Monday, June 1, 2015

A Question for Readers

"Which is more important, to tell a story that compels readers to turn pages, regardless of writing craft technique OR to spend time on each sentence, on each word, to fine tune your writing so that your prose is admired by critics and scholars?"

Hmmm, With all due respect, I think that’s a false dichotomy. My desire to tell a page-turning story in which each sentence is crafted may be part of the reason I’m not a prolific author. Many of my friends do much better at this, writing two or even three full novels a year. I can only hope I get better at it before I kick the bucket!

And, since when do scholars parse the words in genre fiction? I think the general feeling is we’re permitted into the waiting hall of the literary lounge because the best of us write in provocative, evocative language about things that really matter – crimes against the defenseless, the environment, civil societies, art, truth. If we’re admired by critics outside of the commercial fiction arena, so be it, but I haven’t met a crime fiction author yet who is waiting, hat in hand, to be dissected in an MFA program or in the New York Review of Books. Fifty years from now, a few contemporary crime writers will be elevated by the staying power of their books into the pantheon of the finest, transcending the genre because, in part, the genre itself will have changed, or the topics they wrote about will have become so critical to our understanding of the way the world works that the stories resonate widely. (Look at Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown, or Agatha Christie, who created two characters that simply will not die – in the literary sense.)

This is a question I’d love to hear readers respond to.

- from Susan


Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, I think you hit the nail on the head. Everything you say in response to the question is right on.

Gerald So said...

I just posted about this topic on Shortmystery. Technique seems more important in short stories than in novels. In shorts, each word, sentence, paragraph bears more of the story's load, and readers in turn pay more attention to each one.

That said, short story or novel, I don't think you can tell a compelling tale without some care as about your craft, how you tell it. That's what makes your words stand out from "just words".

It can't be about impressing critics. You never know what will impress them. As the adage goes, if you write a story you'd enjoy reading, chances are others will enjoy it, too.

Unknown said...

Beyond the basics (grammar, editing, and general structure), the reader in me thinks writing a compelling story with compelling characters that have something worthwhile to offer to the intended audience is what matters most. I read across the spectrum from classics to critically acclaimed contemporary works to "beach reads." Whatever your style/voice or literary tricks/techniques, as long as the writing doesn't get in the way of my reading experience, I'm happy.

Just give me something...make me feel something (could be a great cast of characters, could be a new or interesting way of looking at something, could be a good cry or exciting premise)...and I honestly don't care how you do it or if someone else appreciates the craftsmanship. Besides, what appeals to and touches one subgroup isn't necessarily and always universal.

That said, I did read a book a few years back (non-fiction) by V.S. Ramachandran called The Emerging Mind. It's based on the Reith Lectures 2003. In chapter 3 he discusses the scientific basis (and there is some) for good art. It was pretty interesting. There does appear to be some "universals" neurologically speaking that elevate good art--qualities that can be identified--and perhaps that is where an author who wants to be remembered for their art should start.

As an aspiring writer, I appreciate that although what is being said (the idea) is more important than how it is said, the latter can critically impact how well the idea is conveyed. Case in point...Hemingway's "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn." It's power and artistry (for me) ultimately comes from what it conveys (the sense of a tragedy/disappointment), but how it is said arguably makes a difference.

RJ Harlick said...

Well said, Susan. A good question. A good response.

Susan C Shea said...

Gerald, You're so right that in a 1,200-word piece, every word must count. But the amount of craft never should change!

Shaun, Thanks for weighing in as a passionate reader, and as an aspiring writer. My personal feeling is that the adjective "compelling" refers as much to the language as the plot. The most exciting, intriguing-sounding plot can become so much bland nothing if the writer isn't paying great attention to the way she uses language.

Thanks, Paul and Robin. I am looking forward to what the other CMs have to say on the topic!

Margie Bunting said...

As a reader, I have to say I need both. Of course I want the plot to be compelling, but no matter how great the story, it has to be skillfully told; otherwise I won't make it to the end. I need to know something about the characters--what they look like, what motivates them, how they feel, how they are connected to others in their life. I'm a very fast reader (retaining less than I would like), and I don't necessarily need to slow down and savor every word (although I do that sometimes where the writing is extraordinary), but I appreciate the rhythm of a story well told. It's similar to my reaction to a movie--Avengers Age of Ultron had lots of action, but I kept dozing off because there was so little personal interaction among the characters. Susan, I agree that language is a major factor--I'm a word nerd for sure, and I tend to appreciate authors who make interesting use of the English language.

Susan C Shea said...

Great comment, Margie. What you call the rhythm of the story can't be achieved by action alone, or even a swing between action and character. The underlying pulse is the language. As a writer, I would worry if readers slowed down too much to relish the words, but I would hope my language would bring a smile, a sigh, a nod of the head in passing because it strikes home by its clarity and appropriateness to the moment. Thanks for sharing your perspective.