Our Books, Warts and All

As I have mentioned in a previous SFNovelists post, I am working this year with a Master’s student in creative writing. Last term we worked on writing and editing; this term I’m having him read several books that I consider classics of fantasy and science fiction. (No, I’m not going to give you titles, and you’ll see why in a moment.)

The books I assigned were, with one exception, favorites of mine that I thought he should read as a way of examining the craft of successful authors. The one exception was a book of his choosing by a well-known and critically acclaimed author. We’re two books into the term, and I have to admit that as I go back and re-read these favorites of mine, I’m surprised by what I’m finding.

These are flawed novels. At times they have serious point of view issues. Occasionally their characters behave in ways they clearly shouldn’t. The books are, in places, overwritten. At other points they wander and get lost in little narrative cul-de-sacs. In short, they are far from perfect, and though I chose them originally thinking that they would be examples of how to conceive and write a novel, I now realize that I may need to take a somewhat different tack in the discussions I’ll be having with my student. But only somewhat.

Because despite their imperfections, both books remain examples of how to tell a story. In fact, maybe I should drop the “despite their imperfections” part.

I recently spent a little time tooling around on Amazon looking at some reviews of my books. (Yes, this is a related point; bear with me.) I know: Looking at Amazon reviews of one’s own books is never a good idea. And predictably, I couldn’t help but focus on the negative reviews, though they were outnumbered by those that were complimentary.

I found myself growing annoyed, not with the criticisms themselves, but rather with the expectations implied in them. There is no such thing as a perfect book. Yes, there are great books. There are books that on first reading seem so transcendently excellent that they strike us as utterly flawless. But part of what makes art and song and literature so compelling is that these are inherently human endeavors. They express our desires, our passions, our fears and jealousies and insecurities. They also reflect our fallibility.

To be honest, I don’t want to be told that I’ve written a perfect book. Because as soon as I finish that book, I intend to write another, and I don’t ever want to believe that the next book I begin won’t be better than the last one. There’s nothing wrong with the quest for perfection; I embrace that. But I know better than to expect myself actually to achieve it.

And that is part of the lesson of these books I’m re-reading, the lesson I will impart to my student. We who write often refer to our WIPs — our works-in-progress. I would argue that our careers themselves are WIPs. I want to write and publish books. I want to sell them to publishers and have lots of people buy them off the shelves of bookstores, or out of the online catalogs for the latest e-readers. But I also want to grow as an artist. Unlike the accountants in a publishing house, I want to judge my work not on the basis of my most recent book, but instead on the arc of my collected work.

The books that my student and I have read are wonderful. They are thrilling and moving and, though written differently from each other, they are both wonderful examples of how to construct a narrative. Their flaws don’t diminish them. On the contrary, the fact that they continue to shine despite their shortcomings, and after so many readings, speaks to their excellence. On reflection, I realize that this is what I want my student to take away from this course. Like all young writers, he tends to beat himself up when made aware of the problems in his own work. I want him to see that a book or story doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, or even great. I want him to think about the elements of each book that make it powerful and memorable in spite of its flaws.

Because, as a writer, that’s how I would like readers to think about my novels.

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There are 18 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Margaret Y.

    I recently read a how-to book for writers written in the 1980′s. I was shocked at some of the advice in it. The author encouraged point-of-view violations that never would be tolerated today. Standards change, and the expectations for novels have never been higher. The fact that those old novels hold up as well as they do really says something.

  2. 2. Liane Merciel

    POV is one of those things that I hesitate to hammer too hard, because it is a “rule” that often and rightly gets broken on purpose for artistic effect.

    Stephen King’s _It_, which I think is an absolutely fantastic book and maybe the best one he’s written, manipulates POV constantly to achieve certain effects — tight third-person or first-persion (via Mike Hanlon’s journal entries) to bring you into the character’s heads when King’s ramping up the fear factor, but also sweeping out to omniscient third or directly addressing the reader in second-person (such as when Stuttering Bill’s little brother bites it near the beginning) to acknowledge the artifice of the story but simultaneously pull the reader into its “reality” by mimicking the retelling of a local’s oral history.

    It’s actually so effective and so varied that, IMO, you could do worse than point to _It_ as an example of how switching up POV can be used to accomplish different effects. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner (master the basics first, _then_ play around with advanced technique), but a Master’s student might be able to take that apart and learn from it.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Margaret, your point is spot on: “rules” have changed, not only on POV, but also on things like said-bookisms (using things like “he growled” and “she hissed” to attribute dialog, instead of the more simple “he said, she said” that are preferred now). One wonders where we’ll be with this stuff in another 20 years.

    Liane, I agree that POV is something that can be used in a variety of ways to great effect, particularly in the hands of a master. I have used a variety of voices in my own work, changing from 1st person to third, from past tense to present, in a single work. But I don’t change POV or voice in the middle of a scene without giving some visual or contextual clue to my readers (a chapter or section break of some sort). I find such unexplained shifts very distracting as a reader, and while I won’t go so far as to say that they are bad writing, I do agree with you that they shouldn’t be attempted by authors who haven’t first mastered the basics.

    Thanks to both of you for the comments.

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Coe, I believe that it is a testiment to professionalism that you revist not just what you have read and been influenced by but what you have produced. That said, I think one of the ‘costs of doing business’ in writing is irony. Only the work you agonize and suffer over will receive any measure of meaningful appreciation. Meanwhile, the hacks will sell millions of copies of work that you forget as soon as you close the back cover. We can all name the author that bangs ‘em out sometimes two a year. And the product is tripe. While others, the true artists, are far less productive but their work is often superior, flaws and all, to the hacks.

    Further, that entertainment or though-grub which will mean so much to the reader, is a pleasure you don’t get to share as you can only see room for improvement. True, you get to apply lessons learned to the next book. And then you gleen a whole new laundry-lists of flaws and lessons. God, I love writing.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    David, how long has it been since you last read these books? When I discover a book’s not as good as I remember, it’s usually because I read it sometime before college.

  6. 6. Doug Hulick

    Elias-

    I have to take issue with the broad picture you seem to paint: that people who write quickly (two books a year) are “hacks”, while those who take longer are more likely to produce some sort of “higher art.” It’s simply not true. (And for the record, I myself am a slow writer.)

    I know writers who put just as much work and sweat and emotion and agony into works they finish in six or eight months as people who have taken five years to produce a work. And I know the precise opposite, too: people who labor over “tripe” for years. Each writer is different, and you simply can’t make the assumption that more time spent between books means a superior work, just as it is unfair to assume fast-paced production means the writer is “phoning it in.” (And I won’t even go into deadlines, other life issues, and the like which can impact how long “ture art” can take.)

    Nor do I agree with what sems to be your underlying assumption, which is that there are some writers who care more for their work on some artistic level, and show it through their writing pace, than others. I don’t buy the “true artist vs. working artist” dichotomy you seem to propose. It’s an easy and, frankly, unrealistic summation of the complex art of writing. Worse, it is summarily dismissive of those who, while they may not meet your personal metric for either the pace or “true” level of art, put just as much passion and effort and tears into their work as anyone else. Who am I, or you, to say who cares more about his work based on our reading of it?

    This whole “great writers must suffer more for their art” is an old, and frankly over-used, canard. Each writer works differently, and to claim that “true art” only comes after hours spent agonizing over a single passage (presumbly in an unheated garret, but you don’t specify), while somewhat romantic, is also unrealistic. There is no direct temporal or emotional corrolation between quantity and quality, between time in and prose out, between “true art” (whatever that is) and “tripe.” There is only writing. You write the best you can, you put it out there, and you let others form their opinions. Whether you spent six months or six year or six decades laboring over it is irrelevant if the product is the best you can do.

  7. 7. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comments, Elias. You’re right of course, about the ironies of dealing with one’s own work, although even seeing the flaws in my old work, I can still draw pleasure and satisfaction in the achievement of having written, what was at the time, the best book I could write. That’s no small thing.
    Sam, the books are ones that I’ve returned to time and again over the years. Certainly I’ve read them more recently than college; maybe the last tie was between five and ten years ago? And they’re still good — the stories still work. But the flaws are more obvious to me now. Maybe I’m just getting grumpy as I get older….

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Getting grumpy as you get older? Next thing you know you’ll be David-Who-Likes-Nothing.

    But you’re right. Part of learning how to write is understanding when something is as good as it’s going to be. If it doesn’t sell, so be it. You can apply the lessons you’ve learned to the next project.

  9. 9. David B. Coe

    Doug, I’m sorry that I missed your comment before — mine posted after yours did, though I wrote it before yours went up.

    Every writer’s process is unique. I take far longer than many of my friends to write a book, and, as you say, that is no indication of the relative quality of the finished works, or of the care, passion, and effort that went into the actual writing. Writing a book is hard — any of us who has tried it knows this is true. We shouldn’t judge books or authors based on how quickly they write or how many books they produce, any more than we should on the basis of the genre in which they write.

    I’m not sure that this means, though, that some writers don’t take more care with their work than others. I would like to think that all published authors write the best book they can, but I’ve seen enough to know that it’s not always true. There is no simple causal relationship — short writing time and lots of publications does not necessarily mean the work is crap, nor is the opposite true. But not all books are born of the same level of effort, and I do believe that one can discern that difference in quality upon reading the works in question.

  10. 10. Andrew A. A.

    I have a goal to write books that can be read on the plane from LA to NY. Or that sit next to the toilet, pages wrinkled by moisture and splattered by toothpaste.

    Gramatically I am a Cixelysd(dyslexic) ADD moron who can obsess over a line for hours and still not see the mechanical mistakes I have littered throughout. It seems to take me twice as long to write anything than it does for others. So perhaps my goals reflect the way I write, or read, depending on where my psychological problems lay(lie, ly, lied, layed, ach!).

    After Mr. Coe’s amazing little thought provoking diddy, I now have a new goal! I want to write a book that someone considers a cult classic, at least in their mind, and years later they read it again and say, “Hey, I can do better than that!” And they do…

  11. 11. David B. Coe

    Great comment, Andrew. I should say, though, that despite the flaws I see in these classic books, I’m not at all convinced that I can do better…..

  12. 12. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Hulick, I see and conceed your point on my sweeping generality. That stated, I will prove both our points and gesture toward Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert contrasting with Karen Traviss. All three knock out a book, roughly, every year. KJA and BH also have/had the benefits of notes and outlines provided by the great Frank Herbert. As I’ve telegraphed my punch, I won’t pull it. There books suck weasels.

    By contrast, KT works under what I can only imagine to be draconian conditions with Lucas Licensing. *Note, I wouldn’t object to working under the same. Shameless pitch now concluded.* Yet her work is superior, in imagination, character development, and in simple (or not) turn of phrase.

    Again, if I offended, I apologize. This is a venue of ideas and opinions. Mine, are just as intitled to being wrong as yours. Thank you for provoking me to think.

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Coe, there are a couple of things I re-read every couple of years to see if I’ve grown any. I think maybe you’ve outgrown either the premiss or the language but may still appreciate the other. Or, you hate the hair-styles and clothes on the cover art.

  14. 14. David B. Coe

    Elias, thanks for your comments. You may be right about me outgrowing the books, although as I’ve said, I still think they’re wonderful. I’m just finding that I see flaws now that I missed before.

    As for the comment above, I think it would be best if we refrained from criticizing the books of authors who aren’t necessarily visiting the site and having the opportunity to defend themselves. Writing a book isn’t easy, and while you didn’t enjoy the book in question, and are absolutely entitled to your opinion, I know that others have read and loved those same works. Perhaps this is the point of my post: We all have opinions. We all see flaws in certain books. And no book is perfect. So maybe we have to be more generous in our assessments and look for the good rather than fixating on the imperfections.

  15. 15. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Coe, I of course acquiesce to your better angels. I let my argument get the better of me and I did fail to hold my tongue.

    I’m on book two and I recognize and respect the difficulty in writing a book. Which was the basis of my original comment. I take issue with those I perceive as going through the motions or applying formula for sake of expedience. The writers I respect are the ones who craft their work; brilliant success or beautiful failure. It’s what I strive for and why I take every rejection letter on the chin.

    I’ve learned to fight the good-fight from those authors. They seem to remember that their book is not selling in some mystical land. The check-fairy isn’t dropping the coin in their hand. The books are going out to someone who is coming across the counter with hard-earned jack.

    Still, excuses and arguments aside, I offend and I apologize. Thank you for your patience and consideration.

  16. 16. David B. Coe

    No problem, Elias. Thanks for understanding. As an author who works hard on his books, I appreciate your passion. But I do agree with the other commenter who maintained that most writers pour their hearts and souls into their work. Some of what they produce appeals to one person and not another, and vise versa. But as you say, fighting the good fight is the key. Good luck with your work.

  17. 17. Doug Hulick

    Elias: No insult taken whatsoever. I’m glad for your posts, since they clearly got us both to think, and that is one of the best things you can accomplish in these exchanges. And yes, I agree that works produced in the same span of time can vary widely in quality. This was one of the cores of my argument, although I tended towards the more positive end in my assumptions.

    David: Very valid point. Not everyone puts their heart and soul into a work, just as not everyone slaps it out in hopes of a bit o’ jingle landing in their pocket. I was trying to point out Elias’ error in generalization and ended up making one of my own. Ah well. Thanks for catching me out.

  18. 18. David B. Coe

    Thanks, Doug. This has been a terrific discussion. I’m grateful to you for your thoughtful comments and their tone. We just have to remember: All generalizations are bad. Oh, wait a minute…..

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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