When I first started to write fiction, and from what I’ve read of others starting, we often don’t realize that everything has to add up. As I started to say and deviated, when I first started writing fiction I would include random things because I observed them in fiction I’d read; but didn’t understand what they did. We get the effect, but we can’t explain it, and we don’t understand that everything is done for effect and that the point is to make all the effects add up to one single effect. Do you know the quality of that kind of prose of the writer who writes without understanding how it all works together? It is called incoherence, and makes for tough going.
I’ve been reading a survey of Church History that also has this problem, which is weird. It was heavy on facts and light on meaning. There were not a lot of stories told, and it was a survey of 2000 years of history. There was no ordering to the facts other than chronological, mostly, and that only results in Henry Ford’s idea of history (just one damn thing after the other). Of course, the problem can affect anything. One of the things not realizing that everything has to add up to one thing affects is sermons. Persons fill their time with various loosely associated things, but they don’t have the coherence of adding up to one thing. I certainly never understood that one’s sermon should say only one thing until one day a friend complained about it, inadvertently revealing to me the secret. She had perhaps understood it because unlike the rest of us in seminary, she was debarred from taking classes on homiletics, being, of course, not male. And she was right: coherence is unity, and unity is oneness, and oneness is when all things come together, can be understood as belonging together, for one purpose.
So, returning, I would write about the morning shining through the trees on my story’s chap, when it was of no consequence that is was morning, that there was sun shining or that trees even existed. This is not a requirement exclusively for poetry, but for everything: because to the degree that what you do is not coherent, it is incoherent. Admittedly, incoherent is an effect, but it has limited uses.
Now you can get away with some incoherence in your story, but you’ll pay for it. In fact, I would at this point be willing to go so far as to say that coherence is the one criterion that makes sense of all the other criteria, giving them . . . coherence. The better the thing is, the more coherence it exhibits, the better its effects all contribute to hierarchically greater effects all properly subordinate and obviously so to the chief end of the work at hand.
I remember, returning, a helpful reader telling me that what I needed was more of a sense of place. She was perhaps slightly off; what I needed was not more of a sense of place, but places with better characteristics. And the reason was simply that otherwise the places were not worth being at, had no consequence for the story. She was right, essentially. In other words, the places in your story have to add up to the one thing you are saying or you don’t have either a story or a proper setting.
I first realized this—very gradually, I might say—from reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I was able to discern dimly Susana Clarke used atmosphere to achieve a bringing of disparate random elements into meaningful mention. I tried it and realized it helped me see what to include and what to exclude, or at least how to make things work one with the other better. I was fumbling my way toward the proper and exalted view of coherence that some people automatically have. I have found it takes a lot of work, but at least I’m feeling I’ve advanced so far as to have got the theory. I’ve had to realize this about poetry—very, very gradually—and am now turning my dim perception of it on all of life.
I think perhaps we readers of fantasy have it least, simply by reading bad stuff and reveling too much in it. Better literary taste would help, discernment. I say it because of what I said above. We enjoy these elements, we don’t understand why, we read books in which the elements are present but not as enjoyable; and then I think what we do is to trick ourselves into thinking we still enjoy them as much, we lose this true and mystical doctrine of coherence of mine from view, and so we write what we do. It makes for writing only the author can be enthusiastic about, where neat ideas and random curiosities are the only commendable thing to discern. And the funny thing is, it can all be boiled down to one explanation: the unexamined life is not worth living.