Monday 14 November 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Good Book to a Would-be Author

I've just finished Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief and I would recommend it to anyone, but read the earlier Vampire Chronicles first, if you haven't already. I enjoyed it immensely. But oh, how much it hurt.

That's the problem with reading a really good book, as an aspiring author. Especially if it's on a similar subject to your own. You always compare, and in your own mind, you never measure up. A part of you just whispers that your own work is not and never will be as good as this - and of course you can never be certain whether it is or not.
If you obsess over every detail and get it as d*mn near perfect as is literally - or literarily - possible, you will never be certain that it is good, because you cannot, can not, be impartial when you read it. You cannot get the suspense, the pacing, the delicately drip-fed misdirection and plot exposition, because you know what will happen. The plot as a whole, which you have painstakingly dissected and reassembled, and understand at its deepest levels, seems embarrassingly ordinary, as anything would if you'd spent the past however long living with it. You cannot feel much more than a vague satisfaction at the sounds of the words, because you wrote them; you put each sentence together from its building blocks and every little artifice is deliberate and obvious and you lose the overall effect.
If you're like me, you'll have benchmarks. Books or authors that are, to your mind, the epitome of some quality.
Lord of the Rings, for me is the pinnacle of quality of writing and attention to detail. In the entire, long, trilogy and all the surrounding material, I have only spotted the ghost of a single inconsistency, and it's only unlikely, not a direct contradiction. I also cannot recall a single instance of a phrase that sounds awkward. You know what I mean: those little jarring notes where the writer just hasn't found the golden phrase; sometimes you can see a wording that would fit, other times you can just see that the one in the book doesn't quite. Tolkien doesn't have them. His writing is as d*mn near perfect as it can be.
Terry Pratchett's Discworld, to me, is the ultimate satire. The genius blending of comedy and pathos. The myriad layers of little jokes and references. I'm into double figures rereading most of the books, and I'm still finding them. (no mention of Snuff in comments please, I'm not reading it 'till Christmas)
For emotion and characters, there are several.
Anne Rice, for the sheer breathtaking depth of emotion in her work. Reading the Body Thief, I felt so much for Lestat that I could physically feel it.
For identifying with characters, and all the emotional involvement of that, Rice is pretty d*mned good, but the real masters, to me, are Tolkien again and perhaps most of all George R.R Martin, writer of A Game of Thrones, the only one of the Song of Fire and Ice series I've yet read. The mark of a writer who can really make characters is that you can't choose a favourite, that you can identify with them all, villains included, and if you can't even quite decide which side is the protagonists, that is pure genius. Game of Thrones does that for me.
I love these books, every one of them. Sheer masterpieces. I eat them up, guzzle down the words and greedily swallow the plot, desperate both to get more and for it not to be over too quickly. I drink the emotions they make me feel, the pain, the fear, the desperation, the joy, the love.
But it hurts so much to read them, and not just the pain I feel for poor damaged Bran, Sansa trapped and at the mercy of the Queen, Dany having lost everything. For Sam, alone and desperate on Cirith Ungol and Eomer in the fields of the Pellenor. For Lestat, sick and helpless and near death, and tiny Claudia and too-human Louis. That pain is part of what I read it for. I seek that pain and enjoy every sentence of it.
But the pain of the feeling - the knowledge, as it always seems to be - that I can never do so well, or remotely near. That cuts deep. However I tell myself it's not possible that I could feel about what I write like I do about  what I read, and that in any case I'm comparing myself to the best, and I never really expected to be as good as them, something in me tells me that I just can't cut it as an author.
There are things that help, though. Talking to other authors is good. I'm very grateful to Lake Lopez in particular, for his posts about Ghastly on his blog -, which is an excellent read, and that a Ghastly, the personified part of you that says you're not good enough, is something everybody has, and it is wrong. It also helps to think of other books you've read and enjoyed: books that are good, but of a more attainable standard. And they got published. And they are good, and you liked them. To measure yourself solely by the best you've ever found is foolish hubris, and will bring you down by sheer weight of comparison. Be realistic: not many authors at all are as good as the best few you've ever read; it doesn't make you a bad writer if you're not in that few.
Don't panic, and don't despair.


  1. Ah, the agony of striving to write like the best and the ecstasy of perhaps coming close… Beautiful post! I believe that you, CarrieVS, will ultimately succeed. You’re diligent and you take action. You have a talent with words and an awareness of their mood and pace and the emotion they can – should - evoke. One day, I know, you’ll be the envy of pleased readers. It’s true. And I’m glad I know you and that we’ve connected on this journey. LL

  2. Lake,
    thanks for commenting, and thank you very very much for the vote of confidence - the ecstasy I was talking about was more about reading a good book than thinking I'd come close.
    With this sort of encouragement, I shall have to get my act together and start finding more time to write, or rather, using it to write more and procrastinate less!
    x Carrie