Story versus Style

What’s more important – that a book is well written or that it has an engaging story? I’ve always been firmly on the side of story. If the story isn’t compelling then it surely doesn’t matter how beautifully it’s been written. That’s what I’ve always thought, at least. However, I am now reading a book that’s making me rethink my position. I managed to get my greedy fingers on not one, but two, of the titles for World Book Night, one of which was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is 348 pages and I am up to page 116, and I am completely and utterly gripped – not by the story, but by the writing. It is one of the most exquisitely written books I have ever come across – and I do consider myself to be pretty well read. There is an effortlessness in every sentence and I feel like this book is showing me just how great the written word can be.

So far this year I have read a lot of just-released books, and have found many of them to be insipid and bland, and now that I am reading Marquez, those other books seem even more insubstantial and unsatisfying – like having a glass of water for dinner as opposed to a three course meal. Time of Cholera is something to really get your teeth into and, right now – just over 100 pages in – I feel like the book is nourishing my reader’s soul. I am not massively engaged with the characters or their story (although I suppose that could still change), but, with this book, it honestly doesn’t matter. I feel almost hungry for Marquez’s words. How refreshing to read a book that is not a fast-driven frenzy of activity from beginning to end. What a welcome change for there to not be some sort of fight scene or car chase on every page. This is a book that allows itself to breathe – and is all the better for it.

Pace is something I am painfully aware of with my own writing. I’m aware of a constant pressure to make sure the action doesn’t slow down, even for a second, in case – God forbid – the reader gets bored, and the reviewers begin baying for your blood etc etc. Surely we have not sunk so low as a society that all we want to see is pretty people running away from explosions? It is a notion that I dislike intensely. Not so much for Lex Trent or other comic fantasies because they’re naturally more fast-paced – but for serious adult books I find it very frustrating that there should be such a single-minded focus on grabbing the reader’s attention by doing the writing equivalent of bashing them over the head with a heavy object. Personally, I generally dislike books that start with action scenes or fights or chases. They bore me. If I don’t know the characters yet then I couldn’t care less what happens to them as they run madly through the house whilst being pursued by a werewolf/man with gun/love-sick sparkly vampire. Still, I am told that this is what most people want in an opening chapter.

In the story versus style debate I would hold up Dan Brown as a brilliant example of the former. I realise it’s dreadfully unfashionable of me to like Dan Brown, and many people (some of whom openly admit to having never even picked up one of his books) seem to almost fall over themselves in their eagerness to proclaim that the man cannot write, or that his writing style is clumsy at best. I do not accept this. I think Dan Brown is a very skilled and intelligent thriller writer, and no aspirations to literary snobbery will make me say otherwise. Dan Brown does not write beautifully but the stories he tells do not require that he should. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code but I absolutely loved The Lost Symbol. I devoured it because every time I got to the end of a chapter I couldn’t wait to learn what was going to happen next. It gripped me very differently from the way Time of Cholera is gripping me now.

I am in awe of Marquez’s writing – literally, I am in awe of him – but I’m still more likely to take a Dan Brown book on holiday with me, or reread a Dan Brown book, or rush to the cinema to see a film adaptation. I am still more likely to eagerly seek out other work of Brown’s that I have not yet read – not because I think his books are better than Marquez’s but because, for me, story is still more important than style. I read Brown’s books – and others like them – for a different reason. Fundamentally, I read those books to enjoy them as a reader, whereas a book like Love in the Time of Cholera I’m reading mainly as something to aspire to as a writer – a fondly nurtured dream that perhaps if one worked at it solidly for fifty years or more, one might become even half as good.  

And now, as a post script to this post, for anyone who hasn’t heard about this yet, my good pal, and blogger extraordinaire, Amanda Rutter, along with several other very fine people, have organised and set up an auction in aid of the Red Cross Japanese Tsunami Appeal. I’d like to encourage you to head on over to http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/ where you can bid on all manner of exciting things, including rare signed books, critiques from authors and the chance to have your name in an author’s upcoming book. There is some super exciting stuff up for grabs – and, as a genre fan, some of the lots have left my fingers itching to reach for my credit card. As an example, if you’d like to be a baddie who dies horribly, but has some great powers (and who wouldn’t?!), in my friend Suzanne McLeod’s upcoming Spellcrackers novel then go here http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/item-27-appearance-in-the-next-suzanne-mcleod-novel/ and place your bid. I’d bid on this myself if I hadn’t just donated to Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support. Sadly, animals tend to get overlooked in natural disasters of this type but they are just as much in need of aid as their human counterparts. If I and my whole family were killed in an earthquake and my spoilt, pampered pets were left to fend for themselves I would hope to God that there would be someone there to help them. If you’d like to donate to their ongoing efforts on behalf of animals in Japan then you can do so here: http://japanearthquakeanimalrelief.chipin.com/japan-earthquake-animal-rescue-and-support/

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Mr Darcy versus Mr Bingley

I’ve recently been reading Jessica Morrell’s Bullies, Bastards and Bitches, which is, ostensibly, about writing villains, but also discusses heroes, unsympathetic protagonists, dark heroes and bad boys. It’s a fantastic book, nicely set out, with some very interesting observations about characterisation, and I would highly recommend it to any aspiring (or, indeed, professional) writer. At one point it talks about alpha males and beta males and uses Mr Darcy as an example of the former, and Mr Bingley as an example of the latter. Morrell suggests that women want to marry a Mr Bingley but want to read, and fantasise about, Mr Darcy. It’s an interesting and, I think, accurate suggestion.

Mr Darcy – and most of the romantic male leads in the Madeleine Brent books – are, in some ways, anachronistic. Women do not depend on men in the same sort of way in the modern world, and marriage is not a woman’s sole preoccupation. When I studied A Level Sociology, we looked at articles from the 1950’s giving advice to wives and I remember being particularly horrified by a passage suggesting women take a nap shortly before their husbands were due to arrive home so that they would be suitably refreshed to receive him. They were then to change their dress, put a new ribbon in her hair, and greet the husband at the door with his slippers. In addition, they should not be the ones to instigate conversation because the husband has had a long day and might be tired etc. That being the case, the last thing he wants is a chattering wife bleating dull, domestic trivialities in his ear. Garghh! It’s just too awful! And only fifty years ago!

So, this is a problem with some male romantic leads like Mr Darcy. It might have been fine back then, but modern women do not want such over-bearing coddling. The feminist in me revolts against this character type.

And yet . . .

Who can deny that there is an appeal in spite of all this? I have recently watched the excellent Lost in Austen and am now re-watching the definitive Pride and Prejudice (of Mr Colin Firth renown), and I will admit that I am as much enamoured with Mr Darcy as the rest of the female audience/readership. I will also admit that I am an avid reader of the Madeleine Brent books, even though I feel they are something of a guilty pleasure. I feel I ought not to like them – being modern and all – but I am hooked regardless.

But much as I enjoy Darcy’s character in the book and TV adaptations, a real life version is really the very last thing I would want. And that is because, for me, a Darcy ceases to be interesting as soon as he professes his love. As soon as he does that, he is no longer cold and immovable but just another silly sap mooning after a woman. The book has to end with the marriage because nothing would be interesting after that. You want the characters to get to that point but have no interest in reading beyond it. Nobody likes gooey love, after all.

This is why I think that Jessica Morrell’s suggestion above is an accurate one. Marriage to Darcy may sound great on the face of it, but in reality? Surely one of the most important aspects of a relationship is that you are able to have fun with your partner. For example, I’m not sure that I could have a long-lasting relationship with a guy who refused to wear a silly hat at a Christmas party. There is always one whose vanity forbids it. And there is always one who collects the spare hats, and ends up wearing two, or even three silly hats all at the same time. The cold aloof Darcy routine is fine for creating mystique etc, but it might start to wear a little thin once you were actually married.

So although at first it seems quite odd to suggest that women might prefer one kind of man in dreams, and another in real life, I think there is definitely some truth to this. I don’t know if the same thing applies to male readers having an ideal female character in film/literature but quite a different ideal woman in real life. Presumably the same principle might apply, although I haven’t seen as much evidence of it.

I suppose the point is that characters like Mr Darcy drive the story more, so they are far more exciting and entertaining to read about. Characters like Mr Bingley (or, say, John-Boy Walton, or George Bailey), whilst being ideal husband material, are not exciting, so they do not get to take on the smouldering romantic roles in a book (or film). Perhaps the difference is that real life cannot be exciting all the time – and who would want it to be? As Morrell points out, alpha males are not going to be the types to stumble out of bed to see to the baby in the middle of the night, or clean out the cat tray – or, indeed, take great delight in wearing lots of silly hats at a party. And, much as I love Mr Darcy in the context of his own little fantasy world, in real life I would always rather be with the guy wearing three hats rather than the guy who is too far above himself to even pull a cracker with someone, let alone wear the paper hat inside it.

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Paper versus PC

Something I get asked about a lot is whether I write on paper or on the computer. The answer is that I write on the computer, partly because I’m lazy (and so have no wish to spend time typing up handwritten stuff later), and partly because that just works better for me. I wish that I could write on paper. Somehow it seems more writerly to be sat there with a pen and notebook. Very Austen-ish and Bronte-ish and Poe-ish. But, quite aside from the fact that my handwriting is almost illegible, even to me, and that I would almost certainly lose the notebook eventually, the main problem I have with writing on paper is that it’s too difficult to move paragraphs around or rephrase sentences. You end up with a lot of messy crossings out and scribblings. I can make notes on paper happily enough, but actually writing part of a novel directly onto paper is something I find quite trying.

Recently, though, I’ve been forcing myself to write on paper sometimes for the simple reason that I can then go out to the garden. This is nice because it means that Moose can run around and release some pent up energy. It’s also good because I can be working whilst at the same time eating ice cream and drinking beer. Or wine. But not too much beer or wine, obviously, because writing when you’re drunk doesn’t tend to yield particularly good results. Ahem.

Anyway, the point is that working in the garden with sun and ice cream and beer, at hours that suit me, is one of the great things about being an author. I cringed recently when I heard of a company that insists their employees raise their hands and ask permission to go to the toilet in order that the time they’re away from their desks can be timed. Eh? What? Seriously?

I still prefer writing on the computer because I hate having to waste time typing up stuff later. But I’ve found that I can write on paper if I have to, as long as I have a really pretty, girly notebook, and a funky pen. Thankfully, having been to America recently, I am well stocked up on funky pens, including some particularly cool ones from the Rainforest Cafe. 

On a related note, I can’t write if there’s music on, and I certainly couldn’t write in a coffee shop as I know some other writers do. I need quiet because I need to be able to think, and I generally can’t do that if there’s too much going on around me.

Lex Trent is the exception to the above. I’ve written scenes for Lex whilst on a packed train, on holiday, and various other noisy, public places. This is not something I would ever usually be able to do but Lex comes to me so easily that I believe I could write a Lex Trent book on the walls of a cave using nothing but a stick of charcoal. He takes over my head so completely that I’m simply not aware of anything else that may be going on around me. Lex aside, though, much as I have enjoyed being all Austen and stuff, writing in a notebook underneath the pear tree in the garden whilst the dogs enjoy a rare bit of sunshine, and the tortoises walk mashed up bits of food around their pen, I still would take the PC over the paper every time.

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