Monday, October 30, 2017

The Benefit of Arbitrary Guidelines

I tell you to go into a room and read for a little while.

When you come out a few hours later, I ask, “What do you think of that room?”

You can reflect on how it made you feel, if you were comfortable, if the furniture was actually effective doing what it was supposed to, if you thought the décor worked. You can tell me, objectively, how it made you feel in hindsight.

But let’s say I asked you to go into a room and tell me what you thought of it as you stood there. Would your answer be the same?

People say that writers are biased against our own work—and we are. But no matter who you get to read it, whenever a person sits down and attempt to analyze the “quality” of a book, we’re more likely to have a self-awareness, a sort of “quantum” effect in which just by trying to measure how we feel about it, it alters how we feel about it. By scrutinizing our emotions, those emotions change. How can we know how enjoyable it is when we can’t sit back and just let ourselves enjoy it? How can we know if a reader is immersed if we’re deliberately trying to analyze it as a work of fiction rather than reality?

You’ll hear authors talk about word count and draft numbers and other such things, seeming to focus on all of the wrong issues. Does it really matter how long your book is if it has good flow, timing, and a satisfying ending? Why should you cut half your words out just to make it fit into a certain “standard?” Shouldn’t we revise the number of times needed, not randomly tell ourselves “five?”

And yes, I think that’s true. Perfection by numbers versus results can be a problematic mentality, detrimental in creating real beauty. We see it everywhere, and usually to poor ends. Anorexia is such a numbers game—How many calories did I eat? How many did I burn? How long did I work out for? How many pounds do I weigh? What’s my body fat percentage?—and supersede what they actually see in the mirror. We can definitely do this with our writing (though the ramifications are obviously not so severe), and it’s important to try and consider what is actually in front of you before arbitrarily attempting to remove adverbs or forcing yourself to do three more drafts and end up overworking it.

However, while the idea that arbitrary guidelines shouldn’t replace judgment is valid, there is some reason why people tend to follow these rules.

When my current manuscript was finished at 180,000 words, I knew that if I wanted to go the traditionally published route, I would have to start cutting. Even in science-fiction where the standard sizes are bigger than most genres, 120,000 words is too big. It was literally twice the size of an average length book. However, when chatting about it, many people criticized or just questioned my decision to cut, suggesting it wasn’t necessary. But not only did I know that size matters in the publishing world (it directly ties into costs and marketability), I also believed that I could cut a lot from it. There were story lines that never tied back in, there were boring or long winded scenes, and I believed that I could definitely tighten the plotline.

Having the goal of 60,000 words made the whole process easier.

I told myself that I would stop cutting if I thought it was hurting the story, but I would push myself to keep it up until I got closer to my goal amount. This decision not only took out a lot of heartache and helped me be less overwhelmed, but it also let me understand what I cared about when it came to my writing. It also gave me two contradicting goals—my pride that everything is important all of the time, and my laziness in I just want this done!—which allowed for me to be less bias when it came to making a decision.

By having this alternative focus, I wasn’t sitting there staring at it and trying to decide how I felt about it, but rather paying enough attention to what I could cut that I allowed myself to feel the other elements of the story better. When it came to ambiance, character development, and bigger picture aspects, because I wasn’t so intent on understanding them, I was much more cued into what it actually felt as a reader who wasn’t trying to improve the book. When I wasn’t absorbed in trying to improve Element A, Element A was more able to be itself.

It also proved to me just how little I cared about some of the choices I otherwise would have found important. The numerical goal forced me to cut things I was uncertain about which I probably would have left. Having slashed so many sentences, I found myself seeing the bigger picture rather than being precious about each individual line. There were some phrases that I much preferred shortened. There were also those that I thought were much worse and changed back. Most of the time, I didn’t really feel powerfully one way or another; I liked it short, I liked it long. It didn't affect it in the short term, but the overall ambiance. One short sentence is not a big deal. Many changes everything.

I learned that purple prose isn’t about length, and it may come from a sentence that is too to the point and could stand a little more explanation. In some cases, especially prepositional phrases, the excess words aren’t “necessary,” but sound bizarre without them, like “He thought about it,” versus, “He thought.”

But I came to like “He thought,” much better too. In some ways the cutting made my writing more noticeable and unique—good or bad. This process of forcing myself to make a change for the pure sake of making a change made me analyze why I chose to do what I did, and if I really considered all of the options or just did the first thing that came to mind and left it at that.

Because your pride and laziness will always be devout attendees of your decisions, making up some sort of guideline that turns them on each other can help you determine whether or not you really are making the best possible selection. When you have a huge scene that you would like to cut because it’s boring and you need the word count, but you know you can’t just delete it (without a rewrite) because it would change the whole plot, you know that you’re not lying to yourself about it being important.

It’s not necessary to make up random rules for yourself, and there’s a lot of merit in trying to discern your judgment organically. But keep in mind that having random guidelines, instead of restricting you, might actually be a lot more freeing.

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