Day Ten {Good Book}

"There is no mistaking a good book when one meets it.
It is like falling in love."

Christopher Morley

This quotation, nicked from Liz's blog Awake, seemed rather applicable to today's subject, though perhaps from the other end of things. But perhaps not. The quotation does not limit itself to mere reading, though it is likely that Mr. Morley meant it so. But if you like to have an open mind, mightn't the quotation apply to writing a book just as much as it applies to reading one?

day ten: your answer to "what is the most important thing one should know about writing a book"

This is an enormously difficult question to answer. It assumes I know something about writing. It assumes I know something important enough to tell other people. It assumes I'm smart enough to be heard. Well, let's assume; and, while we are assuming, "take comfort in our smallness," as Malacandra said.

My answer would be two-fold, and Elspeth already gave half of it away. It isn't any great loss. It's an old answer to an old question.

read good books

If you take Mr. Morley's view of things, this ought to be easy. Unfortunately, it isn't. How does one define "a good book"? In general, my answer to the question of how to write a good book is to read books by authors who are now dead. My reason for this is that, in general, a book that is good will stand the test of time. Silly books, shallow books, fade away with time, and the well-written works, the strong ones, the enduring ones, are with us today after their authors have become cold in their graves. But is this a sufficient answer? Silly books slip through the guard and keep flapping their pages after their authors die. Good books fade into oblivion and are found later, battered and forlorn, in the back corner at the bottom of the biggest stack in some dog-hole of a second-hand bookstore. So the answer isn't sufficient.

Perhaps it would be better to admonish the readership (or the writership) to pick up books that are true. The history: is it accurate? The fantasy: is it morally sound? The fiction: does it well depict man's fallen nature, and his hope for betterment - death and darkness and vengeance, life and light and mercy as well? The philosophy: is it according to that of the time and people and country? Whatever the subject, is it handled truthfully? This is not to say that all books one reads need be biblically true, only that they must be true to the topic handled.

Again, it is a most difficult question to answer. But once you understand the true nature of things (having read books that deal with this) it is much easier to write about them. You know them.

put your pen to paper

Already too many people have told me, "Oh yes, I want to write a book someday too." This sentence is so riddled with fallacy that I hardly know where to begin addressing it. It would be best to establish writing as, not a pastime, but an art. (I speak of writing novels, not of articles, though the writing of news articles ought to be considered an art too.) One cannot merely sit down one day and "write a book." We did that when we were children once, and the results were atrocious. Writing, like any art, takes time and devotion and seriousness and practice and blood and sweat and toil and tears. You must work at it. When you determine that you want to write a book, you mustn't say "one day." You must sit down at your earliest convenience and begin to practice wordcrafting. Only after scribbles and inkstains will you begin to formulate a skill with words and your own style of writing, and have finally come to a place where you can begin to write that book of yours. You can't sit down at the piano, having never touched the ivories a day in your life, and play a movement from Beethoven on a whim - no more can you sit down at the keyboard, having never written a piece of prose in your life, and churn out Ben-Hur. (It is, of course, intuitively obvious that this is impossible because Ben-Hur already has an author.)

If you want to write a book, then write the dashed thing. Don't Emma Woodhouse and try your hand at so many things that you do justice to none of them. Art itself - real, proper, truthful art with blood and sweat and toil and tears mixed into it - deserves respect: writing is no exception.

8 ripostes:

  1. "You must sit down at your earliest convenience and begin to practice wordcrafting. Only after scribbles and inkstains..." Was that a purposeful string of puns there, or did it come unheeded? I laughed.

    The whole business of saying you want to write a book "some day" reminds me of the Will Write for Chocolate comic about "What not to say to a children's book writer": 'Oh, yes, I thought I'd try my hand at writing a children's book. Maybe one weekend, after I get done cleaning the gutters.' It is quite presumptuous, not to say silly and a wee bit insulting.

    Jolly good post!

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  2. Yes, it is presumptuous, and silly, and a little insulting. The comfort is that people don't know that it is a little insulting and, if they ever do sit down to write a book, they will probably be brought to their senses on their own soon enough.

    All passages in this post resembling phrases real or fictional were totally planned.

    Jolly good comment!

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  3. Ha. Yes, the idea of just sitting down and writing a book is ridiculous. It's like saying, "Oh, I want to be a dancer. I'll go take a few classes".

    You can even take lessons for years and do steps perfectly, and /still/ not be a Dancer. The artistry is beyond the technique. Same as in writing. One may be able to create an entire story and write it out, but there's a difference between writing a story and storytelling (or as you say, "wordcrafting"). To some extent, it can't be taught. Though reading well-written stories will help, there's still no scientific formula- no "Do this and you'll be a Writer".

    Conversely, raw talent is nothing without practice and work. To go back to dancing, one may have natural grace and talent, but without study you'll look just as floppy as any other person.

    "You can recognize an author by the pen in her hair, but a genuine Writer is exceedingly rare".
    (loving paraphrase of a musical)


    In defense of those who think they can write children's books in an afternoon, I offer this (though I still agree that it's a ridiculous idea). /Concept/ books almost /could/ be written in an afternoon. I would say a week, just to be sure of the research behind it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_GbDFqimdU
    You must admit it's a bit giggle-worthy...

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  4. Abigail (aka Dad): Mrs. Morley needs to commiserate with Mrs. Socrates.

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  5. "After thunder comes rain." :P

    And yes, Sarah, there is something to be say for raw talent. Always helps, if a person can possibly have it...though perhaps they don't have much say in the matter.

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  6. It is an enormously difficult question to answer, but you've answered it masterfully. (What else did I expect...?) I very much admire your practical nitty-gritty approach to the issue. There's all sorts of inspiringish cliches you could have touted: but you didn't, and that made for an excellent post.

    I especially like how you stressed that the books we read ought to be true (and it feels like that word ought always to be in italics now!). True to life, true to death, true to us as many-layered creatures... that's the sort of writing we aspire to and - as you said - the sort of writing we should therefore fill our minds with.

    Thank you, Jenny! (And that's said partly with sarcasm, as my own post on that subject will now turn out rather weak and warmed-over. :P)

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  7. I did a children's writing course during my gap year. As you can tell, it didn't make me into a children's author. But that is quite fine with me, as it was never my intention (I had to pick an elective, and that sounded as interesting as any). I learnt something from it, which was the real reason for taking it. And thereby I was satisfied.

    But there is one thing in particular I remember from it, and a paraphrase will have to suit. They said many people chose the children's writing course because they think it will be easier. That's not true. Writing for children is in fact more difficult than adult writing, as you have to write down to their level. The age of the children you're targeting will obviously determine how much of a challenge this is. But for any age, you have to be able to write something interesting, engaging and concise enough to keep their attention. Writing a children's book in an afternoon? O.o

    Ajjie >'.'<

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    ReplyDelete