by Paul D. Marks
I think Susan and Robin really hit the nail on the head in response to this question on Monday and Tuesday. (And since I’m writing this on Tuesday I haven’t yet read the other two Crim Minds, but I’m sure they will too). But I’ll see what I might be able to add to what they said.
There are really two kinds of writers…story tellers and writers.
If you look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – the go-to book for this kind of question – you’d have to assume that good writing doesn’t much matter. Great idea, not so great execution. Did it matter? No. He’s a great story teller, but not a great writer. And poor Mr. Brown, ’cause I know I’m not the only one who uses him as an example. And there’s plenty of others who we could mention here, too. But we all know the story.
Clearly we want readers turning pages. Without that we have nothing. Let’s face it, we’re writing genre fiction. We’re not writing Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest or other literary works. We want our stories to be entertaining and breezy, with intriguing characters and fast-paced, exciting plots. But what’s wrong with trying to give them a little extra polish in terms of the writing?
We all want our work to be recognized and there’s always that fine line between art and a pure entertainment. But why not go for the best of both worlds?
I find that a lot of the very popular best-selling authors have great stories, but I’m often disappointed because story isn’t everything. Sometimes the writing is flat or other elements like characterization, dialogue and plot are obvious and unoriginal. But they’ve hit on a sort of formula of storytelling that works, but is predictable and boring. And sometimes they might even have good characters and dialog and an exciting plot, but nothing that ‘stirs the soul,’ so to speak. When a book really knocks my socks off, it’s because it has all the elements, great writing, descriptions, dialog, characters and a compelling story and the soul stirring stuff.
James Ellroy seems to have hit that mark of compelling stories as well as being someone who critics like. He developed a distinctive, energetic style in the latter two books of the LA Quartet, LA Confidential and White Jazz. But then he went overboard with that staccato, short-sentence writing to the point where I couldn’t read him anymore. Though I have picked up his latest, Perfidia, and it seems that, while he’s still using that style, he’s toned it down a bit, so hopefully I can start enjoying him again. And if I’ve mentioned this before about Ellroy, sorry if I’m repeating myself.
For my Show and Tell visual example, think of the flat lighting of many TV shows and movies made for TV vs. the more sculptured lighting of theatrical movies. The lighting adds to the atmosphere and in some ways can be a character in itself – just look at any classic film noir from the 1940s.
Well-crafted writing is like the lighting that makes big-screen movies stand out from made-for-TV-movies. Sometimes the same story can seem more magical and rich when produced for the movie theater. Take a look at the original theatrical version of Double Indemnity vs. the TV remake. The latter is flat in lighting and everything else. The lighting creates a mood, just as good writing does.
For myself, I hope my writing is a compelling read and well written. I start off writing a mess of a draft. And in the second draft I start the pruning and adding and fleshing out. That continues for the next couple of drafts. But the later drafts focus more on the fine tuning, where I do try to make sure that the sentences flow and come alive. And that I use the right word. Like Mark Twain said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
The bottom line is that a marriage of storytelling and craft is the best of both worlds.
* * * * *
And please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my updated website www.PaulDMarks.com
Subscribe to my Newsletter: http://pauldmarks.com/subscribe-to-my-newsletter/
Hope to you see at the California Crime Writers Conference
(http://ccwconference.org/ ). June 6th and 7th. I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30am, along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.