Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When Good Writing Isn't Enough

The more I write, the more I realize good writing isn't enough. I've heard the saying, "Story trumps all."

It really does.

If you're starting a new story, or even halfway through, I'd suggest looking at your story first, editing and revising that (story structure, pacing, hooks, etc) before worrying about craft-like things such as POV, adverbs, dialogue tags, backstory, etc.

Solid writing can be concrete. You can look at a sentence and "fix" it. Find the adverb. Delete the dialogue tag. Add a comma.

Some people notice great writing. But if there's not a great story to go with it, the writing doesn't matter. On the other hand, a great story doesn't need great writing to suck the reader in.

Which authors suck you in with their prose? Which authors tell such a great story that you don't even notice their prose? And if you had to choose, which author would you be?

37 comments:

Lynda Young said...

That's so true and something I've learned somewhat recently. There's no point spending hours on the "right wording" if later I'm only going to edit it all out to improve the story.

Great prose? Ray Bradbury
Great story? Stephen King
which would I be? Stephen Bradbury or Ray King ;)

Melissa said...

SOOO true. I mean, not to knock Twilight or anything but look at its success. The actual writing isn't very strong. Actually, its weak. But the story, the way she wrote it? Well, Stephenie Meyer is a story teller and thats why her books had such a monumental success. It had nothing to do with quality of her writing.

Story is the most important and starting next week... I'm working on mine!

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

Margaret Atwood and Marilynne Robinson suck me in with their prose. Corrine Hoffman tells a great story, but the prose is nothing special. I couldn't put her memoir, The White Masai down. If I had to choose I'd be Margaret Atwood. She tells a great story and her prose is stunning. :o)

Jody Hedlund said...

I like what you're saying but couldn't help comparing it to what Rachelle said on her blog today in answer to one of her questions.

She said: Do you think agents are more likely to take on work that has a great plot with writing that needs work, or great writing with a plot that needs work?
→ Great writing with a weak plot - for sure. I can help a good writer improve their plot. But teaching an average writer to be a good writer is not my job.

I personally think it needs to be both. The writing skill has to be at a publishable level (meaning the writer has studied the craft and knows the "basics.") But they must also have a story that's workable. Sure, it won't be perfect, we'll all have rewrites, but the story has to have potential too.

I think what you're saying is that, writers reach a point where their writing skill is good enough, but then need to focus on developing richer stories. And I would agree.

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

I think what Jessica is referring to regarding prose, is peotic literary deliciousness, rather than straight forward storytelling. Is that correct, Jessica? That's how I understood it, anyway.

Katie Ganshert said...

THIS IS SO TRUE!!! Sorry for shouting, Jessica, but oh my goodness, I couldn't agree more!

Here's proof....

Barbara Kingslover's prose amaze me. Astound me. Have me floating over the moon in awe at the way she can string words together so poetically. I've read the first few pages of Poison Wood Bible at least a hundred times. But I have never finished the book.

STephanie Meyer...gotta love that gal. Her writing is pretty basic. Nothing fancy. She even gets knocked by a lot of writers who think she isn't a good writer at all. But the Twilight story? Forbidden love and sexy vampires and all that? Now that sucked me right in! I've read that book at least three times (the whole thing) and I cannot believe I'm admitting to it so publicly.

Can I cheat with your question and say both? I'd like to be both. But okay, fine, if I could only pick one, I guess I'd like to be able to write a captivating story over captivating prose.

Katie Ganshert said...

And to comment on what the ever-lovely Jody said....I think it depends what the writer is going for. If it's to snag an agent, than yes, the writing should be very good. BUT, when it comes to making big sales with the general public, I think they just want to be sucked away into a great story. The writing can't be so horrible it distracts, but it can actually be very simplistic.


Jessica - do you like how I'm taking over your blog?

Terri Tiffany said...

The other day I compared Nicholas Sparks book to a Christian one I was reading. His sentence structure ect isn't all that wonderful but I read his book in two sittings--and cried.
The other? It's dragging on forever!! But the writer writes better I thought.
Story all the way!

Cheryl Klarich said...

Story, story, story!!
But ain't it grand when you get both?
Carla Stewart's Chasing Lilacs is blowing me away right now to a point where I just want to make it last. That hasn't happened in the longest time!

Jessica Nelson said...

LOL Lynda! You're too funny. :-)

Cheryl, this is the second time I've heard about Chasing Lilacs. I'm going to have to check it out. I LOVE when I don't want a story to end. Thanks so much for recommending it!

Terri, that's so very interesting. I wish we could bottle up that mysterious "thing" that makes a story suck a reader in, don't you? :-) Sorry about the dragging story. lol I hate when that happens!

Jessica Nelson said...

Melissa, yep. LOL Totally agree about Twilight. It took me fifty pages to get in, but finally I was able to ignore certain elements and got more into the story. She definitely touched a chord with millions of people. That's just amazing to me, to do that!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

What a great conversation you've started here.

I'm tired from a long day hanging with my sis yesterday, but I just wanted to add that I think Peace Like A River does both.

And I got a little sad Katie never finished Poisonwood Bible. I'll get over it.
~ Wendy

Jessica Nelson said...

Jessica, Jody, and Katie...Is it right for you all to make my brain work this early in the morning??? LOL!

Hmmm, Jody, I haven't seen Rachelle's post this morning but what you're saying is actually a relief to me because the rejections I tend to get are, You're a good writer but the story...
So that's had me thinking a lot.

I think Jessica probably pegged what I was feeling, even if I didn't say it clearly enough (I wrote the post last night--can I use that as my excues? *grin*)
I def. meant writing that surpasses publishable level. I guess I'm thinking of the kind of prose I read in The Book Thief or in The Thirteenth Tale. The sentences were SO amazing that they took my breath almost as much as the story itself.
I totally get what you're saying though Jody.

And I also think that an agent and editor may be looking for different things, sometimes. An agent (from what I understand) is ready to build a relationship with a writer. So if there's solid prose (not great, necessarily, just publishable) and an interesting story, then maybe the agent is willing to invest time in such a writer knowing it's a long-term thing??
An editor wants to be blown away, I think. I don't know if an editor cares so much about building the career of the writer. Maybe they do. It seems like Bethany House is interested in your career, but you've also chosen to write solely for them, right?
Now my brain is twisting so I'll end this comment. :-)

Jessica Nelson said...

Katie, you can take over my blog whenever you want. :-)
That's so funny about Poisonwood and Twilight. Thanks for sharing that. Also, I like your distinction between what the public wants and what publishing professionals want.

Jessica Nelson said...

Wendy, you just made me do that thing where I suck in my breath, kind of snort and snicker at the same time...What is that called?
I'm guessing you finished and loved Poisonwood? *grin*
I'm glad you're home and hope you get lots of rest today!

Jessica Nelson said...

Jody, I just read Rachelle's post, heehee, and I'm pretty sure that's the question I asked her a LONG time ago. LOL

anita said...

Awesome post as always! And so true. I used to worry so much about prose that I forgot the story. Then I'd always have a lot of fixing to go back and do. I think I'm a lot more lenient with prose now (not sloppy, just not so obssessed). Especially since I'm writing a YA, I have to keep the pacing good so my usual lush prose has to take a back seat to plot and hooks. BUT, I do hope to write a lit novel one of these days where I can pour out all of the lushness in my soul. HEH. Something like Thirteenth Tale would be a blast to write.


Great prose: Alice Hoffman and Charlotte Bronte

Great story: Charlotte Bronte

Which writer would I want to be? The wicked love child of Charlotte and Alice. HA. (Because my stuff would HAVE to be a little twisted, you know.) ;-)

Linda Kage said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. I can totally look past bad writing in a story if the plot and characters have me hooked.

Too bad agents and publishers can't seem to get past it too. But still, I'm glad I've been rejected for bad writing. At least they liked the central story. It's way easier to fix craft errors, plus their rejections give me a chance to make everything better!

patti said...

Sigh. I love so many writers, it would take all day to answer this post.

For me it HAS to be a combo of great writing and good story. My tilde mark is on the great writing. And it is SO subjective.

Isn't that the beauty of art???

Love ya, Jessica!

Patti

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Jess -

It's impossible to name my favorite author. There are too many that make my heart go pitter patter when a new title comes out. :)

While the story must be excellent, it can be ruined by the writing. It's hard to follow a story if the author is head-hopping, dumping back story, or distracting me in dozens of other ways.

Blessings,
Susan

Jolene said...

I just read both of the books from Marisa De Los Santos. It was the first time in a long time that I enjoyed the prose as much, or more, than the story.

When I'm writing? It's story first, what do I need to show about my characters so it means something when they go from point A to point B? Of course, once in a while, when I'm editing, I roll my eyes at myself over the stupid grammatical mistakes I make.

Lisa Jordan said...

After reading your post, I was going to mention Rachelle's blog, but I see Katie beat me to it.

I can forgive so-so writing if the story draws me in with compelling characters. Like others have said, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight isn't well-written by crafting standards, but the story has captured so many hearts.

Susan May Warren sucks me in with story and prose. Her books are definite keepers on my shelf. Same goes with Rachel Hauck and M.L. Tyndall.

I want to be both kinds of authors--one that writes prose AND characters that stay with readers long after the story is finished.

Deb Shucka said...

I so agree. It's all about the story.

I think The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a good example. The front of the book needed some serious editing (in my opinion), but the story of the characters was so compelling it was impossible to put the book down.

This applies to memoir as well as fiction. If the story doesn't hold together, the truth will not be heard.

Talli Roland said...

Totally agree. You can be the best writer of prose in the world, but if the story structure doesn't hold, or the concept isn't right... forget it.

Jessica Nelson said...

Anita, I love that you picked those two authors. I can absolutely see your stories being a mix of those!

Linda, I'm sorry about the rejections but I think you have a great attitude about them and attitude goes a long way in publishing. :-)

Patti, that's true about subjectivity. My idea of great writing is the lush, unique ways of saying things. But I know there are authors who have really unique, almost-curt and barebones type of voices too.

Jessica Nelson said...

Susan, I get what you're saying now that I'm a writer. Before I learned any "rules" though, I know I didn't notice those things. How do I know? *grin* Because authors I used to love, I've picked up their books now and think, what? Why pages of backstory? Look at these tags!
LOL
That's the sad side effect of being a writer, I guess. I wonder if actors do the same things when they see movies?

Jessica Nelson said...

Jolene, we all do those mistakes. *grin* I've never read Santos. I'll have to keep her in mind, thanks!

Lisa, those are all authors I've heard of but haven't read yet. Thanks for reminding me!

Jessica Nelson said...

Deb, I've heard of that book and the title has always intrigued me! Good points about story holding together, and truth.

Talli, yep. :-)

Karen Lange said...

I lean toward both, and hope that my fiction writing will someday reflect the same. As far as favorites go, there are many - Liz Curtis Higgs, James Scott Bell, L.M. Montgomery...I could go on...:)
Blessings,
Karen

Jessica Nelson said...

I loved Anne of Green Gables, and yep, Liz Curtis Higgs is a great writer. Thanks for chiming in, Karen!

Diane J. said...

I'm a sucker for a great story. Suck me in and make me forget about the dishes, the laundry, the bills that need paying. And make me laugh. I guess that's why I like Janet Evanovich. Her Stephanie Plum series always makes me laugh.

Although I love to read just about anything.

Jessie Oliveros said...

Sue Monk Kidd. Oh those metaphors.

Kelly Freestone said...

Story. Definately.
I don't know about the authors...
hmm...
I've read so many different ones lately...
I'll have to think on that one

Linda Glaz said...

Couldn't agree more...

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I didn't use to examine quality of writing until I started writing. Now, the plot and writing has to be good to get the "amazing" label from me.

But story is still so important. If I don't care about the character or think the plot is interesting, all the beautifully structured sentences in the world couldn't keep me hooked.

Glynis said...

I would like to be Louisa May Alcott, Catherine Cookson and Barbara Erskine all rolled into one. :)

I like a flow of a story. Too many descriptions can be off putting. Laurence Durrell the author of Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, wrote about the 1974 invasion. The story was real and interesting. Unfortunately for me, his descriptions got in the way, and took my mind off of what I was reading at times. It took me three attempts to read it, and it was worth it. Shame I nearly didn't read it, though.

Angie Muresan said...

Jessica, I honestly want to be both a great storyteller and a great writer. But I do agree that a good story is what most of us want to read. Beautifully structured sentences that have very little happening in them, put me to sleep.