Guest post by Ian McHugh
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lots of people (ie, jealous writers) love to disparage novelists like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer for the quality of their writing. It’s clunky, repetitive, boring, grammatically questionable and blah. At the same time, they love to idolise writers who possess a lyrical command of prose, like Margaret Atwood or Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin. I think they’re missing the point.
Quality of prose isn’t what makes a novel a bestseller. The story is what makes a novel sell. Rowling and Meyer are great storytellers: they’ve mastered the art of telling stories that appeal to their target audiences. Competent prose is a necessary part of that success – or, if you extend the net to writers like Dan Brown and E.L. James, functional prose (meow, saucer of milk for me etc). Lyrical brilliance? Not so much. Sure, it’s nice to read beautiful prose, but it’s not an essential ingredient to a successful novel. The secret sauce isn’t in the prose, it’s in the story.
(Note that I’m talking about commercial success here, rather than literary “greatness”. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but neither are they always associated with the same works.)
Above at least a recognisable level of technical competence (because, let’s face it, if you can’t string together a comprehensible sentence, your story’s going nowhere) the story is everything. Story is everything and character is story. What the most successful novelists do is deliver their audiences exactly the right characters to engage their interest, and then deliver the stories that make those characters live and breathe, that captivate their audiences and keep them coming back for more.
I think this can present a challenge when making the transition between short and long-form storytelling. The reason is that I think the balance between writing and storytelling is different in short stories to what it is for novels. Not that quality of prose is irrelevant for novels or that good storytelling is unimportant for short stories. But I think for short stories the quality of the prose is relatively more important – the precision of the words is vital, because you have far fewer of them to work with to develop your characters and engage the reader in their story. At the same time, the storytelling demands are relatively less – the stories themselves are necessarily less complex than in a novel, because the constraints of space demand it.
This idea is something that I’ve really struggled to come to grips with in writing a novel: that I might be more than competent as a writer to take on a novel, but as a storyteller I’m putting my L-plates back on and that it’s these storytelling skills that are now most important. It’s a fundamental shift in approach – not to allow myself to write badly, but maybe to just loosen my grip a little, to trust that the prose will either take care of itself or can be fixed up later and, at the same time, to dedicate the bulk of my attention, not only more to the story, but to a whole different scope and scale of story.
It’s like going from driving a car to driving a semi-trailer. All the basics of steering and pedals and gears, road rules and traffic sense are translatable and will serve you in the larger vehicle, but you need to develop a whole new sense of spatial awareness, of clearance heights and stopping distances, and whole new skill sets, like reversing an articulated trailer that’s upwards of twelve metres long and weighs several tonnes. I think going from writing short stories to writing novels is a similar kind of leap. While all the skills you’ve developed as a short story writer are valuable, they’re not the complete set of skills or, at least, not the fully developed set of skills that you need to write a novel. Speaking from experience, failure to comes to terms with that and assuming that short fiction has given you all the skills you need can leave you with a beautifully written but terrible draft of a novel.*
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* The astute reader may note that this sounds very close to contradicting my earlier post, advocating short story writing as a way to prepare yourself for writing novels. Screw you, astute reader, I’m both right.