Monday, July 18, 2011

Be Deliberate

Don't write crap.

I've said this many times, but I believe it needs to be clarified.

Here's my succinct explanation:

Write deliberately.

Taste is subjective. But very few people are able to separate their feelings about something from the value it might actually have (as evidenced by the thought that went into it), simply because they can't perceive its value, or don't bother trying to perceive it.

Which is lazy. Or ignorant. Or outright stupid. Or some combination of all three

We can offhandedly say "That TV show sucks" simply because we don't like that type of show, or don't care for one of the actors on that show, or it didn't provoke emotion. But chances are high that the show doesn't actually suck, because there was a lot of work that went into it, by a lot of people who did their best. It takes a lot of dedicated folks a lot of hours to create a television show. That doesn't mean the show is automatically excellent, but knee-jerk or cavalier dismissal of something that took so much time shows little understanding of the creation process, and devalues it.

All opinions are valid, because you can't argue with subjectivity. But just because something doesn't work for you doesn't mean it doesn't work.

So I've begun taking a closer look at media that I both like and dislike, and have been searching for the thing that indicates quality, even if it isn't something I enjoy.

I believe that thing is deliberation.

Since I write fiction, let's focus on novels. According to my criteria, a novel is a success if:

1. The writer intentionally sets out to do something within the story.

and

2. As a result of deliberation and execution, the story meets the writer's expectations.

No story will ever meet all readers' expectations. Some readers don't even know what to look for. Some will confuse their personal taste with quality. Some form instant opinions based on misapprehension, bias, or false expectation.

But if a writer is completely aware of why they wrote what they wrote, and can explain the reason for every chapter, scene, and sentence, I'd call that deliberate, and by definition, it can't be crap.

It's similar to a pool shark running a table, calling his shots. If you call it, and make it, you're doing something right.

Of course, that means having an understanding of writing craft, but for the sake of this argument let's assume a base level of professionalism. To know craft is to intentionally use craft.

I've tried a few times to read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I don't enjoy his prose, and believe he takes too long to get into conflict. But I'm betting this is deliberate on his part. He's not a newbie without a clue what he's doing. In fact, he knows exactly what he's doing. It just doesn't appeal to me. This doesn't make it crap, much as I don't like it.

An easy example of this is the story I wrote with Blake Crouch, Serial. As of this writing, that free story has gotten 139 one star reviews.

As I like to say, it's difficult to judge quality if you're an idiot.

In the case of Serial, I can safely qualify most of those one star reviewers as idiots, because they criticize the story for doing the exact things Blake and I want it to do. No one should be surprised that a story about two serial killers is violent and disturbing. But because it is free, and the description likely wasn't read before the one-click download, many readers were surprised by the content, and they responded with one-star reviews.

That's their problem, not the story's problem.

Conversely, we got hammered for being overly gory and gratuitous. This amuses me to no end, because Serial is purposely understated when it comes to the on-page mayhem. The prose is spare, not purple. We don't go into descriptive detail. We pull way, way back and let the reader fill in the blanks.

We did this deliberately. The fact that people imagine gore that isn't there is proof the writing works. If you don't like it, it doesn't mean the story sucks.

One of the deep-rooted problems in our society is how people form quick opinions without analyzing why they reached their conclusions. Then they'll defend those opinions without thinking. It's a basic flaw of human nature that most people would rather fight to the death for their beliefs before questioning them. The ability to change one's mind is a rare thing.

I understand that casual dismissal is necessary, to a degree. We're bombarded with choice, and we need to be able to quickly make decisions.

But casual dismissal coupled with the anonymity (and the cushion) of the Internet has turned a bunch of lazy morons into bitter critics who spout off their idiotic opinions without any sense to back them up.

Note I am spouting off my opinion here, but I'm backing it up with a clear trail of logic. I'm also keeping this argument general, rather than personal. Much as it might amuse me to attack specific people or reviews, you won't see me do much of that.

I don't like critics in general (I don't like awards either, but that's another rant.) But a good critic can remain somewhat objective.

The world wide web has spawned an unpleasant epidemic of idiots who are quick to criticize, insult, dismiss, and reject without any accountability. These folks really believe their nearsighted and downright idiotic opinions are not only correct, but need to be voiced in public.

Are you one of these idiots? I hope not. And if you are, I hope you have the capacity to change.

Here are some signs you might be an idiot.

If you've ever called someone a name without any provocation, you're probably an idiot.

If you think the world really cares about how much you hate something, you're probably an idiot.

If you've ever given a one-star review to anything, you're probably an idiot.

If you've ever posted anonymously, you're probably an idiot.

If you've ever casually dismissed something that others find value in, you're definitely an idiot.

If you talk before you think, you're definitely an idiot.

If you have a closed mind, you're definitely an idiot.

If this blog post makes you angry, you're definitely an idiot.

Now you might say, "Joe, but I've done one or more of these things. Does that mean I'm an idiot?"

Possibly not. True idiots usually aren't aware that they're idiots. But if you're doing a lot of the above, you aren't doing yourself any favors.

Remember how I said that writers should be deliberate?

That goes for everyone. We should all be self-aware. We should be deliberate in everything we do, including when we're being critical. Especially when we're being critical.

So, to recap:

If you're a writer, make sure you understand why you're writing what you write, and have a clear idea of what you want those words to do. Then you'll never write crap.

If you're a human being, make sure you truly understand why you say and do the things you say and do. An unexamined life ain't worth living. And an unexamined life that tweets or posts reviews on Amazon is a big waste of carbon. And oxygen.

There was no particular inciting event that made me go off on this rant. But I've seen too much stupidity on the Internets over the years, and the number of clueless morons seems to be rising.

Don't be a clueless moron, in your writing, or in your life.

Be deliberate. Everything you write, whether it be fiction or commentary, should be carefully thought through and intentional. If you ever dismiss something deliberate without being deliberate yourself, you're going to come off looking like an idiot.

And to my many critics: Disagreeing with me doesn't make you wrong. It's your inability to adequately articulate why you disagree with me that makes you wrong.

Being wrong is fine, if you learn from it.