Lost Girl

I read a lot of genre fiction, but I’ve never quite had the patience to read literature. Read half of The Great Gatsby, lost interest. Read maybe a third of Tristram Shandy, lost interest. Tried Ulysses, didn’t get far. Liked Dickens, but Dickens was popular fiction, in his own day, in his own way.

Deciding to up my game, I sat down this week and actually read an entire novel by Henry James from start to finish. This is rather an accomplishment; even people who admire James will admit, if pressed, that at times his prose is nearly impenetrable. His sentences are long, laden with detours in the form of embedded clauses, and studded with abstract nouns whose point of reference is likely to be less than clear. If your eye skips past the word “as” early in the sentence, the grammar will fall apart on you. You’ll have to go back and read it again, more carefully this time. Also, there’s the pronoun problem. Two women and a girl are sitting at a table having lunch, and James is likely to use “she” or “her” quite casually, without troubling about the antecedent of the pronoun. He knew who he meant. If you don’t know, he leaves it up to you to puzzle it out.

His prose style has been compared to impressionist painting, but I’m not sure I buy that comparison. Granted, he’s often vague to the point of being gauzy, but I don’t think he was trying to be vague. I think he was trying to be absolutely precise, and in his own mind succeeding.

James was homosexual, and came of age during the Civil War in the U.S., at a time when it was simply impossible to be open about such things. He was also keenly perceptive and very, very bright. My guess about his prose is that from an early age he knew that it was unwise and unsafe to express his feelings, and for that reason developed the firm habit of processing the feelings through his intellect before allowing them to be seen or heard. When he tries to be precise about the emotions in a given scene, he calls on this habit in its most erudite form, and the result is almost to hide the emotions from the reader. Certainly to hide them from any but the most patient and attentive reader.

I have James’s complete works on Kindle. It was a free download; I don’t remember from where. The file opened to What Maisie Knew, so I read that.

It’s a painful downer of a story. Maisie is six years old at the start of the novel, and James doesn’t trouble about the exact chronology of the story; by the end she may be nine or ten. All of the adults in Maisie’s life are either self-involved or, in the case of the governess, Mrs. Wix, appallingly narrow-minded. Maisie gets batted around like a tennis ball. She has no friends her own age. The adults don’t trouble to explain to her what’s really going on. They’re all having affairs, that’s what’s going on, but of course in the Victorian era nobody was going to explain that to a little girl. The story is told from Maisie’s point of view, so the reader has to work it out. That part isn’t too tricky.

Sometimes the adults use Maisie for their own selfish ends. Sometimes they talk over her head and expect her to understand subtle implications of Victorian morality that are far beyond her. In the final scene, they demand that she choose which of them she will stay with — and of course she makes the wrong choice, because they’ve left her no choice at all. The end.

It’s creepy. It reminds me of the scene at the end of Chinatown where the old man leads the girl away, though without the sexual implication. Maisie isn’t a sexual victim, but she’s a social and emotional victim, which in my view is almost as bad. She’s a victim of Victorian morality and a bunch of spectacularly heedless adults — and it’s not entirely clear, at least from my first reading, that James even disapproved of that. He may have meant something entirely different by the story than what a modern reader sees.

I should probably try to find an essay online that would give me more insight into the story, but it’s so distasteful I’m not sure I want to wallow in it any further. I’d rather have another fling at Tristram Shandy.

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Cringeworthy

Are there any standards at all by which a novel can legitimately be judged? Or is the entirety of literature truly a flat and featureless plain on which each reader, and each writer, can with equal justification embrace his or her own tastes and perceptions, free of the need to grapple with anything that is difficult or uncongenial?

This is not an easy question to answer. I’ve been reading The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth. It’s tough sledding — sometimes thought-provoking but sometimes baffling. In the opening chapters, he deconstructs in an erudite and painstaking way some of the claims that have been made over the last century about what an author must, or must not, do in order to produce a great work. His thesis, to the extent I’ve been able to grasp it, seems to be that a novel has to be judged by its own standards, and not by too narrow a set of pre-ordained criteria.

Reading what Henry James, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky said about literature is worthwhile, certainly. If their view of literature is too narrow, it’s still far better informed than my own. But what would they say about a truly bad novel? What are the failures that will drag a work of fiction down — that will make it unreadable? I don’t mean failures of grammar, though those are distressingly common. Given that the sentences are reasonably constructed, what is it that makes a bad novel cringeworthy?

I’m going to propose that, at the core, what makes a novel bad is that it fails to depict the human experience. It falsifies. This can be done in several ways, I’m sure. Maybe later I’ll make a list.

I spotted this red flag tonight, or perhaps it was a red cape to charge at, as I was using Amazon’s lovely Look Inside feature to take a quick glance at a self-published fantasy novel. I would never have thought to look at this particular novel, and would have been happier, I’m sure, but someone (perhaps the writer herself, using a pseudonymous account) was promoting it on a Facebook group where I sometimes hang out. The promotion was flagrantly inept, and that piqued my curiosity. Could the book itself possibly be as inept as the promotional effort?

Yes, it could.

In the opening pages of Tansey Morgan’s The Labyrinth Queen, just published today and already “a smash hit” if you believe the promotion, Cailyn is about to be auctioned by her father to the highest bidder. We don’t know how old she is, but apparently she’s of marriageable age.

This could be a gripping moment. But alas, the tone of the opening entirely fails to confront the fact that young Cailyn is about to be raped by a stranger, and knows it. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Cool, autumn air rippled across the open window, pushing a handful of brown leaves into my chambers. The cool gentle breeze caressed my arms, causing my skin to prickle all over. I shut the window to keep the chill from invading my room any further, but it had made its mark on my body already, aggravating the unease welling in the pit of my stomach.

Tonight was the night of the auction — my father was going to sell me to the highest bidder from a room full of nobles and dignitaries — and I wasn’t ready.

On the other side of the window, beyond the palace walls, the town of Swiftstorm was beginning to come alive for the night’s festivities. Chimneys puffed tresses of white smoke, lanterns all around were being lit by the townspeople, and small store owners were setting up strings of flowers, lanterns, and wreaths in anticipation of the guests that would be arriving from far away castles and cities. Above the black roofs, clouds pregnant with rain threatened to split open and pour themselves out onto the land; surely a blessing for farmers, eager for the final harvest of the year.

The prose in this passage is not good. Note the repetition of “cool” in the opening paragraph, the fact that the breeze is blowing across the window rather than into it, and the unlikely business of a cool breeze on Cailyn’s arms giving her goose bumps “all over.” (She is wearing a corset. Goose bumps under a corset are, shall we say, not very likely.) Note the author’s failure to understand how farming works: I’m pretty sure farmers don’t want it to rain just before a harvest. You really don’t want your grain crops sodden. Note how the viewpoint leaves Cailyn in the third paragraph to tell the reader things she can’t possibly see.

Further on, we’ll learn that Cailyn’s father is the king of Swiftstorm. It’s not a nation, not even a city — he’s the king of a town. And Cailyn is getting dressed for the auction in a lovely gown, but there are no servants to help her. A princess with no servants?

Setting all that aside, however, the real failure of this opening is that the imagery is overwhelmingly positive. We have “gentle,” “caress,” “come alive,” “festivities,” “puffed tresses,” “strings of flowers,” “wreaths,” “pregnant” (!), “blessing,” and “eager.” Yet Cailyn is about to be sold by her father to a stranger, after which, we can be fairly certain, she will be raped.

And what is her reaction? “I wasn’t ready.” This is not ironic understatement. It’s a thousand-watt beacon shining down on the fact that Tansey Morgan is failing to depict Cailyn’s real emotional experience.

Morgan seems to want to have it both ways. She wants a dramatic, suspenseful opening that will draw the reader into the story, but she also wants to write a fluffy romance suitable for readers who are probably young and have a limited range of interests and experiences. As a result, the real emotional impact of being sold and raped is nowhere to be found.

Cailyn does seem to be not quite convinced about the whole business. She has “unease” in her tummy. But the unease is plainly less important to the author than the fluffy teen romance angle. Being raped is being portrayed as a romantic adventure, complete with corsets.

Think I’m overreacting? Here’s the description of our imperiled heroine:

I stepped up to the long mirror and inspected myself. I was the tallest sibling, taller than my sisters. Back [sic] hair fell around my shoulders like a cascade of darkness itself, perfectly framing my sharp, elfin features, almond shaped eyes, and my supple, supple lips; all qualities I didn’t feel deserving of.

Goes to show, you can’t trust spell-check. Her back hair is falling (upward?) around her shoulders and, in the process, framing her facial features. Is her face on her shoulder? And those supple, supple lips! She doesn’t think she deserves them, but I’m here to tell you, those supple lips are going to come in handy before long, one way or another.

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The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Nora Jemisin is a rising star in the world of fantasy. I’m enjoying her work, though not without reservations. I’ve just finished reading the Broken Earth trilogy, and now I’m starting on the two-volume Dreamblood story.

The Broken Earth story (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky) is an odd mix of fantasy and science fiction. At first it seems to be SF — a distant-future story in which plate tectonics have gotten out of hand. Eventually we learn that the iron core of the Earth is sentient and angry, the extent of the lead characters’ psychic powers becomes hard to reconcile with any sort of science, and some other characters are 40,000 years old and can travel through solid rock. So, fantasy. A couple of story elements are never properly explained, and the ending is slow and heavy-going, but by golly I made it all the way through.

I just wish somebody would sit Jemisin down and explain the basics of celestial mechanics to her.

The troubles in her future Earth are massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The human race is hanging on, but it’s not easy. At some point in the distant past, a high-tech attempt to harness the energy at the Earth’s core went horribly wrong, and the Moon was catapulted away, out of its comfortable orbit. The characters in the first book don’t even know what the word “Moon” means.

That’s not a bad premise. But somewhere along in Book 2 we learn that the Moon is not quite gone. Its orbit has become highly eccentric, but now and again it returns. Jemisin is a bit vague about how often this happens, but one set of historical documents tossed into the mix suggests it may happen every 30 or 40 years.

This makes no sense whatever, and for two reasons. First, if the Moon showed up every 30 or 40 years, the word would still have a meaning. People would darn well look up and see it. Even if it wasn’t visible this year, the fact that it was due to return would be known. But that idea is explicitly denied in Book 1.

The more serious problem is, of course, that such an orbit is impossible. A 40-year orbit would send the Moon out beyond the orbits of Jupiter (12 years) and Saturn (30 years). At that distance, the gravitational pull of the Earth would be insignificant. The Moon would be in a free orbit around the Sun, and no longer tethered to the Earth at all. Its path might occasionally bring it close to the Earth, but such occasions would be infrequent and would occur very irregularly.

So now I’m starting Dreamblood, and on page 17 of The Killing Moon she does it again. This book is clearly going to be a fantasy, with no SF overtones, but that’s not an excuse. Now we have a moon that is, for the most part, only visible at night. Here’s what she wrote, in what we’re to understand as a sort of creation myth of the world of the story (though given that the story is fantasy, I suppose we can’t rule out the possibility that the moon and sun are actually sentient beings — I’ll have to get back to you on that after I’ve read further):

Now they [the sun and moon] live apart as husband and wife, she in the night and he in the day. Always he longs for her, and the days shorten and lengthen as he strains to rise earlier, set later, all for a chance to glimpse her. With time she has grown fond of him, for he has been humble and well-behaved since their marriage. Every so often, she rises early so he can gaze upon her. Once in a great while she lets him catch up to her, and he darkens his face to please her, and they join in careful lovemaking. And sometimes in the night when he cannot see her, she misses his foolish antics and pines for him, and darkens her own face.

The last two sentences describe eclipses, and that’s all right. But the clear implication of the first part of the passage is that for years at a time the moon is only to be seen at night, though occasionally it may rise a little before sunset or not set until shortly after dawn.

Here again, the orbital dynamics are flatly impossible. A moon cannot possibly orbit in this manner. It would have to be essentially stationary, positioned on the night-side of the planet and orbiting the sun with exactly the same periodicity as the planet — except that once in a while it goes for a little trip and drifts around to the sun-side so there’s a solar eclipse.

If you’re going to write a novel in which a moon is mentioned, you have an obligation to get it right. The moon is not a literary device, to be tossed around however you please. It’s a great big ball of rock, and it obeys some rather simple physical laws.

I do realize that some knucklehead may feel obliged to respond, “But this is fantasy! Why not be creative with how the moon works?” Yes, well, even in fantasy the normal laws of physics have to be followed. If water flows uphill, it’s because a wizard or a god is doing something to make it flow uphill. It doesn’t just flow uphill because the author thought it would be a neat literary twist.

If the moon is coming and going like a yo-yo on a string, then a character in the story has to be holding the string and making it do that. If water runs uphill for no good reason, then we can expect a rabbit with a pocket-watch to come scurrying along at any moment, and a game of croquet using flamingos as mallets won’t be far behind.

Violating the laws of physics for no good reason is just sloppy writing. And when I see a really good writer indulge in sloppy writing, it pains me.

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Really?

I’ll admit it — whether I’m writing or reading, I’m a demon for realism. Different rules apply in the case of humor, of course. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are not remotely realistic, and who cares? But when a novel that purports to be serious sails blithely past realistic concerns, I get twitchy.

At the local used book store I picked up a copy of The Paradise War, by Stephen Lawhead. I had never heard of him. It’s book 1 of a trilogy (naturally). For a dollar, why not give it a try?

After reading 160-odd pages, I’m tossing it on the reject pile.

The reluctant lead character, Lewis Gillies, is a grad student at Oxford. Dragged off to Scotland by his roommate, he crawls into a cairn and is plummeted into the Otherworld, a sort of mythic archetypal realm that the ancient Celts knew about.

That’s a perfectly fine fantasy premise. One doesn’t demand realism of a fantasy premise. Only a few minutes later, Lewis finds himself trapped in the middle of a battlefield between two bunches of ancient Celtic warriors. You know the deal — swords, spears, shields, helmets, hacking and slashing, gore galore. He is rescued from being hacked or slashed by his roommate, Simon. Simon disappeared from Oxford mere weeks before (via the same cairn) but has been in the Otherworld for four years. Simon is now a valiant warrior, and speaks the ancient Celtic tongue like a native. Time slippage between our world and the faery world is not a problem. That’s standard fantasy stuff.

The warriors fighting alongside Simon win the battle. They then celebrate by getting drunk and heading home. They march for nine days and eventually reach the fortress compound of their king, where they are welcomed enthusiastically by all of the villagers or peasants or whatever the local folks are called. The king orders up a feast.

All this seems sensible enough, until you notice that Lawhead has written not one solitary word about any of the victorious warriors being killed or even injured. All that hacking and slashing, but nobody was hurt except the enemy? This is flatly unbelievable. Assuming that there were casualties, the problem shifts: Now we have a bunch of peasants who are whooping it up over a victory, and not one of them is in mourning about the loss of a father, a brother, or a son.

And then Simon tells Lewis that because this is the Otherworld, nobody gets old. Again, this is a standard bit of folklore about the world of Faery — as such, it’s not a problem. But it plays out weirdly. Lewis has already been thoroughly enchanted by the beauties of nature in this place, having apparently dismissed from his mind the severed head he was carrying around after the battle. (Don’t ask.) When Simon explains that people here don’t get old, Lewis instantly jumps to the idea that if he stays in this enchanted realm, he can live forever! Here’s the interior monologue: “Think long and hard, Lewis! What would you give to live forever in this shining land? Forever!”

Lewis, sweetie, I hate to break it to you, but you just saw a whole bunch of the local stalwarts being hacked and slashed and stabbed and disemboweled and beheaded. And yet you’re entranced by the thought that if you stay here, you’ll live forever.

Lawhead has sort of skirted the issue, or attempted to, with this bit shortly following the battle. Lewis is washing off the blood and grime in a river. “The horror of the previous day’s battle disappeared with the rusty stain streaming from my limbs; all fear and disgust dissolved in the blessed bath and flowed away. In no time, it seemed as if the carnage of the day before had never happened, as if the slaughter was but a troubled dream that evaporated in the dawn’s clear light.”

Lewis is not a nincompoop, he’s a grad student at Oxford. That being the case, it appears his thinking is being warped because he’s in dreamland. Yet the locals’ failure to react to their loved ones’ deaths is still a big pill for the reader to swallow. If nobody’s death matters in the Otherworld, then who cares whether there’s a battle? The severed heads might as well be pumpkins. Heck, for all we know maybe they¬†are pumpkins. One way or another, it’s pretty clear Lawhead doesn’t give a flying crap one way or another about wholesale slaughter. It’s not real to him, it’s just fantasy furniture, no different from the gold jewelry the king wears.

This is my real objection to the story: It glorifies combat and slaughter. Writers who glorify combat are beneath contempt. Their work should not be read.

Oh, and during that bath in the river, Lewis shaves (with no lather, and using a blade he has never handled before) by watching his reflection in the water. Yeah, right. River water. Flowing river water. With ripples. His reflection. Shaving. Right.

This one is going straight back to the used book store.

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Drawn In or Drawn Out

A six-novel series is a large canvas. If the opening pages seem leisurely, we should cut the author some slack. But after 150 pages of The Broken Crown, which is book 1 of Michelle West’s Sun Sword series, I’m ready to pack it in. A glance at the book’s failings may, I hope, be instructive for other writers. So let’s go for it.

In the first 25 pages we meet a young woman, a healer, who is kidnapped by a charming demon, locked up in a stone tower, and raped. At the end of the chapter she’s pregnant. Then we switch to a different character. We get 30 pages from the point of view of an older peasant woman whose visitor (the aforementioned demon) presents her with a new-born baby to take care of, the implication being that the mother from chapter 1 is now dead.

This opening has rather the flavor of a fairy tale, though it’s grim. But then West pulls the rug out from under us. The next 100 pages have nothing whatever to do with these characters. Instead, we’re plunged into a stew of palace intrigue. The culture is highly formalized. The main character is an upper-class woman of 32. Not being married, she is in charge of her brother’s harem. Her brother is shortly to undergo some sort of dangerous test. Her brother’s daughter, though only four years old, is a gifted singer, and that puts the little girl in great danger, for some reason that isn’t clear. There is a masked festival. There are rumors of war.

The first difficulty with this material is that there aren’t any likable characters. We were maybe starting to like the young healer who was kidnapped, but she’s out of the picture. The upper-class woman in the first long section orders a murder rather casually, and her other actions are so highly formal that she comes across as stiff. Her demeanor may be appropriate to her culture, but for that precise reason it’s hard for a modern reader to identify with. Writers who toss a lead character into a highly formal courtly environment quite often make the character a rebel with a more modern attitude (which not infrequently gets her in trouble). This may be a cliche, but it’s a smart strategy because it lets us relate to the character.

The second difficulty is that West spends most of her time focusing on — obsessing about, really — the characters’ inner lives, and seldom bothers to paint a visual picture of the place where a scene is occurring.

Here’s an example. One of the harem wives has suffered a miscarriage, and is dying. The only description of the room in which this takes place is as follows: “The silks and the cushions were covered in blood.” That’s the whole description. A healer has been called, but for some reason he doesn’t want to do the healing. At this point, a masked stranger climbs in the window (it’s the night of the festival, that’s why the mask, and he’s also a bard) and orders the healer to proceed with the healing. The upper-class woman, whose name is Serra Teresa, has tried to have the stranger assassinated only an hour before, for no very clear reason, and he knows it. But suddenly he’s being helpful, again for no very clear reason:

“Who is she?” the healer cried. “Who is she, to merit this?” [By which he means, to merit being healed when she’s dying. As if that were a legitimate question for a healer to ask.]

But the stranger had no answer to give the healer. Instead, he looked to the Serra Teresa, nodding his head before she could see the expression in the deep-set eyes of the mask — of the many masks — he wore.

He understood loss. He understood love. He understood what a bard [that is, another bard she has told him about] had cost her; understood that she could not, cleanly, hate the man, that she had grown attached enough to someone who understood her gift and its compulsion that she still mourned his death beneath the surface of her ever-present resentment of the fact that his well-meaning interference had taken from her the life that she’d been groomed and trained for — the one chance that she had to be more than a “child” in someone else’s harem. And he understood what Alora [her brother’s wife, who died several years before] had given her in its place, and what Alora’s loss meant.

Alora’s death. And she had never mentioned Alora’s death.

Was she a simple child, a simple girl, to be so moved by understanding? Was she a weak and simpering innocent, to crave so desperately a thing which made her so vulnerable?

It goes on like that. That’s just the first half of the passage that follows the healer’s blurted question. Quite aside from the dreadfully confusing structure of that long sentence, quite aside from the uncertainty of the viewpoint — whose thoughts and feelings are we reading about? — all of this blark gets dumped into the reader’s lap in the midst of a dramatic scene where a woman lying on a bed is bleeding to death.

The third difficulty is that the opening 150 pages give us no hint of a fresh imaginative premise that could capture our attention. There is mention in the opening chapter of the Night Lord, who seems to be a major demon, but big-ass demons are not a new idea, and labyrinthine tales of palace intrigue are a dime a dozen. Possibly West is setting the stage for something marvelous, but if so, she has hidden it too well. We’re not drawn in.

So there are your writing tips for today. In any novel, whether or not it’s going to be 4,000 pages long, it’s advisable to introduce a likable character, preferably within the first few pages. In the opening of a fantasy novel it’s probably a good idea to give the reader a glimpse of something fresh or unusual. In any chapter of any novel, it’s highly desirable to describe the physical locations in which the scenes are taking place. And please resist the temptation to dump long drawn-out paragraphs of emotional insight into the midst of action scenes.

 

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Are We Being Creative Yet?

Creativity is when you create something. Something that didn’t exist before.

That’s glaringly obvious — or so one would think. Oddly enough, classical musicians seem a bit confused on the subject. Writers of fiction have no trouble understanding it. If you’re a writer, you start with a blank page (or, these days, a blank computer window) and fill it with words. Your own words, for better or for worse. In consequence, today’s rant will have limited meaning for writers. I just need to blow off a little steam.

Today I tumbled into one of those pointless, irritating Facebook discussions with someone I’ve never met. A friend of a friend. We’re both classical cellists, but I have a few other arrows in my quiver. I mentioned that when you’re playing in an orchestra, you’re a foot soldier. The conductor gives you your marching orders, first by putting a bunch of pages of dots in front of you and then by waving a stick. Your job, as an orchestral musician, is to march — hup, hup, hup. If you give way to the urge to improvise, you will find yourself ushered politely out the door of the rehearsal hall. Or perhaps not so politely.

My friend didn’t get it. She honestly seems to feel that executing page after page of dots in the prescribed manner is somehow a creative act.

I likened this to reading aloud. If you read a story aloud to your kid, does that make you an author? Obviously not. There’s a concrete difference between reading aloud the words that someone else wrote, and writing some new sentences and paragraphs of your own. And in fact, there’s a lot more creativity in reading aloud than there is in playing in an orchestra. You can do the voices of the characters! You can whisper, or pause, or shout. You can wave your arms.

My friend respectfully disagreed. Belaboring the facts would have been pointless — she wasn’t going to get it. I gave up.

I suspect that many classical musicians, if not most of them, have a sort of emotional blind spot. They need to feel that they’re artists, not foot soldiers.

Don’t get me wrong. Playing in an orchestra can be enormously satisfying, not only musically but also socially. It’s a wonderful activity. But it’s not a creative activity. If you’re the conductor, or if you’re the soloist playing a concerto, a few tendrils of creative thought can (and should) creep in, even though you’re still executing the dots on the page. But not if you’re one of the players in the band.

The word “creativity” means what it means. You don’t get to redefine it in order to feel better about yourself.

In the course of 15 years playing cello in community orchestras, I believe there was exactly one time when I did anything creative. Specifically, there was one note that I played in a modestly creative manner. It was a low C in Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I knew it was an important note, a dramatic note. The conductor didn’t call for the cellos to do anything special with that note, but I added a crescendo and diminuendo to it — a volume swell to bring it out. I was only one of about ten cellists, and I’m pretty sure none of the others did it, but maybe someone in the audience noticed. Subliminally, if nothing else.

Other than that, no. It was 15 years of hup, hup, hup. Great musical experiences by the dozen, but not a crumb of creativity.

Writers — please don’t neglect to celebrate your freedom to be genuinely creative!

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Fear of Rewrites, Part II: Mixed Motives

In yesterday’s rant, I seem to have assumed that writers who don’t want to rewrite their fiction don’t care about their readers. That was a mistake. I’m pretty sure anybody who goes to the trouble of writing stories or novels hopes that readers will enjoy or be enthralled by what they’ve written.

The desire to be admired is a basic human instinct. We all have it; it’s part of our legacy as social animals. But — admired for what, exactly?

I suspect that authors who don’t want to rewrite view their work as a deep expression of their personal being — of their soul, if you like. They’re hoping to be admired for some inner quality that they possess: their unique vision, their keen intellect, their heartfelt understanding of human nature, whatever. The act of putting words on the page, in whatever shape or form those words come to them, is a deeply personal act. What they hope will be seen and appreciated is not the writing itself but the self as revealed in the writing.

As a result, when an editor suggests changes, the writer is likely to feel hurt. Disrespected. Not admired. The writer may feel that he or she must present the work in its original, pure, unalloyed form. Only when readers love and appreciate it in that form will the writer feel cherished and admired.

This is very natural and very human. But it’s not the only way to look at writing fiction.

Another whole class of writers — we might call them “the successful ones” — wishes to be admired for their prowess as storytellers. Naturally, it will be pleasant if readers appreciate their unique vision or their heartfelt understanding of human nature. But that’s just icing on the cake. The essential skill that they wish to demonstrate and for which they hope to be admired is the ability to tell a good story.

What constitutes a good story is of course an entirely different topic. We could have fascinating debates about that. Shakespeare was a great storyteller, and so was Erle Stanley Gardner, but their work could hardly have been more different. Gardner was a dreadful hack, the very antithesis of a poet, but as a storyteller he was quite adept. Let’s let that go for now.

Even the most ham-handed, hopeless amateur writer may feel that he or she is telling a good story! But bad writers who think that fall, I think, into one of two categories. Either they haven’t studied the craft of storytelling, or they’ve studied it but lack the intelligence to apply what they’ve studied.

Of those in the latter category, little more need be said. They’ll never be successful writers. For those in the former category there is, perhaps, hope. Some of them may never have been exposed to the cornucopia of how-to-write-fiction books. With a couple of years of study and practice (which will include rewriting!), they may improve. There are also, sadly, people who don’t want to read how-to-write books. They’re afraid that those books will ruin their unique vision. They’re afraid that they’ll start writing like everybody else — and then readers won’t love them for the deeply personal qualities they have poured onto the page.

That, my friends, is a recipe for failure.

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