by Bill Johnson
A difficulty in writing a first novel is for the writer to recognize the difference between creating a story meant to transport an audience and a story meant to process the feelings and issues of the writer.
Most people in this world are egocentric, which makes it easy to accumulate grievances and dark, angry feelings. In yoga, this is referred to as the eight meannesses of the Dark Heart. The eight meannesses are hatred, shame, fear, grief, condemnation, race prejudice, pride of pedigree, and a narrow sense of respectability.
When I read some manuscripts, I can say with certainty who the author hates, what they are ashamed of, what they fear, what they grieve, what they condemn, what races they hate, what lineage they feel pride about belonging to, and what they consider respectable. What the story is about, why I should care about what happens to the main character, the goal of the main character, or even that the story has some kind of point, not so much.
The typical signs that a writer is generating a manuscript from a dark heart is that the main character will be diffuse (because they are a vehicle for the author) and the minor characters will be the most lively people, because they will typically be fueled by the writer’s anger, need to condemn and to punish, etc.
Another sign, the most vivid, compelling writing will revolve around characters in the manuscript being tortured and murdered because they are symbolic to the author of the people who anger them, who they hate, who they fear, who they condemn for not acknowledging them.
I understand the need to write stories generated by my dark heart, but I’ve also learned to recognize them for what they are. When I finish them and recognize what I’ve created, I move on to writing a story meant for an audience.
If you’re getting the same feedback from skilled, perceptive readers about your main character not working and your minor characters taking over your manuscript, stop and think about the basics of telling a story: does something happen to set your story in motion? Is what your main character wants accessible to your audience, and important? Are you giving your audience a reason to care about what happens next to your main character?
Writing a novel is a tough gig. Trying to write a good manuscript weighed down by a dark heart can cloud your judgement.