Writing Fantasy:”I can do better than that!”

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[Note: By this afternoon I’ll be on a plane to the UK so I won’t be able to respond to comments after noon Eastern. I’ll do my best to jump back into the conversation later in the weekend.]


Stephen King has said that most readers have a moment early in life when they throw a book across the room and exclaim something along the lines of “This garbage got published??? Are you kidding me?” What happens next determines whether or not you’re a writer. Some will leave it at that. Some will rant to their friends or post a nasty online review. Some will send the author hate mail. And some will follow up this moment with something that begins as a rhetorical gesture and ends as an epiphany: “I could do better than that!”

It may not be true, of course. Not yet. Many would-be writers set out to write a book only to discover that it’s much harder than they realized. Some will suffer years of rejection before abandoning the dream, some will never completely abandon it but will also never really learn why other people don’t see anything in their work. Then there are other writers who set out to be better, people who realize that writing is craft as well as talent, perspiration as well as inspiration, and that while you can’t make yourself lucky, you can at least persist, and that is sometimes just as good. The fact that you are here and reading this today means that most of you fall into this last category.

Reading this site—and I mean all of it, comments as well as initial postings—makes one thing clear. We don’t all agree what good writing is, and even if we did we wouldn’t all agree on how to do it. That’s OK. Some of the discrepancy is about taste or genre: the darkly erotic fantasy that works for one reader might be roundly ridiculed by her cyberpunk reading friends. You can’t please everyone, and trying to do so is going to make for very bland writing. The trick, I think, is for writers to know what they are trying to do and then seeing if it gets the right kinds of response from the right kinds of reader.

Tricks will only get you so far, however, and I think it’s good to keep in mind that first revelatory exclamation—“I can do better than that!” OK. So let’s see it. I don’t mean, write the same kind of tripe which you flung across the room. What’s the point of that? Maybe you’ll sell it, but do you really want to send a stack of pages out into the world knowing in your heart that somewhere other people will start throwing them at their walls just as you once did?
Come on. You’re better than that. It’s not enough to be successful. You want to, need to, have to be GOOD, whether that has something to do with success or not.

And for once, I don’t care if it does. I don’t care if brilliant novels mount up forgotten in the slush pile while crap hits the bestseller lists. We all know this happens, but we also know that most successful books have to be at least competent, and most which are more than routinely successful are also more than competent. Even those wildly successful books we hate almost always have something that made them stand out that he have to—grudgingly—recognize. As I say, we can’t make our own luck. We can’t predict what will be hot in eighteen months that will make our newly released books topical and apparently loaded with foresight. What we can do is write the best book we can: not one everyone will like, but one which—for the right kinds of reader—will, for one shining moment, eclipse the competition: a book which urges young writers to strive for the dizzy heights you have achieved, rather than prompting them to throw it across the room. To do less is to embrace mediocrity and to take away from the publishing game the one thing you can control: the quality of your own work.

So don’t set out to write a book as good as the ones you discard. Write something better. And whether that (or the next, or the next) gets published or not, make your next book better than the one which went before it. Set impossible standards for yourself. Raise the bar higher than you can ever possibly attain, then shoot for it. And if you don’t reach it, keep trying, even if you know you’ll never quite get there. Just make sure you are demanding every ounce of the work and talent within you. Aim to be magnificent, but always be sure to improve. In the immortal words of Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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14 comments to Writing Fantasy:”I can do better than that!”

  • Then there is the epiphany that hits where you close a truly spectacular book and think, “Wow, I want to do that, to create that kind of enjoyment, to evoke those emotions, for other readers.”

  • Kalayna,
    absolutely. Personally I always feel a bit intimidated by the really good stuff, find it less enabling than material I think I can better, but yes, that’s also a huge incentive.

  • Thank you, AJ. And have a good trip!

  • …most readers have a moment early in life when they throw a book across the room… What happens next determines whether or not you’re a writer.

    What does it mean if you and your best friend, who also hated the book with a blinding passion, take the book into the driveway and set fire to it?

    It only happened to one book. But it was a terrible, horrible, very bad book.

    😀

  • Thanks Moira. It’s work, but should have fun moments.

    Misty, must have been a bad book! Of course, I don’t condone book burning except for truly unforgivable prose style 🙂

  • AJ, you have inspired me. I wanted to stand up and cheer! Because ultimately, it’s about craft, and what is inside us, and what happens in our own heads that makes us truly successful writers. I’ve written some books I am so very proud of. And of some I am less so, as I look back. But striving to learn devices, to say things in new and emotion-stirring ways, to capture a character’s voice and run with it, this has long been my motive and my drive.

    >>And … I don’t care if brilliant novels mount up forgotten in the slush pile while crap hits the bestseller lists. We all know this happens …

    It does, and it always will. Commercial art in an any form will always be driven by market factors. We have to live with that and keep writing, hoping that those same market factors will someday drive us to success. Or give up. And who wants to give up on a dream?

    This last bit gives me cold chills, makes me tear-up, and prepares me to address the line edits I am on deadline for, with an eager spirit:

    >>As I say, we can’t make our own luck … What we can do is write the best book we can … To do less is to embrace mediocrity and to take away from the publishing game the one thing you can control: the quality of your own work.

    Yes! YES! Thanks AJ!

  • Thanks Faith. I know this is all stuff we know, but I think it’s worth re-saying again from time to time for exactly the reasons you suggest. Best of luck with the edits. I have a long edit saga to address in a future post…

  • Ryl

    “Good enough” is never good enough. So I keep pushing myself, and my work.

  • I think I sometimes find myself intimidated by the constantly rising bar. Not that I think I’ve reached some sort of pinnacle in my own writing. Far from it. But I know that I’ve improved over the years and that the books I’ve written most recently have been far better than those I wrote early on. And as I sit here, trying to kick start the next book, I realize that I’m afraid that I won’t write this one as well as the last, that whatever I reached with the last book was as high as I can go. I think I face this every time I sit down to write my next book. The fear is as familiar as it is powerful. I trust that in the end I’ll overcome it, get writing again, and turn out something that I like, something in which I can take pride. But right now I’m faltering. Not sure where this comment is going. Not looking for pity or sympathy, nor do I need encouragement. As I say, I’ve been here before. I guess I’m saying that while I agree wholly with the post, and find it inspiring, I also think that the sentiments you express here touch not only on our aspirations, but also on our insecurities. If that makes any sense… (From my laptop — still fighting gremlins with the iMac.)

  • To echo Kalayna, I pretty much had the exact opposite story as the one King describes. I read a book in my childhood that I thought, at the time, was absolutely terrific. It had inspired powerful emotions in me. And I knew then that I wanted to do this: I wanted to write powerful stories that make other people feel strongly. I’ve never given up on that dream, but as alluded to elsewhere, this one is both blessing and curse. While the motivation is positive – I’m inspired to reach greatness because I value great fiction, not because I want to prove I’m better than some hack – I have to take stock now and then and ask myself “Is this great yet?” The answer, more often than not, is “No, this is good, but it’s not great.” So, it’s back to the drawing board, grind it out again, hone the skills further, but never quite getting there. Because if it’s not great, what’s the point?

    It doesn’t help that there’s already tons of pretty great stuff out in the market… nowadays I suspect you have to be better than great to break in.

  • Sarah Naumann

    This is all so true; even though I’ve never flung a book across the room.
    I am glad to see that I seem to be headed in the right direction: I raise the bar to heights that frequently frighten me – and still – I keep on shooting for it again and again. Maybe some day I’ll even be able to say that I’ve come pretty darn close to the bar and be incredibly proud of myselft; but until then I’ll keep on writing, failing, learning and improving…

  • The best worst best novel I read that inspired me was “The Cronicles of Thomas Covenant” by Stephen Donaldson, not because it was a terrible book, far from it, it was the first hard core fantasy I read and it blew my socks off, a tour de force that remained unsurpassed, in my mind, for quite a few years. (I was a wee young country gal in my early twenties who’d grown up on ‘boy’s own’ ray guns-n-rocketships SF)

    Why it was the worst, and I wanted to fling it across the room, was that Thomas Covenant was such a D**K. How could the hero behave in such a way, I asked myself, and expect me to like him.

    That was when I realised how good the book actually was. Because TC was the complex, and annoying, character I’ve come to love through all eight books, and counting.

    That was the epiphany I needed to send my writing into a higher plane. I’m still trying to fly higher and higher, and although I occasionialy crash and burn, that’s what band-aids are for.

  • I was young and foolish. But it was an extraordinarily bad book.

    It had inspired powerful emotions in me. And I knew then that I wanted to do this: I wanted to write powerful stories that make other people feel strongly.

    That’s exactly what happened to me. I read Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates and suddenly I wanted more than anything to tell stories the way he did. The hardest part was realizing that I can’t do it like him – I can only do it like me. But the desire remains as strong as ever.

  • Thanks all for the comments. Again, totally agree about the power of great books to inspire writers. I do think, however, that for me at least finding targets I thought I could out perform was a necessary confidence boost that helped me actually get it done. And David is right, I now find myself trying up to up the ante on my previous work: a healthy but difficult thing not least because it forces me to acknowledge where work I’ve published could have been stronger.

    OK, off to do Shakespearean things.