Friday, August 15, 2008

The Naked Emperor Question

Portrait of Luigi Cherubini,
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,
o/c, 1841,
Cincinnati Art Museum.

We've all bitched about it, either in private or in public.

We've sniffed over the fact that the narrative skill of some best-selling authors, after they have attained that status, seems to dive down hill with speeds in excess of 32 feet per second per second.

We point rigid, raging fingers at passive verbs, tell-not-show, cliched characters, aliens in chapter twelve, and numerous other technical faults that if we, the unwashed, are not allowed to perform on pain of Publish America.

And as we snuff over how this crap ever passed an editor and got published, someone will point to -- with an irritating degree of reasonableness -- to an equally instructive parable, the one about geese and golden eggs; and how, if hassled, a successful writer might take his splendid behind and little basket and move to another coop.

They also allude to the pressure to produce from the system as a reason for a decline in quality. To which we respond that the level of skill that supposedly launched the success, once attained and internalized, should remain automatic and not degrade under time constraints.

And then we snivel over why readers, the ultimate authority, continue to buy, read and enjoy what we judiciously consider slop. We wonder about perception and reputation and marketing sans substance and reader obedience to popular trends.

But in all this criticism, we've forgotten something simple: the story.

Some writers create -- by means of voice or character or world -- a story that charms and beguiles and enchants; and sometimes we forget, in spite of all the technical flaws we are so happy to ennumerate, for the reader that's all they want.

Baubles and Bright Shiny Beads:
Both Laughingwolf and Gabriele have awarded me the Brilliante Weblog , premio - 2008 trinket. TechIdiot that I am I don't know how to reproduce it here, but I am honoured that they included me.


BernardL said...

Your post reminded me of a book I read decades ago by an author named Stanley Shapiro. It was called 'Simon's Soul'. Written in first person, it was one of the most starkly narrated books I've ever read. All story and telling, it at one moment would horrify, and the next make me laugh out loud.

Ric said...

that we, the unwashed, are not allowed to perform on pain of Publish America.

Gee, that says it all.

Yet, if you muse on it long enough, the unreasonable hoops we must jump through will only make us better, stronger, erudite writers.

And you correctly point out that while we are navigating said hoops, it is the story that matters to the final reader.
For whatever faults Dan Brown has, he still writes a helluva story.

We tend to forget we are not writing for the final reader - we are trussed up tight putting our words in perfect order for the agents & publishers - many of whom, sadly, are only interested in what they can quickly sell.

Great post, as always, Bernita.

Jaye Wells said...

Ric beat me to the Dan Brown example.

StarvingWriteNow said...

Yes, the story is the core, what really matters.

But it is highly irritating when an author, especially one you've come to love, seems to fall into the "rote" category of writing.

Gabriele C. said...

Yeah, what peeves me is when writers who can do better and have done better get sloppy and no longer care because they sell.

Brown was never a good writer to begin with.

Bernita said...

And you remember its resonance after all these years, Bernard.

Thank you, Ric. Too often we focus on what they do wrong and ignore what they do right.

A classic case, Jaye!

We wonder and whine how they get away with it - when we can't, Beth!

Bernita said...

He must be doing something right, Gabriele.I suspect his themes at the right time.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm reading a James Rollins and he has the worst case of what I call "blogger style" I've ever seen: over-utilizing single sentence paragraphs to heighten drama.

Often in fragments and italiced.

For effect.

It demoralizes what would have been a great story. The set up and characterization is mostly there, but I'm about to put it down since Rollins is employing this editor's pet peeve.

Bernita said...

For effect.
The very best reason to do it, Betsy.
I'm fond of the style myself - though I hope I don't over do it - and utilized it long before I began to blog.
Some writers are adamant about adverbs too, but readers, apparently, are not quite so discriminating.

Gabriele C. said...

Oh, he surely does something right. A bit Church bashing, Templars, a mysterious painting and a few chases Bond style all over Europe are a popular mix. And that's what he sold from the beginning, not his writing skills.

raine said...

Well yes, we often wrinkle our noses over the best-sellers who seem to be able to put things out that we, the Undiscovered, couldn't get past an editor's reader. But the fact is that they are in the loop, they are best-sellers, and you're right--the readers are looking at the stories.
And yes--I've had an author's voice carry me through a story filled with all sorts of things I could bicker about, but I enjoyed it immensely.

And the idea that everyone churns out their best with each effort is ludicrous. I don't do that in my daily work, don't know anyone who does.

Congrats on the well-deserved award, Bernita. :)

Bernita said...

Gabriele, that's my point.

"-I've had an author's voice carry me through a story filled with all sorts of things I could bicker about, but I enjoyed it immensely."
-- me too.
Sometimes we're so sweaty over technique and the "rulz" that we lose our reader eyes.

Not deserved, Raine, but very nice and much appreciated.

Robyn said...

And then we snivel over why readers, the ultimate authority, continue to buy, read and enjoy what we judiciously consider slop.

Readers often will take those little errors if they can get a good story. Never once have I heard a reader say, "Ugh. That book was a wallbanger. Too many adverbs."

Bernita said...

Robyn, I have the sneaking suspicion that many readers actually like adverbs.

Shauna Roberts said...

I usually don't mind bad writing if the story is good, but bad copyediting drives me crazy. I have to get up, find my husband, and rant a bit.

Congratulations on the award!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I know it's a personal pet peeve, and I'm not entirely immune to the usage myself. It can be a useful device to differentiate between POV voices, for instance. But on every page, sometimes twice?

Having read your writing, I doubt you overuse it.

bunnygirl said...

Publishing is a business, first and foremost. A novel doesn't have to be technically perfect to sell and can actually be somewhat sloppy. It does, however, have to be a good story that's in synch with the times.

Sometimes I think that writers do themselves and each other a great disservice by propagating the myth that prefect craft will result in publication, or that a few adverbs in an otherwise rip-roaring tale will be an automatic rejection.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Ditto on the sentiment about adverbs. It's telling, and sometimes telling goes a long way to, well, explaining things to the reader.

I can't stand stark prose, either, that never breaks rules or uses any modifiers. A certain extremely popular writer comes to mind...

Bernita said...

Thank you, Shauna!
I'm a very fast reader so I miss many copy errors - but if there's a lot I'm inclined to rant too.

Hee, Betsy! I actually checked the MS. Noo, not on every page or even every other page - but sometimes.More allowable in first I think.
Yep, verbs and nouns were never intended to do ALL the work.Like Jack, it often makes for dull.

" a great disservice"
I think you are correct, Bunnygirl.

Sarah Hina said...

I kind of lament the fact that I can't just enjoy a good story anymore. Since becoming a writer, I think I've become too cognizant of style.

Sometimes I just want to tell that hyper-judgmental voice inside my head to take five. ;)

ChrisEldin said...

I'm reading Twilight right now, so this is a timely post.
It's appealing to tweens, I guess, so she's done something right.
But still.

Bernita said...

Sarah, I still can get that voice to shut up after the first chapter or so.Usually.

I've heard about that one, Chris.As you say.

laughingwolf said...

'story' is all... but we rarely get a good one, especially in film/tv, whether in feature, 22-minute short, or three-minute animation

as for posting the awards, i'm as ignorant, have no clue as to how....

Steve Malley said...

Once upon I time, an art professional looked at my samples and gave me great advice:

"Kid," she said, "these are good, about as good as most of what's out there. Which isn't good enough. You'll never break in being as good as the other guys. To break in... you've got to be better. You've gotta be so good, they're afraid NOT to hire you."

cindy said...

b, i agree. storytelling trumps all. of course, the writing has to be sufficient...

so much to worry about as a writer, no?

having said that, i've had quite a few "was" and "ly" words line edited INTO my ms. because it read fine like that, and natural. as someone else said, the only rule in writing is : don't start a sentence with a comma.


PRNewland said...

(is now contemplating various ways he might start a sentence with a comma...)

Congratulations on the grand baby & the award!

On your topic, story can transcend text, or withstand subpar text. Some can even resonate well beyond the range of purely textbook prose. So much of that is subjective. As others pointed out, the voice, or theme(s) may lift a work out of whatever heap the inadequacies of its delivery might otherwise have consigned it to.

I remember my Dad complaining years ago about several novels that he said would never have been published had they not been by Stephen King.

Lana Gramlich said...

I think the reasons you've mentioned here may be a large part of the reason why I gave up on reading fiction (for the most part.)

Bernita said...

Lw, you are definitely NOT a TechIdiot like me.

Steve... that's depressing.

"the only rule in writing is : don't start a sentence with a comma."
Cindy, you are sheer delight!

Thank you, Prenewland.
Yes. Perception/reputation = sales clothes.
I've just finished one by a faourite author. It's so-so to good ...but the social philosophy promoted overwhelms the story. Had it been proffered by a new writer, probably would have been rejected at the gate.

Lana,I've had long seasons like that.

laughingwolf said...

don't be too sure, i had help setting up my site....

haunted author said...

I read a Robin Cook novel the other day- about a bio-chemist who isolates an hallucengenic agent that supposivly caused the Witch hysteria in Salem (not ergot-this is a "Undiscovered" agent) The writing was TERRIBLE. One of the charectors actually said, "As you know....." I couldn't beleive that was in there!

The main charector goes into her local county courthouse and in 45 minuets traces her entire 400 year family history. Anyone who has done even a smidge of geneology would know what a howler that is.

And yet- I couldn't put the !@#$ thing down! I admit I'm a sucker for anything related to Salem Witches. But this turned out to have very little to do with the Salem Ladies, it had much more to do with the hazards of bio-medical research. Still, I had to see how the thing would turn out- it was quite an interesting plot.

spyscribbler said...

Janet Evanovich breaks every rule in the book to GREAT effect. I think you're right though: readers care about character and stories. Other than that, they are pretty forgiving.

Charles Gramlich said...

The story's the thing. That's certainly true. We would-be writers sometimes forget what the "readers" are truly after. I still don't see how some things get published or read, though. I'd probably sell more if I did.

Bernita said...

Dear Wolf, I don't even know what 90% of the terms mean.

A perfect example, Haunted.
45 minutes? Might take that long to find one deed book. The writer hadn't done any, obviously; and, obviously, it didn't impair the story!
Seems to me I had one charged in that incident as it was dying down, or so it is alledged, spirited out of jail by more sensible citizens.

And we all have good reason to be grateful that they are forgiving, Natasha.I know I am.

Charles, sometimes the readers don't know either, until they find it.

laughingwolf said...

ok, i have a leg up on you there, i can take the damn thing apart, and put it back together, being an electrician... but some of the software boggles what little mind i have left, from all the arcs n sparks :O lol

Angie said...

Sure, I don't know how many times I've had a writer drag me wincing and groaning through a story all the way to the end, because even though the craftsmanship sucked on multiple levels, the writer was a good storyteller, and made me like the characters and want to know what'd happen to them next.

I'm much more willing to deal with this on the amateur level, though; once someone is charging me money to read their stories, I expect a certain minimal level of skill at the craft. There's a sliding scale, true, and someone who's just that good a storyteller can keep me plunking down my ten bucks over and over, despite a few winces here and there as I read. Someone who's commercially published gets a lot less slack, though, and I don't mind saying so right out.

And no matter how good their storytelling is, if their craftsmanship is awful, my fingers are going to be itching for a red pen all the way through the book, and I'm going to have dreams of going over their next manuscript with not only corrections but extensive commentary, because in all seriousness, someone who really is that fantastic a storyteller should also be that fantastic an author, all around. Craftsmanship is very learnable and there's no excuse for a professional writer not learning it. Ideally they'd learn it, or at least most of it, before becoming a professional. :/

I find it incredibly frustrating to see someone who's just oozing talent out their pores ("talent" being what I call that storytelling ability, mainly because I have no idea how to teach that part, whereas I've coached any number of people on the craftsmanship end) but who can't be bothered to learn mechanics and pacing and POV control and plotting and transitions and character development and all that other stuff that you're supposed to learn while you're working on getting published.

You can get pretty far on storytelling -- some people can even get to bestseller status -- but if their actual skills are lousy, then when I look at them, all I see is a waste, and a damn shame, because no matter how good they might be right now, they could be so much better if they'd just work at it. [sigh]


Bernita said...

Wolf, I'm just proud I learned to cut-n-paste and that things don't blow up when I click.

What a beautiful summary, Angie! Thank you.

writtenwyrdd said...

I thought Dan Brown was an abysmal story teller. Yawnfest, and I figured out what the story plot was in the first third of the book for both of the ones I read by him.

But if the story is good, it can trump excellent writing. I suppose we look at writing differently since we write.

How are they queries going, Ms. Bernita?

laughingwolf said...

very well said, angie!

Bernita said...

"I suppose we look at writing differently since we write."
That's true, Written. That over-used phrase, "loss of innocence" applies, I think.

Timidly. Slowly.