Friday, November 20, 2009

Good writing vs. a good story

From an email I sent to my crit partner (and soon-to-be bestselling author) Brigid Kemmerer (forgive my laziness, but this is the only way I'll get a post up this week):

"People who write well don't necessarily craft stories that connect with readers. Doing so is a skill many lack." (author Georgia McBride)

That's how I'm feeling lately. I'm not beating myself up. I'm just agreeing with her that being a good writer (or amazingly talented ;-) ) doesn't help if I'm working with the wrong story. And it's very frustrating because, of course, it's all subjective. And just because I connect with what I've written doesn't mean more than a handful of others will. So it's hard to plot out a story and say, "Okay, *this* is one 73% of the people who read it will like" because how do we judge subjectively for *others*? Don't follow the trends, they say... which I've never been tempted to do because I know how quickly they change and because as much as I might love a good vampire story, for instance, I wouldn't know how to write one that wouldn't be a rehash of someone else's.

Very few authors are read purely because they're good writers. I'll go back to the most well-written book I've read in the last five years: A Widow for One Year by John Irving. The story? A little girl is abandoned by her mother when she's five, because her mother can no longer BE a mother after her two older sons are killed in a car crash. The little girl grows up under the poor watch of her father, who is a womanizer. As a woman, the girl becomes a writer and reconnects with the boy (now man) who babysat her the last summer she had her mother around. The boy was her mother's lover for those few months and has never gotten over her (the mother, that is). At the end of the book--the last few pages--the mother returns, and I wept. It's all about relationships and angst and pain, and the writing was phenomenal. I read and re-read passages just to figure out how Irving had come up with a turn of phrase. But the story? Meh. Boring, frankly. But he's John Irving! He can write anything and people will read it because he's that amazing. And if they don't like it, they'll assume they missed something because, come on, it's JOHN IRVING.

So writers--not just me--can hone their craft until every sentence they write is perfect. But that doesn't mean anyone will read their book (or that any agent will represent it) if they don't recognize a good story from a mediocre or bad one. Unless they're John Irving. And there are SO few John Irvings out there.

There are hundreds of blogs that talk about how to improve your writing. But for coming up with the right idea for that writing? Nothing. And there shouldn't be really. I mean, if there were a formula--or a set of formulas--we'd be reading the same 12 story lines over and over.

But if there were a way to find out whether your own idea is worth saving or dumping? That I wouldn't mind knowing.


Shankar said...

I've just started to re-read the infamous/famous seven part series about the boy with glasses not because it's particularly well-written (I've never, ever thought it well-written), but because I find the story compelling. However, I read Wodehouse and Pratchett because I love the way they write, and sometimes the plot just gets in the way.

Brigid Kemmerer said...

I got a shoutout! Woo hoo! A shoutout! You're the first person to ever mention me on her blog! (I love the new layout by the way. Will you do mine?)