Sunday, January 25, 2009

Yeah, It’s a Good Idea, but Can You Write It Well?

So I read a book last week that, in spite of how much I want to leave it behind and get the bad taste out of my mouth, is worth talking about because it sheds some light on the great MFA/MFYou debate. This book, whose title and author I will politely leave undisclosed, was absolutely terrible.

This was the first novel by a science fiction writer, an MFYou. She’s very public about her writing process and as someone who is fascinated by learning about other writers and how they do what they do, I was interested in reading a first novel by someone who’s writing process I already knew a lot about. It was published by a small press, who apparently didn’t edit it very well because the book is full of typos and grammatical errors, but that aside, the book was very poorly crafted.

This is clearly not a writer who pays much attention to craft. Her focus, I can tell, is on plot. And the plot alone was quite engaging. A fun and funny approach to a classic genre of stories. While there were a few inconsistencies, which she tried to smooth over as best she could without actually going back and rewriting the offending details, the plot was pretty well done.

The craft side of the book, though, was horrible. There didn’t seem to be any thought put into how to tell the story, what perspective to be in, which details to include and which ones to leave out (I’m not all that interested, for example, in the elaborate section where the main character tries to remember whether or not she can go home because she may have locked her front door, only to remember at last that she has a key to her own apartment - it is, after all, her own apartment! And does any of this end up having to do with anything? NO!).

It reads like a first draft, one that has promise, one that you can imagine will be good, one day, but has a long road of revision ahead of it (like any first draft). The problem is, and I should have known this going into it because I did already suspect that she doesn’t understand the difference between revising and editing, that it seems she wrote a first draft, did some “edits,” as she calls it, which seem to be just surface level proofreading, and then considered it done.

But there was a lot more that needed to be revised. She needed to consider the voice of the narrator; she needed to think about perspective; she needed to think about what details we need and what details we don’t; she needed to think about how to describe things (outside of her rampant use of adverbs, we get hardly any description at all); she needed to think about how to tell us the important bits of exposition that we need to know; she needed to think about how to fully develop the characters. . . Essentially, she needed to learn to step beyond what happens in the story and to ask herself how to best express these things that happen and these people that they happen to.

It’s an interesting change from having just read Yesterday’s Weather by Anne Enright the week before. That book was still good; I enjoyed many of the stories and would have considered it worth reading even if I wasn’t picking it apart to find the difference between her older stories and her newer ones. But Enright’s trouble, in my eyes, was too much playing around with craft, not enough attention paid to plot.

This other writer has the opposite problem, but it seems this problem is more inexcusable. This book, even though I liked the plot, was not worth reading. And even though she was able to get it published, I can’t help but wonder about this small press, who put out a book so full of typos many of the lines don’t even make sense (and I haven’t even mentioned that some of the pages are printed crooked and the picture on the cover is fuzzy at the edges, like it was taken with a really crappy digital camera).

But again, it all comes down to that the best sort of writing pays attention to both craft (which I consider the MFA side of writing) and plot (which I think of as the MFYou side that MFAs often forget entirely about).

1 comment:

Justus said...

How dare you write such a glowing review without then letting your readers know what book it is! How are we to find it for ourselves since we all want to read it? It sounds delightful!