I received an online comment from someone who admired my ‘eclectic mind’, to which I replied that I was simply a scatterbrain.
The brain is a selective organ. Some receive data but don’t sense atmospheres, others over-empathise without understanding facts. It seems that when we are young we’re generally emotional and impulsive, and as we age we become more reserved, conservative and impassive.
It’s a problem that’s compounded for writers. We know that if we feel proud of writing a factually accurate story, the reader is bound to say that she liked the part with the small boy. There’s a reason why people knit baby bootees for the fictitious children of soap characters. Stories humanise and allow for identification, which is possibly why literary SF has never really broken out of its ghetto; stories about world-building rarely suit the human scale of emotional conflict.
When I go to the cinema with a friend who’s an art director, we effectively see two different films; I’ll come out praising the witty script, he’ll say there was too much blue and green. With a book the points of view are spread even further apart, as you’ll know if you look at the reviews on GoodReads. What I take away from a novel may not be the part that appeals to you.
When I write Bryant & May novels, I drop back into the series’ characters with ease because they’re old friends. But while I pride myself on plot mechanics, readers respond more to the two leads. I managed to genuinely upset readers a few books back when it looked as if Arthur would die. Me, I was concentrating on getting the plot structure right; it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that anyone was emotionally invested.
If all writers are either mappers or gardeners I’m the latter, hurling out seeds and harvesting the ones that grow. I rarely make notes, never practice before public speaking, and prefer extemporising. This is the opposite approach to the one most writers I know take. They’re meticulous and detailed in their planning. I prefer a pen and a napkin, and I’m always impatient to get started. This is a problem for me because right now we exist in a period of literary pedantry. Authors once assumed that readers would keep up with them (Aaron Sorkin writes film scripts that do this) and could leave their stories open-ended, or not explain characters, making them mysterious. Now we provide information overload, real characters and places, as if fiction is a step too far.
And according to surveys, it is. Many men don’t like fiction because they feel it feminises them. One of my readers explained why so many men now think reading fiction is effeminate. ‘It cultivates empathy, compassion, understanding, curiosity, respect, tenderness & love, emotions that are associated with women.’
Ideally, I would write a novel without any explanation at its end, but with enough emotional colour for you to be able to reach your own conclusions about the behaviour of the characters. It’s a hard trick to pull off. When readers say a book they’ve read is like a Greek tragedy, they mean it has a fatalistic outcome, that the story could only ever end one way. Mappers are best suited to creating this kind of drama. Scatterbrains are exciting to read but rarely create a perfect mosaic of a story.
But writing is best when you can tell the author is being honest. Patrick Quinten wrote the ‘Puzzle’ series of hardboiled detective stories, and I quickly noticed the author was lying to me. When I read ‘Puzzle For Puppets’, in which two lines are spent describing the detective’s wife and half a page is reserved for descriptions of the muscular marines in a San Francisco bathhouse, it was obvious the author was, quote, ‘not the marrying kind’. Authors should not try to hide their natural instincts.
Which gives me a problem. Thanks to the quirky folds of my brain I can recall that Alexander Pope’s dog was called Bounce, but I can’t tell the Brontes apart. I can cite Brigid Brophy’s sarcastic criticism of ‘Wuthering Heights’ but can’t recall the original. I’m more familiar with BS Johnson’s experimental work than with Austen’s novels. The best thing you can do as a scatterbrain is to find undreamt-of connections between disparate subjects – that’s the road to originality.