Thursday, January 3, 2013

It's Not about the Means

The phrase, “the end justifies the means,” is usually spewed by some dark robed, mustachioed man in movies to explain why he did the things he did, giving him legitimate motivation for slaughtering a hundred peasants. It is an opinion that is made for the pure definition of “evil,” and rarely do we accept anyone saying it in reality.

When I talk about the “means” not being important, I am not promoting murder.

A book is the sum of its parts. Unlike math, when sticking two sums, or “means” together, the ends don’t always come out the same. Two different people could write the same exact story, yet have a huge gap in quality. Unlike reality, when a writer chose to focus on the ends, the worst that can happen is that he makes a bad book, which is why it is okay to pay attention to only the ends. The sums do not matter until they are together into a total.

If you have ever been criticized, and I’m sure you have, then there has been a point where someone has given you an idiotic criticism. Worse, is that you have probably heard something that you did not understand, that seemed to make absolutely no sense, or at least seemed to be incredibly inaccurate.

For instance, let’s take the word said. Said is a controversial topic in the writing world, because you have half of the teachers preaching “We should never use it!” and the other half teaching “We should only use it!”

But, when said like that, it is obviously wrong. The arguments are sound—said has the tendency to be extremely overused, but it is also one word that people really don’t pay attention to—its flaw has everything to do with the way they phrase it.

The problem with a lot of writing advice is that it is so simplified it becomes false. Don’t ever use said really means, “Don’t overuse said.” But for obvious reasons, a teacher can’t put it that way. What is overuse? How do I know when I am overusing it? It is easier for them to assume you are overusing it, tell you to stop all together, believe you won’t listen but will start paying attention, and thus come to a better balance. It’s not actually a terrible method—it can work—but it is one that teaches the student not to trust a damn word that professor says.

Why? Because all great books use said. You will not find a single one that never has the word, and you will be harder put to find one that only has the word.

Said is a sum. Said + Said + Said = Repetitive. Except the problem is, again, unlike math, the sum does not stay the same as each extra sum is added. Eight is always an eight, but Said + Complicated and Poetic Prose is different than Said + Simple and Succinct Prose. Which is to say “too many” saids has to do with other aspects of the story, and when one of those aspects changes, what is “too many” changes as well.

So when you receive that nonsensical criticism—oh say, you have too many characters—considering that they don’t care about that sum as much as the total will help you understand it. What is “too many”? There is no such thing as “too many.” Maybe you wanted exactly “that many.” Other books will have the exact same number of characters, and they don’t have “too many.”

Critics tend to phrase things in absolutes to inspire confidence and respect. People who are unsure of themselves are often ignored more than someone who is a great bullshit artist. The problem is that “too many” is a sum, not a total, but it affects the total, and the total is what you care about. Which means that the guy who sits in the writing group and works on being the most clever ass you’ve ever seen will be wrong about you using that specific means, but may be right in that it would be the easiest (most obvious) way to affect the end result.

It’s like this, the book did not turn out the way the critic thought it should. He believes that the best solution is to start cutting characters. He tells the author just exactly that. She, whose entire vision was wrapped around this number of characters, thinks he’s an idiot (rightly so.) However, she can still take into consideration how the critic “thought the book should turn out” and utilize that to understand the problem (i.e. what total he expected.) Then, and here’s the important part, though she does not want to start cutting characters, she can alter other sums she does not care about to achieve the total she wants. She realizes the total is “Boring.” She wants it to be “Entertaining.” So instead of cutting characters, she goes through, defines a protagonist, and puts him in more (if not all scenes) thereby making it more interesting because the reader is connected to this one character and not disjointed every time a story switches.

But then we get to the problem. Very few authors know what total they want.

It’s likely that you’ve had this exact feeling. You have no specific goal in how the book turns out, but you do know certain parts you want to put in. You write the book using these “sums” and then, at the end, you realize you don’t like it. Then you’re sitting there, stumped as to what you want to change and how you want to change it.

It’s like this: If an author doesn’t know approximately what total she’s aiming for, then it’s very hard to hit it. And, for the very reason that all the sums will change the moment she alters one, simple trial and error doesn’t work. Lastly, and most importantly, as more authors focus on thinking, “I want to use an eight,” and less time on thinking, “I want to get to 20,” they have a huge problem of calculating the right sums to use for three reasons. 1) The eight will change when we change the six next to it. 2) Eight might not be a beneficial sum. 3) Eight is an indication of the total they want to come to.

It’s like this. I have an idea for a love story. I want the setting to be dystopian (sum.) And I have this idea for this conversation that happens somewhere in the middle (sum.) Then I start writing. I have yet to have the real idea of how I want it to turn out, mostly because I want to leave my options open.

*Note that this is not a bad way to work, and I am not criticizing authors who behave in this manner. I am only trying to express how to fix the problems this specific method causes (and all methods will cause problems, so it doesn’t matter how you do it).

So I finish the book, and I don’t really like it. Now, first and foremost, having an idea of how it should have turned out would give me a clear direction how to fix it, but, like I said, most people don’t know that part. All I am aware of is I wanted that conversation.

So, first problem. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the conversation in the middle turned out exactly as pictured. But the scene before it is a little dull. So I pump it up with an action pack sequence. Yet, all of the sudden, the build up to the argument is gone and thus the passionate kiss doesn’t feel right. I didn’t change the dialogue or the events in the scene before, everything that had happened still happens, I just altered the intensity. Yet, everything I liked about the conversation has been tainted.

The second problem. Yes, the entire story was based around this conversation, but, as I’m looking at it, it is not only irrelevant to the plot, but it’s a little dull and breaks the action. Now, here’s the question: Do I change everything else to make my eight what I want it to be, or do I get rid of the eight all together? The answer is hard, and varies from context to context. Sometimes, if you get rid of the thought that the book was based around, all the desirability will run out the door. But other times, it’ll be obvious that you’re sticking to an idea because you like it, not because it is a good one.

The third problem. The conversation, the idea that inspired the entire story, gives you a hint of the total you wanted. The atmosphere, setting, relationship, and other aspects of the original conception of the scene tells you why you liked the idea in the first place and indicates what you were going for in the beginning. So, here’s the issue. Let’s say the scene did not come out how you wanted, and, really, it doesn’t matter. In order to achieve the tone you were looking for, you must delete the scene that that total is based around, which, though it is not helping the ends you are looking for, changing it gives you a bigger hole you have to fill. The scene takes you in a different direction that you want to go, but without it, the direction you did want to go is missing a huge part.

It comes down to this, figure out the general total you want. This is hard because, like the sums, the value of the total is constantly changing. It is because they are based around the other totals authors are coming up with. When twenty people use thirty, then thirty is actually six hundred, and we don’t want six hundred, we want thirty, so in order to get to thirty, we need to put down 10, which three other people have done. Of course, now that you’re doing it, that makes four, and ten becomes forty.

Quality of writing is literally that complicated. It’s subjective, always changing, and even when you know what answer is wrong, it’s damn hard to tell when it’s right.

Yet, I still maintain that creating a vision and trying to achieve that vision is the best way to eliminate a headache. Trying to write a “good” book is like trying to come up with any total, which may hit the right spot on the charts, but it is just as likely to not. It’ll all be based to chance, in the same way if you weren’t interested in getting people to like it at all. Usually with logic and gut, we can say, this is the sort of book that I like and I want to make, which is more likely to be what other people like and want to make. You are also affected by the ever changing sums, meaning your subconscious is more apt to recognizing what the current value is then logic.

Sitting down and saying “I want people to cry” is more useful than “I want people to feel something,” because it gives you a specific direction to go, and it becomes clear which “sums” are not beneficial to that mean. You want to come up with 1,273, then you know that it might not be a good time to use -590. If you say I want them to cry versus I want them to laugh, then you know that while that fart joke may be a good one, it is an inappropriate place for it.

Or maybe it is. It all depends on what other sums you’re using.