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09:25 am:

Note: There will be no Wright’s Writing Corner post next week, as we will be on vacation.



Or you can go here for a picture of Death By Cotton Candy

 

Recently, I took a delightful writing class, which I have mentioned before. But there was one thing that came up in the class that I found disturbing.

 

We reached a section that spoke about Cotton Candy Writing. Ah, I thought, the bane of every good book, the perfect description of exactly what a good writer never wants to do.

 

So, you can imagine my shock and amazement when the following paragraph made it clear that Cotton Candy Writing was what we, the students, were supposed to be shooting for. Writing that offered no “speed bumps” to the reader, that never slowed them down.

 

I sat there, stunned. My favorite books always slow me down. They make me stop and think. They are not like cotton candy, they are like a full steak dinner from soup and salad all the way to flavored ice and nuts. They make you put the book down and muse over the ideas with a thoughtful or, occasionally, stunned look on your face, before picking they up and diving in again.

 

But…Cotton Candy Writing sells. Sells like hot cakes--or like cotton candy. People love things that flow through their mind like spun sugar in the mouth, that offer no resistance.

 

 

Now, to be fair, I like cotton candy, had some just two weeks ago at a pool party (okay, I had a bite and gave the rest to the Cherubim…but it’s still tasty.) I even like some cotton candy books. Who does not enjoy sitting down and reading something that requires no thinking upon occasion? Nearly everyone I know has some kind of cotton candy-like book they love.

 

But I forget those books. I could not tell you a year later what they had been about.

 

I do not want to write things that will be forgotten. Ideally, I would like to write something that would make it onto the St. John’s College Program and last forever. That particular goal is probably beyond my ability. I have not yet had any ideas that strike me as SJC Program worthy. But it strikes me as a goal worth shooting for.

 

When I was at St. John’s, I spent time trying to figure out what makes a Great Book. I came to the conclusion that a Great Book is one that has the Great Ideas in it. (Mortimer Adler made a list of some of them. His list ishere: ) Great Ideas make you think. They make you reconsider your own ideas, your values, your opinions, your life. They change you, not necessarily because of the opinions of the author expressing the ideas, but because of what happens within you when you contemplate them.

 

The greater the ideas in the book, the more they challenge or mystify or awe the reader, the longer the book lasts. The really great books last forever. The Iliad and The Odyssey are between 2000 and 3000 years old. People are still reading them.

 

But they are not Cotton Candy by any stretch of the imagination. It takes work to get through them. The Catalog of Ships, alone, requires excavation tools and full body armor. They are full of speed bumps at every turn…but they last.

 

Given a choice, I would rather write a book that lasts than a book that melts in the mouth like spun sugar and vanishes, never to be remembered again.

 

But how would one learn to do it? No writing class or book I have seen deals with how to make your story last. There are classes on how to make your story melt like spun sugar, and classes on how to make your stories have literary value—complex symbolism and the like. There are books that tell you how to remove your adverbs so as not to trip up the reader, and books that do a really good job of analyzing what is in a bestseller and ways of emulating their success. But if there are books that do the same thing for books that have lasted, books that have proven their worth through time, I have not seen them.

 

Ironically, books that last often do not sell well right away. In his whole life, Milton only got 10 Pounds (sterling) for Paradise Lost. Many of the great books were not even acknowledged during the life of their author. And yet, they continue to delight readers hundreds, even thousands of years later—a wonderful outcome for the works, but not so good for the author’s dinner table.

 

So one can see why writing instructors are less than eager to push this kind of writing on their students…especially since there is no way to check to see if it is working. If a writing teachers gives advice and his students hit the Bestseller’s List, that is instant confirmation of the usefulness of the advice. But no one can wait five hundred years to see which modern books have lasted, and even if they could, they would have to invent time travel before they could report back…and time travel is an entirely different area of study from writing. Chances are that the average writing teacher may not be suited for both.

 

Still…seems like there is room there for something: Writing the Great Books Way? Lessons In the St. John’s Style? How To Write A Great Book? Spinning Candy Into Steak?

 

Because the ideal, of course, would be to be able to write a book that read with ease AND included great ideas, something with the sweetness of Cotton Candy and the nutrition of salad and steak—thus allowing it to sell both to a wide audience and through the depths of time—but whether this is possible, only God knows.


Comments

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From:kokorognosis
Date:July 28th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
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I know of a couple books that are read with ease and include great ideas (Hyperion, The Name of The Wind) but I suppose it'll be years before we know if they stand the test of time. Centuries, even.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 28th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC)
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Yeah. I actually do think it is possible, but ending it as more of a question just sounded cooler. ;-)
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From:jjbrannon
Date:July 28th, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC)

On that subject...

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The Great Gatsby only sold 25,000 copies during Fitzgerald's lifetime.

Only this week I discovered, upon reading the back of the Katherine Hepburn commemorative stamps I purchased, that Bringing Up Baby was a huge flop, nearly destroying both Howard Hawks & Hepburn's careers.


JJB

PS: Y'all have fun!
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 28th, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)

Re: On that subject...

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It's a Wonderful Life was also a flop at the time. Hard to believe.
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From:cdenmier
Date:July 28th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
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I love cotton candy! That some human mind out there found a way to spin sugar into a fabric-like material proves that there is a God. But I digress...

You're definitely right about the verification of any process or technique to writing a great story. The only technique--besides solid, original, passionate writing--is what you already mentioned: great ideas. Because to write a great story is such a high and lofty thing, it almost must be the case that the great authors don't get their due in life. The small rewards are forgone for the greater; the fame is sacrificed so that a story may be nearly immortal. I don't mean consciously or directly sacrificed, but as you admit, it sure turns out that way often.

Great stories are probably born with some degree of faith. They are carefully crafted by authors trying to make a wonderful story; they are pushed out into the world and let to drift down the river of history. The author cannot see what becomes of his story...he only has faith that his best was done and the ideas were worth sharing.

Technique? Process? Class? Someone could possibly do all these things. More likely than not, the mere desire on the part of an author to tell a great story is more powerful than all such things.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 28th, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)
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Ga! Wrote a long answer that wouldn't post. Short version. Cotton candy...yummy!

What I want is the Writing the Great Book version of Writing the Breakout Novel.
From:ladyhobbit
Date:July 28th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)

What the Dickens!

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The novels of Dickens are a great example of books that have both cotton candy and steak. They were big bestsellers in their day--people waited at the docks in the US to get the latest issue of the magazines in which the novels were serialized--and yet they have also stood the test of time. When I was a teenager I inhaled one after the other, and I love to read them to this day. Dickens was a master storyteller.

I'm not sure there is a formula for the great books novel! Also, I'm not sure that ideas are the factor that makes a great novel great. A great work of philosophy is different--it relies on ideas, of course. But a novel relies on story--plot and character. Such ideas as Dickens had are not really very striking, but the people in his stories come alive! I think the same way about Tolstoy. He is chock full of ideas, but I don't think that the ideas are the reason we come back to his books. His knowledge of human nature rings true for me every time.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 28th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)

Re: What the Dickens!

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I kind of figure that the great ideas are what is fueling the characterization. But it might be worth doing what Maass did for his Breakout Novel book and reading a whole bunch of, in particular, the Great Novels in a row.

I don't think you'll ever get a formula...but I don't think that Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel is a formula. It's more of a guild, like sign posts to help point the way.
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From:melodyv
Date:July 28th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)

Not much of a writer but...

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I think there is a compromise between the two. It's the reason why love stories sell. If a story contains such a big idea that everyone can relate to the theme, the story is both memorable and yet flows through the mind like cotton candy.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 28th, 2010 08:45 pm (UTC)

Re: Not much of a writer but...

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That is actually one of my goals...to write light amusing stuff that has depth. The Prospero Books, for instance, have a lot of humor and light banter, but they touch on some deeper ideas such as slavery and immortality and stuff.

I think anime does it well, too. One-Piece, for instance, is really really light...and yet seems meaty at the same time. Kenshin, too, though it has times that are not as light. I think anime does this really well.

Nice to see you here, by the way.
From:genesiscount
Date:July 28th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
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I confess that it resonates with my "the universe is made up of nothing but tradeoffs" sensibility to consider it may *not* be possible to write a book that is both a Great And Enduring Book and an Easy-To-Read-And-Assimilate book.

Even if it were, based on the thesis implied above that the Great Books are the ones that change their readers or require their readers to change themselves to appreciate, there's a bit of me that actually recoils from the notion that it's good to try working great change upon readers without drawing their attention to the fact (as an Easy-to-Read book presumably would avoid doing). It may just be curmudgeonliness, but I've gotten more and more wary of covert propagandizing as I've gotten older -- I don't mind learning new things or listening to new arguments, but I have less and less patience with trying to sneak such things "under my radar", as it were. Spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, fine; spoonful of sugar hiding the fact that there *is* medicine, not fine.

I have no problem with either type of writing; heaven knows we need both, and heaven knows most writers want both to entertain right now and to be remembered years later. I just think trying to do both in the same book is problematic, both practically and (perhaps) in principle, and -- like the Centipede's Dilemma -- is almost certainly one of those things that is less likely to succeed the more consciously deliberate that writing's purpose is.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 29th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
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Obviously, one cannot make a Great Book cotton candy, because the whole point of cotton candy is that you don't stop and thing...but I think you can make it easy to enjoy. Some of the great books are easy to read...the ideas may slow you down as you think about them, but the writing does not.

But, yes, you couldn't make it too smooth or it would not achieve its point.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
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From:marycatelli
Date:July 28th, 2010 09:44 pm (UTC)
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Well, one thing we can all agree is that the story ought to carry you along like a smooth river unless you want the reader to stop.

Style can be important in that respect
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From:juliet_winters
Date:July 28th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
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I find something of the same with writing history. An amateur historian (so she self-describes) I know self-publishes (fortunately she's independently wealthy) because she refuses to compromise her perception of the way in which the information should be presented to the reader.
To heck with the reader and his boredom. If she wants to list tables of imports from year to year because she thinks it's important or it took her a lot of time to find it out so it's fascinating to her, that's what she'll do. If she wants to postulate an out-there theory as to why someone wrote a will the way he did, well, that's her choice. It IS her choice because she is paying for it.
She gave me the latest manuscript to read for suggestions. I had some-- namely to come up with a narrative, something for the reader to follow easily as it progressed. An angle. A point. In history there are many points. An essay makes one or two. A book makes many and hopefully they are part of one picture. Otherwise it's just data and random bits of opinion.
I wouldn't so much call the smooth narrative line that must flow cotton candy as I would deem it a candle wick. It is the core upon which layers of story are laid until something illuminating is achieved.
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From:axiem
Date:July 28th, 2010 10:16 pm (UTC)
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And this is one reason why, despite my desire to become better as a writer, I tend to shrug off any "formal" training or writing classes, &c&c. I may not get the insightful analysis of how-to-write-better-dialogue, but I also get to avoid the analysis of how-to-neuter-your-work.

On the topic of a How to Write a Great Book book: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/08/how-to-write-in-700-easy-lessons/8043 is an essay you may find interesting.

I personally don't think there's a way you can intentionally write a Great Book. It's certainly not something you can summarize. There are probably many Great Books out there that are unknown and undiscovered ("a gem of purest ray serene" as Thomas Gray would put it), and the ones we know about happened from fluke and chance. Yet there are many cotton-candy books that also clog the arteries.

Sidenote: I think people who have encountered nothing but cotton-candy books and movies have a very hard time digesting any steak books or movies. They simply aren't equipped for it. I notice definite trends of people who ridicule movies/books that could become Great Stories in time being the same people who proclaim the awesomeness of the latest fluff.

Ramble, ramble, ramble.
From:ladyhobbit
Date:July 29th, 2010 03:26 am (UTC)

Surprises

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Lots of my college students have only read cotton candy (if they have read anything at all), but sometimes when they get some steak they find that they really like it. I see this in response journals sometimes. They aren't afraid to say that they thought a story was boring, either, and they don't lose any points for saying that, so the positive responses are probably honest. "Neighbor Rosicky" by Willa Cather is one that often gets positive reactions; so does "Roman Fever" by Edith Wharton. I never know when a piece of literature will light up for a particular reader.
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From:baduin
Date:July 29th, 2010 07:21 am (UTC)
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Asking what makes a book great is like asking what makes a woman beautiful. Eyes? Arms? Legs? Must she be at least 1,70 high? Is a university diploma necessary?

The famous American quest for the Great American Novel is a case in point.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_Novel

The only book on that list which could be called great is Moby Dick. And what is remarkable is that Melville put a lot of Great Ideas in it - and invariable they are so obvious commonplaces that they serve perfectly as Cotton Candy. In fact, it is difficult to imagine another book so crammed with Cotton Candy as Moby Dick - although XIX century Cotton Candy looks different from the modern one. XIX century authors loved long descriptions - their readers didn't have Discovery Channel and Wikipedia and novels served in a similar role.

As for true ideas, not copybook headings ones, there is no book which have more of them than Voyage to Arcturus. It is an interesting book, but no one would call it Great. Tolkien had also a lot of ideas - and not Great Ideas, but interesting ones - but took a lot of effort to hide them from the reader. I would say that this is much more reasonable course.

This system has one fault: it makes for good reading, but it makes the commentators contemptous. Commentators are generally very obtuse. They love to "discover" something original in a book, optimally a Great Idea: that is what they are paid to do. They are however very bad at "finding" things which the author put there. Therefore, if someone is seeking critical approval, it is best to use ambiguous symbols, to allow each commentator to write his doctoral thesis with his own "interpretation".

This is a good way to have your book be declared "great".

The example of Joyce is instructive. He was a wonderful writer, one of the best stylists in English - and he lacked any ideas. (Compare him to Kafka, whose symbols actually mean something). So he wrote books which could be interpreted as the commentators wished - and is their favourite author ever since.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysses_(novel)
"Joyce once said that he had "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant", which would earn the novel "immortality".[10]"

On the other hand, if your book is known beforehand to be a Great Book, there will be no lack of commentators to invent Great Ideas for it.

Homer had no ideas which were not the commonplace of the time. It didn't matter. For a thousand years the philosophers were busy ascribing their ideas to him.

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/porphyry_cave_of_nymphs_02_translation.htm

As for the explanation of why bad writing and Cotton Candy writing is popular, see C. S. Lewis An Experiment in Criticism. For examples, see

http://punkadiddle.blogspot.com/2010/06/robert-jordan-wheel-of-time-1990-2005.html
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 29th, 2010 12:15 pm (UTC)
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No one can tell you how to be inspired. But I have really been impressed with Donald Maass's analytical powers in his book Writing the Breakout Novel.

No one can tell you how to write a breakout novel. But he did an excellent job of identifying qualities that such novels have in common that can be a guide to a writer trying to find the path. Things like: public stake and private stake...the first time I read this, the book I was working on at the time had no private stakes. The world was in danger, but there was no particular thing at stake for my main characters. Just stopping to think about the question "What is the private stake?" was an improvement.

His thoughts on Blockbusters can't make a bad writer great...but it can help any writer move up a step. He wrote this book by reading 100 breakout novels while asking himself the question "are they better than other books?"

My thought is that somebody might be able to do a similar thing for enduring value rather than sellability...read a bunch of the great novels and look for similarities.

Most of them would be the same as what Maass picks out...likeable characters, escalating stakes, his observation that forgiveness and redemption seem to make for the strongest of themes. But there might be something more as well...what it would be, I currently have no clue, but I love analysing stories, so I keep mulling over it.

The outcome of such an analysis would be no more helpful than Maass's book. It would not make ever book great...but it could help authors take each book one step farther.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 29th, 2010 07:28 am (UTC)
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Actually, listening to an audiobook of the Iliad or the Odyssey, you really do get caught up in it all. You finally understand why epic poetry was a bestseller for centuries, even though these days, it's not.

I've always loved kennings, just because. But when someone's reading them out loud... dang, that's a whole 'nother poetic device. And the Catalog of the Ships finally worked as advertised.
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From:juliet_winters
Date:July 29th, 2010 11:53 am (UTC)
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And the reeling off of the obscure local heroes' names. Pure candy floss for them and a yawn for us.

From:xander25
Date:July 29th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)

On the boredom of Shakespeare

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When I was in high school, I always thought he was rather boring. I was reading Tempest, in preparation for your new book coming out. I found myself enjoying it...even laughing at some parts. If I remember Prospero Lost right...you did a good job. I can definitely see it as a continuation.

Though, I hope you don't mind if I check your newest one out of the library...I plan on buying it once I have the money to spend.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 29th, 2010 10:57 pm (UTC)

Re: On the boredom of Shakespeare

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Not at all! Delighted just to have you read it!

I also found Shakespeare much more fun as an adult...also, it's better in a play than when read.

Thanks for reading the Tempest, by the way. ;-)
From:ladyhobbit
Date:July 29th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
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Have a great vacation!
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From:tom_gallier
Date:July 29th, 2010 11:50 pm (UTC)
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Interesting post. I've never heard the term "Cotton Candy Writing" before. This is something for me to ponder. My goal as a writer is to entertain, and for that to happen (IMHO) bad things must happened. Twists. Setbacks. It can't be too easy.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 30th, 2010 01:30 am (UTC)
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The cotton candy goal has to do with the language (word choice, lack of much description, adverbless) not the plotting.

There are quite a few genres that really cannot handle this kind of writing...anything historical, for instance, where description is actually required. ;-)
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From:danialarin
Date:July 31st, 2010 07:02 pm (UTC)
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Something to chew on... Just because it's a "great" book, doesn't mean it's a "good" book. It's possible it was just the translation, but the version I read of "20000 Leagues Under the Sea" was frightfully boring. It felt like the lists of scientific names of fish were given greater priority and attention than the characters or events. (Oliver Twist, on the other hand, I remember finding rather compelling.)

A fair and, IMHO, attainable goal would be to find a workable mix of cotton candy and the aforementioned seven-course steak dinner. For example, a meal made up by ordering five appetizers from Friday's or Applebees (and shared between large group of people). I think this is why certain authors have managed to rocket to the top of the best-seller list and stay there across a range of age-groups, and certain entertainers in other areas have managed to capture and keep the attention of every age demographic.

This is what makes things like the Harry Potter series, the Muppet Show, the original Star Wars, or any of dozens of books and shows that are still well-remembered and well-talked-about, decades after the last key was typed on the manuscript, or the last printing master was stuffed in the vault, stay with us. It's the reason we keep certain material at hand, and offer them to our kids (those who have kids, anyway), once they're old enough, with a sense of excitement, rather than obligation.
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 6th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
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>Just because it's a "great" book, doesn't mean it's a "good" book.

Very true. Some hold up with time. Others do not.

Some five course steak dinners are excellent...others are burnt and hard to chew. So the difference between cotton candy and steak does not preclude there being good cotton candy and bad steak. ;-)
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