Apologies for the missed post last week. There were shenanigans well beyond my ability to control. But let it now be known that the wordmongering is set to continue at its traditional weekly time!
Not too long ago, I finished listening to the audiobook of RA Salvatore’s Servant of the Shard. I got it from Audible during one of their recent promotions—I think this one had to do with picking up the first book of series? Anyway. I mainly grabbed it because 1) hey, it was basically free, and 2) I’d never read/listened to anything written by RA Salvatore before.
Starting off, I was what you would generously call skeptical. The prose was clumsy, the use of named D&D spells was weird and off-putting, the protagonist (Artemis Entreri is an antihero in his best moments) seemed to embody all the worst characteristics of the brooding loner archetype, and the one halfling of any consequence in the book, Dwahvel Tiggerwillies, was voiced in falsetto by the narrator.
Okay, so maybe that last one wasn’t Mr. Salvatore’s fault. But the rest of it? Woof.
But I kept listening, because I don’t abide by the weird belief that you can only learn to write good fiction by reading good fiction. There’s as much, if not more, to learn from other people’s mistakes than there is to learn from their successes.
Then, about halfway through the book, something weird happened. See, I typically only listen to audiobooks in the car. But I realized one evening that I was pulling out my phone—not for the first time!—to listen to the next part of Servant while just sitting around in my apartment. The last time I did that was for Maplecroft.
I realized, puzzled, that I was actually enjoying the hell out of this book.
I could basically tell you all of RA Salvatore’s favorite words (“skitter,” “fine” [in relation to weapons], and “waggle,” among others) because they appeared over and over. The portmanteau “tenday,” used as a timeframe between a week and a fortnight, baffled me. And fucking Dwahvel Tiggerwillies would not shut up.
Still, I was having a great time!
And this allowed me to crystallize an idea that I think I’ve had kicking around in my head for a long time:
“Writing” and “storytelling” are two very different skills. And while it’s important to have both, you gotta nurture that storytelling instinct.
The world is full of books that work not because the writing is crisp and fresh, but because the story rips along, sweeping up the reader and carrying them in its wake. Servant of the Shard is my first example. The Harry Potter series is another—JK Rowling’s prose doesn’t sparkle, by any means, but it works well enough for us to invest ourselves in Harry’s escapades. Cinder, which I’ve talked about previously, is another excellent example: serviceable writing, fun story. I’m even going to take the (probably divisive) stance that Twilight (the novel, not the whole series) works in this fashion as well. Stephenie Meyer is not what you’d call a talented writer, but she got enough polish on there that the rock-solid candyfloss romance shined through, founded an entire subgenre, and effed YA book cover design in the A for the next twenty years.
Now, the candyfloss romance shined kinda creepily if you thought about it too hard, sure. Then again, don’t we all?
Let me tell you what the world is not full of. It is not full of books that make people go, “Boy howdy, I didn’t give half a shit about those characters, but that was some damn fine writing.”
Because if the storytelling ain’t solid, a book is goin’ nowhere. The only people we remember for their exemplary prose are those who have told damn fine stories with it: Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Joan D. Vinge, Terry Pratchett, Peter S. Beagle (at least, from what I’ve read of The Last Unicorn so far). You remember their prose because you were invested as all hell in the yarn they were spinning, not because the prose was incredible all on its own. Fine writing in a vacuum is like the nice china you never actually use. All it can do is sit there and look pretty, but eventually people are going to get bored of staring at the china cabinet.
At that point, they’re gonna go make a sandwich, and they’re gonna put that sandwich on a plate, and that plate will have done its delicious duty. Sure, it’s gonna have to go into the dishwasher later, but it’s accomplished far more than the china in the cabinet.
… I think I got lost in the metaphor.
So, that having been said, there are two ways to keep an audience’s interest: you can have serviceable prose and good storytelling, or you can have good prose and good storytelling.
Moving further along, I posit that there’s a third aspect to writing fiction. Yes, you have Prose and you have Story, but there’s something else. The thing that made luminaries of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov:
But that, friends, is another post.