Mark Terry

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's All In The Wrist

November 29, 2009
So, tell me, is Dan Brown a good writer?

One of my favorite novels is "The Deal" by Peter Lefcourt. It's rather dated now, but it's sort of a satire about Hollywood. Charlie Bern, a B (at best) filmmaker, is about to commit suicide, when his nephew from New Jersey shows up unexpectedly with a film script about the life of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Charlie then options the script for $1, submits it to a studio, convinces a Wesley Snipes-like black action star to star in it (because it has a "jewish element"), then pays a drunken scriptwriter to rewrite the script as an action film that takes place in Israel called Bill & Ben. And that's just the beginning, before things go apeshit.

Anyway, there's a very important scene (important to me and I think writers need to keep it in mind), when Charlie is talking to Deirdre, who's some sort of functionary at the studio, but she's essentially a script reader who makes recommendations to one of the studio executives. When she reads the "rewrite" she asks Charlie if he honestly thinks it's a good script. Hell, let me find the book and just quote from it.

He looked at her over his half-moon glasses, trying to decipher the expression on her face. She was a hard read. Obviously very smart, but not necessarily running on all cylinders.

Without any prelude she launched into, "I think you and I can cut through the bullshit and get right to it. Okay?"

"Okay."

"I hate the script. I hate it a lot."

"I appreciate your candor."

"It's awful. And you know it, don't you?"

"No, I don't know it."

She tilted her head the way one does to a child who has just told a fib. "Are you going to sit there and tell me you think it's a good script?"

"What's a good script?"

"Come on, Charlie, we're not going to talk Screenwriting 101 here, are we?"

"A good script is one that gets made...."

Well, what am I getting at today? Am I saying that any novel manuscript that gets published is good? That within the publishing industry there's no good or bad, there's just published and unpublished?

No, that's not actually today's topic and I don't have an answer for you anyway, although I don't doubt it'd make for a lively discussion. Maybe tomorrow.

No, today, what I'm thinking about is technique.

Like most writers, especially professional writers, I can read a piece of writing by somebody, published or not, and have a pretty good idea if they're a good technical writer. That is to say, whether they string their words and sentences together in a professional manner. This has absolutely nothing, by the way... well, almost nothing... to do with storytelling and hooks and marketing and publishability (which my spellchecker tells me isn't a word, but fuck it, if it isn't a word it should be).

My brother read some Dan Brown and recognized a good story, but commented to me, "He's kind of a clunky writer, isn't he?"

Stephen King slammed (supposedly) Stephanie Meyers for not being a terribly good writer. (From what I've read of her, she's not, which has nothing to do with her storytelling ability and her marketability and publishability, apparently, but says a lot about how she strings words together. I read a couple pages of her first novel and wondered if I was stupid or she was just using words in a strange fashion, because some of her word choices confused me).

As an occasional writing mentor I've read a number of manuscripts that were, line by line, word for word, pretty well-written.

But they weren't publishable. The story wasn't good, or rather, wasn't well told. (Often, the story was very damn good, just not well told).

And I'm here to tell you, you can be a bright and shiny, smooth, beautiful writer, but if your story isn't well-told, it ain't getting published (usually, although to my mind there seems to be some exceptions in the so-called literary world, but that, again, is a subject for another day, I think).

I think we writers (or maybe not, maybe it's just me) get caught up in good writing, all that word-for-word stuff. Hell, it's important to me. I spent a lot of hours trying to improve it. I'm still concerned with improving it. It's still important to me. It annoys me to read a really successful novel by someone who hasn't spent much time on their craft, or apparently who became so successful they never needed to bother (Clive Cussler comes rather immediately to mind, and although I have enjoyed his storytelling a lot over the years, his writing rarely failed to annoy me).

But the fact is, technique can be secondary to a story well told. And that's a different skill. Creating tension, freshness, controlling pace, teasing and intriguing the reader, having a commercial hook, etc., those are very, VERY difficult things to learn. In fact, I think that compared to learning to be a better "writer" in the words, sentences, paragraph sense, is a lot easier than all that other stuff. Being a writer--getting technique--is largely a matter of mechanics and craft. Learning to tell a story, sifting through ideas, creating compelling characters, controlling pace, etc., well, those are techniques as well, but I think they're probably the difference between driving your car to work and winning the Indianapolis 500. It's basically the same, but... it's not, you know?

Anyway, your thoughts?

9 Comments:

Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I am a big fan of making up words. :-)

I couldn't read Stephenie Meyer's first book. Still can't. I skimmed it, because I loved the story. Her second book is much better. Much.

I think good writing makes a difference, but good storytelling trumps all. You can suck as a writer, but if you can pull in the reader, make them love the characters and interest them in the story, you'll still be successful. As you say, the reverse, I don't believe, is true.

I worry more about whether my writing is distracting from the story more than I worry about the writing. (Um, I've been spending all day staring at the same chapter asking that, so my bet it is, LOL.)

6:09 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

All kinds of analogies come to mind, but I think the best is a bad or good song being sung by a bad or good singer. I want a good story, and I want the author to employ a good voice telling it.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Spy & Stephen,
Well, my favorite analogy is that your your writing is a boat and your story is the cargo. Your writing can be awkward and leaky and still carry great cargo, or it can be water tight and streamline and carry it even better. And to carry the analogy better, it can be the difference between a tug boat, a cigarette boat, a freighter or the Queen Mary. They can all pretty much get your story from A to Z, but in different ways.

5:25 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I thought this was a great post. It's the meh. I have read two manuscripts recently that it is very difficult to explain to the writers . . . "Yes, you did this and this and this and this . . . but in the end, I just DON'T CARE." It's the storytelling at fault.
E

5:37 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Erica,
Sometimes that seems to come down to the classic: "lacks tension." Usually if something lacks tension it's because there isn't enough conflict. But that's the easy-out, because sometimes "lacks tension" comes from characters you don't care about or the way the story is being laid out--a lot of writers telegraph what's going to happen so far in advance that I don't need to keep reading to find out what happens. Or there's definitely a "been-there-done-that" thing that goes on, even with successfully published novelists.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Amen. That's about all I can say. I believe that most readers -- including me -- want a story. A good story is far more important than technique. Technique is a nice addition if the story is already terrific but a terrific story with lousy technique will win out for most readers every time.

That said, though, the technique can't be so inept as to destroy the story. But, really, that's pretty hard to do. Except, I think that sometimes writers, who are aware of technique, get themselves so annoyed by what they consider poor technique that it diminishes a story they might otherwise enjoy.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Eric,
I think so. And to drag it back to Dan Brown, I've read all 4 of his books (okay, actually I listened to an audiobook of The Da Vinci Code) and enjoyed all of them quite a bit. He's a terrific storyteller and all 4 of them have a great hook, although to be fair to DB, the hook for Angels & Demons and DVC have a lot broader appeal than codebreaking and astronomy, the subjects of Digital Fortress and whatever the name of his other book was (I'm blanking). I'm in no rush to read his latest one, but I imagine I'll enjoy it, smooth writing or not, because I k now why I'm reading it.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

To me, life's too short for bad prose. There are plenty of authors who are brilliant wordsmiths and great storytellers, so why settle for anything less?

12:33 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Mark and Eric:
I have to agree that a lot of times writers can't sit back and just enjoy a good yarn.

And for me, Mark . . . it's a combo of . . . I figured out the end already and don't like the character enough to go along for the rest of the ride. I can always forgive the former if I care enough about the character. Case in point . . . a lot of snappy dialogue, caper books. I may figure it out, but if I am entertained, then I'm there to the last word.
E

5:07 AM  

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