Monday, March 5, 2012

The words and the magic, and whose words are they?

This post may come back to haunt me.  I'm not sure that I care.

A friend emailed me the other day that she had a serious case of the Dreads.  That feeling of some impending disaster that you just know is going to happen even though of course you know no such thing.  I replied that I didn't have the Dreads, but I had the Drears.

As I wrote last week I did a little analysis of some of the reviews posted for a small selection of self-published historical romance novels over on Amazon.  At the time I did the analysis, I didn't remember that I had actually downloaded one of the novels a week or more earlier; I found it on my Kindle for PC (because I don't have an actual Kindle device and don't want anyone to get the impression that I do) a couple days after I had written the post.

I resisted the temptation to read it, and I say "temptation" because there is a perverse part of me that's somewhat fascinated by bad writing.  There's another perverse part of me that wants to tell any author of bad writing that she's written bad stuff and needs to get her act together so she doesn't give all writers of romance a bad name.

Obviously, this is a serious character flaw on my part.  There is no reason why I should think I'm the final authority on what is good writing and what isn't, what's a good story and what isn't, what's accurate research and what isn't.  I mean, what makes me think I know more than, well, than the other self-published authors?

The answer is simple -- Because I do.  Because.  I.  Do.

Because I know when I read a passage, a paragraph, or even a sentence from a badly written book that it's bad writing.  I know this because I've been reading since I can remember, and I remember what I read and I remember what it sounds like in my head and in my gut and in my soul.

There's a passage in Frank Yerby's The Saracen Blade that comes to mind immediately and it's a passage that has nothing to do with writing.   The main character, Pietro di Donati, is reunited with his love Iolanthe --

Pietro didn't say anything.  He couldn't.  His thoughts inside his mind beat one upon the other in broken rhythms, patternless and wild.  This.  Not Io -- this.  This ugliness.  This passion without tenderness this nakedness with all the unlovely parts of nakedness showing this thing compounded out of hatred out of revenge against Enzio instead of love for me love killed tenderness dead this nakedness of desire and I have no alternative. . . .

I have loved this woman.  Then, that other time, our coming together was beautiful and natural and right because what we had was a thing of total loveliness of our minds our dreams of our souls' music so that what we wanted was that not even the walls of flesh could separate us any longer that our need of belonging to each other be fulfilled that there be no longer two lovers but one commingled blood and breath and flesh and fire and spirit a new thing upon the earth a new entity -- us. . . . 
(Frank Yerby, The Saracen Blade, 1952; Dell edition 1972, p. 219)
And when I read that for the first time at the age of 15 or 16, I knew what Yerby and his own . . . . meant, not in terms of telling me that Pietro and Io were having sex, but in terms of the magic of writing.

I could so easily sit here tonight and read that book all over again, cover to cover, never minding how tired I was or how my eyes itched, because that is the magic.

Not all the writers of all the books I've enjoyed have achieved that level of magic and I don't expect them to.  After all, each writer as well as each reader has their own interpretation of the magic.  Certainly I can't say all of my own writing has evoked that kind of admiration even from me, but I have always tried to achieve it.  Words are, after all, the only tools we have to weave our spells, to draw the reader out of the everyday world and into our magic.

I don't know how long it's been since I looked at the manuscript of my first completed adult novel, probably ten years at least.  Started when I was 14 and finished roughly a year later, it's a very sappy romance with murder mystery that follows no conventions of plotting because I didn't know any.  There's a lot of dialogue, no romantic conflict (the main characters are in love with each other on the first page and that never changes), not much of an antagonist.  I know the book isn't any good -- though at the time I wrote it I had enough confidence in it to send it to several different publishers, all of whom rejected it -- and some of it is embarrassingly painful to read.

But the opening paragraphs:

Jason Minardos pulled the white Jaguar to a stop in front of the old Victorian that had served as his home for the past two years.  Its vine-covered walls, shaded by ancient oaks, emitted a sense of vast emptiness, of great loneliness.  Jason forced thoughts of regret from his already troubled mind, for the place had been sold and he was leaving in the morning.

Marlene came out to meet him, as he had expected.  Though she was not what some people would call beautiful, she had about her an air of soft loveliness and quiet charm that made people forget she was not a raving beauty.

"I'm glad you're back," she said.

He kissed her softly.

"Are you ready to leave?" he asked.
(Linda Hilton, A Party of Ghosts, unpublished manuscript, 1964, p. 1)
I won't torture you with any more of that opening scene because it immediately deteriorates into drivel, in which Jason says he didn't have any choice but to sell the house (even though he did) which is in California, and then both he and Marlene suddenly decide for some unknown reason to go to Wisconsin and the little town where they grew up.  It goes downhill from there.

The point is, even though the book itself is horrifically bad, the writing isn't.  At the age of 14, if you don't mind my bragging, I had a solid handle on the basic tools of the magic.  I know how to use them, and maybe I always have.  Maybe that's a thing we're born with, we who write, like being born a wizard and just having to go to Hogwarts to learn how best to use our wizardness.  (Disclaimer:  I have never read or seen Harry Potter.)

And we learn through -- through -- our mistakes.  If it's all natural and we never have to learn or grow and each word is perfect as it comes from our fingers and the magic is complete without flaw, then we do not learn.  Indeed, if that happens then we do not need to learn or grow or improve.  But who of us is that perfect?  Any of us?  If we aren't perfect, then we learn through the mistakes. We learn from the horrible books like A Party of Ghosts and we progress through The Song of Sheba and The Ivory Rose and eventually we hit our stride and strangers who don't know us say, "Hey, this is pretty good" to the point that they are willing to give us their money for the privilege of reading.

It matters for strangers to like it.  It matters because they aren't reading our writing.  They're reading our writing.  And it's important for us as writers to understand that distinction.

When my friends Connie and Johneen read my 1975 historical romance The Ivory Rose they loved it, but they were my friends and they weren't writers and they weren't critics.  They weren't able to see the massive flaws in it.  Neither could my mother or my aunt.  And at the time, neither could I.  I knew no other writers and had no way to judge for myself what the book's problems were other than to indulge my voracious reader's appetite and read more and more books, and then to begin to write another novel.  I bought books on writing -- I still consider Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print one of the best and if you've followed this blog you know about Shelly Lowenkopf -- and I kept my mind open to criticism and suggestion.  I never thought anything I wrote was perfect. 

But I also knew that the worst thing that could happen was for people to tell me it was good when it wasn't.

Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote  El ojo que ves no es ojo porque tú lo veas, es ojo porque te ve.  In English, The eye that you see is not an eye because you see it, it is an eye because it sees you.

I learned that little epigram when I was in high school, the same time I was writing A Party of Ghosts.  And I understood then that things are what they are, regardless how we want them to be.  An eye does not become a nose because we call it that.  A horse does not become a cat, nor a cottage a castle.  No matter how many people praised the emperor's new clothes, lying to him because they thought that's what he wanted them to do, he was still butt naked.  A rose is a rose is a rose, and it's never going to be a gardenia.

The same is true of those self-published books out there that have a dozen or more 5-star reviews on Amazon -- or on Goodreads or wherever else -- written by friends and relatives of the authors.  (Or, in some cases, written by the authors themselves and posted by friends and family members.)  These are people who either don't know what good writing is, in which case they are not qualified to judge the quality of the writing, or they are too fond of the author to tell the truth.

Unfortunately, when those 5-star reviews come either from unqualified reviewers, biased reviewers, or sock puppets, the author can and often does point to them and deny that there is any need for improvement.  Oh, she may say she's going to work with an editor now, but will she learn anything?  Will her paid editor just correct the typos and grammar errors and fix the Kindle formatting, or will this editor take the author aside and tell her, "Your ending needs to be set up from the very beginning so it isn't such a deus ex machina" and then explain to her what that means?  Will the editor do the research necessary to provide accurate period details?

Ultimately, of course, the person defrauded is the unsuspecting reader.  If the 5-star reviewer says, "I loved this book.  I don't know anything about the historical period this is set in and I wouldn't know a dangling participle if it swung out of a tree and hit me in the face with a pie, but I enjoyed this story," that's an honest review and I have no problem with it.

Am I on a crusade?  I guess maybe I am, and I've been known to be obsessive about stupid stuff like that.  In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter if a book every bit as bad as A Party of Ghosts pulls in 150 5-star reviews from the author's sock puppets and friends.  And if no one else cares, well, I guess I'll just be a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

But I will be a lone voice who remembers the magic Frank Yerby created and believes in it.

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