Monday, June 6, 2011

"The Fine Art of Subtlety"

Or "If It's Subtle, It Will Most Likely Go Over My Head."

I was reading the winning story for a contest. The story was printed in the website's newsletter followed by a printing of it with the editor's comments.

In many ways it was a great story, and I can see why it won the prize. But there was one thing that bothered me.

The editor raved about how wonderfully subtle the author was through the whole thing, so that you knew something was up with the MC, but you didn't know what it was until the end.

I enjoyed the story, but apparently I missed the punch line. I never figured out what was "wrong" with the MC. At least, not until the editor mentioned it at the end of her review. And then I had the lifted eyebrow accompanied with a confused "Huh?" sound. I read it again, trying to see where that "Ah-ha!" moment should have happened.

I simply didn't see it.

I guess this is a thorn in my side when it comes to writing because I am not a person who likes complications in stories. I don't mind being kept in suspense for a while, I don't mind not knowing who-dun-it until the end. But I do mind when the story is so convoluted with twists and subplots that I have a difficult time staying with the story until the end.

Why does it seem so bad nowadays to write a simple story that entertains you from beginning to end? I sometimes feel like I won't have the mental capacity to make it in this writing thing.

Another thing slightly related to this (well, perhaps not): It seems reviewers and readers complain when something isn't realistic enough. You have to practically be a doctor to write a story that involves hospitals. Or you have to have a degree in the sciences to write a space odyssey. Whatever happened to writing a story that may be impossible, but is entertaining nonetheless?

I read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series a few years ago and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. But if you think about it, most of the details sound like the author made it up on the fly without any sort of research into anything at all.

There are so many rules to writing, it can get frustrating trying to please everyone just to sell your work. You start to feel like you're trying to break into a very elite club with beefy bodyguards that rip your work to shreds and leave you sobbing on the sidewalk.

So coming back to the subtlety issue, how subtle is too subtle? I'll admit it: I'm probably more easily entertained then most people. I read reviews tearing into popular novels and deploring the horrible writing style of the author, and meanwhile I'm sitting there thinking, "I kind of liked it. Was it really that bad?"

Here's a great contradiction. I'm told in books on writing that novels need to be more detailed, more realistic because the public is so much better informed than it was decades ago. You have to research and research and research to make sure you don't make a fool of yourself. And yet when I get an accepted piece edited, they want to dumb down the language so readers will be able to understand it easier?

Not to sound like I'm touting myself, but I like to think I'm decently smart. My husband complains that his head hurts when I use big words. I read voraciously. I loved Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harper Lee in high school. But I don't want my life further complicated by what I read. I like simple, entertaining stories that take me away from the mundane world for a while. I like writing those kinds of stories, too.

I guess I'm just praying that there are still others out there like me, and that this writing journey of mine is not a lost cause.

Now I'm going to hug my cats and go back to reading "The Twentieth Wife."


Matthew said...

I have a similar problem, particularly w/ fantasy. I've found I prefer plot driven stories. I like a good, clear conflict pursued w/ strong narrative drive. Problem is, the trend today seems to be character driven writing, where they're so busy telling you what every single person is wearing and what they had for breakfast that they never get around to telling a story. I've pretty much given up on fantasy writers today because they're more interested in describing a place than telling a story. Blame Harry Potter!

Charles Pergiel said...

There are all kinds of books and all kinds of readers. I despised Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code", I thought it was utter garbage. My opinion didn't keep it from selling a zillion copies, and it made a pretty good movie. Just ignore the beefy bodyguards, they can't hurt you unless you let them. Keep talking to people until you find someone who will promote your work.

I really like Neal Stephenson's books, but I have to be on top of my game in order to be able to enjoy them. If I am not feeling up there is no point in even trying to read them, better to read something simpler.