Writing A Novel That’s More Interesting Than Facebook, by Jack Heath
The greatest strength of the novel is also its greatest weakness: it’s very, very old.
The novel was there to watch – and often comment on – the infancy of almost every other medium, from photography to cinema to television to video games. The few art forms which preceded it, such as painting, sculpture and theatre, are now mostly appreciated by a wealthy and educated few. The novel, meanwhile remains enjoyable to anyone who can read.
It could be that the novel is so ancient that we’ve forgotten its admittedly forgettable origin; a time-killing device, used by those on long voyages or trapped inside on rainy days. The only burden placed upon the first novelists was that their words had to be more interesting than whatever was taking place outside the reader’s window. It was under these circumstances that 900,000-word epics such as Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, were published.
Modern authors fight a different battle. As boredom is gradually eradicated from our society (fewer and fewer people are walking around without the internet in their pockets, and many of us now use earphones not to enjoy our own music but to block out someone else’s) the market for the time-killer novel has dwindled. If you find yourself waiting ten minutes for a train, will you open a copy of War and Peace, or will you pull out your iPhone and update your Facebook status?
The most fiercely-contested territory in this war is the teenage brain. Pre-teens are forced by their parents to read, and most people aged 25 and up have already developed healthy reading habits. But teenagers are old enough to make their own choices, and young enough to prefer new media to old.
An elderly person, raised on radio, may well choose to read Tolstoy. A middle-aged person might not, but if the book were Raymond Chandler’sThe Little Sister, which was written to compete with cinema, they might. Teenagers, meanwhile, need a book to be more interesting than video games or social media before they will open it. They need novels which are entertaining, rather than merely diverting.
It is telling that the most successful young-adult series of the last few years – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Alex Rider and others – are lacking some elements commonly found in classic novels. They have no lengthy passages about the weather, the shape of the land or the genealogy of the characters. They focus instead on the plots that the TV can’t articulate, sensations that video games can’t convey, and spectacle that Hollywood has no budget for (unless, of course, the film is based on a novel which was already a best-seller).
When I was writing Hit List, I paused after every paragraph to ask myself if a teenage reader would prefer to find out what happens next, or log in to Facebook. I would advise all my fellow young-adult authors to do the same.