Friday, July 5, 2013

How To Book

This is a rant post. About writing. I am currently fired up about my favorite subject. Hence I am hereby abdicating any pretense of any sense of direction, just a basic sense of what's coming together in my mind, prompted by a few recent experiences.
How did this happen? What is bringing about this post? Why do I feel the need to enlighten the general public about a topic which only few attempt, and those that "succeed" do so at the expense of the art?

Where did we go wrong?

This started a long time ago. I was studying American Literature from the days before the Mayflower. I wended my way through the first female American author to be published by an American publisher, through the colonial periods, I saw how industrialism and patriotism and racial schisms affected literature. I watched as the tone of writing got darker and cruder and less empowering and more complaining and degrading...

It was awful. It was like watching the decline and fall of the American culture. Because the two, I believe, are as connected as a horse and buggy. But which is the horse, and which is the buggy? Does society influence literature, or should people recognize that literature should be the driving force of society, and writing is the most powerful way to enact and inspire any kind of real change. This is how good writing is produced.

I'm not just talking about novels, either. I'm attracted to any kind of writing that happens in a creative and original capacity, with a right focus that says that writing doesn't "just happen" or "evolve"; I believe in "Intelligent Authorship": the belief that writing takes conscious effort, and a deliberate use of the English language to a specified purpose. I very easily get hooked on TV shows with an inventive premise and a writing staff that understands the necessity of a writer engaging with their writing. The genre doesn't matter so much (except I'm too squeamish for horror or very intense graphic scenes, and I tend to like my "dark" emotions balanced with "light" humor), as long as the writing stays engaged. That's why I tend more toward "drama" shows that actually have a story to tell, as opposed to "sitcoms" in which life "just happens" in an exaggerated way.

Even Dr. Seuss demonstrates the principle of engaging in the writing with his "nonsense" books: they still make sense! He uses new words, rhyming syllables and rhythm to inspire kids and teach life lessons that--corny though they be--can be pulled out for an introduction to critical thinking. Most of the literature that is still around today is satisfactory food for thought; do you suppose that, centuries from now, a future society would consider Twilight a suitable platform for serious graduate study? How about it's "progeny", Fifty Shades of Grey? Is that what writing is about? Is that what it is for?

I have grown to believe that literature in it's purest form has 3 main purposes: to inform, to instruct, and most importantly, to improve. These three must be in balance to constitute great literature, and you'll find that most great literature has the three in various measures.
A merely informative book is nothing more than a traveler's guide. An instructional book is a textbook. I have yet to come across a book that only seeks to improve while neither informing nor instructing. Probably because such a scenario can never happen. (If you know of one, I would like to hear of it!) The goal of improvement is like the "bonus objective," you can't just do it on it's own, but it enriches the main objective beyond it in itself.
If the literature informs and endeavors to improve the reader without any sort of instruction, it is nothing more than a nebulous account of someone else's rise to significance. The reader can learn nothing from it and it is easily forgotten. If the writer tries to instruct and improve without being very clear on any kind of information, the contents of such a book are wasted on the reader, who can see no purpose for the instruction given and thus is less-than-motivated to follow the advice frankly dispensed with admirable intent.

There are three things I have learned that all writers must remember, three principles to write by:

1. Think first, then write.

It can be said, "To find out how a culture lived, look at the archaeology; to find out how it thought, look at its literature." The term literature here can refer to both words and art, since these two serve similar purposes: representation of subjects not directly witnessed by the recipient. Sometimes, words express what pictures cannot; sometimes there is no clearer way to communicate than by pictures. Either way, the quote rings true. The beliefs--both socially and spiritually--of a person invariably come out in their literature: The Greeks' belief about the nature of the gods and of mankind; the accounts of the Conquistadors concerning the new lands they "founded," contrasted with the accounts of those they subordinated; even the difference between the values of European settlers and their view of America, versus the view of later immigrants to an already-settled country. How do we know what was important to them? How can we discover their moral standards and the quality of education? Look at the writing.

Booker T. Washington, born a slave; yet the ancestors of the same people who owned him read his writings and learn his beliefs still, decades later. Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams, simple "country men" with probably a basic education, yet the writings of these men laid the foundation for a brand new nation not centered around a specific culture or people group--the first of its kind. Did these people have the same level of education, the same access to education that individuals their same age have today? Probably not; yet how can one so "untrained" write so well? And why do ensuing genres appear so much more "uneducated" and careless? I am pretty sure it used to be that one wrote a book because one had a desired audience to reach with a specific message, and the wherewithal to support their own cause even under scrutiny; fiction and nonfiction alike carried with it a sense of purpose and a message, imbuing their readers with thought-provoking concepts and empowering revelations about their world. What has happened since then? Popular, bestselling literature today: does it empower and provoke? Does it draw the reader further into the reality and morality of his own world--or further away from it?

How many books written by authors today could feasibly claim such recognition? What do the books published today say about our culture? Will it serve as a warning to future cultures, as in "Watch out for Americans; they're dangerous people. Just look at the way they lived, what they write about!" Or are we thinking about our culture when we write, desiring to present ourselves in a favorable light, as something worth considering and pondering?

The more you read, the more you will realize the difference between today's literature and the classics is that authors used to think first, then write. The reason one wrote was not because one had an elite social standing; the question wasn't "can I write?" but "Do I have something worthwhile to say?"
Anybody could write; you just had to know that when you did write, you had better be sure that you were right, because critics would invariably circulate writings of their own trying to discredit you; if you had really thought through what you were writing, though, you would be ready with an answer for any who would try to come against you.

What's the trouble with literature today? Could it be that authors have become less intentional? In about an hour's worth of video segments, a young Brit reads through the "famed" Twilight by Stephenie Meyers and explains just what happens--which, unfortunately is mostly NOTHING. So if you're curious as to what happens in Twilight, but not enough to go out and get the book, I'd highly recommend hearing from this guy. (All rights to the content belongs to the owner, and I offer the disclaimer that there is language in these videos which I do not endorse--but I agree with his opinions and conclusions)
According to what I heard read from the book in these videos, Twilight serves as a good example of an author who just wanted her writing to "happen." If one were to put all the useless sentences of minute details that have nothing whatsoever to do with plot movement in a row, it just might make up half (if not more) of the length of the book itself.

Why would an author do that to one's readers?

As an aspiring author myself, I make the effort to craft writing that is worth reading. (Let me take the opportunity to "plug" the various excerpts I've already posted and ask you, reader, to let me know if what I have written and posted thus far is worth reading! Leave a comment! I really do read them, and will consider advice; I'm not just writing this stuff for my own reading pleasure, I take pleasure in the writing; the purpose of this blog is for the reader to enjoy reading!)

If I want my writing to be worth reading, that means that every sentence must be evaluated for its value in the story: does it move the plot? Does it communicate the character? Does it bring the reader into the story? Does it contribute to the purpose of the whole story? If not--why put it there?

Which brings us to the next "principle": 

2. Don't neglect your "lines."

It is a strange feeling indeed when you come across writing where the author has essentially "turned off" and begun rambling and grasping at straws. It's almost as if you can see where the author's fingers left the keyboard, and the machine kept typing away in the absence of any real consideration. Whole sections are obviously borrowed from other works, with no effort of originality on the author's part. My question is: why write at all if you're just going to give up in places? Why do you need that space between sections of original thought and action if you're just going to fill it with other people's stuff?

Writers of America Today: PLEASE, I beg you, STAY ENGAGED WITH YOUR WRITING. It might not feel as important, you might be very excited to go from one scenario to the next, so that you will excuse yourself for "stealing" or "mimicking" or "sloughing" your way between that... but consider this when you sit down to write:

Writing is like playing "Connect-The-Dots." The "dots" are your plot highlights, the moments of intense conversation, emotion, or action, where things happen and characters shift and the plot moves...they give direction to the story.
In between the "dots", you have "lines." Is it okay for the lines to go willy-nilly? To curl around aimlessly before striking the next dot? The dots would connect--but what of the picture? If one just placed a pencil on one dot, marked the next with their finger, and closed their eyes to let the pencil "just happen"--would it actually make a picture? And if you're not in the business of "picture-making"--isn't that what writing is for? Story-telling?
To return briefly to Twilight: what is its purpose? It began from a dream sequence--and in roughly 500 pages, not much else happens. Two characters, a girl and a vampire, discuss the ramifications of him wanting her and her being so impossibly depressed that she ends up convincing herself that she wants him. He wants to be her protector, but he just might be the most dangerous person in her life. She spends a lot of time depressed and alone, and yet she tethers herself emotionally and mentally to this vampire. And at the end of the book--nothing changes. She's no better having him around, and having her around makes his life even more of a challenge--and yet he does not change, either. They spend the whole book dancing around the issue and justifying maintaining their opinions they both established within the first few chapters. What sort of a picture does this create? A string of dots on a haphazard line. Not even any decent kind of closure.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that I never had an "inspiration dump" before. I have, too many times--but the trick is that when there is no inspiration, don't write. Feel free to set it aside until an idea more worthwhile comes along! Don't settle for anything less! Write with the intention of creating a masterpiece for someone else, not just a string of empty words and robotic actions.

There is one more principle I'd like to address.

3. Reading should feed the mind and enrich the life, not confuse or isolate.

"Good writers touch life often." -Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451
 "No man is an island, entire of itself..." -John Donne

These two quotes go together, and there's a specific series I'm thinking of that was recently published that was a sorry disappointment to me, which is the example I'm thinking of that relates these two quotes, but I'll just explain why without naming the work, so that if it brings to mind another work you might have read and felt the same way, I won't confuse you.

I quite agree with Bradbury's quote, and I believe that Donne had a valid grasp on the principle that makes literature so "realistic." The "touch of life" in literature comes in the form of a well-grounded ensemble. (Another "strike" for Twilight: The ensemble is fickle and ill-defined. The central characters aren't the roundest ones, and names and figures waft in and out of the narrative so that we feel as isolated as Bella and Edward.... and yet we know so little about them, i.e., it's not till the end of the book that we discover that the morose, truck-driving Bella was once a ballerina--wait, she had a life before the move to Forks?)
Hence my disappointment with the series in question, which began with a solid ensemble of a fabulous mix of characters, only to subsequently strip away the ensemble from around the main character until that character spends an entire 750-page book completely on his own, aside from temporary contact with characters who give him things he will need later that take far to long to describe and develop. The purpose of this isolation is unclear, and unexplained. It certainly doesn't make him any better of a person; it is among the ensemble that this character enters into the action of the story, he learns about life and he develops as a character. While the author focuses on the "alone time", though, the reader is excluded from the action beyond what's going on in one character's head--and even that is changed when he returns to "civilization." So again, what is the purpose?

Herein lies the lesson: There is no life in isolation. There is no tale in a wandering soliloquy. If you, a writer, want to engage your readers, don't shut them off from the central events of the story, only to bring them back when the "hero" is ready, and half the battle is already lost. Do not get so wrapped up in your own obsession with your "hero" that you forget your audience, who has little idea what's going on.

In short, it boils down to this: write consciously. The questions "Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?" shouldn't just apply to the plot itself; a writer should consider, when they sit down to write, "What am I writing? Where am I going with it? What is it's purpose and message? How am I communicating that message? Why is it important?" If you don't have a satisfactory answer for each of these questions, think about it a bit more before you start slamming words onto a page.

Apologies to Stephenie Meyers for putting the brunt of my "rant" upon her, but honestly... the hype is undeserved. You could have done so much more with the idea, with just a bit more consideration. I'm sorry that so much ink and paper had to go into something that likely won't last the century--at least not as the work of art it should and could have been.

Coming Soon: The Post Of My Top Ten Books You Really Must Read, which demonstrate the principles and purposes I've outlined here. Don't worry... I read more good literature than I rant about bad literature.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Leslie - you have captured what I have tried(and failed) to express so many times! I know this was just a rant to get things off your chest, but I feel like copying it and giving said copies to any aspiring writer I know. This was excellent advice presented in an engaging and memorable manner.