At the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, California last weekend, the super-smart editor Beth Meacham, of Tor Books, observed that "There is an unnecessary tension between beautiful prose and story-telling." She pointed to some examples of books which are not so wonderfully written, but which tell stories that keep the reader turning pages: Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, Twilight, and others. She has been an editor for a long time, and she knows her stuff. She says that though she loves graceful writing, can be "intoxicated" by it--her word--most readers want great stories more than they want gorgeous prose.
As an editor, Beth's job is to acquire books that readers want to read. Despite how it may seem to some of us, laboring out here in Writerland, this is no easy task. Who knows what readers are going to want? (Please see my earlier post on this same topic: http://redroom.com/blog/louise-marley/what-do-readers-want) Editors are as much slaves to sales figures as the rest of us. They spend at least as much effort trying to parse the market as we writers do.
We all struggle for balance, of course, as we write. I love delving into characters, finding out why they do what they do, how they feel about it, how far they'll go when pushed (or pulled). I love dramatic settings like the ice world I created for The Singers of Nevya. I'm well aware plotting is my greatest challenge. Beth's pronouncement was a good reminder, and one from someone I always listen to. We all love the sizzle. We need to remember the readers want steak.