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"Hard is not hopeless." - General David Petraeus

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What Can You Learn From An Indifferent Story?

Since the book cropped up in discussions with some folks at ACFW, I decided to read the book The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success by Stanley Williams.  I may write novels, but I have often found that books on screenwriting are very helpful in novel writing.

In reading the book this passage stood out to me:

"Was Doug's "instinct" for a good story something he was born with?  He doesn't think so, but rather it's the product of exposing himself literally to "thousands of stories, good, bad, and indifferent."  In other words, instinct for a story that works (and it's Moral Premise) can be acquired through osmosis--immersion into the art." (p. 55)

The book's author is referring to a gentleman he worked with on a writing project.  A gentleman who spent a lot of time reading stories and has a good eye for story.

Any of us who have hung around the publishing venue for any length of time already know it is constantly drilled into us to "read, read, read."  A good guideline if not taken to extremes (after all, if you're busy reading, when do you write your own material?). 

But that is not what I want to discuss.

I want to zero in on the theory of osmosis--the reading of stories that are good, bad, and indifferent.

What if the bulk of the books you read are indifferent?  I do believe in the theory of osmosis--that you absorb from what you read.  So if most of what you read is indifferent material--neither bad nor good, what exactly is the impact to you, the writer in training?

If I read a book that is stellar, there are very obvious things I can take away from that book that I can learn from and apply to my own writing.  Likewise, if a book is really bad, there are typically very obvious flaws that scream at you that you can easily pinpoint and say "I don't want to do that in my writing."

But what about the bulk of the books published that fall into the middle--the indifferent ones?  They are neither bad nor good.  Just there.  They provide you with an "Okay well, that passed some of the time of my day," and you put it aside and forget about the story--literally.

And with the huge amount of fiction being published, it's a certainty that the bulk of the books will fall into this indifferent category.  It's natural law.  What makes the publishing worthwhile is the immeasurable quality of subjectivity--a book someone else hated, I will love, and vice versa.  A book that I am merely indifferent too, someone else will be impacted strongly by.

But if we know that osmosis is at work--we are absorbing lessons from the books we read, what exactly are we absorbing from "just there" books?  It is usually more difficult to extract lessons from these books in a specific way.  It's not that the prose was bad, or stellar.  It's just that the story worked well enough to get along, but only enough to get along.  I read them and set them aside thinking "Ho hum.  Nothing new here.  Nothing to make me sit up and take notice."  We can reach general conclusions from these books, such as "the characters weren't compelling enough," or "I did not connect emotionally with this story."  But how do you translate that to a lesson you can use?  That's the hard part about indifferent books.

Because that's certainly not the aim of any writer.  I've never met an author who wants to write a book that's just good enough to get by.  They want to write stories that rock the readers world.

1 comment:

Nicole said...

Speaking strictly from the writer standpoint, I think the multitude of mediocre novels make me want to try harder to make my voice its own, my style unique in some way, the metaphors seem more real in some eye-catching fashion - all this because it's next to impossible to make the story itself "different". It's that "nothing new under the sun" thing. The characters need to jump out, the cliched, predictable, formulaic pattern of storytelling needs to disappear in some capacity in order for the originality to shine. Reading the mediocre inspires that in me. However, it also inspires me to read less and be more selective.