Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Popular is not Good

“A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”—Mark Twain  
There is a difference between popular and good.  A lot of people like books that are riddled with all kinds of problems from story to style, right down the list.  It's not that these works don't conform to some kind of entrenched, literary credo of correct storytelling, it's just that they don't function well in terms of, say, character motivation, or consistently delivering meaningful sentence.

Many people detest the most popular of these books—you know the ones—but not only on account of style.  Bad books can be had by the cartload, and are otherwise ignored, but somehow these books excel at bringing up bile.  People hate them because others claim to love them so ardently, and they have to keep hearing about it.  The conversation gets stale.  For you, maybe it's sports.  For someone else, it’s those damn books.  This reaction is only fair.  Turnabout is fair play, after all. 

Of course no one is harmed by bad writing.  Bad ideas, maybe, but not bad writing—that is, so long as a story or series doesn't start well and slack off towards the end.  But let's face it, these books enjoy their popularity because they have reached a critical mass of expressed interest.  Put enough copies of a book on a prominent shelf and mention it enough times online, and people begin to wonder if they're missing something worthwhile.  People like to have something to get excited about together.

The merit of a book is not determined by how many copies it sells.  That is a matter of business and circumstance, not craft. 

Don’t put a match to any books just yet, though.  It's unlikely their popularity is based on charlatan hawking of otherwise worthless texts.  There has to be something about any popular book, however flawed, that got it started on its way to deification, or at least the New York Times bestseller list.  There must be at least a glimmer of real quality in a book’s premise, its protagonist, its conflict, its environment, or its tone that attracts a reader's interest.  That always has value, and deserves recognition.

Let's be clear.  No one can tell you what you like.  If you read anything that does something cool to your head, it doesn't matter what section of the bookstore it's shelved in, what press did or didn't publish it, or where it ranks in sales or notoriety.  Your enjoyment is never wrong.  But understand it is entirely possible that you like something that isn't very well done, even if you're not alone in your admiration.

What does any of this matter?  If you're an idle reader and like to turn your brain off and skim along, I suppose nothing.  But if you’re really interested in reading something worthwhile, and especially if you have aspirations of writing yourself, consider listening to the thoughtful criticism of work you've enjoyed, and works you’re considering.  Ask any person offering that criticism, and they likely have a short list of fantastic books by authors you've never heard of, or never considered. Delve.  Explore.  The reward is worth the effort.

In short, if you're only reading the top bestsellers or following the latest trend, you're missing out.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing Sex

“I think it could only be a masterpiece of pornography, but not a masterpiece which was pornographic. [. . .] You can get as dirty as you want, but not also excite people because exciting people during the course of a story—exciting them sexually—is changing the subject so completely that you have no more narrative form.”—Orson Welles

Sex stands out prominently whenever inserted into a narrative. It has to be handled with care.

I've read a lot of badly written sex. A lot of sudden, unnecessary, over the top sex that goes on for too long, or is otherwise eye-rolling. This is the case in developing and popular fiction alike. People have sex, and they should have sex, and plenty of it, and sex should be in your writing, but only when pertinent. Too often when writers delve into a sex scene, it seems like a personal fixation rather than an appropriate part of their story. One of those little darlings—a shortcut to get a rise from the reader in place of more substantive content.

This fits into a larger discussion on subject and focus—the question of what a scene or story is “about”—but bad sex is so often a stumbling block it deserves to be taken aside and roughly whipped.

If you're writing an erotic sexventure or if your story features sex as a prominent theme, by all means, oil up and dive in. Unload all the juicy details your little heart desires (Goatboy, you big old shaggy smelly thing). But if your story isn't otherwise erotic, carefully consider the tone you set as well as how much of those moments to actually include on the page. Take a few queues from the world of film. A look, a kiss, and a soft dissolve do wonders in maintaining your narrative and exciting your readers without becoming a distraction.

If you decide to have sex, don't think you're cute and don’t try to be clever. Sex isn't the place for devices like metaphor or analogy. They will always come off as silly. Pet names for private parts are a non-starter. “She guided my little dingy into her watery cave” is a train wreck every time, if you catch my driftwood, by which I mean penis.

That's right, if you're going to be specific, get your terms out and use them. All the good ones are four letters or less, so you have no excuse. They’re easy to type. If you don’t have it in you to plainly write the mechanics of a sexual act, that act has no business in your story. On the other hand, you'll be pleased how far generality—bodies rather than body parts—can take you. “She pulled him against her.” Like that.

Your sex doesn't have to be titillating. Make it uncomfortable. Make it bizarre, a joke, sweet even, if you should be so perverse. But above all, make sure it belongs in the context of the story you are telling, even if it is just a cheap thrill.