I was having a conversation with a friend – am still having it, in fact – and an interesting point came up in the discussion.
The subject of conversation was a webcomic and my thoughts are, at least to begin, framed around that context. A long-running comic just came to a close to mixed opinions from some of its followers. I admit I stopped reading this particular story a few years ago due to lack of time, rather than any perceived fault, but Maggie’s been following it through and I found it really interesting listening to her analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the last final pages.
As we debated the duty of an author to respect their story and the impact writing one plotline over the course of a decade, something occurred to me: in all of the conversations I’ve had about comics with various people over the years, I don’t think we’ve ever found ourselves talking about the evolution of the artist as a writer. I’ve talked about the calibre of writing in general, artists’ strengths and weaknesses with regard to plot development or characterization or dialogue. I’ve also ranted for probably the equivalent of hours about the artistic learning curve, the commonly-seen early days where the comic’s art bears only a passing resemblance to what the artist will eventually be able to produce with the right combination of practice, self-education, and willpower.
But I’ve never sat down and looked at how they grew as a writer of the stories they tell.
I have done this with writers of other media, I know. I’ve developed a tendency to inhale authors’ entire body of work in one large sitting, and this has made me particularly aware of their journey as craftsmen. While I was reading Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, I subjected several friends to an impromptu analysis of the change in his style, and reading Brandon Sanderson’s novels in the order in which they were published has been incredibly enlightening, as well as enchanting.
As I think about it, though, it occurs to me that this is a fairly recent trend in my own mind. It is, I think, even rarer outside of my head.
People naturally apply standards to things. This is good, it makes sense. Without standards, how could I judge things and then feel superior? And how would they know what date to stamp beside those ‘best before’ things in supermarkets? Maybe best not to think too much about that last one.
The point is, or at least should be, that we all have it clear in our heads that there exist in life sliding scales of adequacy. Milk is good until it starts doing that thing where it separates and smells funny and runs down the drain with disconcerting -gloop– noises. A person is a better basketball player if they can get more basketballs through more hoops, a better driver the fewer orange cones and/or pedestrians they accidentally knock over during the course of an average day. The artist whose subjects are recognizable is probably better than an artist whose subjects aren’t, unless of course they’re aiming for that kind of abstract expressionism, at which point they’ve probably lost me a while ago.
Sometimes, as in the case with art, we accept this scale as a large entity with many stages. Someone can be a better or worse painter than someone else, a better or worse skier. Since almost everyone is capable of applying colour to canvas in some way or other, it’s very hard to say that someone can’t paint; we talk instead about level of skill, strengths and weaknesses, style. Other things, using Microsoft Word or driving a car, come with either implicit or explicit checklists. If you can do everything required, you’ve graduated to the top of the scale. Anything less than that, and you’re stuck on the bottom in the ‘needs some improvement’ box.
For some reason, I think we tend to see writing as belong to the latter type of ability.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard talk of someone’s ability to write described in the binary. People with published works are frequently referred to not as authors but simply as writers, Can-Do’s, as though the fact that they’ve been published is just the proof of their ability. When I say that I’m a writer, people very rarely ask me in what capacity I apply this term; they tend to smile enthusiastically, often with that little bit of distance in their eyes as though by admitting that I’ve just indicated that I’ve accomplished something that sets me definitively beyond their realm of direct experience. Occasionally, someone wonders if I’ve been published, when I plan to.
I’ve never heard that kind of language used for a bowler, or a softball player. I’ve heard musicians asked if they’re in a band, if they sing as a hobby or part of a choir or maybe professionally. A tennis player is more likely to be asked if she plays in a league or at a gym than whether or not she’s seeded.
But writing, like driving, like computer repair, seems to have a checklist floating somewhere behind it. An invisible checklist, whose entries change from person to person, but a checklist that is no less sacrosanct in spite of that.
One of the most common explanations I hear from people who didn’t like Twilight is that Stephenie Meyer can’t write.
She can, obviously. She did. There are books on shelves all over the world proving it. She didn’t write the perfect novel, but saying that‘s like criticizing a mathematician for being able to recite all of pi. Sure, it’s true, but it’s true for everyone. While I didn’t particularly enjoy her books, after reading them I was quite honestly surprised by how quickly how many people were inclined to dismiss them outright. Not everyone will like everything, of course, and nobody needs to justify to me why they just don’t like something. I accept that most people don’t find dissecting novels to be as much fun as I do. But even if there’s argument over her strengths and weaknesses, it’s a bit hard to ignore almost six hundred thousand words on however many hundred pages.
It’s difficult to offer an objective explanation as to what makes a writer better than another. Facility with language, efficiency of expression, the ability to capture and convey a character or a place, and the ability to conceive of and execute engaging plotlines are all admirable traits … but we’ve all seen published authors who lack some or all of them. Even the possession of all of these traits can’t be said to define a writer in the same way that a decent three-point-turn and the ability to parallel park might define a driver. A writer can be good at the beginning, and good at the end, and a completely different at the end of a novel than they were at the beginning for all of that.
Why do are we so quick to forget that writing is a much of a journey as sculpting, or music?
What do we miss, by doing so?
In the case of the comic that prompted the discussion in the first place, I think that the artist may have suffered from failing to consider the effect her medium would have on her work. Her story was a long, slow-moving one, further slowed by the need to keep to the speed at which she could draw. Her own personal changes as a person and a writer almost undoubtedly outpaced her characters’ growth, and by choosing to tell her story in publicly accessible increments, she denied herself easy access to editing. To tell the story right, she would have had to lock herself into nigh-immobility for a decade. To grow as a writer, she would have had to be willing to make mistakes.
Can she write? Of course she can! The better question might be: and where is her writing taking her?
She wondered briefly what it might be like to make your living doing something where there was no reasonable chance of dying or getting mangled on the job.
Gwen had known from the very beginning that she wanted to go into law enforcement, had been braced for the potential consequences. Her dad had never been wounded on duty, but she remembered when she was a kid hearing that one of his friends had been shot trying to look into a simple noise complaint. People weren’t predictable at the best of times, and when the cops showed up a lot of them tended to get less reasonable. Bad enough even before you remembered that some of them basically had superpowers.
Striking out on her own might have been less risky, if she’d done the normal PI thing, surveillance photos of cheating husbands and lost jewelry, but that hadn’t been an option. Not with the things Gwen knew. She just hadn’t been brought up that way, buck-passing and all that shit.
So instead of whatever normal, stable, boring office job she probably could have landed, eight-to-five with dental and a retirement plan, she was standing outside of her fae partner’s front door aching from head to foot, with an item of unknown magical power worn as casually as any other piece of jewelry, and two probably cursed artifacts of unknown power and material value sitting in the back of her car, feeling ridiculously pleased that she hadn’t been eaten by a giant cat.
It didn’t quite feel like a normal day’s work, but Gwen was pretty sure that her definition of that concept was getting pushed further and further away from anything anyone else might recognize.