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Writing Books Is More Than Prose

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Chessie2, Jan 14, 2018.

  1. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    On account of Mythopoet's latest thread, which got me thinking about some things, I'd like to post a thread in response (let's pretend this is Youtube and I'm responding to her original idea lol).

    Disclaimer: I don't have any or all of this figured out. If we're measuring success by how many books one author sells, I'm a failure. If we're measuring it by purely prose it's guaranteed I'd get laughed off this site. So, these are just my thoughts that I hope open the way to some discussion about what really matters: story.

    What is story to YOU?

    I've been thinking about this. Some big projects are in store for my portfolio this year. The stories I will be writing mainly focus on something internal I'm trying to understand, share, and figure out through my writing. Story to me is the resolution of what I can't figure out. So this is what I focus on when I write. How do I get the characters from point A--where there's this thing I'm trying to understand about my life--to point B--where I've figured it out using the characters and their conflict in order to heal from something internal. Get me?

    If I constantly focus on how my prose isn't lovely or lacks a je ne sais quoi then I'll never move forward. I'll never get from start to finish. I'll never have more books added to my back list. Writing is something I need. It's something I crave. Story is the magic that happens in those pages that helps me understand something about my journey on this planet. Maybe it's something good. A lot of times it's something else entirely. Focusing on story means locking on the characters and never letting go. When I don't know what comes next I look to them. To the question I want an answer to. What should come next? It eventually reveals itself and story continues.

    What I find unhelpful is shaving off words because I repeated one, or structuring a sentence in another way because someone said so, or whatever. Guess my point is: keep it simple. Why do you pick up a book? That's the very reason to invest in your craft, because you can share that with someone else. Writing advice out there IS generic but that's also because everyone has their individual journeys to explore. But if we're serious about our work reaching others, wouldn't it be best to focus on how you can reach them on an emotional level? Isn't that what story is?
     
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  2. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I think of story as a chance to educate, edify and entertain. I want all three things from the fiction I read, and I want to deliver the same to my readers.

    How prose fits in is tricky. It is the medium by which I can transmit those ideas in my head to another reader. If I could skip all the hard writing stuff and just transmit my stories directly to my readers, unfiltered by language etc life would be easy. Unfortunately I cannot.

    Writers can have a love hate relationship with prose, I know I do. When I hit it just right and it allows me to transmit my ideas in a way that works I love prose. When it gets awkward ofrfails to effectively convey my ideas to the reader, I despise it.

    I completely agree that emotional and intellectual and downright spiritual engagement with the reader is the highest and best from of writing. But you still need that annoying prose to make the connection, and it can be like the difference between a carrier pigeon and a fiber optic line depending on how you do it.
     
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Oh dear, that's a big question. What's story to me?

    The first thing that came to mind was one word: entertainment.
    Sure, the more I think about it, the more complicated the answer gets, because story is so much more than that. I'll try and keep it simple though, so I'll stick with entertainment and elaborate on that.

    So, entertainment...
    When I read a story, I wish to be transported into the world of the story and experience it through the characters involved. Immersion is really important to me. I want to lose myself in the story and leave the real world for a bit.
    This is also the kind of experience I wish to give my readers when they read my stories.

    I guess at it's core that's what it's about for me, and it only took me a little over an hour to write it. There's a lot of room for elaboration though, but I'll get to that once I get home, or another time. ;)
     
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  4. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Entertainment for sure. Wittiness, humor, and engagement are so huge. But are we finding that if we're out of the flow and restrained by language and writing rules?
     
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    You can still find it, but for some writers it may be more difficult as the process becomes more artificial, at least until they’ve internalized the “rules” (if that’s the route they want to go). I think there are plenty of successful books that demonstrate quality of prose, adherence of rules etc. are all secondary. Primary is that you’re telling a story that the reader cares about and wants to go along with you for the ride.
     
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  6. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Honestly, I'm with Russ here... When I pick up a book, the prose absolutely tells me whether I'll enjoy it. Beautiful quicksilver prose tells me the story will be polished, immersive, thoughtful, and that the author will be able to convey all the emotion and tension she means to. Rough or simplistic prose is a sign of deeper issues with writing or editing. I often open to the middle of a book when I take it off the shelf, just to skim through the way the author tells the story. It's not about the action hook on the first page for me, it's about the whole experience of the story. However, this is very much a personal preference--I read slowly and I re-read often. I need books that are enjoyable down to the word, down to the finest detail. In that way, our reactions to prose are much more about "fit" than about some single-axis value judgment. One reader might love lush imagery and be turned off by a casual tone, while another reader might see the first as boring and the second as comfortable and reassuring.

    Well, I'm saying "prose" here, but this is also a reflection on the author's style. What's the difference between refining one's prose and refining one's style? The two are very closely intertwined, I think. I'd like to hear a discussion on the difference from someone with a better grasp on the basics than me...

    However, that's all about reading, and your main point is about writing here, and I think you're totally right. You can't focus on making every word beautiful when you're drafting. Lotta experience with that not working, I'd be the first to back you up on that. But still, polished prose makes a huge difference to the reader. The bridge between those experiential statements is that perhaps we shouldn't be hyperfocused on the reader experience while drafting. Maybe that gets saved for revision, in whatever form that happens.
     
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  7. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    I'm not saying prose isn't important, just that it's less important than the actual story/message.
     
  8. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Of course, but you can't convey a story without prose, can you? For one thing, a reader needs to get all the way through a story to appreciate it. If the prose gets in the way of their immersion or understanding, that's not going to happen. And I find that high-quality prose suggests the quality of the story to come--if the author has invested love and labor into their words, they've likely done the same while crafting their ideas. Same for the labor of an editor and/or publisher behind the book. It may not be a perfect correlation, but it's an easy one for the reader to pick up on.

    N.B. I'm mostly trying to explain where I'm coming from here, not really arguing with you. Before this gets derailed by us all discussing what we value in prose, I'd like to ask what kind of response you're looking for here? Is there something that prompted you to bring this up? Because if you want reassurance to keep writing even if the last sentence you put down sounds kind of dumb, you can totally have it... make a note of that sucker somewhere and keep going. Chances are you'll come back to it and it will have done a magical vanishing act, melting into the surrounding writing because it wasn't actually that dumb to begin with.... *wiggles fingers*

    The paradox here is that, as attentive as I might claim to be as a reader, as a writer I am so much more critical of my own prose than anything else in the universe... The misfortune of seeing how that particular sausage is made, I suppose. Is there a sausage-related metaphor for having terribly high expectations...?
     
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  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, story is about exploring and entertainment. I want to explore ideas, emotions, and worlds while being entertained. Along the way, while reading or writing, maybe I'll find out something about myself, the world I live in, and hopefully, I become a slightly better person because of it.

    When I write, prose is a means to an end. It's the way I communicate my ideas and thoughts to the reader. I can't remember who said this, but reading is the closest thing we have to telepathy. It's thoughts being transmitted from one person to another through prose across distance and across time.

    In most stories I enjoy there are two journeys being taking an external taking place in the physical world and internal/emotional one that takes pace inside a character or characters. For me, I tend to enjoy the emotional journey the most. If a writer nails that IMHO, they'll grab the reader. But this isn't always true. I know people who prefer the wonders and sights of the external journey over the squishy emotional stuff.

    Regardless, for me, prose affects how clearly my story's ideas, emotions, and world are communicated to the reader. It doesn't matter if the prose is simple or elaborate or somewhere in between. All that matters is that it communicate effectively and clearly.

    It doesn't matter what type of delivery truck the package comes in, because the packages is what you want. But that truck better be able to make the trip and deliver on time.
     
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  10. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yeah, I'm with Nimue on this one. I finished Name of the Wind because of the lovely prose. It was a crap story IMO, but I loved the prose so I kept going.

    Lovely, polished, quality prose tells me the writer knows what they are doing.

    Yep. I agree with this too. While prose is important, IMO, it is not something to get bogged down in too early. Story first. Worry about prose in editing. Don't stop writing because you think you have crap prose. Worrying about word choice and style can come later.

    Also, like Nimue says, certain prose lends itself to certain styles of stories. In a story for kids or in a fast paced mystery I expect more concise prose in order to make space for more story and action. In a large, sweeping epic or romance I expect more wordiness (almost purple) to really flesh out world and emotions and imagery. Both are good.
     
  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    As far as to the OP,

    Yes, this is something I have come to terms with over the past few years. I had to get prose out of my head. I do a lot of writing sprints (is that what they are called?) where I set a timer and tell myself I just have to write non-stop until the buzzer goes. Then I get a little break and do it again. I never re-read what I have written until either the chapter or whatever section I'm working on is "finished". Then I go back and just neatly polish it all up. (But never too much because I know that five chapters from now I will have to go back and add some foreshadowing I missed, or characterization I missed, or a red herring I missed and all the nice polishing I did will get scuffed up again).

    Sometimes I change my mind about something I wrote and have to go back and re-write it because I got a better idea overnight, but for the most part I'm pretty surprised by the good stuff I come up with. I find my prose flows a lot better when it is simple, train of thought writing, vs. labouring over every sentence and word.

    Now, as far as "rules".... yeah, there are some rules I follow. In first drafts I tend to use some pretty weak words sometimes, like:

    The sky glowed through the blinds, almost an ominous pink.

    And I always facepalm myself when I come across those and take them out:

    The sky glowed an ominous pink.

    But a lot of that is because with middle grades I have to keep in around 50,000 - 70,000 words and so whenever I can take out unnecessary words and make the language as direct and streamlined as possible, I do it. That way I have more words to spend on important stuff.

    So words like almost, that, 'ly words, directionals etc. are the first I cut just to free up more space for story. Because I'm totally with you, story is king. But if I only have 70,000 words to spend on telling my best possible story, I want to be sure I'm spending those words on words that really matter. Not wasting them on fillers.
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2018
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  12. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    So a writer with more simplistic prose but a better story doesn't know what they are doing?

    Edit: typo
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2018
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  13. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    No, not necessarily. I love simplistic prose. I love the prose of most of the big action/adventure writers today like Clive Cussler or Lee Child. Very simple. Very concise. Very to the point. I don't need fancy prose.

    What I mean is that I have Kindle Unlimited and read quite a bit of pulpy stuff on there. There is some stuff that is just obviously written quickly to be pushed out. I can tell when a writer didn't take their time to properly read it through and edit it. The sentences are sort of clunky. There may be a lack of punctuation or misspelled words. When I see stuff like that I just assume they rushed the story as well. They didn't take the time to really think about the story and care about the story, so I will return those ones and find something that has a more polished prose.

    I don't expect everyone on Kindle to sound like they have been professionally edited. It is a different format. But I expect a certain level of care put in. It shows pride in the story.
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2018
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    The distinctions between prose and story, style and plot, however one phrases it, feels false to me. It's a bit like trying to separate rhythm from melody. One's not more important than the other. As a reader, I've been carried by the story despite the prose (assuming the prose is at least workmanlike), and I've been carried by the prose through the story. Most books I've genuinely enjoyed deliver on both, along with character and setting.

    As for why I write, the easy answer is: because it appears I don't know how to stop. I just keep doing it. But I've hit on a metaphor that feels about right for me.

    Imagine you see something in the distance that catches your eye. The first thing your brain does is try to figure out what you're seeing. It's not even a conscious impulse. It's instinctive, very basic. And you'll stare and squint until your brain says Oh, that's what it is. And then you feel better.

    My stories are like that. They appear first as something indistinct and that creates an itch in my brain. This keeps getting worse. I stare and squint. The only way to know the thing, the only way to scratch that itch, is to write the story. Only then can I say, Oh, that's what that was. And then I feel better, for a while. Until something else catches my eye.

    It doesn't feel like art, though I try my best to be artful. It's just this thing I do, that I must do. I realize other people write for other reasons. That's fine. We're humans. Being inconsistent and contradictory is our specialty.
     
  15. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    For me, story is a chemistry of imaginations.

    Story may be entertaining, it may be educational, it may edify in some way, but for me, none of these are necessary. If I connect with the fiction writer in some way, she has given me a story. If I don't connect at all, there is no story, at least not for me. But maybe there is story there for someone else.

    I don't believe story exists without an audience who accepts it as such. A writer can write all day long, every day, for decades, but if no one reads the writing, it's only words, not story. It can have the most beautiful prose, the most brilliant plot, the most likable characters, but it isn't story until it is shared and consumed. By consumed, I mean that it causes some reaction or response in the reader. The reader takes something from what was read.

    I started writing fiction because I wanted to recreate for others the kind of feeling I had when I read a story that resonated with me. That's still the reason I write fiction now. If there is no one who cares about what I write, I'm writing words, not a story.

    If there are techniques I might use to better connect with potential readers, then I want to know them, and evaluate them for myself. If there is a certain demographic of people most likely to receive my stories well, then let me learn more about them if I want and write to them. But if I'm to connect with any readers, there must be something of myself in my writing. I can't be purely technique and audience-targeting. It also behooves me not to be so unrefined that my work comes off amateurish and the reader puts it down without reading it.

    That's what story is for me. I understand if that's not what it is for others.
     
  16. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    This is a balancing act for me.

    Immersion in a story is a fragile thing. It takes time to build up, and it's very easy to break down. It takes me a while to really get into a story when I'm reading, but it doesn't take much to pull me out of it. One thing that can ruin my immersion is when there are issues with the prose, like if there are actual errors or even just reads clunky.
    Because of this, it's important to me that my prose is easy to read and has a natural flow to it, and in the past I've put a lot of effort into achieving this. Whether I've been successful or not is a different matter, but I did try. I still do, but I'm also trying to get away from polishing the prose too much. It takes a lot of time, and it takes focus away from the story.

    In the current drafts of my Lost Dogs stories the prose is quite rough and unpolished. Partly this is due to me trying out a new style of writing, and partly it's due to not polishing everything all the time. The stories are already outlined, so I knoe how they begin and end and what scenes there are, but I don't know the details of what happens within the scenes.
    My hope is that if I don't spend time angsting over prose the scenes will flow better and I can touch up the prose later in a future draft.

    I've worried a lot about writing rules in the past, but I like to think I'm past that nowadays. What matters to me now as far as prose is concerned is flow. Make the text easy to read. Make it clear what's going on. Give the reader a workable image. Stay in the rhythm, and don't break the flow of words - unless you have to. It's gotta feel good.

    For now, what I try to do is write in a way that feels natural to me, and to do that without stopping to polish every stupid paragraph every single time I accidentally glance up at any line above the current one.

    It's sort of working.

    In the last few months I've written four stories, and rewritten one of them. They all need a lot of work, both when it comes to prose and when it comes to content. If I'd worried about prose as much as I used to I'd probably still be working on the first story, and it'd still need the same amount of rework as far as content goes anyway.
    Once the story content is settled I'm definitely going to do another pass and check the flow of the prose though.

    The way I see it the text is a barrier between the reader and the story, and it's up to me as a writer to help the reader overcome this obstacle without having to struggle too much.
     
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  17. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    As a DJ I may have a lot to say about this...

    In the end I'd probably agree though. :p
     
  18. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Pulp fiction is meant to be written and read fast. It's nothing like lit fic. So of course it's going to seem rushed to you. Maybe it's a matter of preference.
     
  19. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I have some I've really loved because the author put the care in and they were legit great stories. But yes, I think some people are more okay with unpolished prose than others. For me, spelling errors and bad grammar/punctuation read as laziness. If the writer was willing to let that easy stuff go, then what else were they able to let go? Why would I read a story the writer didn't even care enough about to edit?

    But for the most part I have not found too many that were that bad. Just the odd few every now and again.
     
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  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Sure, but there are many different ways to convey story with prose. Dickens, Hemingway, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Lee Child, Dan Simmons...all conveying story, but they're not using nearly the same prose style. Unless you're talking about an extreme case where prose is unintelligible, you can convey a story from anything ranging from poor prose to great prose. On par, in terms of commercial success, I think the story factors mentioned above are primary, and the prose quality secondary.
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2018
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