A dangerous book for writers

In Business of Writing, Craft, Musings on July 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm

When it comes to books I can be a total snob. It took me years to realize that the NYT bestseller list often contained books that really are worth every bit of hype. I rejected my small-minded notion that if “the masses” loved something it must be dumbed down. (I said snob, right?)

But every once in awhile a book hits that list that makes the writing teacher in me quake in fear. These books have a compelling story buried beneath pages of dull exposition, obvious plot devices and cliched dialogue (Cough*The Da Vinci Code* Cough). They break all the rules and not necessarily in a good way. For whatever reason, in these cases, the story is so compelling to readers that they put aside their need for good storytelling, fumble and hack their way through vine-like prose, and cling to those few good bits.

I don’t really understand it. A story is only as good as its storytelling, to me. The craft of the story IS the story. If the writing doesn’t open its lovely fingers enough to let me fall into the dream, then I won’t find it.

The dangerous book  TO WRITERS (let me make that clear!) right now–or rather, a series of them–begins with Stiegg Larson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Three times I have tried to get to the end of this book and still, I can’t do it. Because books like Tana French’s The Likeness, full of immacuately built characters with living, breathing plot-lines and intelligent, well-described conflicts offer themselves to me.

Now let me be clear: I think these books are dangerous for aspiring writers, not readers. A reader may find pleasure in anything. When I don’t have my writing cap on, I can read some pretty pulpy stuff for the sheer joy of following a certain character, or even just escape.

But a client’s book has landed in my lap for editing services that follows such a similar style to GWTDT, that I can already hear the author’s defense in advance: But THAT book made it to the NYT bestseller list. Why should I listen to you?

Why? And the truth is, that’s an individual question, but for me it comes down to pride. I believe in working as hard as is necessary to shape your work, to honor the pact between writer and reader that says: I do this, I sweat and I bleed and I go into deep dark places inside myself to find the right story and tell it to you in the right way so that you will care as much about these people, their world and their story, as I do.

  1. As you know, I’m also struggling through that book on my Kindle. Friends who have finished it assure me there’s a good story in there and that I will come to love Lisbeth Salander. I’m doubtful.

    It’s incredibly dry and hard to follow. The author isn’t doing a good job of making me care about the characters either. It’s frustrating because I don’t like quitting on books.

    • Nina, I feel the same way–I hate to quit on a book, and I’ve quit on A LOT of them lately…so I hear you. But in this case, I think the Swedes had the right idea: Just turn it into a really good movie 🙂

  2. Oh, but I will say that it gives me hope of being published. Not in that “I can do it the wrong way and still get published” sense, but in the “now I know what NOT to do” sense.

    • Good, Nina! Books like that are a rare example, anyway. Until there is a truly free self-publishing culture, books like that won’t get published very often.

  3. I wonder if this is a cultural thing, too. Maybe “good writing” is something different in Swedish than in English.

    (Mostly I just wanted to say that I love Tana French’s books. Her next one comes out a week from today!)

  4. It’s sooooo funny you mention Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Because when I first started trying to write a novel, I said: “well, let me try reading something on the New York Times Bestsellers list. Those novelists must be doing something right?”

    Did I think GWTDT was a long-winded, sure. I just chalked it up to my lack of reading stamina. Maybe I wasn’t well read enough to appreciate it. I made it through just to prove to myself I could. But did I read the

    But I think as writers we read differently, and are more demanding in a different way than a non-writer.

    But thanks for the recommendation…I love thrillers, and I’ll check out Tanya French.

  5. Tana French…sorry!

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