Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Deep Thoughts

by David Ellis

It’s three in the morning and I can’t think of a topic for this blog so I’m going to throw out some thoughts I had and see how this goes. I did this before and nobody complained. Then again, maybe nobody read it.

1. “I greatly prefer a good story to good writing.” This is a quote from an author I respect. I’m sure all of us writers would like to think we don’t have to choose between the two, but it’s an interesting thing to debate. My initial reaction is that I prefer good writing. For example, with my favorite novelists, I like to pick up their books from time and time and just open them to any page and start reading, just for the sheer pleasure of the prose. Pretty much anything Joyce Carol Oates has written will inspire me in some way—different ways, depending—or Scott Turow, another of my heroes. Recently Tana French has joined that club. It is a happy fringe benefit that their stories are compelling, too, but I think I would enjoy reading their description of dust settling or paint drying.

But do I prefer that to a good story? I actually think not. Other than fancying the darker side a little, I think I’m a pretty mainstream reader of commercial fiction. I still read many of John Grisham’s novels, for example, which would not go on most people’s lists of well-written but contain good basic story lines. I don’t think he ultimately executes his ideas as well as I’d like but he can still set up a nice dilemma. And I keep reading them.

The more interesting question, my point here, is from the viewpoint of the author. If I had to choose, would I rather have someone say my book was extremely well-written but the story was boring, or the prose left a lot to be desired but the ultimate story itself was quite gripping? I’m not sure why but I think I would rather that people respected my prose than the plot, if I had to choose.

If it weren’t three in the morning, I might be able to come up with some argument that a good story is good writing, or something deep like that. It’s actually a quarter to four now so it’s not going to happen.

2. I was just in France researching for a novel. Here is a lesson I learned in France. Don’t get arrested in France.

3. Keeping with this theme of being arrested in a foreign country, I wrote a while back about how the press doesn’t cover stories well enough, doesn’t give enough detail, etc., and I was just thinking about this Amanda Knox thing in Italy. The general gist of the coverage is that she’s innocent. But I heard one commentator talk about how Amanda Knox, the morning after the murder, was waiting for a store to open so she could go in and buy bleach … and then the whole apartment was scrubbed with bleach, before the authorities arrived. True? False? I would not by any means put her down as guilty based on that fact alone—I’ve been a lawyer way too long to jump to conclusions—but that is a rather damning fact that I didn’t know, if indeed it is a fact at all. The bigger point is that there must be all kinds of inculpatory and exculpatory information from that trial that we know nothing about. Frustrating.

4. Did you know that in France, they can detain you for at least 48 hours and interrogate you without the presence of a lawyer, without a phone call, without any outside contact whatsoever?

5. I was complaining to someone the other day that the plots of my novels don’t make for good “elevator pitches.” You know, a four-sentence, thirty-second summary. I think in some silly way this has been a source of pride for me, like my stories are somehow too deep or intricate to lend themselves to such summaries. But as I have thought about it more, I am beginning to think that the elevator pitch is more than just a marketing idea—it is good discipline. It makes you hone your story. If you can’t give a compelling summary in a few sentences, maybe your story isn’t as good or tight as you think it is. I have found, as I mature in this business, that I am trying to make my plots less complex, not more.


Michele Emrath said...

It's good to hear you recommend Tana French, because I have just put her on my "to read" list. Unfortunately that list is long, and it takes a while to get through this time of year.

I think I would agree a good story can override bad writing, but the opposite is also true. I mean, how bad are we talking?

I think I will trust you on #2. Though I would like to be in France to at least have the option of experiencing it for myself!

And now you're just rambling...But interesting rambling. : )


Kevin Guilfoile said...

I only know as much about the Amanda Knox case as I read in the papers, but anyone who's read THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE, Douglas Preston's chilling non-fiction book about an Italian serial killer, will note that Giuliano Mignini, the corrupt prosecutor in that book, is also the prosecutor in the Knox case. It would seem like Amanda Knox, guilty or not, didn't stand much of a chance.

Dana King said...

I'm another who will sometimes open a favorite book just to revel in the prose. Both story and writing need to be good for a great book, but, if I have to choose one--and assume the other meets some minimum standard--I'd go with writing every time.

I'm not a fan of elevator pitches. I see why they're a necessary evil, but I hate trimming down a story I spent a year-and-a-half fleshing out so the characters and plots are three-dimensional into thirty seconds.

Let me see if I have this right: You were arrested and held for 48 hours in France and can't think of a topic for a blog post? Really?

David Ellis said...

I wasn't arrested, Dana! My research centered around the criminal justice system in France, though, which is why I made that admittedly cryptic reference.

Mike Dennis said...

Good story or good writing? I don't know, David. You pay your money and you take your chances.

But I know that David Goodis' "The Blonde On The Street Corner" has no discernible story line to speak of, nor does it feature any memorable characters, yet it contains some of the toughest, darkest prose I've ever read.

On the other side of the coin, "The Godfather" has a reputation for being, shall we say, less than stellar writing. However, I have yet to hear an explanation as to how a compelling, operatic story, with vivid characters who continue to resonate 40 years after it was published, can possibly qualify as bad writing.

David Ellis said...

Thanks, Mike, and I completely agree. The Godfather is perhaps the best example. If it's a story that moves you and gives you memorable characters and moments, then the prose must have been good enough ... or even shrewdly got out of the way to let the story shine. Interesting.

Dana King said...

David, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. If you're stuck for a blog post and have this hard-earned knowledge of the French criminal justice system, who are we to say you weren't arrested? You could tell us you were convicted and pulled a reverse Polanski and we'd go for it.

I read somewhere THE GODFATHER was the best bad book ever written. As I agree with everything Mike and David said here, that seems a fair assessment.