f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: On a Scale of 1 to 10 – The Story or The Writing

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

On a Scale of 1 to 10 – The Story or The Writing

Way, way back at the turn of the year I took a look at a little book some of you may have heard of, The DaVinci Code. In the midst of that conversation I mentioned B.R. Myers’ Readers Manifesto, a razor-sharp work that excoriates a handful of contemporary writers for being ponderous, wordy, self-satisfied wordsmiths who wrote eloquent gobbledy-gook that went nowhere. If you think I’m an opinionated blowhard, read Myers who I disliked even when I agreed with him.

Anyhoo, Myers kvetched that we were only feeding this insidious cycle of arty novels by handing over awards to these people while ignoring books that had, say, an actual plot.

I have no idea what this had to do with the DaVinci Code, but it becomes relevant in our discussion today. I think this may be the day on which we have the most surface-level agreement and the deepest nether-depths differences.

Most of us would agree, I think, that we’re trying to write a compelling story, well told. That’s our aim. We want to be 5s. Great story, superb crafting. We want to be just like….

And with that single step we’ve left the shallows for the deep end where nobody agrees any more. Because A) We all have very different definitions of “good” when modifying writing and story and B) Those definitions are likely going to change even within a reader’s mind depending on the book.

Stephen King. Wallace Stegner. Glen David Gold. Colson Whitehead. Anne Tyler.

I may think all of these writers are “good” but the reasons are different for each one. And I don’t want them to write like each other.

In some ways, it’s odd that we’re even having this conversation when it comes to others’ writing. After all, if something is published, don’t we expect that it will meet some level of story and writing competency? Should there be 1s out there who care little for craft and just whether the pages are turned? Or 10s who write prose so dense and turgid and pointless it could put an vampire to sleep at midnight.

As a reader, and you’ll be shocked by this, I have a higher tolerance for writers dallying with the craft than for a Crichton trying to turn a film treatment into a novel. I don’t think I read 10s, but Richard Powers has to be a 8 or 9.

In writing: I think Ezekiel’s Shadow was written at about 6. I had to cut long chunks of verbosity and lovely descriptions of shrubbery out. Quinlin’s Estate was probably a 4. The plotting became so involved that I felt I had less room for pontificating.

Who are some brilliant 5s in your mind where plot and writing sizzle and serve each other?

Would your rather write a book praised for its artistry but ignored by the masses or a title that PW kills but sells well?

Can you improve either your writing or your storytelling?