I’ve defended literary fiction before, and I will continue to do so: language is beautiful, and there is an art to using it well.
You don’t have to be Keats or Byron, and there’s nothing wrong with functional or “workmanlike” prose, but damn, why not try to get a little poetic if you can? Why not have a little Fitzgerald or Irving rub off on you? It doesn’t have to be purple prose, or pretentious Michael Chabon stuff, but it doesn’t have to be dry and plodding either.
Hell, J.R.R. Tolkien was a beautiful wordsmith, and nobody accuses him of overdoing it.
This might be where I differ from some of my pulprev brethren, who aver that nobody cares about your writing as long as the story is good.
I can agree to a point. Sometimes a story might be good, fantastic even, but the writing is clunky to the point of distraction and it’s a chore to read.
This is where I agree with writer and blogger Kitten Holiday—the art of writing does matter, no matter your genre or milieu. Otherwise, it’s solely product which. Of course your writing is a product if you’re trying to earn a living, but even a consumer product can have artistry and craftsmanship:
Have you noticed how many writers are publishing marketable books with mass appeal but it’s hard to find writing that really gives you a punch in the gut? I’m in writing groups that focus on publishing 2 books a year. The quality is shit. There might not be typos, but the writing is superficial and bland. You aren’t going to read a sentence in 300 pages that stands out and makes you think. It’s garbage in and garbage out.
When I fell in love with reading it wasn’t because I could consume thin books, one after the other, with the story brushing past me like walking through a crowd. I fell in love with reading because of the books that looked me right in the eye, shook me by the shoulders and said, You need to know this. Or the books that grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into a journey I couldn’t stop following even if it frightened and worried me. Or the books that made my heart feel so full, I never wanted to stop reading. Or the books I had to read through tears, blinking and squinting to read the next line.
Those are the books I want to read, and those are the books I want to write.
A thousand times yes.
Look, say what you want about J.K. Rowling and the ubiquitous Harry Potter, the woman can write. Ditto George R.R. Martin. Ditto Stephen King (when he puts his mind to it). And ditto the aforementioned Michael Chabon. Conversely, and I know she’s a bit of a scapegoat, but I can’t say the same about Stephenie Meyer.
Guys like Brandon Sanderson get slagged with the “workmanlike” label, but his writing exemplifies that appellation in that you don’t even notice it because it works. But there are few, if any, clunky sentences or awkward turns of phrase.
You know what? Arthur Conan Doyle was a hell of a writer. So were pulp legends Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs–their works were far from workmanlike and clunky. In fact, they are downright poetic in their own ways.
And I’m not using this post to proclaim myself some masterful writer. You might think my forthcoming novel A Traitor to Dreams is sci-fi/urban fantasy garbage. But you won’t be able to say I didn’t polish it until it shone.
Yes, I’m one of those people who does several read-throughs, drafts, and typo checks, even after a manuscript has been professionally edited. There are reasons for this:
- I want to eliminate awkward sentences.
- I am always on the prowl for clunky dialogue. Your first thought is usually a 5, at best. Your second is maybe a 7. I go through and try to turn those 7s into 8s or higher.
- I aim for zero typos. None. Misspellings, improper punctuation, incorrect subject/verb agreement–I want to eliminate all of it.
- Rhythm is important. Sentences need to flow, and they need to sound good. Repetition and redundancy must go.
- Characterization and inner monologue can be improved 99 percent of the time. (I’ll have a future post on this.)
- Less is more. I’m always on the lookout for eliminating needless words, sentences, and paragraphs.
It might not be “pulp speed” or conducive to a crank-out-a-book-every-three-months pace, but I’m fine with that. I work fast enough, and I put out things when I think they’re ready.
To each his own. I’m not trying to say my attitude is best. But I’m with Kitten: I want to write the kinds of books that made me get into reading in the first place.