THE CODE OF THE WARRENS
by James Lincoln Warren
Since my installation a week ago last Saturday as Master of my Masonic lodge (I’m the fat gray-haired beamish eminence seated in the center), I have found myself more occupied than a ping-pong player in a contest with the goddess Kali of the eight arms. Luckily, I’ve been able to hit all my deadlines so far, including today, but I will be very glad when things settle down a little.
Although taking on this office was “of my own free will and accord,” as we Masons like to say, by accepting it I have to a large degree surrendered to the vagaries of necessity, and so have little or no choice but to get things done as each task comes due. To do otherwise would be to abrogate my responsibilities to the brothers who voted me in, and who have every expectation that I will govern the lodge properly and to the best of my ability. Choosing to violate a trust is no choice at all.
Reflecting on this made me think of my responsibilities as a writer to the Gentle Reader. I think most of these are simply stated.
- I promise to do everything I can not to waste the reader’s time. A professional writer expects money for his efforts. Although it may seem that he’s being rewarded for his efforts in producing a work, an artifact comprising words if you will, in my opinion what he is really being paid for is the time that reading his work takes from the lives of his audience. I get paid by the word, not for the labor required to turn an idea into a story, nor for any eloquence in telling the story. The effort and wordsmithy must be of a high enough order to convince an editor to cut a check, true, but what that editor really wants is for the reader to keep reading once he starts, in other words, for the reader to believe that perusing the magazine or anthology is the best use of his time at that moment. Time is the one thing that once taken away, can never be returned.
- I promise that I will never phone it in. Some series have legions of fans who seem to want the same thing over and over again. I’ve written before that I think that writing fiction is a balancing act between convention and invention, but sometimes it seems that convention without invention can commercially carry the day. The readers who love their never-changing series do not feel they are wasting their time, but any writer with any conscience at all should try to give his readers more than they expect. This is why John, for example, says he doesn’t believe that one should write for a specific market, because that leads to formulaic writing.
- I promise never to bite off more than the reader can chew. Writers are notorious for falling in love with their own work and being immune to the best critical advice, and I am no exception. But I try to be. Just because I love some exotic dish is not a good reason to serve it to everybody else. I touched on this topic in a column a few years ago, which the Gentle Reader may find here. Likewise, just because a writer has spent a lot of time uncovering arcane information that he finds fascinating is no reason to get didactic. Nobody likes to be preached at unless they are expecting a sermon. Readers of detective fiction rarely expect sermons.
- I promise never to violate my own standards for the sake of expedience. While I firmly believe that writing is much more about the reader than it is about the byline, and that a prudential sense of compromise is essential to any social endeavor (and there is nothing more social than communicating), there are some things, to quote Churchill, “up with which I will not put.” In the end, my name does go below the title, and what follows willy-nilly informs the reader something about me personally. Just as I owe it to the reader not to waste his time, I owe it to myself to present as clear an indication of who I am and what I stand for as I can in my work.
- I promise not to stretch the reader’s credibility beyond the breaking point. If I’m writing a fantasy, it goes without saying that I am going to introduce elements that are clearly contrary to fact, that go beyond the simple “what if . . . ” premise common to all fiction. This is what Coleridge meant when he coined the phrase, “willing suspension of disbelief.” But if internal consistency is violated, that is a major crime on the part of the writer. For example, I read a famous fantasy novel not too long ago wherein the protagonist possessed certain magical powers; one of them included having access to money whenever he wished for it. In the book’s immediate sequel, though, that same character seems to have lost that particular skill and needs to collect diamonds in a remote land to pay for his plans. That bugged me. It was sloppy. Likewise, I’ll bet I was not the only one rolling my eyes when Rambo jumped out of a body of water onto a hovering helicopter in the second film of that series. Have you ever tried to jump from underwater onto anything?
That will do for now, since I think I said something about not wasting your time. It might be instructive, though, to hear from you so you can tell me what you think a writer’s responsibilities are.