What is Good?

I have discovered that a major problem when writing books is how to know if they are good. Strangely, it’s not a problem with reading – I know when a book I read is good or not. However, I find it hard to break down why I know that, and even harder to apply it to my own writing. Part of that is the difficulty in objectively assessing something that you put on the page yourself, but is still mostly in your mind. The other part, however, is the definition of “good” itself.

What is good writing? Ask a bunch of people, get a bunch of different answers (ahem, Hugo awards, cough cough), including:

  • Good story. Compelling, recognisable, yet with a twist. Emotionally engaging yet not melodramatic.
  • Good setting and world-building. Original yet not too confusing.
  • Good characters. Likeable yet flawed. Heroic but vulnerable. Unique but not controversial.
  • Good prose. Again, what that means has many different answers!
  • Good plot (distinct from story). Full of twists and turns, heart-stopping moments but without any cheap tricks.

Which of these requirements is most important, and the degree to which any particular book satisfies them, will depend on the reader. Some want adventure and action, some want characters they can fall in love with, some want lyrical prose, some want to escape to and explore a certain type of world…some, I’m sure, want it all!

Books

For me, I’d say that setting and set-up draw me in (i.e. what’s happening, to whom, in what larger context, including the type of world), the execution of the plot drives me onward, compelling characters keep me interested, and good prose is icing on the cake (but also, icing in the cake, to stretch the metaphor). That’s how it seems to work when I’m reading, anyway – I end up liking (or disliking) books for all these reasons, and more.

In my favourite books, what seems to end up staying with me is some blend of all of them rather than individual aspects. I’m not sure if it’s a cop-out or a profound truth, but what I’m looking for is a book where exciting things happen to interesting people in a wonderfully-rendered world. I rarely say, “I loved that book because of So-and-so” and it’s hard to recall all the twists and turns of a plot (easier to remember if it had them, of course). Instead, I recall moments of wonder and awe, and retain a sense of the overall vibrancy of the creation.

You may be able to tell that I’m not much for screen-shot-2014-09-07-at-3-05-36-pmdeconstructing or examining details, and I worry that will be detrimental. I do think about character arcs and whatnot, but I haven’t a lot of appetite for reading about the mechanics of writing. In order to construct a good book, I should probably analyse how books I consider “good” are put together…

The Breakdown

Perhaps I can attempt to break it down a bit further, examine the benefits and risks of each against my own tastes, strengths and weaknesses to see what “good” might mean for me.

Primarily, I think I love fantasy for its worldbuilding, whether that is a clever analogue of Earth history or something completely different. I like that world-building to impact the story, so that the tale is not one that could have happened in our  world (or at least, not the same way). I think I’m a bit more particular in this respect than other readers, having found some popular series did not do enough for me in that respect. I like a certain richness and thoughtfulness, but I like it vague and slowly revealed, not spelled out in info dumps. I’m not sure I can pull it off myself (well, maybe the vague part).

On the other end of the scale is character. Now, of course, I have to reach a minimum level of respect and/or likeability to read about any character for very long – but I can tolerate a lot if cool things are happening to them. I prefer competent, straightforward types who get on with things without too much drama – but nobody too perfect or goody-goody, of course. I like a reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless – no farmboys, no “chosen ones”.

Otherwise I just want a set of eyes through which to see the world, and a fun supporting cast, too (I always used to identify with minor characters – more empty space to project into!). I reckon my writing reflects this, so don’t expect to fall in love with my protagonists, you might not ever know them well enough.

Plot-wise, I like a good mystery, and I like it tightly-woven rather than sprawling. Some twists and turns are good, but too many make me motion-sick. I also like an adventure – a classic journey helps reveal the world after all – but I’m equally at home reading something a little more claustrophobic. I stick with the former when writing, so far, but I have to make sure I don’t conflate moving the characters around a map with moving the plot forward.

Though it’s hardly make-or-break, after a certain level of competence, I do like good prose. What that means depends on the work, but a bit of style and flair can make the difference between good book and a great one. Dialogue is a sub-set of prose that comes in for particular praise, but again it very much depends on the style of book. I can read anything from classics to Joe Abercrombie, and while I’m not sure my own voice has fully formed yet, I have had compliments on my prose, which is something.

Finally, I hear a lot of people say “as long as they story is good, I’ll read anything” but I can’t see a way to separate that from the rest. I suppose it’s similar to what I’ve said regarding my penchant for world-building and sense of adventure, but a story in itself seems bereft of all the details that make it interesting. There are only so many stories, after all, and they’ve all been told before. Obviously, I’m not that confident – or bothered – about this aspect because it just doesn’t make sense to me.

Nope, still no clearer.

So, at the end of the day I reckon I can just about write a book that I would like to read (no surprise there). However, I’m not sure I can write a book that follows certain rules or fits a certain mold. If that’s what it takes to write a “good” book, then odds are I’m not quite there yet. I’m still not sure how to attempt to judge whether my books are good, and it remains to be seen whether they are “good” enough for anyone else.

I suppose the only option is to ask them.

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The Loneliness of the Long-distance Writer

So, I’m still deep in editing – I can’t say how deep, but my head keeps going under, and I’ve definitely lost sight of the shore. It’s getting to the point where I’m considering just giving up the struggle, slipping away into oblivion (actually, Skyrim is more apt).

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I’m sure the key to my next edit is in that cave down there…

I don’t know why it’s become so hard recently, so I thought I’d blog about it. I’ve gone through tough patches before, but momentum seems to dwindle more and more each day. I’ve been writing most of my life, but only with any serious intention for the past few years, since I discovered that self-publishing was an option. I suppose that’s because I thought there was some trick to being a published author that I probably didn’t have, so it was nice to know that option was there.

Now that I’ve met more authors, I know that “trick” doesn’t exist (unless you count luck), and the more I learn about writing and publishing, the more murky the waters ahead become. I’ve completed four books now, one very old one, two very new ones, and the one I keep going back to and am currently (supposed to be) working on. I think I’m getting better at it, but I don’t know how good I have to be (or even what that means – more next time).

I assume a lot of writers get to this point sometime (even frequently), and the more self-aware you are, the more often I assume this happens. How can you tell the doldrums from the something more serious? I’ve heard it said, “If you can, quit” – but the point I’ve reached is more like, “if the words aren’t flowing, take a break (and play Skyrim)”. I know a lot of people say you must write every day, but, to be honest, screw that right now.

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So why have I hit this wall? I’ve come up with a few possibilities here, but the main thrust is that editing is not fun. After the latest round of beta-reader feedback, I was at first energised to “fix things” and make my book better – good enough to finally do something with. In trying to address the feedback, however, I’ve gotten into this funk.

Part of it may be fatigue with the book – it’s been a WIP for over ten years now, on and off, which is probably too long. It’s changed quite a bit since the first finished draft, and even more since the very start – all for the better, I assure you. But some of those changes were painful to make, some came from the head and not the heart. Sometimes they even came from somebody else’s head, and that’s perhaps the problem.

I worry that it’s not my story any more, that I’ve fallen out of love with it, that I’ve killed too many of my darlings and scrapped some of the things that made me love writing it in the first place. Now, I don’t want you thinking I did everything my readers suggested, or “fixed” every “problem” they pointed out – far from it. I only addressed the ones I agreed with, and rejected others with reasons I hope are valid.

Few of the issues were even unexpected, or surprising – I’ve made some personal choices that I know aren’t going to work for everyone. I’ve spoken before about my tastes not always being populist, so I was prepared to have to make hard calls on some things. Some of the solutions I came up with are really exciting, too, and, as I said, I was energised by them at the start.

It’s the final few – the muddying of already-muddy waters, the changes pushing the plot beyond breaking, the culling of a few cherished idiosyncrasies – that have brought the process to a halt. These changes are now make-or-break. The fixes have to be better than the original first time; they don’t get the benefit of all the editing passes I gave to the incumbent sections. I find myself again lost down the rabbit hole, looking at the roots of the trees of the proverbial wood…

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You will know him by the trail of edits…

I just want to be done with it – again – so I can move on. Rather than finishing this latest raft of edits, maybe it’s time to put the book to rest. Sometimes it feels like it’s had so many patches and grafts that there’s hardly an original sentence in it. It has been refined and honed, yes, but at some point too much whittling thins wood to snapping point.

But I still love it, really. I can’t put it down. It’s the story I have to tell right now, for whatever reason. I have to do it justice, and I have to believe I can. Whether anyone else ever agrees it was worth it probably doesn’t matter – though it would be nice if one person did. Part of me is happy to keep working on it until I’m satisfied, however long that takes (and it could take a while).

On the other hand, I also have book envy. People I socialise with (on the internet, natch), have books out there in the world. Pretty good books, too, getting lovely comments from people who have read them (for the most part). They probably aren’t making much money, but they seem happy having birthed a book-baby or three. It seems like fun, and I want to join them.

But then I think, what if my books’s not good enough? What if I put it out there and nobody reads it, or if a bunch of people read it and hate it? Which is worse? I suppose I’ll never know until I try, and all I can do is make the book the best I can make it.

So, back to editing it is!