Writing v. Storytelling

I came to a conclusion this weekend thanks to research for a novel that I decided not to write yet.

When I was in the throes of obsession with starting up a new writing project, my original idea was to bash out a comic mystery that could be the first novel in a character series. Fortunately, my subconscious informed me that this was not the project I was supposed to work on, but rather I was to write Deadline (which has already been chronicled).

But not before I asked my wife to pick up a Janet Evanovich novel for me during her next trip to the library. Evanovich writes comic mysteries about Stephanie Plum, a woman who stumbled into tracking down bail bond jumpers for a living. The titles of her books all have numbers in them; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, et al.

So this weekend I ended up with a copy of Hard Eight in my hands. Since I was struggling with allergies and the side effects of medication for same, I decided to put Cryptonomicon aside and breeze through the Evanovich.

Now I’m sure that Ms. Evanovich is a very nice lady, and she’s certainly had more success in writing than I have, but I didn’t particularly care for what I was reading. I got the distinct feeling that what I was seeing in the pages of Hard Eight was writing as opposed to storytelling.

To start off, early in the first chapter, she broke one of my cardinal rules of writing, the As You Know rule. This is a rule prohibiting dialogue between two characters who explain something that both already know solely for the purpose of enlightening the reader. Such bits of information usually begin with one character or the other saying, “As you know.” Here’s a sample:

COLIN POWELL: You called for me, Mr. President?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes I did. As you know, Colin, on September 11th, 2001, several teams of terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane was apparently scheduled to target Washington, but was brought down when the brave passengers mounted a counter-attack against the terrorists.

There are several literary crimes involved in violating this rule: such an exchange would never take place in real life, it sounds clunky, and it talks down to the reader, who is capable of figuring things out if they are delivered in a different way (such as through a “Why” character – someone who is not familiar with the main character’s world – reporters usually make excellent “why” characters, unless, of course, the novel is set in a news room).

I was ready to let this one pass by because we all make mistakes (although this is Evanovich’s eighth – eighth! – novel in this series). But as I read on, I saw other things that bothered me. For the first chapter or two, Plum (the narrator) would describe characters as being taller or shorter than she was. But I apparently missed the book where she said she was five-foot-two or whatever. The whole taller/shorter than me meant nothing (unless it was symbolic and dense old me just missed it). One character seemed to exist solely to remind Stephanie (and therefore us) of things that happened in the past (meaning other books). And a lot of the humor in the books seemed to exist simply for its own sake, as opposed to rising out of the story. Needless to say, when a character with the last name of “Cloughn” appeared, my first thought was, please don’t let this guy’s name be pronounced, “clown.” I think you can guess the outcome of that little wish.

Now maybe this is a manifestation of King’s Bloat in Evanovich’s writing. I don’t know because I haven’t read any of her other novels. She is a multiple NY Times Best Selling Author now, so her editor could be easing up on her. On the other hand, maybe she has always written this way, and it’s simply her style – in which case, I don’t like it.

Or it could be that she’s not yet in full control of her writing power.

What do I mean by this?

It seems to me that when we start out as writers, we reach a certain point where we realize that there is power in the words we are putting down on paper. We write things that make people laugh or cry or get angry, and when we see it work, we want to do it more and more.

For most of us in this racket, I suspect that this happens in high school, which is why most of our writings from that period are painful for us to read now. We haven’t been through that realization that (forgive me, Stan Lee) with great power comes great responsibility. If you use your power to write shamelessly manipulative fiction, your literary days will be numbered. So we develop internal editors in various ways that hopefully help us keep track of the fact that our primary purpose is to tell a story.

From there, we streamline our writing ability, learning how to ply the power of words while at the same time propelling the story forward. The trick is to integrate everything into the forward motion of the plot; this includes things like humor and characterization.

I’ve mentioned here before how I brazenly cut A Death of Honor by 20 percent, only to see when the reviews came out that I had gutted a lot of the characterization. Since then I’ve been working on having not two pieces of writing (a characterization bit and a propel-the-plot-forward bit) but one (a bit of characterization that propels the plot, or plot propulsion that reveals, develops or builds character).

So you take the step from writer to storyteller when you restrain the urge to plant a joke or a character bit for their own sake, instead making such things subservient to the plot. Even Al Capp understood that – and he was drawing a comic strip, for crying out loud.

Well, that’s the one good thing about writing. You get better as you do it. I may not be where I want to be yet, either, but each word I commit to a project gets me that much closer.

As for Ms. Evanovich – I’ll finish Hard Eight and see how I feel about it when I get to the end. Perhaps I’ll find a rationalization for Attorney Cloughn’s existence. But it had better be an amazingly good one.

NP – Dandy Warhols, Welcome to the Monkey House


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