Thursday, August 12, 2010

Whatchaaa! Easing Up Our Expectations

I've been thinking about Nathan Bransford's post on never judging a book by what we think it should be, but by what the writer clearly intended. There seems to be two sides of a coin when it comes to writing and reading: what we want and what we actually get.

When we read a book, we carry certain expectations, and if those expectations aren't met, no matter how small, we usually come away from the book disappointed. If the writer exceeds our expectations, we usually love the book and leave some sort of raving review with our husband or spouse or mom or on our blog. My husband happens to be a reader who carries very low expectations for movies and books, so even though something might be truly bad, he doesn't get upset about it. He takes it for what it is and bases his judgment against the product itself, not some ideal standard he had in his head. Because of this, I think he enjoys more creative things than I do, and he's happier for it...instead of me who walks around criticizing everything left and right.

When we write a story, most of us have expectations of what the story should be by the time we finish. I read several posts yesterday that held a running theme: I HATE MY BOOK. I think we all get this feeling at some point if we're working on a novel. But why do we hate our work? Because it's not cooperating? Because it's not measuring up to that ideal we set up in the first place? I know Scott is currently rewriting one of his books because the first drafts didn't measure up to what he had planned to do.

I've rewritten books before. From scratch. Because of this. It sucks.

However, on my last huge project, I promised myself not to rewrite anything. I promised myself not to let more than a few select people beta read the book. I promised myself to let the book be what it would be instead of trying to force it into a corner and make it behave. When I did this, truly amazing things happened and I ended up with a final product that pleases me more than almost everything else I've written.

Also, lately, I've been reading different genres. I've picked up YA books I never would have picked up before. I've read science fiction and fantasy instead of just literary classics I never got to read in college. I've let myself enjoy more things. I've let go of what I think I want and allowed myself to celebrate things as they are. I've stopped being so damn uptight about things, and I'm happier with my creativity. Much happier.

Do you suffer from this type of thing?

If you haven't already, you should go check out Livia Blackburn's post about The Vulcan Mind Meld. Well, her post isn't actually titled that, but it's about how storytellers force their brain activity on their audience. Yes, very cool. I was going to do a post all about this, but Livia pretty much said it all.


  1. *slinks off guiltily*

    Yes, I'm a member of the "I hate this book" camp. Sigh.

  2. I think you sum it up in the line "I let myself enjoy things"

    it's a good reminder to lighten up and have a little fun - both with the work we are doing and the work we are reading.

  3. Thank you Michelle - I need this. I freeze up right now when I try to write and it's because I'm trying so hard to write amazing stuff and I can't seem to remember that it doesn't have to be perfect. I love my story, but it keeps going in directions that I didn't originally plan and I'm not letting it happen. Instead of exploring what might come I keep shutting it down. I need to allow myself the freedom to explore instead of focusing on word count.

  4. *raises hand* me me me!! I do the same thing. Actually doing it right now! lol
    I think I need to just let my story "happen" I am thinking too much about it. *sigh* I know I am so worried about if others will like it, I am not writing at all. Not a word.
    How are others supposed to like it, if I can't finish it?

  5. Your title for my blog entry is so much better than my own, Michelle. :-)

    I'm not sure if I suffer from too high standards yet. I can honestly say that my draft right now has some pretty crappy parts. But I kinda like rewriting. At least, I like the feeling afterwards, when it's less crappy. Ask me in a few months whether I overdo the revisions. I'll know more then :-)

  6. I'm torn about this. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have completely agreed with you, even defended the viewpoint against those who differ. From a critic's point of view, it should be all about intention. And, I do indeed admire an artist who successfully accomplishes what they set out to do. (I have only managed to do that in 1 or 2 of my stories.)

    But, then, I ask myself, what if someone sets out to write something, I don't know, stupid. What if my intention was to write a book that just said "boat" over and over again, fifty-thousand times. I would most likely succeed, but would that book be "good"?

    I get what you're saying about having more fun and stressing out less. In the end, I think I agree with you. But, a part of me wonders if there should be more to it than that.

  7. I'm going to throw in with Malasarn, and maybe even go farther. I'm a big fan of high standards. I think that most of the books/films/music I find disapointing is disappointing because it doesn't meet my standards. Which means that I don't enjoy most of the marketed entertainment. Which galls me, but I demand better entertainment rather than lowering my standards. I also hold my own writing to the standards established by my favorite authors. I think this is separate from my sometime fears that my work totally sucks.

    I also think that the idea of "authorial intent" is pretty thorny, and it's impossible for a reader to know an author's intent. We have every right to judge a book by our personal standards. Hell, we have an obligation to. Bransford's just in a phase where he's defending the entirety of book publishing, and has often lately come very close to declaring that there are no bad books, only bad readers. Hopefully Nathan will grow out of this phase.

  8. Davin, I think it's fine to dislike something because the intentions are stupid, as long as you're clear that's the reason for your dislike of it. It's not, "He's a terrible writer," per se, so much as, "He doesn't write things to my taste." I think there's a huge difference there.

    I'm very much in the camp of Michelle's husband, for better or worse. I enjoy a whole lot of things, because I tend to evaluate them on their own terms. The good news is that lets me enjoy a whole lot of things. The bad news is that means I have really crappy taste.

    That said, I also think it give me fair ground to stand on when I do dislike something because it's poorly executed because I know it's not just my gut reaction to the conceit.

    My expectations for myself are no less. I don't care what I'm trying, but I better darn well pull it off. If I don't, I keep grinding.

  9. Scott, I don't think it's remotely difficult to figure out an author's intentions in the way that Nathan's suggesting. If it is, then the author is failing entirely. If readers don't know what you were setting out to do when you started writing the piece, then you didn't do your job right.

    (Naturally, target audience is a key variable in this scenario. It doesn't matter if people outside your target outside don't get your intentions.)

    I also don't think this is moving the blame from "bad writing" to "bad writing." It's simply redefining what the focus of criticism is.

    If I spend my entire time trashing a book because essentially I don't like space opera, I should save myself and everyone else a lot of time by just saying, "Eh, it's space opera; it's not for me."

  10. C.N., regarding intentions, intuitively I feel like you do. I personally think we are able to figure out a writer's intentions. And, I'd be confident in my own interpretations of what a writer is setting out to do. But, I think the reality that I hate to admit is that we really cant figure out a writer's intentions a lot of the time. We can only guess. And, unless we check in with the writer, we can't confirm that guess. Sorry, this is off topic, but so rarely do I defend Scott's viewpoints that I had to jump in.

  11. I should clarify what I'm saying, and I'll simplify to two sentences:

    All I'm talking about is big level intentions, what kind of work did the author set out to write.

    If you can't tell that, as I tried to say, then the author completely failed and that is itself a fully valid criticism.

  12. Stephanie: Haha, I need to answer your have some things I'd like to chat with you about since we've both been/are in the same boat.

    Tess: The main point of my post today is to lighten up, yes. I have high standards. I'll always have high standards, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy other things, too. Life is too short to go around hating stuff that doesn't meet my "fine" tastes.

    Mary: It's easy to freeze up. I freeze up all the time, even when I write comments on blog posts. I used to never answer questions in college because I was afraid something stupid would come out of my mouth. The important thing is to keep writing and learning and growing, but not forcing ourselves to certain stages.

    Sugar: I've never been a believer in just letting things "happen" but I do believe that writers can force their writing into places unnatural for their skills and intentions. I think the key might be to trust your instincts more.

    Livia: Wouldn't it be cool to meet a Vulcan? Hahah.

    I like rewriting, too, just not completely rewriting the ENTIRE book from scratch. That sucks. However, I'm glad I did that rewrite for my other book because it really did suck. Then again, I wonder where it would have gone if I had just trusted myself more instead of forcing the book everywhere everyone else wanted it to go.

    Davin: Maybe I'm just at the stage you were a year ago. Maybe I'm totally behind...

    However, I do think you're mistaking what I mean by intentions. Yeah, someone can have really stupid intentions for a book and they write something really crappy. I've read some of those books. They're even published. It's really sad, and they made me really angry and my precious high standards were wounded. However, today, if I were to read the same things for the first time I think I would be more understanding and less critical. If you wrote a book that just said "boat" over and over again and that was your obvious intention and you succeeded, well, great! Doesn't mean I think the book is good or that I like it or that I enjoyed it. The point would be that I don't let it make me angry and yell about it to everyone around me. I used to do that.

    As for the end of your comment, yes, I think there is more to it than that. In fact, Mr. Malasarn, YOU are the one that started me down this path of celebrating different forms and genres of writing. Genre Wars helped me get here, too. I guess I'm just trying to be less of a snob and opening my mind to other things is all. I think that is the beginning of stepping up to another level. So yes, I think there's more to it than what I've said in the post.

    Scott: I think you've misinterpreted what I mean in the post. I didn't meant to imply that we should lower our standards for ourselves or others. I suppose I didn't put it well at all, but I just want to get to a point where I'm more open-minded. If I go see Inception and hate it, will it be because of my high standards or because it was truly a bad movie? Does it matter? If I enjoyed some of it, at least, was it time wasted?

    I have high standards, too. I'm just trying to get to a point where I'm more open-minded to what others are writing and what they set out to do. I think it isn't hard to figure out intentions at all - in the general sense. For instance, if I pick up a Young Adult novel about vampires - the cover and book blurb will obviously tell me what the book is about, and so will where the book is shelved in the book store. I will open the book expecting a YA story about vampires. I'm not going to open the book expecting some literary masterpiece. I used to do this, as embarrassing as that is, and get angry that the writing was sub-par and that the vampires weren't all like Dracula.

    By intentions, I don't mean trying to guess what the writer was after with theme or anything.

    I've rambled enough.

  13. Nevets: Your response to Davin and Scott is exactly what I mean - being clear and honest to ourselves why we don't like something. You put this much better than I did, thanks!

  14. Nevets: I don't dispute that if, for example, I don't like SF/F and I declare that "Ender's Game" or whatever sucks, it's likely because I'm genre prejudiced. But that's not what I'm arguing. Nathan, in his original post, said:

    The real question aspiring writers should ask is not whether they liked a book, but whether they think the author accomplished what they set out to accomplish.

    I still say we have no idea, as readers, what the author's goals were for a work. I also say that every writer likely thinks they've accomplished those goals if the book has made it to print. So Nathan's thought experiment will always lead to the same results, which are useless results.

    We should all lighten up and stop hating on things we wouldn't read anyway, but we shouldn't lower our standards. Especially as writers. We should have a more rigorous set of standards than the average reader has, if anything. That's part of what separates craftsmen and artists from the audience, isn't it?

  15. I should say that I didn't pluck the "boat" idea out of thin air. Sadly, it's something I have considered writing more than once. In case anyone should think I'm ahead of them developmentally.

  16. Davin: Knowing you, you'd make it brilliant.

  17. I would, Michelle. Especially in act 2, where the boat comes in. But I won't ruin the end for you.

  18. I also don't think the debate is over the clarity of what we wrote. I think it's an official difference in opinion, one I struggle with.

  19. Michelle: A couple of things:

    "If I go see Inception and hate it, will it be because of my high standards or because it was truly a bad movie?" Both. They aren't mutually exclusive!

    I get what you're saying about broadening your tastes and letting yourself enjoy things that have high entertainment value but possibly low literary value. I have "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on DVD. I am aware that BTVS is not the complete works of Bill Shakespeare, and I also know that BTVS is pretty much mindless, sentimental melodrama . I am aware of this while I'm enjoying it. And while I'm watching it, having fun, I am aware that in so many ways, it could've been much better, because it was written to low standards, and Shakespeare is better stuff and in the long run will always remain my favorite.

    I think you are proud of "Cinders" because you didn't write for the market, and because it's good work.

    I have read Davin's first draft of the "boat" book, by the way. It's a page-turner! I sailed through it.

  20. Scott: Yeah, I wasn't trying to convince you of anything. I just think I wrote an unclear post.

    That's exactly why I'm proud of Cinders. I just hope in the future I don't let myself sway toward what I think everyone will want to read next.

  21. Davin: Yes, I didn't define some things in my post that needed defining. It was early. I stayed up late last night. I was in a hurry. Excuses, excuses...

  22. "unclear post"? Why, I have never been unclear! Half the time I don't have any clue what my posts are about until I'm writing the final paragraph.

    I think you've brought up a couple of good points today, and I'm also reading more broadly lately and enjoying some genres I haven't touched in decades. I have issues with some of Nathan's recent posts, and I was letting that spill over into today's comments. My bad, as the kids say.

  23. I used to be hyper-critical, of my own work and others'. Now, I still have my personal tastes that are highly defined, but I take more time questioning why others like something I don't. There are many ways for something to be "good." It can be true genius, or it can just be efficient at a certian goal--like selling copies. (I guess that would make it a "good" product if not a "good" work of art.) Also, some things that are not exactly highbrow can still be fun or pleasurable in the right context.

    Like donuts at Quality Dairy. Mmm.

    Now, I still have a strong sense of what I truly appreciate. However! When there is a disconnect between how much I like something and how popular it is in general, I avoid the thought "This is crap" and I immediately start to question what I'm missing... Is it just that I have a more sophisticated sense of humor than average, or is it that I'm missing something cultural? If something is popular, that's proof that it is somehow "good" to many people, whether I can understand it at first or not. I like to try to figure these things out. It's a good brain exercise.

    And sometimes, things I hate at first grow on me over time as I learn how to appreciate them.

  24. Scott, I finally stopped following Nathan's blog so I understand what you mean.

  25. I like to stay open-minded about new things (genres, styles, etc.) in particular. We all know lots of examples of great artists and writers not being appreciated in their time because their works were not following the familiar standards of the time.

    Works that break the rules can do so either because they are shoddy crap, or because the creator is a genius ahead of the game. Even though I'm pretty sure most of pop entertainment falls into the former category, it's always worth taking a second look.

    P.S. I just went back and read your whole conversation. You guys make me laugh.

  26. Jeannie, we're known for our hilarity over here.

  27. Davin has the most hilarity, though Michelle's hilarity brings out the color of her eyes. My hilarity often hides under the couch, where it collects shiny things and cigarette butts to build a nest. Davin got his hilarity off a boat. Michelle built her own hilarity. I often ask to borrow it, but though she's willing to share, she won't let me take it out of her sight.

  28. Michelle won't share her hilarity because of her secret elitism.

  29. Scott: You're always clear as a bell...unless you're as clear as mud and then we all believe it's pure genius, which oftentimes it is, but sometimes not, but sometimes it's hard to tell and this just proves your point above about intentions...

    Was the unclear enough?

    You don't have a dog.

    Jeannie: YOU ARE AROUND! I sent you an email asking for your address if you want me to send you Cinders anytime soon...did you not get the email?

    Anyway, yes, I love how you put this. I think some people are ahead of the game and they show up later as new groups of people discover their genius. It's interesting how we base "something good" on how many people or which specific groups of people define how good it is. This is delving into the "what is art" question I won't go there today.

    The Rest of You: I will gladly pass my hilarity around. I didn't know I had any. 100% of the time I think I'm being stupid and I just desperately hope someone will laugh. This is why I don't write humor. I have hazel eyes. Or green. They seem to change, but my D.L. says I have green so we'll go with that. Green humor. ;)

    See, I'm not funny.

  30. Green humor is only bad if it's also viscous.

  31. Green humor recycles well.

    My clarity ate my dog.

  32. It doesn't sound like I should be passing my green humor around to anyone...

    Don't mind us. Feel free to step around our little conversation and leave a comment actually pertaining to the post...

  33. I will do no such thing.

    Michelle, I've been out of town, but I'll check my e-mail now and get back to you! Cinders in my mailbox, yes!

  34. Yeah, I don't want any green humor on the Martha's Vineyard carpet. The yacht washes off cleanly, though.

    Okay, I'll stop contributing to the delinquency of the comments thread now. :)

  35. Jeannie: Yay! I'll package it up now. :)

    Nevets: Good thing. I was about to kick you out of here! Ahem...

  36. I do need to sit and enjoy the things I read better and remember there are some things that are just fun. =)

  37. Great post and interesting comments. I don't know if it is so much having high expectations versus how we perceive something. For the most part I read books and watch tv, expecting to be entertained. A way to escape from reality. If I'm not entertained, then yeah, I feel like it's been a waste of my time.

    I don't try to read into the story line, just take it as is. Whereas my husband looks for the meaning. We can watch the same show and while I find it entertaining, he'll see what he considers someone's agenda. Something political, etc.

    I don't ask myself - Is it the author's intent to entertain or is it to make a point? However, if there's a blatant, obvious bias to a story, I'll probably quit reading it. I don't mind politics or gender issues as long as it is part of the story.

    My reading has changed a bit since I started to write. Now when I don't like something, it isn't because of the writing, it's because I don't like the story line or find fault with the characters.

  38. I for one have a very serious opinion to contribute here.

    Vulcans are overrated.

    (This will make absolutely no sense to anyone who didn't read all the comments but so be it...)


  39. I hate myself for saying it but I'm also a member of the I Hate My Story club...but then, I'm not sure I'd want to be a member of the I Love My Story group...they're generally the group that will fail in the end.

  40. I'm pretty good and can read wide varieties, because well unless its really dry, I'm good or unless its really bad with misspellings and such then I usually walk away happy with what i read.

  41. Carolyn: Yes, there are readers out there that do enjoy so many things, and it always makes me jealous!

    Robin: Great point about perceiving things. That's a good twist to this, for sure. I think many things like marketing can bias our perceptions, too, so it's good to be aware of all that and adjust accordingly.

    Bru: They are? But they have pointy ears!

    dbalehane: Haha, I'm in that category much too often, but that's a great, great point about loving your work too much. I think a good balance is to keep it real and understand that even if you dislike your writing at some point, you still realize that it can be better and that you will get it better.

    Summer: You're one of those I envy!

  42. There was a time I had a bit of a crush on T'Pring...

    ...before I was the author of dark, introspective, character-driven suspense fiction you know today, of course. Way before. Way way way before.

  43. I think I agree with you Michelle. I like to see things done to the best of their ability and when I see a book or a movie that could have been so much better it frusterates me but I also know people who can't enjoy anything because they always think they could have done something better and they won't let anyone around them just enjoy things. That is also frusterating. For my own work I try not to ask myself whether I love it or hate it. (because of course I love it and hate it equally which is so much better than appathy but gives me a headache to think about). Asking a writer whether they like their work is a bit like asking a teenage girl if she thinks she's pretty. There is't a right answer. I just do the best I can and let readers draw their own conclustions. Sometimes I'm surprised how easily they are pleased but I don't argue with them. Sometimes I think they just didn't get it. I don't argue with them then either. Neither response is going to make me change the work itslef.
    I think I've gotten off topic. There must be a topic imp on this board today. . .

  44. You have to read Tomorrow When The War Began - one of the best YA series around!

  45. I kind of fall in the middle. I think that one should apply standards soon in the book to prevent time consuming rewrites later.

    I ended up self-editing so much that it killed my productivity. Finally I lost patience, stopped the book and started it again from scratch - using pen and paper.

    Now I have to stick with what I have written (strikthroughs aren't allowed) while the story flows along with or without me. Basically I'm writing everything that comes to mind, checking that I don't make plotholes. The quality just improved by itself.

    So basically I'm all about just letting go and enjoying the process, but I need to see at least potential of quality in my writing...

  46. Boat. Boat, boat, boat. Boat. Boat. Boat. Boat, boat, boat, boat.


  47. Sorry. That previous comment was really uncalled for.

    What I meant to say was that I am completely manic-depressive on this matter. Yesterday, I loved my book. Today, I read a negative review -- of a completely different book, which I have never read -- but it made me feel down on my book anyway. The reviewer said the mc was a whiny wimp.

    In the alternate universe that is my brain, the reviewer was somehow talking to me about my character and I had a panic attack. No one is going to like my book because the main character is a whiny wimp.

    I believe this is the kind of mental self-flagellation Michelle meant to point out was nonsense.

    Ohgods, but what if my character is a whiny wimp?!

  48. Nevets: Niiiice.

    Taryn: Such a great, great point about loving and hating your work at the same time! I think it's important to feel that, though, because it fosters good ground for growing.

    words: I haven't even heard of that! I'll have to go check it out. :)

    Jolene: Glad you enjoyed!

    Misha: Sounds like you've found a great process that works for you! I can over-self-edit, as well, but I am getting better at just letting myself write and trusting in my instincts more.

    Tara: I'm laughing so hard I can't even read your other comment!!!!!!!!!


    Uncalled for, yes, but still very funny. Hehehe. Okay, onward...

    That's exactly what I was pointing out, yes. Don't read any more negative reviews, and if the point of your story is that your character is a whiny whimp, well, so what. If he/she grows and changes by the end, then it won't matter! Either way, don't beat yourself up. Please. :)

  49. I totally know what you mean. I ask very little of a movie except that it entertains me, so I'm usually much happier exiting a film than my brother, a film buff who asks a lot of films.
    On my last draft of the Thief Book, I gave up trying to add a romantic flair that hadn't been working in previous drafts. It feels much more real now that I've stopped forcing it.
    Good post.


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