Rethinking Your Novel: The Rationalization of Mediocrity

The seventh in a series of posts on what elevates a story to greatness.

Contrary to how adamantly I pound the metaphoric table as I offer my views on structure and the principles of narrative, nothing about this stuff is an exact science. 

Writing is like any other form of art and entertainment – getting it onto a major public stage is subject to the influence of trends and the very human assessment of those whose job it is to anticipate them.

And who get fired when they don’t.  Which makes them very, very picky.

If you had a religious thriller in the inbox when The Davinci Code hit, your chances of publication were orders of magnitude greater than if you mailed it off as part of the reactive wave of been-there-done-that submissions hoping to cash in on that juggernaut. 

My own novel – written before Davinci hit – experienced such a fate.  It’s out now, but it took five years for the door to open.

It’s like figure skating or gymnastics or even a beauty pageant.  There are indeed standards and expectations that seem to be precise, but – based on results – at times these ideas seem like a moving target.

When someone like Nelson Demille ends a #1 bestselling novel by having all the evidence go up in smoke because it happened to be in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9-11, it calls everything we know about storytelling into question.

But don’t be fooled.

Chasing the Money

When an author establishes a certain amount of fame and brand equity based on sales, they suddenly have different standards than the rest of us.   

Ever notice how the work of some (an unnamed few) big name authors seems to have been stronger in the beginning of their career?  And yet, with what may seem like complete and utter mediocrity – and there are many exceptions here, the vast majority of successful long-term careers earn their qualitative keep – they keep publishing while your vastly superior work continues to get tossed under the bus.

Or so it seems at the time.  The good news is… you may be absolutely right.

Such qualitative abberations on the part of the rich and famous manifest in two ways.

First, when they turn in a manuscript that needs work – even if it basically sucks – the publisher will work with them to fix it.  Whatever that means.

And in that case they don’t spend years polishing and revising – like we do – they spend only long enough to get it to a point where it blends in without any glaring weaknesses.

You and I don’t get that accommodation.  We just get rejected.

The other way is that the standards of execution are much lower.  A famous author can get away with plot points in the wrong place, fuzzy lines between contextual parts, even a rescued hero or a deus ex machina that a school kid could recognize.

The Illusion of Competence

And therein resides a huge risk for those of us who are reading these novels and deconstructing these movies in an effort to learn and understand the principles of effective storytelling.

Sometimes it’s like trying to learn singing by listening to a Bob Dylan record.  Or seeking to learn golf by watching Arnold Palmer swing a club, which looked as if someone had stashed a bag of tees where the sun doesn’t shine.

I frequently hear from readers who seemingly challenge the structural principles with a sentence like this: I was reading (insert famous author name here), and from what I can tell the first plot point doesn’t happen until the middle of the book, and the hero’s journey began on page 4.  Does that mean this is okay?

In a word, no.

Don’t imitate Stephen King or Dan Brown.  Or Arnold Palmer.  Ever.

It also means something else. 

Half the battle of deconstructing and analyzing stories is the ability to know what you’re looking for and being able to recognize it when you see it on the page or on the screen.

Remember, we don’t get that free famous author pass.

As a learning exercise, it is as valuable to spot a mistake as it is to recognize competence.  And trust me, there are plenty of mistakes in a lot of published work out there.

There’s a reason American Idol uses Randy, Kara and Simon as judges. 

They’re pros.  They get it.  They know it when they see and hear it.

And yet – which you’d know if you’re watching this year’s crop of finalists – even they allow sub-par talent to reach the big leagues.

Because like writing, singing is not an exact science.

The result of literary hero worship is often a rationalization of writing that fails to demonstrate a well-honed command of craft. 

Michael Jordan shot and made a free throw in an NBA game with his eyes closed.  Show me the coach who teaches his young players to do things that way and I’ll happily concede that the principles of great storytelling don’t work.

It may sound harsh, but there are only two words that apply to someone who rationalizes a departure from fundamental principles because an author they admire seems to have gotten away with it: ignorance… and naiveté.

Both can be deal killers.  Or better, career killers.

Rather than spotting a variance and trying to defend or rationalize it in the name of art or something validated by fame, the enlightened author uses that opportunity to recognize an aberration… and learn from it.  

That simple shift turns ignorance and naiveté into working smart.

And because there’s nothing simple about what we’re tying to do when we set out to sell what we write in an imprecise market dictated by the judgment of folks who may not be any better at it than you – who are driven almost exclusively by the pursuit of gross revenue, for which, ironically, the only standard is the very same set of storytelling principles you are pursuing – that’s the best tool any of us have.

Work smart.

That includes your pursuit of knowledge, as well as your actual writing.

People who fight off the truth, who rationalize exceptions and try to make conventional wisdom wrong or mundane, separate themselves from growth.

Challenge, yes.  Just make sure you understand the landscape before you throw down.

Sometimes working smart involves not only rethinking your work, but rethinking how you go about learning the craft itself.

 If you’d like to assess that I know from where I speak — also a less-than-precise science — I invite you to read the reviews of my latest novel here.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

8 Responses to Rethinking Your Novel: The Rationalization of Mediocrity

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    Something that has always saddened me is how many people need to hear advice like this, and not just writers. Many would be tech entrepreneurs, as an example of another group I have interest in, have similar reactions. “Oh such and such? That’s crap I can knock together something just as good in a weekend!” As though just making something as good as the established player will get you enough sales to live on.

    Honestly, from my viewpoint at least, it seems like a lot of people who dream of escaping the dreary world of 9-5 think they just have to TRY, and everything will fall into place. Though I’m not sure which is worse, the ones who say that, and then fail, or those who say that, then never try at all?

    About the only group I can think of that seems to have any clue of the reality is a lot of would be Sports Pros. After all, they have to survive the process of getting through the lower tiers and those structures first, from little league to high school to Div I college, then either the minor leagues or straight to the pros, depending on the sport.

    Makes me wonder if similar concepts for writers (how you would pull this off, I don’t know) would be worthwhile. Minor leagues of writing? Getting called up to AAA league?

  2. Rob

    I deconstructed the movie – Brothers – on my website: … this movie was difficult to dismantle, but I think I ripped the spine out of the story.

    I enjoy breaking down movies; the relationships between the many story elements REALLY come into focus when I approach a story as a student.

    I highly recommend the exercise.

  3. Rob

    @ Patrick – We often dislike in others the flaws we see reflected in ourselves. Success isn’t guaranteed in any venture, but if something moves you, motivates you, inspires you – whatever – even if the source of that motivation is just to escape the 9-5 lifestyle, who cares … a person’s dream shouldn’t sadden you for any reason. Life is short … remove the stick.

  4. Rob

    I meant to put – sorry, I’m not used to the change.

  5. nancy

    There’s a good lesson in today’s posting. The proof of your main point–with fame, junk survives–is in a famous novel series:
    A is for: Acceptable (I would guess)
    H is for: How did you ever get this far?
    R is for: Really? You’re up to R! Really?

    PS: You must be an early riser. I got today’s posting at 7:15!

  6. I think part of what happens with published authors (since I know a few) is that once they’re under deadline, they can’t polish the heck out of a work like we would. At some point, the editor says “good enough”. Even if they want to change/fix something, they may not be given the time to do it.

    Either way, good advice, as always.

  7. I’m occasionally asked why I buy novels from the supermarket that are just one notch above crap. “They sell!” I reply. They’re the ones I buy to deconstruct, to see if they answer the question “Why the hell did this one make it out of the slush pile!” I even bought a few James Patterson and Nora Roberts books out of curiosity because they felt like they’d fit the architecture you describe.

    Of course I read good books too, and the odd book that doesn’t fit your structure, but the latter usually stand out because of exceptionally beautiful writing or exquisite, unique talent. Even then, if a maverick book doesn’t follow your character, arena and empathy guidelines or doesn’t have a compelling, satisfying structure, I don’t persevere with it.

    I used to be a mentor coach, helping already good life coaches become certified, masterful coaches. In order to do that, I had to make candidates very aware of what the examiners were expecting to hear in the recorded sessions they submitted, and how the exam standards defined mastery. I also had to convince candidates that they had to get over their resistance to performing and jumping through hoops, as they saw it. “Don’t attempt the exam, then, if you don’t think they’re worthwhile hoops,” was my response.

    Your approach, Larry, not only improves our ability to jump through the hoops of publishers’, producers’ and the public’s expectations, it improves our writing, and that’s why I always think of this site as one that helps good writers become masterful writers.

  8. Reconized virtuosos didn’t get where they are (were, if deceased) by copying. They learned the basics, practiced them and adapted as necessary to fit their bodies (in a physical art such as musical performance).

    While learning the basics, there is quite a bit of learning by example. “Hold the violin like this. Curve your fingers so the tips are on the string. Your left elbow should be under the center of the violin body. The violin should be parallel to the floor.”

    Once you’ve got some of these basics in as a “training pattern” which is conscious and under your control rather than a “habit” which is not under your control, you can adapt them to work the best for you.

    The last video I saw of Issac Stern (violinist) showed his violin pointing somewhat down. “Gee, if I do it that way, I can get $500,000 per performance.” Flunk!

    Some of an author’s writings are “better” than others, as Larry pointed out. Some might be pot-boilers and don’t give you quite the emotional experiences as others. If that happens, your job is to find out why. Concept not as high? Sloppy structure? Characters a bit flat? By now you probably have a good grasp of at least what Core Competencies you should be looking at. If a story “hurts” you because it’s not as good as some of the author’s others, you can find out why. You can end up with positive “do this” rather than “don’t do that.” Always go for the positive “do” rather than the negative “don’t do.”

    So, is there anything you can copy? Sure. Get Larry’s Story Structure Demystified, his 101 Tips and his Three Dimensions of Character. Read and save all his posts on doing a sysnopsis and a deconstruction. Now you’ve got something to copy and work with; soon you can find your own drumbeat that works for you.

    Get in your Six Core Competiencies, skill at your production tools and the story structure as positive virtures. Then, just maybe, you too can be successful enough to write and get paid well for pot-boilers.

    Go write something.