I am in a rut. I haven’t read a book that I truly loved in too long. You know the kind I’m talking about—a book that won’t let you put it down, one that you recommend to everyone you meet, that you might not lend because you know you’re going to read it again.
This is my fault, I think. Since deciding to write full-time years ago, I’ve gravitated towards high-brow literary novels. You know the kind I’m talking about—a book that makes you feel unworthy as a writer, one that you talk about with your more literary friends but don’t recommend, one that you’ll happily lend out because you didn’t even finish it and will never touch it again.
There are reasons why I torture myself with the likes of Updike, Roth, Pynchon et al. I wasn’t an English major in college and then came to the writing game late. As such, I feel like I have to compensate by flash frying my brain with writers of exceptional talent. Over this past weekend, I was at the beach with a large group of friends and more than half of them were reading one of the books from the Stieg Larsson trilogy (The Girl with/who…). If you haven’t read them (like me), they’re crime novels, good ones apparently. Good enough to sell 40+ million copies worldwide as of this spring.
Because I haven’t read any of Larsson’s books, I was left out of the conversation all weekend. Currently, I’m reading Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon. It seems like it will be a good book but after 100 pages I still don’t know what’s going on. There’s a set of twins, one schizophrenic the other not, a guy with a severed hand, and a couple who moves to the Midwest for mysterious reasons. It’s very well written. But, with all due respect to the author, I’m quite sure it hasn’t sold 40 million copies worldwide.
Which reminded me of an important lesson for my own writing: plot is king. As writers, we all love literary acrobatics—a well-turned metaphor, one-word sentences, shifting POVs—but readers love story. And if you want to get published, you’ll learn sooner or later that the customer is always right. Ask any agent or editor and they will tell you that a good story can overcome bad writing (but rarely the opposite) any day.
I learned this lesson painfully. When I turned in an early draft of my most recent manuscript to my agent at the time, I was very impressed with the quality of my writing. I’d worked hard to make it flow. I played with sentence structure and variation. I felt like an artist. My then-agent read it in a week and called me to tell me that we were parting ways. I was devastated. When I asked why, she bluntly told me that she didn’t buy the plot; she didn’t believe that it was remotely conceivable and therefore couldn’t sell it.
It was a hard lesson, but one that I took to heart. I dedicated the next two drafts of my manuscript to re-working the plot, adding elements, turns and arcs that made it both believable and compelling. I added a murder. I stripped away characters that didn’t add to the story, cut scenes and dialogue that didn’t advance the plot. I simplified language and made the structure linear.
The result, I hope, is a much cleaner and gripping story, one that serves the plot and not the prose. Because, as much as I’d like to write like Dan Chaon, I’d rather sell like Stieg Larsson.
The question this week is: How do you make—and keep—your story plot-driven?