Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Difference Between a Good Book and a Great One

In the course of my checkered history in publishing I’ve dealt with a whopping number of egos, personalities, talents and not so talented types and I can tell you for certain that if there’s anything all publishing folks have in common, be they writer, agent, editor or publisher—it’s the quintessential search for The Holy Grail of the industry, a REALLY GREAT BOOK, hereinafter referred to as an RGB.

Now because of the various egos involved, all the agents, editors, writers and publishers will go through a perfectly enormous of amount of chest- thumping, posturing, bean- counting and opinion-mongering about just what constitutes an RGB. Any number of experienced and not-so-experienced people are only too happy to pipe up and offer advice about producing that hottest of properties. They will tell you that it’s a matter of capturing the “bestseller formula”, of plot, luck, timing, subject matter, category, perfecting your craft, finding your audience, establishing a social platform, adequate editing, exquisite marketing, a picture perfect format; who you know, not what you know; and last but not least, a great cover design.

In point of fact, all of the above contribute to, but do not necessarily constitute ,the RGB. A really fine fictional craftsman can find fans and sell copies without ever getting credit for having written an RGB. A brilliant marketer can make hay while the proverbial sun shines, hold live internet chats and willing authors will be enthralled with tales of his or her success. But it doesn’t mean they have written an RGB.

In my younger days, I devoted no end of effort into discovering the secret to producing the RGB: What IS that elusive thing that makes the publisher buy it, makes the public hanker for it, and makes your agent rich enough to retire to the Hamptons simply because he or she “discovered “it?

The only answer I ever managed, after millions of hours of research and countless hours of writing, paying my publishing dues and so forth was, hmmm--perhaps all these experts spend their off hours reading tarot cards and entrails? I mean, who knew?
Many years later, I’m beginning to discover that I might have gotten closer to the truth than I’d imagined. Because if there’s anything that RGB’s have in common with the business of publishing it is, that like tarot cards and entrails, there is always something about them that depends to a large extent on intuition.

The psychologist Carl Jung defined intuition as "perception via the unconscious" while Thomas Merton said the artist has a subjective identification with an object that is intensified and so can "see" the object's spiritual reality.

Any writer makes a host of essentially intuitive choices in the course of writing a book, of course. But it’s not so much the ability to “write what you know” that defines a great book, it’s the ability to tap your intuition and write what we ALL know that really counts. What readers respond to without always knowing why, is that spiritual reality that goes beyond the specifics of plot or formula or character and enters the realm of our common experience as human beings.

For a writer, the real key to what we call the creative process lies in that moment when those characters stop doing and saying what you want them to do and start moving through your story on their own. It lies not so much in your ability to write from a well constructed outline, but to depart from it. That takes courage, a certain amount of skill and a fair command of your craft, but it also takes the ability to really listen to that inner voice.

So the next time you find yourself obsessing over how many words you’ve written today, or whether Marcie’s eyes are the same color on page 230 as they were on page 12; or what the next wave in paranormal fashion might consist of, take a step back and read between those lines. What you find there is almost more important than the words on the page.

It isn’t magic—but it’s close.

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