Preparing the Feast
An author ought to consider himself, not as a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather as one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money. — Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Chapter 1
I began rereading Tom Jones yesterday, and as I read the first chapter I did nothing but smile, because I always knew I was a disciple of Fielding, but I had forgotten how much so. I agree with the above. The entire first chapter of Tom Jones is intrusive narration whereupon Fielding lectures us on what a novel should be. Really, he boils my entire philosophy down: there should be a “menu” as you enter so you know what to expect, that “the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author’s skill in well dressing it up.”
The first chapter of a novel is so critical. It sets the mood, the tone. More than anything else, it sets the expectation. I don’t think I’ve slaved over an introduction to anything as much as I slaved over the first scene of Special Delivery, especially that first line. I wanted the whole novel to revolve around it. I wanted it to be the lynchpin that the reader kept coming back to. And I wanted that first scene to make clear where we were going. It had a blow-job with a stranger on the bathroom floor. The chapter ends with the hero going to be fucked in an alley by a stranger. I did my damnedest to dress up that goose, trying to lure even the most reluctant of readers with my seasonings, with character and prose and pacing, but I also wanted readers to have a chance to bail if they knew there was no way anybody was ever going to get them to eat that kind of dish.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I did the menu right. Sometimes my openings aren’t what I want, but there comes a point when they are the best I can do. I’m still not wild about opening with a prolog in Dance With Me. But every attempt to do without had me either artificially dumping backstory or feeling like too much was unspoken. My editor, rightly so, was never exactly pleased with the infodump opening in Nowhere Ranch. Me either. But I couldn’t get anything else to work. And so I did my best with what I had. In both instances I tried to dress up my appetizers with garnish and seasoning, but people have commented that they were eating nothing more than won-tons for a little while.
I won’t ever stop trying to do my best on every book I do, but one thing has changed as I’ve gone from an author with no deadlines and a career only in her mind to attempting to pay down the credit card and buy school clothes with royalty money: I am becoming more and more permissive with myself to do the best I can and to allow things to slide which must. To acknowledge that even the clearest menu presented will sometimes leave my paying guests less satisfied than either of us would have liked. To admit that sometimes a lifetime is not enough to make a novel “right,” that “right” is an illusion worth for use in motivation only; it’s not a goal which can be achieved.
It’s for this reason when writers, especially the unpublished, send me manuscripts and ask, “Is it any good?” I wince. I can deal with “Does this work?” because it’s more to the point: Do you read this and feel a connection? But “is it any good” is a minefield. It implies that the field of perfection can be attained. That there is a judge and jury somewhere who can assure not just publication but acceptance by the audience. Sometimes I know the questioner means, “Does this work” or “Do you like it,” but I’m still leery, because people never believe me when I say that I’m picky. I am terribly picky. The number of favorite writers, in my genre and elsewhere, whom I dislike are huge. I’ll give you some of the more famous ones because they aren’t going to care. I dislike Twain. I cannot STAND Hemingway. In fact, I’ve only ever cared for a handful of famous American writers. I like Chabon to a point, but he’s too full of himself in his writing for me. I enjoyed the first three Harry Potter novels immensely, but I began to fall somewhat at number four, more so by five, and six was where she lost me utterly. I read seven mostly as a matter of course.
As I said. I’m terrible. I’m so picky it’s disgusting. As a reader, I am the ridiculous child who won’t touch new things on the plate without being tricked into them. But when I love a dish, I could eat it for the rest of my life.
I must love the voice and the pacing of a work, or I’m not interested. I must be surprised and delighted. I must find the characters real and vivid and enchanting (but I detest a list of physical description), and I must be able to map a sense of place in my mind. And so when I write, this is where I put my focus. The menu. The meat. The seasonings and spices, and perhaps most of all, the ambience. The ambiance is not the core of the meal, but it defines it. There are restaurants with excellent food I can’t eat at because the walls are too white, or the chairs are too stark. There are places with only average food served in a space that delights my senses so much I scarcely notice. There are authors others love whom I can’t stand because their voice is to sharp or loud, or I feel them trying to be clever or cute, or I sense their desperation, and then I just can’t go there. As I said, I’m awful.
I write for the readers who are as horribly picky as me.
I love the idea that I am an inn hostess preparing you a meal. I like it because it gives both of us so much power. You have the power to dine in my establishment or to decline. You might be swayed by your peers by their tales of what I serve. You might frequently check my menu until I prepare something you care for. For my part, I may set my own menu. If I chose to prepare a dish so obscure no one wishes to dine with me, that’s my right. If I chose to cater to the wishes of my customers, that is also my right–insofar as I have the skills, means, and supplies to accommodate them. I can also play. I can learn that certain dishes always appeal, but I can try to lure palates with side dishes and increasing hints of spices. I can make a study of my guests and tailor the ambiance. I can try to surprise my guests. I can do anything.
Writing can seem so lonely and complicated, but this metaphor not only serves as a light but a benchmark. My job is to prepare the food, advertise it, and then serve it as best as I can. Everything else falls to the reader, for without them the feast is empty.
I look forward to serving you many, many meals for as long as I am able, and I hope you bring your friends to the next feast.
The “food scene” from the movie adaptation of Tom Jones.