I am delighted to host Dorchester debut author Barbara Monejam today. She talks about writing the “perfect” book!
Marie-Claude asked me to write something inspiring for writers. So, here goes:
In order to be a successful author, you have to write a perfect book.
(Marie-Claude shrieks and drags me off the stage. Uh, off the blog, I mean. You couldn’t pay me to get up on a stage.
“You’re supposed to give writers inspiration!” she hisses. “Not desperation! Are you deaf?”
Um, actually, yeah, a little. When it’s convenient, at least. “Unhand me!” I cry. “I’m not done!”
So, because Marie-Claude is such a sweetheart – I’m steadfastly ignoring her muttered threats – she lets me have another try.)
First, let me qualify that statement: there is no such thing as a perfect book; or, to see it from another angle, there are many, many perfect books. What keeps one person glued to her chair reading until the candles gutter makes someone else yawn or toss the book into the fire. We all have it in us to write a perfect book; we just have to learn, for each of us as writers, what perfection means.
Second, I’m not talking about financial success, which is elusive for most of us and unreliable for almost everyone. I’m talking about producing a work of art.
Writers of genre fiction are in the entertainment business, and business and art are somewhat at odds, because the goal of business is to make money, while art is an expression of something the artist considers significant, and often the goal is to make an impact, whether esthetic, emotional, or both. Business concerns can lead us to focus too much on the craft side of writing and to minimize the art. Which is unfortunate, because when it comes right down to it, a really, really good book is primarily a work of art.
Not that we should ignore craft. On the contrary: you don’t become a Shakespeare without mastering the basics – grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and so on. Then there are the more advanced aspects of craft – plot, subplots, turning points, scenes, beats; narrative and dialogue; characters, their goals, and their arcs; and on and on. Most writers excel naturally at some aspects of writing craft and have to work hard at others. (Plot is often difficult for me, especially endings. I’m on the third try at a satisfactory ending for a book that’s more or less overdue, and I’m SO thankful I have daughters to brainstorm with and a laid-back editor with great ideas. But I digress.)
Above and beyond craft, and in spite of business (which has a tedious but understandable tendency to want to repeat what worked before), we have the other aspect – the art of writing. Voice is probably the most obvious manifestation of art. Your voice is a combination of your world view and the way you express it. (If you get a chance to take one of Barbara Samuel’s workshops on voice, do so. I only took a short workshop, but it was amazingly revealing.) The more you discover and accept who you are and what you want to say, the more your voice will ring true.
The more craft you learn, the more you know which craft guidelines work for you and where the art aspect fits into your writing. (Jennifer Crusie’s guidelines are my favorites by far.) Because plot is difficult for me, I try (with a certain amount of resentment) to do some plotting ahead of time, even if it’s just first turning point, second turning point, and black moment. You’d think that would be easy, wouldn’t you? Nope. Not for me. I want to fly into the mist and see what happens. So I compromise by starting with a vague idea, writing a few chapters, and then forcing myself to figure out at least the skeleton of a plot before leaping into the mist again, this time (hopefully) with a flicker of fog-light to guide me.
I refuse to do this with characters. Some writers do spreadsheets where they figure out every detail about a character before they even start writing. I’m not dissing this approach – obviously it works well for some authors – but frankly, it bores me silly. My characters just walk onto the page and start doing stuff. They’d scoff at a spreadsheet. They aren’t easy to control, but they’re exciting to work with and full of surprises. I love those surprises. For me, working with what just comes – rather than with what I plan – is the art part of writing. Eventually, I have to make sure the character arcs make sense and that the secondary characters don’t muscle in and make the story theirs, but at not at first, when there’s too much risk of losing something that really pops.
I guess what I’m saying is that for each of us, some aspects of writing come on the wings of a muse. We should treasure that. We can’t afford to let business and craft get in the way as we strive to write perfect books. Obviously, perfection is relative. What’s the acme of accomplishment for you or me right now might not be so a year or five years hence, but that doesn’t matter. Work with your craft, but allow your muse, your voice and your world view free rein through your art, and you will write *your* perfect book – something you can stand back and look at, like an artist with a finished painting, and feel the joy and satisfaction of knowing you got it right.
This is something I struggle with. I want so much to write a perfect book that I forget that it has to be “my” perfect book.
Please everyone, let us know what is your own definition of your perfect book for a chance to win a copy of SUNRISE IN A GARDEN OF LOVE & EVIL.