Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Unknowing How the Sausage is Made

by Holly West

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the age-old question, "Why do 'meh' books sell?" My friend and colleague, Thomas Pluck, had a good answer:

Because people like to be entertained, and they are not always as bored or jaded as we are. They don't constantly hear "what is a good book" and anguish over it. They like a good story and will forgive what we consider "grievous errors" to follow a character they enjoy reading.

It made me think about something I've known for a long time, but haven't figured out what to do about. I've been writing fiction seriously for nearly ten years now and over that time, I've forgotten how to read for pleasure.

It's not that I don't enjoy reading anymore--in some ways, I probably enjoy it more than ever. But that enjoyment often comes more from analyzing the books I read rather than just sitting back and savoring them.

Referencing the title of this post, I still don't actually know how sausage is made (writing-wise or meat-wise) but with writing, I'm learning and getting better. One of the ways I learn is by reading and as a result, I'm constantly studying, constantly thinking about the choices authors make, the way they construct a story, trying to figure out if there's a better way...

It's exhausting.

A couple of years ago, I re-read a book that had been one of my favorites in my mid-twenties. It was a mass market paperback historical romance saga, purchased from the supermarket. Back in the day, I marveled at how beautifully it was written. Someday, I'll write a book like that, I thought.

So I re-read it and I couldn't believe what absolute dreck it was. The story itself was fine, interesting even, and well-researched (as far as I could tell). But the writing. MY GOD, THE WRITING. It was terrible. Awkward sentence structure, poor word choices, overuse of cliches, pretty much all the things I try to avoid in my writing.

Would my re-visit of this novel have turned out differently if I hadn't been writing myself these past several years? I don't know. Possibly, I've matured (not bloody likely). My tastes may have changed (improved?). But I suspect the real reason the book didn't hold up is that I looked at it through a different lens than I used to.

And if you make any jokes about my bifocals, Imma cut you.

I don't think there is an answer to my dilemma. Reading different genres is sort of helpful but even if I don't I fixate so much on plot, I still obsess over phrasing, character development, and word choice. The even sadder part is that this analyzing has carried over into the films I watch, and even television. Once you start paying attention to this shit, it's like something changes in your brain. It's not enough to like or dislike something. No, you have to pinpoint what it is so you don't make the same mistakes in your own work.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only writer who has this problem. Anyone have any ideas on how to break this habit? Not altogether, mind you. I'm still trying to learn how to make the damned sausage. Sometimes though, I just want to enjoy the sausage someone else makes, you know?


Art Taylor said...

Hi, Holly -- Great post, and I know exactly what you mean. I feel like reading is too often just another kind of work (and that's amplified by the fact that I teach, and all my reading for class is analyzing, dissecting, prepping for discussion). And yet.... sometimes I just grab a book that's "for me" (so to speak) and I try to turn off all that analytical thought and just settle into it. It's not easy to do (turn all that off) but still I find that I can enjoy a book a little more if I go into it with a different mindset--as a break, not an assignment.

I think Scott Adlerberg wrote something about this too here a while back--actually it was a book he picked up without knowing anything about it, as I recall. But something about that post and yours resonates.

Curious what the book was you loved! ...and then didn't love more recently.

Holly West said...

Hello, Art!

I don't know a lot about most of the books I read because they're on the Kindle and I never get around to reading the book description when I buy them (usually someone would've recommended the book, I don't just buy them blindly). Sometimes I buy because of a good review but by the time I get to the actual book I've forgotten it. So that won't work.

Really, I think I just need to work harder at turning that analytical part of my brain off. Sometimes, a book is just so good I stop thinking about what makes it good (although I'll often go back and re-read parts of it to do the analyzing).

I feel kind of bad about revealing the name of the book I referenced, but it was THE MIDWIFE, by Gay Courter.

John McFetridge said...

People who want to write always get the advice, "Read a lot," and that's good advice, but it might be important to read what you want to write. If you want to write a bestseller it might be good to read a lot of bestsellers.

This isn't something that applies to much else, though. If you want to be a great chef you wouldn't spend much time trying to make a Big Mac and if you wanted to make beer you wouldn't try to make something like Coors Light, would you?

Now, if you just want to write a really good book and hope it becomes a bestseller, that's something else. No one has any idea how to do that ;).

Dana King said...

It's not that you've forgotten "how to read for pleasure;" you're now in a position where you no longer read anything purely for pleasure. That's because now you're a professional.

I went through a similar process as a musician after being told by a teacher that once we make up our minds to devote our lives to music we had to make pacts with ourselves that we could never again listen to music purely for pleasure. Even in an elevator we should listen to how something was phrased or what musical decisions were made.

It wasn't that we couldn't listen/read for pleasure; in some ways everything we read is for pleasure. It's just that, as writers, we can't afford the luxury of doing it purely for pleasure. We need to keep learning, too.

Susie Calkins said...

great post! That's partly why I didn't become an English major, even though I loved to read. I really hated analyzing books, I just wanted to enjoy them. I find it hard to read for true pleasure certain kinds of crime fiction (but I definitely read many that are so different from my own writing style/subgenre). I do enjoy YA and some kinds of fantasy/science fiction too, and I still love the experience of being blown away by a wonderful book.

The thing that I find hard--devastating even--about books I once adored, is how racist they are, and I just didn't get it back then. The Secret Garden, Nancy Drew, Five Little Peppers, Little House on the Prairie etc, all contain so many racist components--both subtle and overt--its really eye-opening and disturbing.

Holly West said...

Oh man, Susanna. You're so right. And a whole other post, right? Maybe I'll tackle it one of these days.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Hi Holly,

Great post Holly. Years ago I rented an apartment from a feisty Italian lady who was a great cook. She said she didn't like going to
restaurants anymore because the food just never measured up. When she got in the kitchen and prepared one of her epic feasts,
I never saw her happier. I still remember the aroma of all that great food.

Anyway, I guess that's the trade off. If you love doing something, you're just not gonna have patience for people who do that thing badly. And there's no going back.

EA said...

Great post, Holly!

Mar Preston said...

So true. The scaffolding of the story just leaps out at you and you sigh, knowing where it's going. Especially on TV dramas.

Holly West said...

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. Y'all made some great points.