I haven’t been posting many text fragments lately… becoming more of an e-books person has helped me to fall out of the habit of collecting them. But since I’m working on reading more I want to get back into this habit, and I also want to post some of the lovely bits and pieces I’ve collected but never posted. And one of my favorites–even though it’s very short–is this crisp, elegant, utterly perfect image from Samuel R. Delaney.
The moon, revealed once more, was a polished bone joint jammed on the sky.
–Samuel R. Delaney, THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION
What I admire about this is that it has the economy and precision of poetry–it needs nothing more than what it already has.
There is a catchy phrase that comes up in various types of motivational speaking:
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
I’ve known this one for awhile, and as far as fortune-cookie delivered Life Lessons go, I agree with the underlying philosophy. But K and I were walking in the West End last weekend, and we came upon a commercial sandwich board with this taped on it:
“If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.”
Also catchy, and in some ways the exact same message, but I’m fascinated by the difference in nuance that comes with the altered wording. The first has such a freight of passivity: the ‘you’ is getting something–presumably something they no longer want, or maybe never did. My imagination is offering up a steaming bucket of something from a stable-mucking, delivered weekly to your door.
The second, meanwhile is about wanting something new. It’s about running to, rather than running away.
Both get the general idea across quite succinctly–but the latter phrasing is more positive, more of a call to action. In comparison, the first is a bit of a finger wag, a lecture from a judgmental imaginary parent figure. “If you’re just gonna insist on playing your electric guitar in the hot tub, young fella, don’t come crying to me when you do the electric boogaloo.”
It is easy to imagine the one phrase as a draft and the other as revision, the one as good enough wording and the second as a perfected version, as final copy. It’s especially easy because, as writers, we frown on certain types of linguistic passiveness. In reality, they are two different takes on the same idea, gleaned from different sources.
Still. It may be useful to think of them that way, perhaps especially when we talk about making our characters more active. Are they getting what they always got when they’re meant to be pulling a novel forward? Do they want something they never had? Do they want anything at all?
Finally, how do you shift them to chasing their desires, if what they’ve really been doing is just opening up the door every morning to see what life has handed them?
On another topic, word metrics on the current wip: Saturday, 450 words. Sunday, 822.
My Spring 2011 Novel III class starts up next Wednesday and it’s about a fifty/fifty mix of students I’ve had in earlier classes and people I’ve never met before. It’ll be interesting to see what that’s like: half the projects will be new to me, and the others will be novels I’ve looked at quite closely.
One of the things I do with these classes is sift useful links from the flow of the Twitternets and other places and post them as guest lectures. Some are so valuable that I post them pretty much every time . . . which means they’ll be reruns for the folks who’ve taken my fall class.
I thought, for the sake of interest, I’d look at the links I considered postworthy last quarter. There’s a lot of them, and some were things I looked up as discussions progressed, so if it feels like the context is lacking, that’s why. There’s some interesting stuff here, and you all know a lot came up in the past quarter that could have gone on the list too, but this is what ended up hitting my classroom. Feel free to propose your faves in comments.
Scott Edelman – fifteen minute video, “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing”
Juliette Wade – Character-driven approach to kissing and sex scenes
Jay Lake – Producing Story
Kay Kenyon – The Mush Factor
Jon Sprunk – The Journey from Seedling to Bookshelf
Jane Friedman – You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!
Sonya Chung – Writing Across Gender (This essay quotes the sex scene from BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, so maybe don’t read it at work.)
Chuck Wendig – Storytelling and the Art of Sadness
Three from Cat Rambo – Three strategies for snaring the senses, Five things to do in your first three paragraphs, and Why Titles Matter.
Nicola Griffith – Narrative Grammar – An Exercise
Suzannah Windsor Freeman – Seven Tasks to Bridge your First and Second Drafts
Joe McKinney – Rules for Writing about Cops
Revision and editing
Jan Winburn – How to Edit Your Way to a Can’t-Miss Story (be sure to check out the slide show.)
June Casagrande – More Parsing Larsson
Marketing Books / The Publishing Industry:
Query Shark Blog –
Anna Kashina – Interview with editor Peter Stampfel
Charlie Stross – How Books are Made
Christina Thompson – How to Write a Book in Ten Easy… Years?
J.E. Fishman – Twelve Common Miscperceptions about Book Publishing
Stina Leicht – On Agents
YA Fantasy Guide – Interview with Agent Sarah Megibow
Colleen Lindsay – Word counts for fiction, all kinds of fiction
The ever-changing state of self and e-pubbing:
John Scalzi – ePubbing Bingo Card
James Maxey – Pouring Cold Water on Kindle-ing
Eli James – The Very Rich Indie Writer
Tonya Plank – Meet Amanda Hocking
Book View Cafe
Turning Research into Narrative
Steve Pinker – Ten minute video on Language as a window into human nature
Yasmine Galenorn – Research Notebook from Hell
Life as a Writer
Finally, two from John Scalzi – “Writers have as much (financial) sense as chimps on crack“, and a tough love link on work habits.
I have to admit, I am rather kicking myself. I decided a few months ago that this was a valid lecture topic for my Novel III class, which starts in the not too distant future. But who am I to lay down Pronouncements on Literachurrr? Where does one even begin?
Well, it’s easy to say what makes a book bad, and it’s also pretty easy, in my opinion, to say what doesn’t make a book bad, and so I think I’ll start there.
First, I’ll dispense with the most obvious thing, the thing (I would hope) that goes without saying, but I consider a book superbad if it is hate literature. If its point, in overt whole or in sneaky part, is to portray some given slice of humanity as somehow less able, less noble, or less capable of goodness than another, it is propaganda, and evil, and I want no part of it.
Moving on, I consider a book to be not quite good if its line by line writing is clumsy, even if the story is compelling enough that I read it through with some enjoyment.
I also consider a book not quite good if its story or protagonist bore me, even if the prose is beautiful.
The above two points are important because as one develops as a writer, it becomes incredibly useful to know how to separate enjoyment from quality. We all have moments when we enjoy something that we know, objectively, isn’t all that great. And I will tell you something else… there is not one thing wrong with that. In fact, I’ve recently posted a review of a well-known Stieg Larsson book here, and in it I write about how I liked it an awful lot, even though it’s seriously lacking in the prose department.
This next bit is one of those things that should go without saying, but so many people demonstrate that in fact it does need saying: I do not consider a book bad if I have not bleeping read it. This is true even if if it is something I’m pretty sure I won’t like. Along the same lines a book isn’t automatically bad because it’s a literary novel, or porn, or mystery, or a teen gothic romance with sparkling vampires, or sword and sorcery with frighteningly cheesy cover art, or fanfiction, or entirely written in haiku. As a matter of principle, I believe there is every genre of fiction offers the potential for artistic excellence.
The above covers the bad and the ugly pretty decently, I think, but I’m back to the original question: what makes a book good? I like to think my judgment is pretty decent. Even so, as I’ve already said, the thought of setting myself up as a big ol’ authority makes me uneasy. Hey, everyone is wrong now and then, right?
Never mind that: here I am, out on the limb. How’s this for a proposition? A book is good if it is nicely written, tells a good story, makes you think, and if it makes you feel something, whether that something is recognition, surprise, grief, or hilarity.
Finally, it’s good if it is memorable. My annual books read lists are full of novels I cannot recall at all. Pixies might as well have erased them from my brain. I can go back to reviews of some of them, and with that kind of a prod in hand I can sometimes remember: Oh, yeah, I quite enjoyed that at the time. If it passed without a trace, I say no: it may have been fun, but it wasn’t good.
Critical judgment, the ability to separate our notions of what we like from the issue of what is good, is a tricky and subjective thing. It is the difference between a gut reaction and an informed opinion. Party of the sticky terrain here is that the issue of quality comes loaded with all kinds of emotional baggage. How many times have you mentioned disliking something–a movie, an actor, whatever–only to find the person you’re speaking to reacting defensively, or as if they’re hurt?
We are raised, generally, to think ill of snobbery, and we take it personally when people we respect don’t like our favorite things. And if you’re the person who didn’t like your BFF’s favorite novel ever, you sometimes want to apologize for having been judgmental in the first place. After all, telling someone their beloved thing isn’t good may diminish the pleasure they take in it, right?
Then again, it might make them think–you can’t know.
But I’m not suggesting you start mowing through your friends and family members’ various sacred cows, pickin’ fights and revealing their flaws to the harsh inner light of your critical judgment. I am saying that the more you can learn to discern whether a book is well-crafted, the more critical tools you’ll have to apply to your own fiction, and to the work of any writer you’re trying to critique.
So… this judgment thing. Where does it come from?
Alan Bennett says it far better than I could in his excellent novella The Uncommon Reader.
…saw in the corner of the bookshelf the book by Ivy Compton-Burnett which she had borrowed from the travelling library and which Mr. Hutchings had given her all that time ago. It had been hard going and had nearly sent her to sleep then, she remembered, so perhaps it would do the trick again.
Far from it, and the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still but astringently so, with Dame Ivy’s no-nonsense tone reassuringly close to her own. And it occured to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks (they were hardly jokes) that she had not even noticed before.
In other words, developing your judgment is a matter of practice… and of practicing something that, in theory, you ought to already enjoy. It’s the same process one goes through if you’re trying to learn to appreciate chocolate, wine, cheese or anything else: you taste a lot of things, you pay attention, and you think about the experience. You discuss it with other people in the know; you see what other people are saying. You taste some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There are aspiring writers who don’t read, and I cannot help but find that a shame. Love of books and reading, of stories, is–I hope–the thing that draws people to writing. And once you’re drawn, I hope you want to write good books. Not books of a certain genre, necessarily, not books that Tell Important Stories!, not works of propaganda, but well-told interesting stories that reflect, to readers, what it is to be human.