I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

The only law of literature

The discussion in the thread of my last post came on the heels of my discussing writing on a thread at a forum called ImpishIdea. A writer there named Lccorp2 is posting a series of articles "sporking" Bitterwood for it's crimes against literature. Normally, bad reviews elicit shrugs from me. I've been around long enough to know that what I write isn't going to be to everyone's tastes. And, I sometimes gain really valuable insights from bad reviews. Suanne Warr's comments on excessive use of minor POV characters resonated with me in her review, and led me to try new strategies in later books for building scenes where I don't want to be in the head of the character who the scene is really about. I don't eliminate all minor POV scenes, since they are still useful tools, but I now save them for when they are the best of all possible tools, not just the most convenient one. (An example in Dragonforge is the one scene that is in the POV of Sparrow as she fights her way down the corridor of assassins to open the gate to the Nest. It's her only POV scene, it's probably under a 1000 words long, but there really was no better alternative than to jump into her head at that point, and the resulting scene is one I'm happy with.)

But, something about Lccorp2's criticism of the book struck me as strange. He's breaking the book down chapter by chapter; he dislikes it from the very first page, and by chapter 3 he hasn't found a single element of the book he likes. The book has failed on every single level for him. Yet, he kept reading the book to the end. It mystified me. There have been plenty of books that I've picked up over the years that weren't to my taste. Plenty more books I've never even picked up because I could glance at the cover and know instantly that I wasn't the target audience of the book. The Left Behind series, for instance. So, I put the question out there of why he'd kept reading the book.

It turns out that this website is in the habit of analyzing "bad" books in order to learn what makes them bad, with the intention that it will lead the readers at the sight, mostly novice writers, to discover how to improve their writing. In addition to sporking Bitterwood, they apparently have also sporked Twilight and Eragon, books that they hated for reasons they documented in great detail.

I'm actually somewhat flattered to be in the company of Twilight and Eragon. If my books could fail to please readers even one tenth as spectacularly as these books failed to please readers, I could retire a wealthy man. It struck me as a rather perverse and backward approach to learning to write--to take books that earned the approval of editors, publishers, movie producers, and millions of readers... then figure out how not to write like that.

In reality, it's a very simple thing not to write in a way that you don't like.

Just don't write stuff you don't enjoy reading.

I've never read Twilight. Would probably chew off my arm if I were chained to a seat in a theatre where the movie was playing. But, I'm not a 14 year old girl. I understand my own tastes and preferences. I'm free, among the millions of books in this world, to seek out and read books that I enjoy. If I know from the cover, or the pitch, or the first chapter, that the book isn't for me, I move on. Life is too short to waste time reading stuff you hate.

And, if you do hate it, there's no point in reading it in order to try to figure out the secrets of its success. You'll never grasp it. If you are searching for some magic formula of plot or character or dialogue that a successful writer has captured and try to mimic it, you are likely to fail.

The reason that my Twilight or Eragon or even my books manage to make it into print boils down, I think, to a couple of key elements. First, we actually managed to write a book; this is a pretty big obstacle for some folks. Second, we all got lucky and our manuscripts wound up in the hands of the right people at the right time. But, third and most importantly, I think Twilight and Eragon and Harry Potter and my books were written as labors of love. When these books were first emerging into the world, no one was paying the writer to write them. They were written instead because they were a story that the writer loved.

All the literary analysis of writing techniques, of style, of world building, of creating characters--it all has it's place, but it's almost completely useless as a guide to writing a good book. You are never going to be able to think or study or analyze your way into writing a book that people love.

There is only one law of good literature: Write what you'd love to read.

Not what you have read and loved. What you love, but haven't yet read.

To quote myself from the Impish Idea thread:

Every thing you write should be a love story. Not a romance. But a story written because you loved it.

Follow your passion. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone. Fill your book with the stuff that makes your heart race and leave out the stuff that bores you. If you don’t make it into print, at least you’ll have a book you can look at with pride as being truly your own.

Once you've learned this secret, everything else falls into place.


Mr. Cavin said...

I think it's pretty obvious that the reviewers at the site you've linked are doing just that.

Perhaps Lccorp2 also writes fiction, but he obviously just loves to devote massive amounts of time and energy, and possibly even love, writing contemptuous and snarky critiques. Maybe these interests go hand-in-hand the way he states: maybe he uses his grandstanding dismissiveness to foster a feeling of private superiority. But I think that's just an excuse.

Man, I sure hope he's well-paid and has an engaged following. But even as a reader I certainly don't enjoy spending my similar resources on his niggling interests. And otherwise: though I have occasionally been guilty of morbid curiosities and inflicted upon myself things I dislike for the negative examples provided, I have generally thought of this as a willful act of of masturbatory self-discovery, never confusing myself as to whether it was some meritorious act of artistic contribution, as seen there.

But then again, I don't believe in workshopping, either.

Loren Eaton said...

But, something about Lccorp2's criticism of the book struck me as strange. He's breaking the book down chapter by chapter ...Methinks the gentleman not only has too much time on his hands but is also something of a bitter individual. More than wondering about who would write such a detailed critique, I wonder who would want to read it.

James Maxey said...

Cavin, I think you're right that he's enjoying himself. Snarking is fun. But, unless you're writing a certain brand of chick-lit, it's probably not the greatest path to follow into publication.

I remember when I got serious about writing Sciece Fiction, I suddenly discovered I hated Star Trek. I had loved it when I was a kid; I used to stay up past midnight to watch the reruns late on Saturdy night, after pro-wrestling. But, in my twenties, suddenly Star Trek became the most clunky, juvenile crap I could imagine. The acting, writing, special effects were lousy, the heavy handed moralizing was laughable, the unintential racism revealed by populating a ship with such ethnic stereotypes was kind of cringy, and the science was an affront to any man with half a brain. Warp drive wasn't possible. Tractor beams were nonsense. Humanoid aliens made no sense. Transporters were just too dumb on every single level to even contemplate. And those little tricorders and communicators... the idea of powerful computers that fit in palm of your hands were just absurd to anyone who knew anything at all about electrical circuitry and... um, okay, I guess they got that one right.

I hated Star Trek for many, many years. I didn't watch the Next Generation or the various spin offs. I was completely baffled by the idiots who were in love with this stuff. I remember the Klingons who used to come into Kinko's on third shift in full alien garb and make copies of the blue prints of their ships. How pathetic.

If I had a time machine, I would go back and dopeslap myself. With the benifit of hindsight, its easy to see just how clueless I was at the height of my Star Trek disdain. I didn't like it, so I thought that other people were wrong to like it. I thought that there was something so inherently flawed with the show that it was unlovable, and assumed that there was something wrong with anyone who could draw entertainment from it.

In reality, the person who was broken was me. I had let cynicism and jealosy rob me of the sense of wonder I'd been capable of feeling when I was ten and first discovered Star Trek. Instead of spending all that energy figuring out what was wrong with the show and anyone who loved it, I should have been figuring out what had made me fall in love with the show in the first place.

Despite all the very real flaws of Star Trek, the show worked for me as a teen, and it works for me again today. In fact, it works on even more levels for me today. I've looped back around to the point where I love Kirk chewing up the scenery, and bones staring all bug-eyed as he runs the gamut of emotions from bug-eyed anger to bug-eyed shock to bug-eyed awe. I can laugh at the anachronisms, like the mechanical clocks. And, underneath it all, I can feel it resonating with me. These were people dreaming about the future. They were speaking to other dreamers. I was such a dreamer as a kid, and I hope I've looped back around to being such a dreamer now.

Loren, regarding the possible bitterness of the author, I think there's a very insightful comment in the thread, not by him, but by another writer:

"The reason we spork popular fiction, though, is probably that many of us know we can write better than that (I’m not exaggerating. I’ve seen many unpublished writers here who could easily pass up the likes of Meyer and Paolini) and we wish that the readers of Twilight and other such books would realise that there are better things to read."

This really resonates with me, because I've been there. I hit a phase in my life around the time I went to Odyssey where I stopped being able to read anything. Everything in print was either worse than what I was writing (I thought) that it filled me with anger, or else so much better that it filled me with despair. I was very aware of some of the inherent cruelties of publishing. A completely lousy book by a bestselling author is still going to be a bestseller. Fame leads to success far more than quality. The more successful the writer, the more sloppy and slapped together their work seemed to me.

Again, I found myself wondering just what the hell was wrong with the rest of the world that they couldn't see this. I hadn't passed through the veil yet and figured out the larger truth: People will love what they will love, for reasons that I will never be able to control. I can hate this, I can fight this, or I can surrender to the larger truth and write the stuff I love, for whatever reasons I love it. I then present it to the world with as much sincerity as I can muster, and hope others might love my stories as much as I do.

In regards to the specific sporking, its interesting to note that the Llcorp2 doesn't enjoy my writing, so he assumes that no one should enjoy my writing. I've been guilty of similar predjudices... for the love of God, I can't understand what's wrong with the people who listen to top 40 radio. Haven't they seen the studies showing that Kid Rock songs cause brain tumors in lab rats? So, I can't judge him too harshly. Perhaps somewhere along his path of arguing that people should hate my writing, he'll stumble onto the realization that he'll never lift himself up by tearing me, or Meyers, or anyone else down. He's free to dislike my books; I would say the vast majority of the world won't like my books, or have any interest at all in them. This is true of every book. Despite the wild, wild success of, say, Harry Potter, the reality is that only a tiny fraction of the population has read the book, or has any interest in reading the book.

Instead of wasting energy trying to tell the world what it should hate, he'll make his way into print faster if he stays focused on writing what he loves and looking for the other people in the world who share his enthusiasm for whatever it is he's enthusiastic about. Understanding what you hate is pretty easy. Understanding what you love is sometimes a trickier act of self awareness.

Mr. Cavin said...

Well, some blogger doing a pithy, Ben Franklin-type accent once said that, when presented with a choice of accepting the accolades of a public’s pitiless and vile scorn or their apathy, well, you could do worse than the scorn. But, statistically, you probably won’t.

As I was reading over the debate in the commentary at the cited sporking, I noticed that a number of people had grown interested, at least momentarily, in checking the book out for themselves. I think you should send your young reviewer some sort of kickback.

---Benjamin Franklin

James Maxey said...

Yeah. I hope he goes on to spork Dragonforge. Maybe I should send him a copy.

Larry Hodges said...

Wow. I read the entire discussion. I've wasted way too much time in life with "Internet trolls," but this guy is a level higher than that - someone who reads entire novels just to rip them apart online. I don't think his "analysis" of Bitterwood was anything more than his version of "fun." The book wasn't to his taste, but rather than put it aside, he spent an inordinate amount of time tearing it down. (Later he claimed he read it based on a $15 bet!!!) Claiming it was done so writers can learn to avoid his mistakes is rationalizing, and sounds like the Hezekiah in Bitterwood using religion as a cover for his destructiveness. When/if my own novel gets published, I sure hope I don't get into a discussion with such a person because I don't think I could keep it as civil as James did - I think I'd do a little Hezekiah action on this "critic." (Note - I've read the first two books, and am looking forward to #3.)
-Larry Hodges

Drakonis said...

When I first looked at the book "Twilight" I thought it was a girls book too. But it was pretty thick, so I said "Ah,what the heck" and checked it out. It really was a good book, a good balance between romance and action. Any loser with a big enough jacket to hide it on his way out would love it. It comes quite close to becoming an adult book, and there are vampires gettin their asses handed to them. I certainly liked it. So, you should give the book a try, it only took me 3 hours to read.

James Maxey said...

Drakonis, I mean no offense to Meyers, Twilight, or anyone who likes the book when I say that I just don't see myself as likely to ever read it. It has nothing to do with the quality or content of the book--I'm sure the book wouldn't be as successful as it was if Meyer's writing and storytelling weren't resonating with millions of people. I just think I've moved on from a point in my life were "teen angst romance" really resonates with me any more. This doesn't invalidate books with this focus by any means. It's just that my tastes have changed in things I read about love after two relationships ended in divorce and another ended in death. I still believe in romance, but my perspective makes a lot of the "love conquers all" messages of some books and movies sort of tiresome. Again, however, this doesn't mean that stories with this focus on optimistic love are wrong, it just means that I'm searching for media where the romance is handled with a little more complexity.

I think "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a fantastic love story, for example.

Readers of my work might notice some strange patterns in my "love" stories. In Bitterwood, all templates for how that book should unfold would have Jandra and Pet starting a romance. They are, after all, the young and attractive male and female leads. Instead, nothing Pet does ever does move Jandra out of the "just friends" category. I, as the author, seemed to have the power to bring them together, but the characters had other plans. (In my first draft, they close the book declaring love for one another; it never felt right to me, and I'm glad I changed it.)

The Graxen/Nadala love story follows a traditional arc a bit more closely, but when I resume their story one day I plan to show that their relationship isn't quite as story book as it might seem. I don't think they were behaving in a healthy or responsible fashion, and they will spend quite a bit of time dealing with the consequences of their beginnings.

On the other hand, there's a young love story in Dragonseed in the "love conquers all" model that works for me. So, maybe I don't understand my own tastes as well as I think I do.

Drakonis said...

"So, maybe I don't understand my own tastes as well as I think I do."
You are definitely right on the dota.