More Is Not Better

No, more is not better. Better is better. More is just more. If it’s more of the same, and the same is boring or insipid or unimaginative, then how is more better? It’s not.

Yes, this is somewhat of a rant. Recently I’ve been reminded of some authors who are overly busy because they are putting out several books a year, some in different series and even for different publishers.

This means there is little, if any, coordination between when a manuscript is due and when the book needs to be edited or promoted. There’s also a question in my mind how well an author can write unique characters when she spends so little time getting to know them.

Experts say we only can have three or four close friends at any one time. So how many characters can a writer develop? Seems to me we should know our characters nearly as well as we do our close friends.

Consequently, I feel confident that more characters don’t make for better stories. More books of course require more characters, so it seems to me, every book an author puts out in a relatively short amount of time indicates less time spent with the characters.

There are exceptions, of course. D. Barkley Briggs, for example, is in the process of publishing three books this year. He published the first of a young adult trilogy with NavPress back in 2008, but weeks before the second released — a book that had already gone through the editing process — his publisher decided to end its fiction line.

When he recently signed with AMG Publishers, they reprinted his first book, then three months later published Corus The Champion. The third in the Legends of Karac Tor series is due out a scant three months after Corus, but this elapse of time is not a reflection of how long it took to write the books.

Apart from the obvious — the disadvantage a writer puts herself at by trying to create deep and realistic characters and a story that is fresh and well crafted in such a short amount of time — there’s also reader weariness.

Yes, reader weariness. What if the Harry Potter books all came out within six months of each other? Would readers have been ready to stand in line waiting for a midnight release when they’d done it just six months earlier?

Would so many readers have been clamoring for the next book, or would some give up the effort to be in the mix because after three books, they’d fallen hopelessly behind?

My point is, writers that believe more is better may actually be saturating the market with their own work. Readers either can’t keep up or may grow weary of the writer’s voice.

Not to mention that some writers sacrifice story structure for the more is better approach. The plot twists and twists and twists again in a meandering plot because the writer doesn’t really know where the story is going and is just hoping it all comes out in the end.

Some readers don’t care how convoluted a plot is, as long as there’s a spaceship battle in every chapter. Some don’t care how realistic the characters are, so long as there’s a good guy and a bad guy. I understand — I once watched western movies that had characters like that.

But make no mistake, those stores are not better. No matter how many of them a writer cranks out, more does not make them better.

Learning Plateaus

We often hear about the “learning curve” but infrequently about the learning plateau. Educators understand that these leveling off places exist, and curriculum is often created with the plateaus of the “average” student in mind.

What I’m thinking about though, has to do with writers and our learning plateaus. It seems to me that some writers continue to grow from book to book. The characters are more realistic, the plot more engaging, the theme stronger even as it is more subtle.

Then there are writers who … well, frankly, they seem to be in ruts. One book is so very much like the novel before it. The characters seem interchangeable, the plot void of anything surprising. Why, I wonder, do these authors seem to climb hard, reach a plateau, and stop growing in their writing?

Here are my best guesses.

1) A schedule that doesn’t allow the person to spend time studying the craft or reading fiction as they once did. So many writers now seem to spend their time flying from rough draft to marketing event to edits to interviews and back to the next rough draft.

2) Adequate sales. I imagine it’s hard to think writing should improve when 50,000 people are buying an author’s books, less so if the sales top 100,000. Or more.

3) Fan mail. If readers are emailing an author to gush over their latest and greatest book, why would that writer think, “I have to do better”?

But here’s what I’m thinking. If a novel has a delightful character, a textured setting, an engaging plot with unpredictable twists, a timeless but subtle message, why wouldn’t that author “break out” and become a best seller?

Could it be that something is missing? That the author only thinks all those parts are in place?

Or maybe the author isn’t aiming for the best seller list. Maybe the author knows the message isn’t subtle or isn’t timeless. Maybe a predictable plot is just fine because the target audience keeps coming back for more.

But my question is, How will an author know how far he could reach if he settles on the plateau? How will he know how high his audience is willing to go with him unless he continues to climb?

Has the perfect book ever been written? I don’t think so. Name a book, and before long, someone will stand up and say why they didn’t particularly like it, though a majority of readers might say it was The Best Novel every.

I think, for example of The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, a book one blogger has recently raved about, a book so many at Faith in Fiction loved. I tried to read it. Started about three times. And the last time, I made it probably half way before putting it down. I don’t love it. Rather the book feels painful to me to read. It is not something I will ever finish, I think.

Is it because it’s about barnyard animals, a rooster in particular? I don’t think so. One of my all time favorites is about rabbits (Watership Down by Richard Adams).

The Book of the Dun Cow has appeal to some, obviously. For me, something is wrong. It’s too dark, too hopeless, too distancing, too … something.

But what if the author could write that story in a way that widened its appeal without watering down its existing strengths? Is that possible? And shouldn’t an author try?

Until the perfect novel has been written, shouldn’t we authors always be striving instead of settling?

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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Backtracking to the Second Level of Craft

I want to say something more about the story level of writing, especially since I claim (over and over 😉 ) that story trumps all. I’ve written about the subject before, but in glancing over those posts, I realized I never brought out one of the major requirements for a good story.

Yes, I addressed creating conflict on every page, having an engaging character, making the story unpredictable and surprising, and I alluded to upping the stakes and creating tension and suspense. I even mentioned the importance of setting. So what have I left off?

I can think of at least two things, actually.

One is motivation. Yes, this is usually something mentioned in a discussion about characters, but “story” encompasses characters since characters are the players of the action. They are integral to the story. And motivation is integral to them.

In order for a story to read smoothly, each plot point must make sense, must feel as if it belongs. That means it must be necessary, must move the story forward, and must fit with the other elements. In other words, a plot point can’t spring from nothing. A mild-mannered character, for instance, can’t turn out to be the murderer. Not unless the author has laid the ground work of foreshadowing. Otherwise the character’s actions seem unmotivated or poorly motivated, at best.

Along these lines, an author should eliminate plot points that depend on coincidence. If an author wants to show the hand of God superseding the normal course of events, this is harder to adhere to, but even more important, I believe. Otherwise, “the hand of God” will come across to the reader as nothing more than the manipulation of the author.

Equally important, in my view, is finishing off all the plot and sub-plot points in a satisfactory manner. Notice, this does not mean in a happily-ever-after manner or even an all-i‘s-dotted manner. I think there can be some questions left for the reader to wonder about, but those should not come across like the author just forgot to complete that part of the story.

Having said that, I want to mention that trilogies such as Lord of the Rings (and The Lore of Efrathah), and even some series, like Harry Potter, make no attempt to tie up all the plot points in each book. Rather, they must be tied up by the end of the final book.

It’s harder to do because the books, written over a span of years, can be read in weeks, once the entire series is available. Readers will see the plot holes or inconsistencies or lack of motivation or coincidences. To give attention to the story—characters, plot, setting, and theme—in order to insure that “good story” qualities are in place … well, it seems to me, that takes time, attention to detail, and good editing.

Published in: on March 3, 2008 at 5:02 pm  Comments Off on Backtracking to the Second Level of Craft  
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The Third Level of Craft

Competent, clear, concise writing can be learned. As Wayne Batson indicated, English teachers, and I was one of those most of my adult life, have to believe so or we wouldn’t put in the hours to facilitate others’ literary skills.

But what about the next level—the creative story telling? That’s harder to know. I’m not sure “learned” is the right word. Perhaps “provoked” is better. Again, Wayne said it in his comment to yesterday’s post (I should just have had him do a guest blog today! 😉 ) There are things in life that can provide fertile soil for the germination of a story. Things like childhood play and travel and exposure to good stories and acting and reading, reading, reading.

Without intentionally trying, a person who reads widely and well absorbs the way a story works—the presence of conflict, the building of tension, the progression of suspense and perhaps romance, the unpredictability of it all, the twists and turns and surprises.

I’ve seen writers who have wonderful, creative stories, even though they still have a ways to go in being expert in their handling of the concise telling (or showing, as most writers will want to say). As I’ve said more than once here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, story trumps all. Readers are incredibly forgiving and will often forge ahead through imprecise writing if the story pulls them along.

But there’s another layer of creativity, I think. This is the writer who puts together words and phrases that are musical, powerful, quotable. Some writers would add, beautiful. I will agree, though here is a pitfall, I believe. A writer can become so enraptured with the beauty of the words that he forgets the story they are meant to convey.

Can writing such as this be learned? Again, I say yes, though I also think some writers have a better intuitive grasp of how to work at this level. Those of you who read here regularly may have picked up that I tend toward the analytic side of life—and writing. 😉 I watch the intuitive writers put stories down so beautifully, creatively, and with such apparent ease, it’s hard for me to think I’m doing the same thing as they are.

The difference is, I think, that I think about the difference. 😀

Here’s what I’m actually saying. I doubt if it is possible to learn to be an intuitive writer. That’s an oxymoron, one I don’t think exists. However, I do think there are things writers can do to make their words more musical, powerful, quotable, and even more beautiful. More on that another day.

Published in: on February 29, 2008 at 12:53 pm  Comments (4)  
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What Is Writing Craft?

I mentioned in my last post that one of the reasons I go to Mount Hermon is to learn. Writing is one of those skills that can’t be perfected. In other words, there is no “right answer.” When something works, it can hardly ever work again (because by the very nature of repeating what has already been done, it does not do what the original did, which was to be the first ever or the new twist of). Consequently, the real job for the writer is to continually improve.

If at some point in my writing career I think I’ve “arrived” when it comes to the craft, then I am most in danger of becoming stagnant. It’s interesting to me that a number of acquisitions editors recommend certain writing books. One editor a year ago referred to a well-know volume as his writing bible and says he re-reads it nearly every year. Yet the writing that seems to excite these editors is that which goes beyond the constraints of the norm.

The norm, I would suggest, is competent, concise, clear writing. Anything less has little chance any more. What with writers’ conferences offered across the country, online writing courses, mentoring groups, and freelance editors, more and more writers are capable and understand a great deal about the basics of writing.

But what we sometimes forget is that writing is a creative endeavor. Sure, we understand that the story is a creative endeavor, but so is the vehicle through which the story is delivered.

What is it that captures a reader’s heart, that brings him to tears or makes him laugh out loud? What keeps him awake long past midnight even though he needs to get up and go to work the next morning? What makes her want to tell her best friend, her mom, and her neighbor down the block about the book she read? What brings those characters to mind at the oddest times? What stirs him to excitement when the day approaches for the next book in the series to release?

You think I’m going to provide the magic formula to such stories? Well, here it is. There is no formula.

If “craft” is reduced to a list of do‘s and don’t‘s, the writing will acquire the taste of water.

Sure you can stretch the analogy and say we can’t survive without water. I’m talking about the taste of a colorless, odorless liquid. What will set our writing apart from all the other colorless, odorless stories out there?

Clearly, “craft” is something more than avoiding passive voice or steering clear of -ly ending adverbs or cutting away any backstory in the first fifty pages or avoiding speaker attributions in dialogue. Craft is the magic of writing, not slight of hand.

Can it be learned?

Published in: on February 28, 2008 at 10:14 am  Comments (7)  
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