Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cardinal rule for artists: Don't insult me

At one of my previous addresses, the local paper had a movie critic who really should have taken up another line of work.  His reviews were all well-written, grammatically correct, and provided plenty of pertinent information about the movies, but apparently he just didn't like movies.  I can't remember him ever giving a positive review to anything.  After I had noticed this, I then observed a number of other critics in different fields who followed the same pattern.  Let me assure you, you're not going to have that problem with any reviews that I write.  I am, as my wife puts, "easily amused."  I approach any work of art, be it a book, painting, comic book, movie, TV show, magazine article, song, whatever (in the rest of this post I'll be using "book" for a generic), from a standpoint of wanting to like it, and consequently I find that I usually do.  And when I don't like something, it's generally because the artist insulted me.  How did they do that?  Well, there are several ways it can be done:
  • Don't bore me.  The world is a fascinating place (and fictional worlds should be as well).  If you can't hold my interest, I'm not going to finish your book.  But note that this is as much a function of your writing skill as it is of your choice of subject matter.  I love the middle ages, but I've encountered books on the middle ages that were drier than toast.  At the other end of the spectrum, I really have no interest in transoceanic cables, but 15 years after reading it I still have fond memories of being entranced an article on the subject by Neal Stephenson.  Why?  Because Stephenson was interested in the subject and this came through in his writing; he was able to grab my attention and hold it.
  • Make your book the right length.  "Lady Madonna" is 2 minutes and 15 seconds long.  "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is 6 minutes and 40 seconds.  And they're both exactly the right length.  Readers can tell when an artist is trying to stretch a short story into a novel, or to cram a novel into a short story, and in either case the work suffers.  I know there are market factors at play here, but as a general rule, make your book as long as it needs to be, but no longer.
  • If you're pushing a philosophy, don't use it as a crutch.  If you want to use your book as a discussion of/advertisement for your particular religious, social, political, or other philosophy, that's fine.  But play fair.  If something bad should logically happen to your character because they followed the tenets of your philosophy, let them suffer the consequences.  If the facts appear to contradict your philosophy, feel free to try to make the case that this this only an apparent contradiction that is resolved by other factors in play that I'm not thinking of, but don't just ignore (or worse yet, falsify) the factors.  And whatever you don't, please, please, please don't use God, the Invisible Hand of Capitalism, the Gaia Hypothesis, or whatever philosophical concept you're basing your story around as a deux ex machina to pull your characters out of a box you've written them into.
  • When you're done telling your story, stop telling it.  Just imagine how many pointless sequels we could have been spared if artists would follow this one.  Of course, just exactly which sequels are pointless is a subject for endless conversation.  (My 2 cents:  All sequels to Home Alone and Highlander were pointless, but Karate Kid II was not.)
A perfect example of how to follow these rules is the scene in a James Bond movie where the villain has placed Bond in a death trap and Bond has to find a way to escape.
  • It's not boring.  Pretty much by definition.  I've never known anyone to say "Oh, Bond's in a death trap.  This is the perfect time to get more popcorn."
  • It's the right length.  It's long enough that tension builds up, but not so long that you feel they're drawing it out unnecessarily.
  • No philosophical crutches.  While we all know that Bond is capable of outsmarting the villain, we don't just accept this as a given.  We have to actually see Bond find a way out of the trap.
  • Stopped when it's done.  Once Bond escapes a death trap, that's the end of that part of the story.  The villain never recaptures Bond and puts him in the same situation, saying "maybe it will work this time."
So there you go, artists.  Four simple rules that, if followed conscientiously, will keep you from insulting your readers' intelligence and almost guarantee you a positive review from me.

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