It is an unfortunate truth in life, that most talented writers die broke. More often than not, these word virtuosos die in insane asylums, heavily medicated and drooling at the mouth with their hair sticking up in places. Why do so many great writers fail while mediocre writers flourish? It comes down to storytelling versus prose.
To be clear, when I say prose I’m referring to the type of carefully crafted sentences you find in upscale literary fiction. You know… the kind that sits on the shelf and looks smart but never actually gets read. In recent years the line between prose and poetry has blended until they are virtually identical. New York publishing houses have pushed otherwise competent storytellers to inject more poetry into their prose in an effort to drag the unwashed masses into the light of pure artistic rapture. Fortunately, the unwashed masses have refused to budge. And for good reason. Good stories don’t thrive on flowery prose. In fact, too much poetry will kill a story.
It’s no secret that most artists fail to turn a profit from their art. Since the rise of humanism, artists have struggled to make a living from their art (but that’s another post for another time) and writers are no exception. And, like painters or musicians, it is seldom the most talented who turn their work into commercial success. Take two of the biggest names in the industry; James Patterson and Stephen King. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these guys rake in money like it falls from the sky. On the surface, they seem as far apart in style and method as Taco Bell is from Le Cirque. One is a pantser, the other is a plotter. One writes horror, the other writes detective novels. Stephen King is, in this writer’s humble opinion, sort of a jerk for constantly bashing James Patterson. While Patterson, for the most part, has nothing but nice things to say about others in his field. (Read into that what you will.) But there is one thing these writers share; they are both storytellers.
What do I mean by that? Pick up a book by either and you will find that they both use simple language, mostly declarative sentences, and little if any flowery prose gets in the way of the story. Ex; He stood up, crushed out his cigarette and walked to the door.
Creative writing professors read a statement like that and shudder. “What about the art?” they decry. “It has no lyrical flow!” To these tweed coat wearing academics, a story without creative prose chocked full of heart achingly beautiful sentences, is not worthy of the effort. Certainly, any story without masterfully constructed prose is not worthy of being read and only contributes to the further desecration of the art. That’s why these literary esthetes avoid anything resembling commercial fiction, both in their personal reading and in their own writing. It’s also why they must teach college classes to pay the rent.
My guess is, if you are a talented writer, you may have read that last paragraph and, like the creative writing professor, experienced an involuntary twinge. If you’re a storyteller, you’re nodding along. You already see where I’m going with this.
Reality is, both Stephen King and James Patterson are commercially successful because, despite their differences, they are both storytellers. In fact, looking at my nearest bookshelf, I see James Rollins, Robert Ludlum, Vince Flynn, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Michael Connelly, Brad Thor, Robert B Parker, Ross MacDonald, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Thomas Harris. All best-sellers and hardly a poetic line between them. We could argue that Hammett, MacDonald and Raymond Chandler are all literary heavy weights with a stripped down, bare-knuckle poetry which reads as beautifully as Yeats or Longfellow, but at the time they published they were derided as uncouth barbarians whose ribald tales of lust and murder sullied the name of art. It only proves my belief that academics wouldn’t know literary genius if it kicked them in the beans and it takes them a full generation or two to catch up with the rest of us.
Furthermore, after more than a decade spent working in a book store, I’m hard pressed to think of a single, modern, commercially successful author known for poetic turn of phrase. The days of Jane Austin and Charles Dickens are long gone. People want fast paced, easy to read and easy to digest, stories that keep them entertained on the train.
Which brings us back to my original statement; storytellers make money and poets die broke. The fact is, I know a lot of writers who are more talented than me. Their names and numbers are in my phone. They wait tables, drive delivery trucks, and serve coffee. Some of them also teach creative writing. I had a girlfriend in college who could write ten pages of immaculate prose describing the sun rising over a meadow in the Springtime. Her professors wept tears of joy at the pure genius she demonstrated in her use of language. As far as talent goes, she blows me out of the water, but she spends her days in a cubical working for an ad agency.
I hope it doesn’t sound petty, or like I’m trying to brag. I’m not. I freely admit I’m a little jealous of these literary artists. If I could combine great storytelling with beautiful prose, that would be the best of both worlds. But I’m a storyteller at heart. The point I’m trying to make is this; often beautiful prose gets in the way of telling a good story. My college sweetheart could write ten pages of beautiful description, but in the end, it wasn’t a story. Writing ten pages of lyrical prose is easy. Writing four hundred and fifty pages of lyrical prose while trying to shoe-horn in an exciting plot which holds the reader’s interest, is next to impossible.
Nine times out of ten, girls are the victims of talent when it comes to writing. It is exceedingly rare that I meet a man whose ability with the written word hinders him from telling a good story. Guys tend to write the same way plumbers go about their work; make it all fit, wrap duct tape around the leaky parts, and call it a day. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done. Women on the other hand view storytelling the same way a seamstress goes about making a wedding dress. It might be beautiful with all that delicate lace, but it’s not very practical. You only wear it once and you have to handle it with kid gloves. These are often the writers who turn out really beautiful poems and not much else. When they do try to write a book, they spend all their time writing and re-writing the first ten pages. They are almost 100% pantsers and they still believe in the idea of the next great American novel.
The best advice I can offer to these literary Mozarts is to take a step back and realize that story is more like a house than a beautiful dress. You can’t build it without a solid foundation. It needs wood, concrete, and plumbing. It needs parts that might not be pretty to look at, but without them, the first strong gust of wind will knock the whole thing down. If your goal is to make a living as an author, simple clear sentences which convey meaning are more powerful than all of that breathtaking verbiage creative writing professors fawned over. To tell a good story, you have to get down to brass tacks, and there’s really no lyrical way to say he took a dump.
As a writer, you have a choice; you either learn to be a storyteller, or content yourself with publishing a few poems in the local literary review and keep working your day job.
If you are up for a challenge, write a 250 word story (one page only) using simple sentences and one or two syllable words. (Absolutely NO adverbs!) I think you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to tell an interesting tale when you aren’t muddying up the waters with all that poetry.