I’ve been reading a lot lately and critically thinking about what makes good or bad writing. Maybe I shouldn’t use those terms. I’ve been thinking a lot about things that I like and would like to imitate and things that I don’t like that I would like to avoid. In general, I’ve been making a concerted effort to become a better writer. One useful exercise is to formulate your thoughts precisely on certain elements of writing. That is what this post will be.
I recently read Q by Evan Mandery, so I’m going to use it to illustrate my points. I am only picking on it, because it is the most recent thing I’ve read. I see these issues to some degree or another in most things I read.
1. Meandering. Maybe this annoys me so much in other people’s writing because it is the hardest thing for me to overcome. When thoughts are flowing from your brain to the page it all makes logical sense. It is all connected. These connections let you explain all sorts of interesting things. Unfortunately, good, clear writing stays on topic. It stays focused. During revision, most of what you write should be deleted. You think the extraneous topics are somewhat related, bring color, bring humor, or whatever post-justification you come up with, but almost always they don’t.
In Q, the narrator constantly lets his thoughts go off on tangents. A few of them are humorous, critiques of modern culture. Most are not. Here’s an example. A character refers to a cemetery, “I recommend Cypress Hills in Queens.” The next segment begins, “The cemeteries of New York are hidden treasures. In 1852, …” It starts a brief history of cemeteries in New York. A few pages later we get a brief history of the Cayman islands as a tax shelter. A few pages later we get something else.
There seem to be certain keywords that come up in the narration which signal a page or two long digression on those words. It gets tiresome. I think there are at least two ways to meander in an effective way. The first is à la Don DeLillo. In particular, White Noise has these same types of digressions, but they are always very focused on the main theme of the book. This makes the book read like a well-chosen collection of essays tied together by a narrative arc. The digressions are very short and humorous. It is stylistically a similar idea, but can hardly be called meandering because of how directed it is.
The other possible way to make these meandering cultural references in a way that doesn’t annoy me is to incorporate them directly into your writing style. Pynchon was a master at this in Gravity’s Rainbow. He used a dense, complicated style in order to seamlessly incorporate the digressions right into the sentences. What I’m trying to say is that meandering to other topics can be done if you are extremely careful with how you do it. It can be an effective technique when handled properly. It is almost never handled properly.
2. Knowing you’ve done something wrong or questionable and justifying it in the work itself. It is one thing if you have a plot hole or you are meandering and don’t notice it. These things happen. It is another if you try to justify these things through your writing, because having characters comment on it tells the reader that you were aware of the problem. If you were aware of the problem, then you should just fix it! Don’t justify it to me.
This happens twice in Q. I won’t give the plot away, but I will say that the main character’s future self comes back and tries to convince him to not marry the love of his life for certain reasons. When you read this, you will immediately think of several less extreme ways around the problem. It doesn’t make sense why he must resort to not marrying her.
Immediately after this, the two main characters discuss an episode of The Twilight Zone in which the main drama could have been avoided by much simpler means. The one character is annoyed at the simple solutions and points this out. The other one tries to justify why the episode was made with these plot holes. The author has used the characters to tell the reader: I know you’ve realized that this is an unreasonable scenario, but this is why I’ve decided to leave it. It annoys me. If you realize it is unreasonable, then change it.
Later on a similar thing happens. The main character writes a story. It gets criticized, “These random tangents come across as quite flippant in your writing and, I must say, they are similarly off-putting on an interpersonal level…You should work to curtail it. Being random is utterly unbecoming.” Sound familiar? The main character then tries to justify why they are there. It is the author explaining that he has a bunch of random tangents in the book, and he realizes they don’t really work. But here’s why he kept them. Don’t justify the mistake. Fix it.
3. Pacing. There may be a few extraordinarily talented writers who can do this on their own, but for the most part pacing must be determined by readers. Even still, it is probably subjective beyond all hope. If someone reads what you wrote and thinks a part dragged on too long or it ended too quickly or they wanted to hear more about something, then they are probably onto something. If you wrote it, then you are probably too close to the material to understand what the reader is experiencing.
It is very difficult to do, but you need some readers who you trust and then actually trust their judgment. To me, Q‘s pacing is all wrong. The first visitation and major decision is the first half of the book. Then something like 10 more visitations happen in the second half. Some of them are only a few pages long. I actually really, really like the second half of the book, because it develops the major theme. Proper pacing could have saved this book for me. It would go from fair to excellent if the first half were cut down and the visitations afterwards were expanded to be roughly the same size.
To point out that I understand what the author was doing and am not an idiot, I’ll explain the theory behind why he did what he did. There was no reason to drag out the later visitations any longer than a few pages to get to the main theme of the book. By making each visitation shorter and shorter, it brought about a sense of acceleration in pacing to the end. In theory this idea is exactly what I would have done. An example of a masterful execution of this technique would be Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
In the actual finished product, I felt like the flawed (for the reasons mentioned above) first visitation being the longest made the first half drag a lot. The second half went by too quickly for me, because those stories were less flawed and more interesting. They were also how the main theme was developed. You could still have some decrease in length of the visitations as you get later in the book to create that sense of driving towards the end.
The sudden pacing shift made the first and second half seem like totally disjoint and unrelated works. My proposal wouldn’t change any content, but would make the whole thing feel more balanced and would have prevented me from almost giving up several times in the first half.
I’m sorry to be down on a book I actually ended up enjoying. It was fun and had me laughing out loud at times, and the lesson to take away was excellent. My wrath would have come down on basically whatever book I had most recently read. I hope to make a habit of these posts, because it is quite the clarifying exercise to write my thoughts on these issues down. I can already think of 3 more without any effort.