can be related to or giving the reader a great feel for a specific geographic region. The highest purpose of this type of piece is simply to use the power of language as a chisel to create a skillful sculpture of words. What the reader may take from that sculpture is secondary. Don Delillo’s “Underworld” is a great example of this type of piece (for those readers of last week’s blog, by the way, “Underworld” is a very strong title). Delillo certainly develops themes, etc., but he is really focused on the language itself and the world he forms.
At the other end of the scale is “philosophy/ideas.” This means a focus on the overarching themes. The piece is trying to be convincing and didactic. The individual pieces are really not as important as the overall concept (which is somewhat ironic, given the following example). Most political writings fall into this category. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” (Amazing title) is a perfect example. The writing is not “pretty” and the characters have one dimension. But you will not read any ten pages of the work without knowing what Rand is trying to say.
There are two caveats to the above points. First, almost all works lie somewhere in the middle of the scale. You should not try to force your piece to one side. Just know where it fits along the scale. Second, it is not necessary to know exactly what your goal is before you begin to write anything. Sometimes just a vague idea will do to get started. By the final draft, however, if you still don’t know the point of what you yourself wrote, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. I speak from experience, both as a reader of work that should have been better directed and as a common traveler myself from the conclusion of a piece back to the drawing board.