On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

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Using Poetry to Improve Prose

This is going to be a short one. I recently broke my ankle, so I’ve been kind of busy with other things.

I often talk about what makes good prose style. Most of these posts follow and give convention writing advice. I’ve done a few posts on poetry but not much. One of the most important pieces of advice for improving prose style that I never see given is to write some poetry.

You have to take the right attitude for this exercise, though. The point of doing this is to work intensely at exact and evocative word choices; brief sensory detail; creative metaphor; flow and rhythm of the phrases; and so on.

To compose a good six line poem could take weeks or months, but you’ll come out of the other side of the experience with a very different concept of how words can be used to create meaning in a better way.

I’d advise not using a standard form. If you’re trying to fit the words into a preset rhythm or rhyme scheme, then you’ll be thinking about the wrong things. The focus should be on the right words and flow to achieve the purpose—not on finding a word that’s close enough and completes a preset scheme (though that is a good different exercise).

I have a set of 20-30 poems I’ve been tinkering with for about 3 years now. They’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t think they’re embarrassing anymore, but it’s taken a long, long time. I started releasing them to the public at a rate of about one a week through Poets Unlimited on Medium.

I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ll continue to do it. If you’re curious you can check them out here.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 12

It’s been about five months since I’ve done one of these. My how time flies. I’ve almost exclusively used “literary” writers for this series. Today I want to examine the prose of John Irving. He’s had a lot of commercial success, but he straddles the literary/commercial divide more than many give him credit for. This is the opening line from A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

I don’t remember how I picked this book up, but I distinctly remember reading this opening line and being hooked. We’ll look at its structure and how it establishes so much in so little space.

We’ll start with the obvious. The sentence starts with “I,” so we are getting the voice of the narrator. But immediately, the whole sentence is about someone else. We can be pretty sure (especially with knowledge of the title) that the main character of the novel will be this other person. It’s like The Great Gatsby; the narrator will tell of his past with the main character.

“I am doomed to remember…” This opening phrase establishes that the story is going to be tragic in some way. The word “doomed” is no accident. If we look to the end of the sentence, we see “God” and “Christian.” There were a lot of words Irving could have chosen here, but “doomed” is consistent in tone and given a lot more power when reaching the end of the sentence. This isn’t a mere haunting memory. In the context of God, the word “doomed” tends to have one meaning: doomed to hell during the Final Judgement. The opening clause says: pay attention, this is serious.

The follow-up is “a boy with a wrecked voice.” It immediately forces a lot of questions into the reader’s mind. Wait. He’s only a boy? What could have been that bad? Why is his voice wrecked? This sounds even less threatening.

Irving em dashes into a sequence of clarifications. The clarifications serve the dual purpose of fleshing out the main character and raising the stakes of the forthcoming novel. Each detail gets a little more confusing and intense.

The boy is the smallest person he ever knew. Even more so than the voice, how could this boy be threatening at all? Then the kicker comes. The boy was the instrument of the narrator’s mother’s death. Now we really wonder: who could this boy be to have caused such a thing? And even then, we’re told there’s something more. The mother’s death isn’t even the reason the narrator is doomed to remember. This sequence ramps up the tension more and more until we get our relief at the true reason.

The boy is the reason he believes in God. Semicolon. We then get further clarification. He’s Christian because of this boy. It’s almost a let down when the reason turns out to be so anticlimactic. But, in a sense, this makes it better. What traumatic event happened that it surpassed his mother’s death by this boy?

And we’re hooked. By the end of the first sentence we have so many unanswered questions. Moreover, the sequencing of the questions makes them feel unanswerable.

When examining why prose works, it’s often useful to think why similar attempts don’t work. Think how boring this opening would have been if Irving merely wanted to establish the narrator’s voice and tell a few facts about Owen Meany.

I recall a boy with a wrecked voice. He was the smallest person I ever knew, and yet he was also the instrument of my mother’s death. I believe in God because of Owen Meany.

I could see many people starting their novels this way. Without comparison, it might seem fine. It still establishes point of view. It still lists some traits of Owen Meany. It still raises many of the same questions. But it lacks some extremely important points. There’s no dramatic tension. The questions feel easily answerable in this form.

I could see myself saying, “Eh. Some boy killed this guy’s mother. He now believes in God. I guess I’ll find out what happened soon enough.” These are serious matters, but the prose doesn’t feel serious. It almost has a comical tone in this form because, one, it lacks the word “doomed,” but two, because the juxtaposition of these sentiments is such a sudden and stark contrast with no build up.

Seeing these fake several sentences also brings up another point. It isn’t the right voice for the narrator. The narrator of this novel used an extremely complicated sentence structure: full clause, em dash, three negative clauses separated by commas building to a positive clause, semicolon, full clause clarification.

We’ll later find out that the narrator is an English teacher (and maybe writer? It’s been 15 years since I read this), but the astute reader will already have ascertained a linguistic sophistication and high education level for the narrator. The clunky sentences I wrote give none of this voice or information.

Who knew one sentence could contain so much?