There are a lot of articles on the internet these days about “Life Hacks’. Ways to do things quickly, to get things over with so you can move on to the next thing and not waste any precious moments. Some of them are actually pretty cool and useful, but I am concerned that, as the pace of life becomes ever faster, we are losing our capacity to wait for things, to work for things, to enjoy the reward that comes after time spent moving towards something. You see it in queues, in shops and restaurants, people getting frustrated when they can’t have what they want straight away, instant gratification, constant moving between this screen and that screen, updating emails, Instagram, Facebook. Hack, hack, hack.
I’ve studied martial arts for many years and one of the basic tenets is that ‘The journey is the reward.’ That the years you spend training, improving your technique, working with other students, mastering breathing and focus and control and becoming the best person you can be, is the real reward. At the end of it, sure, you get a belt. A signifier of the journey taken, a signpost in the road. But black belt is only the beginning. There are levels above it requiring even more study and dedication. You can’t hack this stuff. And I believe that to be true of creative endeavours as well. Sure of course there are always going to be prodigies, people in whom talent shines so bright it is oozing from their pores at an early age, their lives dedicated to that one thing that fills them. But for most of us creativity grows and changes as we do – the things we can write or create or dream now are a product of our experiences, of the journey we’ve been on.
And I don’t think you can hack storytelling. I’ve been working on a series of books for a while and I suppose I thought of them as being young adult novels. But now I’m not so sure. I had a comment a while back about the pace of narrative, about holding the reader’s interest. Now I am very open to comments and consider everything seriously – I do believe constructive criticism to be an essential part of growth. But in this instance I had to disagree. There seems to be a trend in writing, certainly in young adult, where everything is sped up, action jumping off every page, the language fast and frenetic, barely giving the reader time to breathe before the next big event. And it’s exciting, of course it is. But it also makes the assumption that young adults need to be constantly entertained, that the culture of constant screen time and instant gratification means you have to rush along, writing as though updating a series of Facebook posts, hook after hook after hook. And this, to me, seems a hack. I believe a good story needs to take a reader on a journey, draw them into a world where the characters and the things they do are interesting as part of the narrative. Of course you have to keep things moving, keep them interested, but I don’t believe that all young adult readers (or any readers at all) need to be pulled along at breakneck speed. When you are creating a whole new world (as I am), you have to build it from the ground up. Not with pages and pages of description because snore… But the first few chapters have to lay the foundations, to draw you in and make you intrigued to discover more. Then, once the framework is in place your characters are free to move about within it. When I refer to The Long Walk I don’t need to describe it again – my readers already know what it means and where it is.
A long slow build up drawing you in can be just as rewarding as a crash bang wallop all the way through. Beta readers are a big help; they’ll tell you where the boring bits are. Mine are all hooked. ‘When is the next book coming along?’ Love it. I am working on the fourth instalment of Ambeth, five and six coming along behind it and have several people just waiting to see what happens next. Hope this translates to the larger world once it’s published.