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
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.
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..."
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.