writing rengeek magpie mind

December 2014

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writing rengeek magpie mind

What the hell do we mean by that?

hernewshoes mentioned in her own journal that she doesn't quite understand what other writers say when they say the book is "broken." And she speculates that it means any of a number of flaws.

But mostly what she talks about are surface flaws. Cosmetic things. What I mean when I say a book is broken is that it has deeper, larger, developed or intrinsic flaws that keep it from functioning as a narrative machine.

A book can have a lot wrong with it and still work. A book can be completely unlikable, and work. Or completely heartbreaking (what I call the "Gordon Lightfoot ending," --You'll never read that book again because the ending is just too hard to take.) and still work.

And a book can have a lot of good in it and not work. hernewshoes pointed out Tender is the Night as an example of a book with massive narrative problems that still has an emotional effect on the reader--it still "works," in other words. But that's not what I mean (or what most of the writers of my acquaintanceship mean) when they say "broken."

When I say "broken" I mean it as a writer, not a critic or a casual reader. Because I read totally differently as a writer than as a casual reader. I don't look at a novel and think "I hate this particular technique," I think "Why is the writer doing this, and what purpose does it serve in the machine of the narrative? Is there a better/easier/stronger way to do it? Is it functioning for the purpose to which it has been set?" 

--Time to expose my bias. I am a proponent of the idea that the best way to tackle any particular narrative problem is usually the easiest and most straightforward one. If it calls for a wood screw, don't fuck around with a dovetail joint.

On the other hand, if you need a dovetail joint, those wood screws are just going to make your life miserable in the long run.

Okay, movingalongnow.--

So, a book can be"broken" in a lot of ways, but what it boils down to is that the narrative machine does not function. Not that it has dings on it, not that it grinds a little, but it just doesn't work. Examples are when the writer has to resort to TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) character actions or Deus Ex Machina to resolve plotlines. When characters must behave in an out of character fashion to make the book come together in the end. When the pacing is off, or the thematic resonances are set up badly or in a confusing fashion, so the sonar-image of a satisfying theme does not emerge from the echoes. When there is no click, at the ending, when it falls into place.

When you hold the book in your head, give it a spin on a fingertip, and you can see it wobble because the center of gravity is off somehow. (And I have no shit seen a wobble so big the book crashed and went bouncing across the room fixed by adding three paragraphs to the end. I am not kidding.)

This is a tricky tricky thing, by the way, because so much of it is subjective, and readers project a good deal of themselves into the narrative machine of a novel. They do, in other words, some of the heavy lifting. A reader who clicks with the inner squiddy nature of a book can patch a hell of a lot that's wrong simply by bringing his experience in to oil the gears and spackle over the gaps, to mesh with the machine.

But yeah, what I mean when I say broken is something deeper and more basic than a dent on the fender.

As a case in point, the seventeen million drafts of Blood and Iron. In its earliest incarnation, it was a single-narrator novel, from the point of view of elaine_andraste. The problem is, Elaine is sort of intentionally not a very likeable creature. She's broken. Savagely. She has her reasons, but the inside of her head is a lightless place.

The result was a book that was almost unreadably heavy. And missing about five major plot threads for most of their existence, because there was nobody with a POV present to witness them. The first of these problems does not constitute brokenness. It does constitute difficulty, which is a different thing.

The second thing... was a problem. For one thing, it made a lot of things that I knew were going on in the background seem very arbitrary when they showed up. Because the narrative covers four kingdoms, as it were, and Elaine is only present in oh, one and a half of them. And people DO keep hiding things from her.

So I rewrote Elaine's POV almost from scratch, and added two other narrative voices, Matthew and Keith, which had the effect not only of shattering a lot of light through the heart of the book, (thus removing, thank dog, rather a lot of the "I'm a leper, I'm a leper, bitch bitch bitch" quality of the story) but also of helping me shore up the narrative and thematic difficulties.

Whiskey and Water, which needed heavy revisions, was never broken. It was flawed--it took forever to get its legs under it, and I was so busy figuring out the voice that there were several large chunks of narrative that amounted to characters sitting around not fussing enough about their problems--and so it lacked a sense of urgency, and had some other issues--but the machine worked. (Because of my method of writing, and the way my brain works--I am something like a 90% inductive thinker and my main focus is always on character arc, because it's what is most satisfying to me--I seem to write books that more linear people describe as "slow at the beginning." Of course, to me, they're not slow at all, because part of my joy in a novel is watching the writer lay the jigsaw pieces on the table and starting to try to figure out how they go together. But, yanno, not all readers are me, so I am trying to learn how to do that while also interweaving a more linear plot thread.)

Anyway, those  revisions were just as much a nightmare on the revisions to fix a broken book. And it seems to me that in some ways, "flawed" or "broken" is a much more hopeful diagnosis than "I hate this."

Because "I hate this" probably can't be fixed. "Broken..."

...can.

Although it often mean massive reconstruction efforts. Tearing down the walls, replacing the studs, doing something more than just fiddling with the paint and tweaking word choices. Ripping out whole characters, adding whole scenes, rejigging the entire thing so it hangs straight.

If I had finished Undertow without going back to rewrite a new first hundred or so pages, it would be a broken book. It may still be.

Some of them never actually get fixed.

Comments

That's really clear; well explained. The other way a book can be broken is in the plot structure, and in fact that's more common than failure of the narrative engine. If the skeleton that holds up the narrative is malformed, or has big holes in it, then the book won't work. A strong narrative can take a reader right over the breaks, like a Chuck Jones cartoon character running off the cliff, but you can't really rely on that very often.

I've always felt that the real purpose of outlining a book is to identify the structural members of the plot, to see how strongly it's built.
You have a point, about outlining. Hmmm.

---L.
Sometimes when I get stuck I outline the stuff I already have written to see what I've built.
Exactly. It's a wonderful tool. When I teach Clarion, one of the exercises I give is to outline a well-known novel. It strips away the flash, and lets you look at the skeleton.
Oo! Smart!
I should try that.

---L.
Because I read totally differently as a writer than as a casual reader. I don't look at a novel and think "I hate this particular technique," I think "Why is the writer doing this, and what purpose does it serve in the machine of the narrative? Is there a better/easier/stronger way to do it? Is it functioning for the purpose to which it has been set?"

Were you at the 'reading as a writer' panel at Eastercon? M. John Harrison was saying something very similar.
I was at part of it; I had a coughing fit and had to leave, I think. Unless that was the other panel. (I had several coughing fits.)

I think most of us start doing that, after a while. Which isn't to say we don't have our unreasonable prejudices. I hate dream sequences.

On the other hand, I also use dream sequences. Because sometimes they are the tool that fits.
I think most of us start doing that, after a while. Which isn't to say we don't have our unreasonable prejudices. I hate dream sequences.

Ooh, me too! Me too! 'Specially in real-world/mimetic/non-fantastic novels (is that three ways of saying the same thing?), where they are so dreadfully obviously an Author's Interruption, to tell us (or the character) something they couldn't figure how to do another way; it's lazy writing and always, always unconvincing, because there is no way that a given situation will produce a given dream; it's the deus ex machina par excellence (he said, sliding gracefully between alien languages that he does not speak), the hand of the author ruthlessly exposed.

On the other hand, I also use dream sequences. Because sometimes they are the tool that fits.

Uh, me too, me too. But rarely, and only ever in fantasy/horror stories where you can justify some kind of supernatural intervention. My problem lies in being asked to believe that the regular human psyche will throw up these so-convenient explicators at just the time they're needed.
All my characters suffer PTSD. It's convenient for traumatic flashbacks. *g*
"Oh my Gosh, why is he cowering in the corner and muttering to himself?"
"Don't worry, he's experiencing a critical bit of plot exposition."
I use dreams (usually reported in brief synopsis, not described in full) rather heavily in my current work, but a) the dreaming character is genuinely precognitive and b) while most of her dreams are relevant to the story, they're relevant via impenetrable symbols rather than Flashing Plot Signposts. My hope is that a reader, after finishing the book, would be able to look back at them and play the "what did that one refer to?" game.
Heh. I have dream sequences in Hammered (PTSD-related trauma flashbacks), Carnival (stress-triggered *childhood* trauma flashbacks--which I put in because my editor wanted them), A Companion to Wolves (prophetic dreams delivered by Gods), The Stratford Man and The Journeyman Devil (prophetic dreams of a character wh has grown afflicted by the future).

All of them tend to be muzzy and illogical and highly symbolic. I find that stress dreams are common among my friends (I *rarely* remember my own dreams) and that they often have bearing on the stressor.

For crowning irony, one of the fixes that I suggested to truepenny for The Mirador will let her put in a whole bunch of the dream sequences I was campaigning unsuccessfully to have taken out of the previous two books. (She loves dream sequences. She's got a wildly successful series of short stories that consists of little else. *g*)
Oh, yeah -- I have PTSD sequences in the flawed third novel I mentioned before. I think mostly he hallucinates while he's awake, though, instead of actually dreaming. Which does cause problems for his friends; his hallucinations tend to be violent ones.
Precog is fine, surely - it's when people who are just plain folks have those wonderfully convenient dreams that tell them something they Really Need To Know that I start flinging books across the room and the cat gets nervous. Except that - because I am me (or should that be I am I?) - I do of course adopt the extreme form of this position, and every time anyone has any dream at all in a mimetic fiction I start snarling distrustfully, on the grounds that it's either relevant in which case I don't believe it, or it's irrelevant in which case I don't want to be told about it.

I always wonder whether readers do go back and play that retrospective spot-the-hidden-meaning game. I hope so, because we build it in there and it's fun; but I'm never sure. I once wrote a novel (which is going to be published in the States at last, in December, yay! - from my lovely new friend Kelly Smith's 'Bloody Brits' imprint, but this is not the place to be cooing about that) where the whole thing was constructed to make sense only on a second reading. All the bits do fall into place - I think - with one great clatter at the end, but you always meet the answers before you know what the questions are, and it doesn't have that authorial voice sitting you down in the library to explain it all in the last chapter, so you have to go back and read it again. Which, once you know what the questions are, it's pretty much self-explanatory. It's a whodunnit without Poirot, basically. And I can explain this to people face to face, when they come up and say 'I'm sorry, but I really didn't understand at the end, who'd done what' (or 'I didn't want to believe it', which is more common), but you can't talk individually to all of your readers, and you can't put a note in on the last page saying 'now go back and read it all again', so I don't know...
This seems the most appropriate place to put the random comment in that you were in my bizarre dream last night. We had tea, and conversed about writing and characters being annoying, and then went to watch someone be sentenced to death for murder who on waking I realized was one of the science teachers in my building.

I dunno either.
Dude.
Do you have an icon for everything?
*g* We try.
Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I will take out the narrative engine, listen to the cylinders, add oil and race it around the block a couple of times to make sure the darn thing works right. And I do it over and over and over again, all the way through the writing process. Because, at least for me, the engine sometimes ticks along just fine in the early stages of the book but blows a gasket about halfway through.

Right now the engine is making ominous creaking noises as I head into the latter third of the current book, and it vexes me to no end.
"I'm a leper, I'm a leper, bitch bitch bitch"

I didn't know you wrote the Thomas Covenant series... ;-D

But seriously, thank you for defining this, hernewshoes wasn't the only one wondering what exactly a 'broken' book was. I am much enlightened.
It's exactly like a broken short story, only longer!
"I'm a leper, I'm a leper, bitch bitch bitch"

My mind keeps on trying to make that into a song.
Hmm. If "leper" were only a three-syllable word. The William Tell Overture fits the beat better.

Good for you on the books. That which entertains you is more likely to entertain others, and I'd imagine writing pays too poorly not to be fun.
Excellent post. I agree (in general, not having written a novel). Except I do think that difficult problems usually present the best solutions, once found.
I feel the same way about books being broken versus being flawed. I can (and do!) grouch and grump about all kinds of elements in a book--and some of them can be major problems--but the book will still work for me.

Then there are those books that simply do not work. For me, usually, that relates to tone and pacing. I can be very forgiving about plot problems (tv generation, me). I gripe about them, but then I hug them and give them a nice sandwich and a seat at the table.

Really, it's amazing how much I can find wrong with books I actually liked, because it's just the flaws I'm pointing out. The book still works.
Maaaan... I know why I read your blog. Mental images like spinning a book in your mind to find its center of gravity just make SENSE to me.

Well, how else are you going to do it???
I've been through this twice. Since I write pretty quickly, I managed to produce several novels before selling any -- but they did not, as you might expect, automatically improve as I went along. Some did, and some didn't.

The third one I wrote may be flawed or it may be broken; I'd have to go back and re-evaluate it to know. Like your problems with Elaine, the main character is a damaged man whose head is not a very good place to live . . . and on top of that, his damage is of a sort that makes him really, really want to hide from the plot. I should have taken a hint from the way other characters kept hijacking the pov to get stuff done. If I were to rewrite it -- and maybe I will, someday; or maybe not -- I think it might become much more of an overtly ensemble-cast novel, so that Leonard doesn't have to bear more of a narrative load than he's capable of carrying.

Then there's the fourth one I wrote. <sigh> The first version was BROKEN. Broken to the point that, if I were a little more motivated, I'd go look up the HTML that would make that word flash at you, just to emphasize it a little more. And I knew it. Somehow the narrative had no momentum, the main character was unengaging, and the whole thing had managed to turn into shallow pseudo-feminist tripe while I wasn't looking. So I rewrote it and it got thirty thousand words longer (Christ, that was the Revision That Never Ended -- I kept running and running and it just kept accordioning outward), and now I'd tentatively say it's moved up to flawed status. I think I'm more likely to revisit this one at some point than the third novel mentioned above, because I'd like to see it work. There may be no market to speak of for fantasy westerns, but dammit, I'm a child of the Great Plains, and some aspects of that book are very near and dear to my heart. I'd like it to see the light of day eventually.

I think you kind of have to experience the broken thing to really grok what it is. But you know it when you see it.
*sympathy*

Yeah, I have one of those myself. The solution may be to get famous and go small-press with the weird stuff.
That's sort of my vague plan. I'm not motivated to fix it right now, so no rush, and it may in the long run be better to publish it as a labor of love, rather than trying to make it run in the races with my more commercial stuff.

For what it's worth ...

I liked very much how Scardown started. Didn't seem slow to me -- to me, a 'slow start' means there's jack-all going on to 'watch', internally, while my eyeballs force their way through the first twenty pages (at least). I find books 'slow starters' that I'm sure their authors thought were lightning-fast ... because they start in sudden extreme-closeup inside the head of someone I'm given no reason whatsoever to be interested in, doing things that are (a) cryptic and (b) boring.

Jenny wasn't boring, and her life (and the world she lived in) were *fascinating* to watch, so I was more than willin' to keep the words spoolin' past the corneas and enjoy the journey until what the fancy folks call 'plot' came into it.

Re: For what it's worth ...

*g* You read like I do.

Re: For what it's worth ...

Dude, if the culture walkthrough is cool enough I won't even squeak at cardboard people until the third or fourth chapter. :-> I'm a total PBS junkie.
For me, the dividing line between broken and flawed it whether or not I can "feel" the story.

A flawed story can still move or excite me. I can be irritated by the not-working bits separately.

In a broken story the not-rightness is intrinsic. I might understand how tragic the characters are or how cool the plot is. But the flaws keeps me from engaging with it on the heart-level.
Irrelevant but quick question" Is the title "The Chains that You Refuse" from Richard Thompson's Beeswing?
They say her flower is faded now.
Hard weather and hard booze.
But maybe that's just the price you pay
For the chains that you refuse.


Why, whatever gave you that idea? ;-)
That's why that's been niggling at me.

Folksong squee!
It follows that you should call this book King of Bohemia.
Um. No.
Sorry, I couldn't resist.

(Anonymous)

Every Reader Brings A Repair Kit To The Book...

One thing you wrote stuck to me: that every reader brings something from his/her own mind to the reading experience -- and can "fill in" what's missing, or interpret the text so as to "patch up" its flaws...

So reading is not a simplistic one-way exchange, like we usually think:
WRITER==>TEXT==>READER

But more something like this:

WRITER==>TEXT==>Experience<==INTERPRETATION<==READER

So what does the writer owe the reader? How many flaws can one get away with? (If this sounds like a stupid question, think of flawed books that become bestsellers.)

Or do writers merely provide the equivalence of a Rorschach Test, in which the reader can "find" whatever's on his/her mind at the moment?

WhatEVER. Back to work...

-A.R.Yngve
http://yngve.bravehost.com



Re: Every Reader Brings A Repair Kit To The Book...

I think you are *exactly* write. Er, right. Er, something.

We talk a lot about the "reader's 50%," the half of the book that's in the reader's mind--sometimes its filled in over ambiguity, and sometimes it's projected onto the actual text. Some books fit exactly what the reader tries to project, and the given reader is predisposed to love that book.

Part of writing successfully is knowing how to set up the structure so the reader can hang what he brings on it and get a story.

Re: Every Reader Brings A Repair Kit To The Book...

Oh, and as for how many flaws you can get away with?

None, really, but that's impossible, so we all live with our imperfections. *g* I mean, ideally, we're all working for perfection. But it also tends to be beyond our collective reach.

Flawed books totally become best sellers, but you also learn you can't control that. All you can do is write the best book *you* can write.