Criticism is the only way you can improve as a writer.
It meant somebody actually read the book, and cared enough to review it.
The only thing about it that made me feel bad is that I’m sorry I couldn’t deliver a better experience to that reader. If somebody takes the trouble to buy and read something I wrote, I want them to enjoy it. So, dear reader, know that I will do better with my next book, thanks in part to your input.
This brings me to my second point, which is that I try to get in touch with and thank all my readers, whether they like the book or not. Reading a book takes time and costs money, and I appreciate that they are willing to invest both in mine.
But, thanks to the nature of the product, it’s hard to get find out who my readers are, unless they go out of their way to tell me. This is rare. When was the last time you wrote to some author to tell them what you thought of their book? Most people never write a review at all, let alone contact the author.
Also, my publisher has a strong policy against collecting user data. This makes sense, because users hate having their data collected. They worry that it will be sold, or that they will lose their privacy. That is totally understandable. Before I got into making and selling products, I felt the same way. I hate the idea of some company gathering information on me.
Once I started selling things, I saw the other side of the issue. That is, when you sell stuff–books, apps, whatever–it’s helpful to know who is buying it and why. That way, you can figure out what drives sales, and get more people to buy your product.
So, the question is: how to gather that information from your users (readers, in my case) without seeming like a creepy, intrusive, dystopian corporation?
This book is probably the single most significant and influential book for my intellectual development. It changed the way I thought about fiction. When I talk about motifs and imagery and thematic coherence in my reviews of novels, movies, TV shows, and yes, even video games–that is Wren’s influence.
Without this book, I might not have ever learned the critical skills needed to appreciate dramatic art the way that I do. I’m not saying everyone’s reaction to it will be the same–it’s probably just a function of it being the first piece of critical writing I ever read–but nevertheless, I can’t overstate how much it shaped my thinking. It influenced me tremendously as a writer of fiction as well–after all, you can’t criticize fiction if you aren’t willing to put your ideas into practice, and hold yourself to the same standard you hold others.
But enough about how it completely altered my life. You’re here because you want to know if it’s any good.
Answer: yes, it is very good, although I disagree with Wren on a few points.
A Most Ingenious Paradoxis a critical analysis of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wren’s thesis is that each one contains a central theme, usually about Love, that is supported by all the lyrics, dialogue and music. Wren argues that this underlying thematic element is the reason for the incredible staying power of the operas.
For example, the conflict of Love vs. Duty is a theme that occurs in at least 9 of the operas, and Wren argues that it is not fully realized until Yeomen of the Guard. (The only G&S opera with an unhappy ending.)
Wren’s thesis is that the endurance of the operas is due to their powerful central themes rooted in human nature. Wren points out that scholars have long given the same reason for the longevity of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a good case, offering extensive examples of how all the elements in each opera tie together to reinforce a thematic point–or don’t, in the case of less successful operas.
Still, there are some objections that can be raised to this idea. For example, if Ruddigore is vastly more thematically coherent and developed than H.M.S. Pinafore–as Wren argues it is—then why has Pinafore been more popular, from its original run to the present day? Wren makes some effort to explain this, but never quite does.
(For the record: Ruddigore is my favorite of all the operas, and Pinafore among my least favorites, even though it was the first one I ever heard. But while I agree with Wren’s analysis, there is just no way to argue Ruddigore is more popular. This suggests that perhaps the thematic element isn’t what determines a G&S opera’s fortunes.)
Then there is the problem of The Mikado, which is Gilbert and Sullivan’s all-time greatest hit, and Wren has to admit it is not as thematically sophisticated or emotionally deep as the operas either before or after it. Wren writes: “The opera has something of the charm of a clever clockwork… [T]he ingenuity of the machinery is so remarkable, so flawlessly meshed, that it remains a source of joy on many repeated viewings.”
He’s right; and it would be hard to find any G&S fan who didn’t like The Mikado. But where does that leave Wren’s central argument? If the most enduring of the operas doesn’t contain the things he says make an opera endure, the whole thing looks shaky.
Re-reading it now, for the first time in about a decade, I realize I don’t–and never did–know if Wren’s main thesis is right or wrong. And I don’t care. What I do know is that it is an absolutely brilliant piece of critical analysis. Wren’s masterful critique of what went wrong in Utopia, Limited should be required reading for all authors and dramatic critics. It is worth learning about the opera just to be able to understand that chapter.
Of course, if you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan at all, you have to familiarize yourself with their work before the book will even be intelligible. Obviously, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love G&S, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you won’t understand this book.
For anyone familiar with the operas, however, I consider it a must-read.
I was asking the old “can it happen here?” question, and trying to come up with a way that it might. I have read about the way various dictators came to power, particularly Napoleon Bonaparte, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, and those were all major influences on Preston’s plot in the book.
But Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin were all members of political/ideological movements. The extent to which they agreed with the original goals of their political movements varied, but they all at least used political movements to seize power. I wanted Preston to be somebody who was not a member of any political movement. I wanted a crazy but very intelligent person who was capable of largely cloaking his madness except to people who knew him well.
The idea of Preston being in the military was based mainly on Napoleon, and also to a degree on Julius Caesar, because that command structure and loyalty was something they exploited to take over the government. But Preston’s methods and his cruelty are more based on Caligula, Hitler and Stalin.
One idea I didn’t explore as much as I wanted to, but vaguely hinted at, was the idea that Preston is getting so out of control that his loyal followers are dwindling, and he is coming to rely more and more heavily on combat automatons to do his bidding.
The other thing I wanted to add was a small humanizing touch. Preston is close to being a complete monster (I actually toned him down a little from early drafts, believe it or not) and that can get tiresome. So I wanted to have a little bit of a hint that he hadn’t always been this way–something happened to him.
Strong villains are tough to write, mostly because it is easy to be lazy and let them be evil with no explanation. At the same time, I didn’t want to delve too much into his motivation, because that removes the mystery and takes away from the intimidation factor. I tried to give the reader just enough clues to imagine his motives for themselves.
Doescher’s treatment fixes these problems. Most notably, it fixes the character of Anakin Skywalker. In Doescher’s version, Skywalker seems like he actually cares about Padme Amidala. This really helps the romance between them. (I know, you would think this would be obvious, but apparently it wasn’t to Lucas.)
That’s not the only improvement–all of the dialogue is much better when done in the style of the Bard.
The irony is that Lucas has always defended his awkward script by calling it “stylized dialogue”. Well, Doescher’s dialogue is even more stylized; but what’s more is that it’s good. It trips off the tongue.
What Lucas should have done was give his story outline–which is very strong, with its political machinations, epic battles, and forbidden romance–to Doescher or someone like him, who could give it a fittingly poetic script to match. Then maybe put the exceptionally talented cast under the direction of a Shakespearean director (say, Sir Kenneth Branagh?) and they would have really had something. It would have been stunning.
The prequels are not bad–they just needed a better script.
Maynard and Brett sat outside on the steps that led into the headquarters. Brett was studying schematics of a sniper rifle on his tablet. Maynard stared straight ahead, deep in thought.
“I’ve received no communication of any kind from anybody at the Bureau,” muttered Brett. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Yeah, it does;” said Maynard slowly. “This is a Dead Zone. They are blocking any signal they don’t want getting in.”
Brett nodded. “And most likely any they don’t want getting out, too.”
“But D.C. would know it was being blocked. Any decent Intel machine would—”
“They want it blocked,” she said. “They don’t want to know, and he doesn’t want to tell them. It’s better for everyone that way. I’ve seen it a million times—I’ve just never been on the wrong end of plausible deniability before.”
The two agents sat in silence for a minute.
“They have to be listening to us,” said Brett.
“Probably,” said Maynard. “But they don’t give a damn what we say. They figure there’s nothing we can do.”
The first time Brett speaks, I used “muttered” to indicate he was still looking at the rifle schematic, and not thinking fully about talking. When Maynard responds, it becomes “said” because now they are just having a conversation. And I dropped “said” or any variants after that, and left it to the reader to follow.
Leonard had some other interesting rules. I took particular note of these two:
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
I thought there must be some other problem. So I wrote a novella that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.
Was Leonard just wrong? Seems unlikely–he was an award-winning novelist. I am guessing it’s more that once you are a really good writer, it doesn’t take much effort to describe someone or something. It barely feels like you are doing anything when you know exactly what words to use. There have been great authors (John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who could take things that were not very interesting in themselves, and write gorgeous descriptive passages about them.
One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to. It was not an accident that there is so little description. I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.
Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.
That sounded good to me. And hell, I thought, it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners. Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it. So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.
Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake. Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks. But all I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.
Fair enough. So, how is it best to describe stuff? Should I say:
The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery. A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness. A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.
It was a dark cemetery. The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.
The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene. The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.
“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say. Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night. And it’s creepy. But what’s the best way of doing that? Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best. And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?