Today, I went over to Writer Unboxed and found this two part interview with Rosina Lippi/Sara Donati (Part I; Part II). Ms. Lippi is an academic who has managed to be very successful, and award-winning (think PEN/Hemingway), with her contemporary and historical fiction. So, when an academic-turned-author says something like the following, I really pay attention:
It’s my firm belief that literary fiction is just another genre, with a target audience and conventions. One of those conventions is what I call the ‘no pain no gain’ rule. Happy endings or even just content endings are not in fashion for the literati at this point in time. But ‘fashion’ is the operative word. There’s no great underlying truth to so-called literary fiction. Academics have claimed the authority to declare what’s worthwhile (and we let them!) and they do a great job at gate keeping. Keep out other kinds of storytellers at all costs. Once in a while somebody sneaks in. Eventually Stephen King started getting reviewed in the NYT, after all. But they still have to qualify everything, and explain why they are bothering with commercial fiction.
My bottom line: Plot is not, as some of the literati seem to believe, a four letter word. Good writing and a good story are not mutually exclusive. You can have both — you SHOULD have both — but the average person out there wants the story, first and foremost. They will put up with many infelicities if there’s a good story to pull them along. Which explains the DaVinci Code. The research, the writing, the premise, none of that worked, but the story grabbed people and they responded.
There's the explanation for the DaVinci Code in a nutshell. It may drive us grammarian/perfect sentence people nuts, but STORY is the key. All the perfect sentences in the world won't get you published without a story to back it up (unless, I suppose, you are writing depressing literary fiction).
In judging contests, I have read some less than perfect entries that had stories I wanted to keep reading because the concept was so good. I've also read perfectly crafted stories that were boring as hell. I used to think, many eons ago, that if all my sentences were beautiful and perfect, that an editor or agent would keep reading and I'd get a book contract.
I don't think that anymore. Dreck is still dreck, even when the sentences are perfect. Exciting is still exciting, even when a comma is out of place or a word is misspelled (though I really want to bop the writer over the head for the misspelling — spellcheck, people!). A good editor can whip a less than stellar manuscript into shape if the story is there. Nobody can make a good story where there isn't one.
Of course I'm not advocating for sending off imperfect manuscripts and leaving the fixing to someone else! I couldn't do it even if I tried. I am a perfectionist at heart, though I've noticed as I get older that imperfections slip by me easier than they used to.
But how do we make sure that story is our focus when we're writing? I don't have a magic formula for that, but I think if you follow Elmore Leonard's direction to “leave out the boring parts” you might be well on your way. Make sure every scene has a purpose. Make sure the scene reveals something or builds on something or sends the story in a different direction. Make sure there's a question that needs answering by the end of the scene, a reason to propel the story forward into another scene with another question, and etc.
Probably easier said than done, and certainly nothing to obsess over on a first draft. But on subsequent passes, keep an eye toward moving the story forward. I'm still learning how to do that. I'd love to possess some innate ability that keeps me sailing forward on a giant ship, plowing obstacles in my path and getting the job done. Instead, I've got this little raft that gets buffeted by the wind and waves. Still, there's not another job in the world I'd want (or, most likely, one I'd be any good at) so I keep hanging on and trying to get to the other side. Like Hemingway's old man, I hope to sail into port with one hell of a fish story. 🙂
What do you think about story versus craft? Do you agree with Lippi? In spite of the great story concept, I have to admit I couldn't finish TDVC. Is that just a writing thing, or is it a grammarian thing?