Friday, January 18, 2013

Why a Good Book is Hard to Write

We all know that a good book is hard to create, but when it comes to the reasons why it tends to be treated as self-evident. Mostly it takes a genius to do it, and who are we to understand how genius works?

Of course, for those of us who do not recognize our own genius, the question as to what’s hard about it is an important one. Understanding the complexities and challenges an author has to overcome gives him more control than blind dependence on luck.

Problem 1: Good is too broad a target.

Anything can be good, but not anything is. If you’ve ever looked at a popular book, whether it be a best seller or classic, and gone, “What the hell?” you’ve experienced what I’m talking about.

It is very difficult to predict what will be successful, which is why Hollywood’s business plan is based off of nearly every film losing money. Good can be any emotion, lack of emotion (for that roller coaster ride we all crave), different from person to person, different based on moods, different base on fads, and based from things out of the author’s control, such as the book he’s being compared to and the perception of himself as a person. So can bad. It cannot be quantified in a concrete manner, nor can it be narrowed down by mistakes and successes others have made.

Part of the problem in predicting what is successful is that there’s a thousand choices and their opposites that, in the right situation, will be beloved, and in the wrong one, will damaging.

The simplest example to express this is comedy versus drama. A scene that makes you tear up in laughter is a good moment. One that makes you tear up in grief is a good moment. Sometimes, a scene that makes you laugh will be inappropriate in a spot, or just irrelevant. A common argument editors and writers get into is, “You need to delete this scene,” and “But it’s funny!”

Being funny can be a right choice, and it can be a wrong choice, and that same situation can be differently viewed by two separate people.

As an author, you will (or do) constantly find yourself asking, “Should I change this?” The issue that it could be good, that though you personally don’t like something doesn’t mean other people won’t, makes it really hard to decide. Editing is a lot more difficult than indicated because you may very well hate your own work and have the rest of the world disagree or just the opposite.

Problem 2: What readers like, say they like, and want to like, are three independent things.

One of the reasons I have a problem with Absurdist theatre (a style of plays similar to that of Dadaism or abstract art) has more to do with a small sampling of enthusiasts who gush about it, laud it, copy it, insist upon it, and then refuse to go see it. I could find the type more appealing if I didn’t feel that there were a whole bunch of con artists who wanted the emperor to actually be wearing the clothes.

We define ourselves by our tastes, whether it be books, movies, music, or clothing. So, there becomes this problematic catalyst in which either our self-loathing or our society-loathing leads us to think that that fluffy romance book that we are in love with says something bad about us, where as that boring Russian novel about a cockroach getting out of bed says we are intelligent.

Now, of course, though these three factors are independent, they can also overlap. We can actually like something that makes us look good to like. An author could, thereby, write an entertaining intellectual work all in one. The problem is that part of “being unique” means not liking things that the masses do. So even when you manage to write something meaningful and entertaining, there’s going to be a good portion of the population saying, “look at me! I hate it!” (Which is not to deny the fact that there will be some honest readers who actually don’t find it meaningful and entertaining.)

Problem 3: Readers demand for realism and style all in once.

Sometimes we have to choose; do we want to say what people believe or what they want to hear? The answer isn’t obvious, for those of you who are thinking it should be, because, for one thing, I didn’t give enough information.

Because we need a good balance, because we can’t enjoy something we don’t believe, and because we don’t care about something that doesn’t have some appeal to it, then the decision isn’t one sided. And that’s what makes it hard. Though we can sit down and try to write something truly realistic, unless that is your artistic goal, most books, and most of the best books, combine the story that we want to hear with anchors to reality. Though I say that appeal is a priority, the balance varies from work to work based around the intended goal.

This makes it really hard to sit down and decide something, oh say, whether or not to murder a character, because, like my experience with the Harry Potter books, killing off the wrong one may just as well ruin the book for the reader. Because though a death in a dangerous situation is more realistic, it is not usually more enjoyable.

Problem 4: The reader’s understanding of fictional reality is different than actual reality.

Our subconscious mind constantly tries to organize facts into a “normal” category, which really translates to an “assume therefore don’t have to think about” category. Despite this laziness, the subconscious is extremely intelligent—it is what allows us to multitask. It is able to have several normal categories for different contexts, and one of those contexts is while reading a book.

There’s too many of them to list, but a few examples are lies, heroism, and success. Characters rarely lie in fiction. When they do, it’s for an intended point. Where as in fiction the assumption is that they’re telling the truth until it’s indicated otherwise, in reality, we are more suspicious, and recognize that people will lie for no reason. When there is a burning building with a baby inside, it is not a shock when the protagonist rushes in, despite not being a fireman or even superhero. In reality, however, when there is an accident, many cars will pass them by without even calling. When a character applies to a poetry contest, it is weird if he doesn’t win. When a friend of ours decides that she’s applying to Vassar, she’s told it’s a waste of time.

The problem is, in the same way that we have to sacrifice some realism to give people what they want, we can’t just use our knowledge of reality to fix problems in a script. We have to know some of the “rules” or expectations that are only in existence because “they just are.” Either to change, circumnavigate, or meet with the reader’s assumptions, it becomes important that the author learns “literary reality” just as much as “actual reality.”

Problem 5: The author is required to follow expectations, including the expectation of defying expectation.

For the reasons above, we have to “learn the rules to learn to break them.” And what that actually means is we have to abide by expectations to look like we know what we’re doing. If you think that is idiotic, then you’re right. If you don’t want to deal with that kind of pandering, then you have the right to be proud. But, the writing world has a culture of its own, and in order to start making changes, an author must prove he’s an expert. In the same way that an American needs to learn Mandarin if he wants to be successful in China, simply knowing a rule allows him to use it when important, even if he still mostly speaks English.

The problem is that a good book doesn’t just abide by the expectations, it goes beyond them. It takes chances, risks, and does things that other people (seemingly) haven’t thought of. In some cases, in fact, the book doesn’t go with any of the rules.

Which is the question that gives us authors a headache. When so many people are not only convinced, but willing to be convinced by pretty cons passing off as intellectual gibberish like Gertrude Stein, and yet the other half of the readers are utilizing blatant disregard of the rules as a way to criticize, trying to edit a book becomes a pain in the neck. (And if you are a fan of Gertrude Stein and you understand her, then just seethe in your superiority because I’m not changing my mind.) How do you know what to fix when so many people are getting away with spewing thoughts on a page? At least with regular and consistent expectations the author gets to know what the standards are, but because the traditions constantly shift, the question of “should I change this” becomes harder.

Problem 6: Maintaining a reputation as a genius.

Though writers hardly are celebrities, even the ones like Stephen King, and we’d be hard put to know the name of who wrote the book, let alone anything about them, the problem of reputation is still there.

It’s like this: Someone reads a story that really speaks to him. It is beautiful, philosophical, and says exactly what he’s been thinking. Then he finds out that it was a self-published book by a 17 year old Goth girl. Does it change his opinion of it? It might. Or it might do the opposite and make him think that the girl was a prodigy. The point is that either way, in order for a reader to admire a writer, he must feel that the everyman couldn't duplicate it.

This is one of the reasons that pure self-expression rarely works, because admission of faults makes the gods bleed. Of course, the assumption is that a true genius will express himself and have no faults, so if an author must play by the rules and do a second draft, clearly he isn't mean to do it. Which is part of the rationale on why most successful artists view themselves as hacks.

All of the authors with flaws and normal human motivations must pretend like those troubles don’t exist. That they don’t have a silly view on something, that they’re not trying to make money, that they don’t care what other people think, etc.

This makes it hard to create a great book because it is an expectation that encourages bullshitting. We demand that fantastic stories be a form of pure self-expression, but then demand that only superior, god-like humans are allowed to do it. And, as anyone knows, no real genius actually recognizes without being told what is genius about him. Before then, his genius normal to him. Though, of course, the world is filled with open minded and intelligent people who don’t expect celebrities to be perfect, they are usually not the ones reviewing. So, for someone who does believe in the "right way to write," he will have to reveal his flaws, and be criticized. Or, more likely, he will think he is not worthy and quit when he got two pages in. Like when a woman asks if these pants make her butt look big, people expect pure honesty, but only the kind they want, which means that either the only writer accepted is Jesus or a con artist. A good writer has to be a little bit of both, and that's quite a high demand.

Problem 7: The definition of quality constantly changes.

Not only does “what is good” change by person to person, society to society, mood to mood, but once a great book is made, its qualities becomes untouchable. While, say, building a car, the engine that works will always work, at least discounting certain concrete variables like weight. While building a book, the plot has already been used and cannot be used again in its entirety, even (or especially) if the contextual variables stay the same. You could write Star Wars in Atlantis, but people are pretty much going to catch on and be unamused.

Every time we try to put down on paper exactly what is “good,” it immediately contradicts it. If everyone wrote short, succinct, simple, and clear sentences, then the author who is poetic stands out.

A story is like a picture, the work being the image, the works it’s being compared to the background. Though all we can control is the image, the background color affects it. As books shift in popularity and notoriety, it changes how your book is seen.

LOGISTICS

Problem 8: Writing fiction is lying, thus it taints everyday word and tone.

This is the greatest issue when it comes to pure “self-expression.” When writing a fiction book, we are making it up on the spot. When writing it without any self manipulation, we will tell the absolute truth—the truth that it is being made up.

Tone is based around motivation. And though tone is hard to read in text, it is still there. As an acting teacher, I have constantly had students insist that if the character is just talking, then if they just talk, it would be good acting. However, a listener can tell when someone is speaking from memorization or when they’re speaking off the top of their head. Your voice changes. It's the same with text.

Dialogue should be the easiest thing for the author to write, but for many, it is the hardest. When writing from an honest perspective, the characters sound forced, like they are lying. And the reality is, it’s because they are.

Problem 9: We don’t notice reality.

This isn’t to say we’re stupid. Our mind just focuses on what it thinks it needs to and ignores the rest. In the same way we can’t remember the words to our favorite song without the music, draw the shape of Africa without looking at a map, or know the size of the Statue of Liberty, things that we feel we should know, we don’t.

Not only does Hollywood have its affect, such as using fake sound effects for gunshots, but simple lack of attention does its part. Again, this is not an insult. A person who tries to notice everything, especially inane everyday things, will drive himself insane. There are only a few who have photographic memories, and they are usually autistic-savants.

This, of course, affects the whole “self-expression” issue, in that a person who writes without conscientious thought will often gloss over or misinterpret how the world works, even when they are writing what they know. But, more importantly, there is a web of problems. The author is trying to write a story that is convincing, but first, not only does he not necessarily know what reality looks like, but neither does the reader. So even when he gets it right, she’s not necessarily going to believe him, especially considering that readers do have different expectations of fiction than reality.

Problem 10: Nothing is wrong until it starts affecting other aspects.

Think of the times in which a teacher, peer, or article has told you a piece of advice that couldn’t be true. Part of the problem, often, is that they use the word never, as in “never use adverbs.”

The reason why “the rules” are made to be broken, is because nothing is wrong until is in the wrong context. The use of adverbs is not about the use of an adverb, but the number of adverbs it’s been paired with. It is about the forced dialogue with a forced passion. It is about a beautiful dialogued ruined by the forced passion. The adverb isn’t the enemy, the result is.

What this means is that often times the author can’t be sure of a mistake, or a way to fix that mistake until he looks at the end result. And even then, it is not necessarily a mistake, but a direction it took. Most writers aren’t not fully aware of the direction they want to go, or are committed to that direction. Because the direction they chose might not even be the best way to go, it makes that question of “should I change this?” even harder.

Problem 11: Sometimes the wrong answer is the right one.

A gunshot, in a film, is not actually what a gunshot sounds like. If a movie was to do the real sound, it is less likely to confront people’s assumptions as to what guns sound like and be more likely to distract them from the action.

At some point in your writing career, someone will tell you “you’re doing that wrong.” Odds are, you’re not, or, more to the point, it doesn’t matter. In the same way that the argument on whether a comma goes after an "and" in a list or not, there will be times when someone insists that something inane be done another way. And sometimes, it’s best just to abide by it, even when it’s wrong.

It’s hard to tell when to do it as it really is done and when to do it how we think it's done. Of course, the correct way is usually the best way, but in certain cases, such as the gunshot, it is just best to meet with expectations so as not to distract from what’s important. Sometimes, however, it’s best to tell them to go to hell. Every author needs to learn how to tell the difference.

The point is that some of the greatest books are those that cheat, and those that refuse to cheat are just shooting themselves in the foot. And being surprised by the sound that comes out.

Problem 12: People are different.

As everyone knows, what one person likes isn’t what another person likes. What one person believes, what one person understands, what one person assumes, and what one person imagines is not necessarily what anyone else does.

When it comes to the question of “What should I change?” the fact that some people will disagree with you, about whether or not it should be changed or what it should be changed to, makes it all the more confusing.

We don’t know how unique we truly are. Sure, we have ideas, but it’s not something that can be depended upon, especially when we know there are people out there who disagree with us, we just don’t know how many.

Subjectivity is a beast unable to be slain. These problems, inane or not, will never have a right answer. It is possible, however, to utilize the knowledge of why something is so hard to better combat frustration and acknowledge the time to sacrifice and the time to stand your ground. An author's goal may not be specifically to write a good book, it may not even be about being successful, but, for the majority, no one wants to write without readers, and the best way to get readers is to write a good book.