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An unnecessary tension

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.

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Don't douse my sizzle!

A most interesting topic! I believe quality of writing and a great story need not be mutually exclusive. Yes, I do want that steak (although I’d prefer the salmon) and it should sizzle most enticingly on a garnished plate and the plate better not be chipped: http://www.redroom.com/blog/marabuck/prologue-sexual-foreplay.
Good writing doesn’t necessary have to be “fine” writing. Concise, fluid and professional will do quite nicely to move the story along. Decent sentence structure and a variety of adjectives should enhance the plot, not destroy it. Many of the mass-market blockbusters I have read are merely sloppy, as if all parties involved knew they didn’t have to work very hard beyond the storyline. Most manuscripts could profit from a knowledgeable house-cleaning. (Even Toni Morrison has a trusted editor.)
I feel literature is another thing entirely, but again, not necessarily deficient of a compelling story. I spout off here: http://www.redroom.com/blog/marabuck/literature-a-personal-definition
Forgive me, but I’m a writer AND a reader and I want it all. Oh, yes, I am still unpublished, so perhaps I’d better learn to douse that sizzle!
Thanks, Louise. You always make thought-provoking posts.
Best, Mara

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No dousing! :-)

Don't you think the ideal story would have both sizzle and steak? I certainly do. And you know, I do think a bunch of novels these days suffer from the cutbacks at the editing level (those are real, by they way. I have it on the best authority.)

I hope we can all employ good writing technique AND tell good stories. We'll never be perfect, but . . .

I'm going to go read your blog now! Thanks for the links.