(Part 1. Part 2.)
In Part 1 of this three part series, we talked about the three forces at work in the process of cleaning: chemical, thermal, and mechanical. If one is not available, success can still be achieved by increasing the amount of the remaining forces.
I believe a parallel can be found in the successful writing of fiction in that it too employs three fundamental forces: language skill; the power of the story; and narrative (or “storytelling”) skill.
As with cleaning, fiction writing ideally employs all three forces. However, if for some reason one is missing, or weak, boosting one or two of the other forces can make up for the deficit.
Let’s consider some examples. Stephen King has sold more novels than Kelloggs has corn flakes, but is he a good writer? I would say yes. His language skills are solid, although not necessarily inspired. But they are appropriate – indeed excellent – for the kind of novel he writes and the kind of reader he reaches. His narrative (storytelling) skills are also quite good on the whole, although one could possibly make some complaint in terms of character development, but his excellent command of suspense compensates for that.
Where King really excels is in the power of the story being told. As a teenager, I was a big fan of King’s earlier (scarier) novels, and I was always struck by how he managed to weave a story around the common but irrational fears that we hold in the dark recesses of our psyches. Fear of the dark. Fear of the unknown. Fear of finding out that what we don’t believe in is, in fact, real. That powerful skill made up for any shortcomings in the other areas.
Mind you, the last time I read a Stephen King novel was during the early years of the Regan administration, so what I say here applies, at least, to Stephen King’s formative years. I can’t say much about the later ones.
There are other examples of successful fiction based primarily on the story. The spy novels of Robert Ludlum and John LeCarre were not bought by the millions because of their author’s skill in turning a phrase. Their success lies in telling strong stories in a competent manner.
A different example of a different weighing of forces: one of my favorite writers is the late Brian Moore. I’ve read almost everything Moore has written, but my favorites are among his early works, like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Doctor’s Wife.
The story in Judith Hearne can be summed up as “an old Irish spinster thinks she’s finally got a crack at landing a guy but becomes even more pathetic when she realizes she’s wrong.” The Doctor’s Wife, which takes place over just a few hours, can be summarized as “An Upper West Side lady has a crisis when her ‘establishment’ armor gets a chink in it.”
Neither sound very inspiring from a story point of view, but both are among the novels I hold most dear. Their success lies in the telling – in terms of both the language skills (Moore uses some stylistic tricks that are barely perceptible but very effective) and the storytelling (pacing and structure, and character development).
Then there’s Ian McEwan. McEwan’s early work is dark and macabre, like King’s, but where King mines the psyche of childhood, McEwan goes after the fears that develop in adulthood. McEwan, too, is a master of the English language, and an excellent storyteller – far better than King at finding the power of minute details.
Like Moore, the subjects of his stories do not always sound very interesting when abstracted, but like Moore, it’s all in the telling. His Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam is a masterly told story of hidden desires and unspoken motivations. Atonement – a novel that I looked forward to more than anything, ever, was so clever in its narrative that at first it almost disappointed. It has a narrative within a narrative, in which the first third of the book reads completely differently from the middle third, which is different from the final third. That first part left me baffled – I didn’t recognize McEwan at all, but by the end it all made sense and I understood why it had been written that way.
The storytelling and the precise language make this quite possibly my favorite novel of all time. If I ever hurl myself over a cliff I’ll do so with a hardcover first edition of Atonement clutched to my chest.
Then there is Anne-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall on Your Knees. MacDonald is also a first-rate writer in terms of pure language skills, and she is also a top-notch storyteller. (Before writing this, her first novel, she had already achieved success as a playwright and actor.)
Fall on Your Knees, however, scores a “hat trick,” a triple-whammy, in that it also tells a big epic story, with twists and turns that leave you blinking hard and turning the pages long into the night. It is a long novel – 566 pages in my well-thumbed trade paperback edition – and arguably drifts into unnecessary tangents occasionally, but otherwise it is flawless and exceptional in its three-sided delivery.
Fall on Your Knees is the only novel I’ve ever read that left me with separation anxiety when I finished it. I just couldn’t bear to put it down. I almost had to take a day off work to deal with the grief of not having any more to read of those characters. If I ever do go over that cliff, I will also be white-knuckling a hardcover first edition of Fall on Your Knees.
That, dear readers, explains the connection between doing your laundry (or the dishes, or mopping the floor) and writing fiction. The idea is that, at least with fiction, there isn’t just one way to do it. If you can balance your weaknesses by working extra hard on your strengths, then you have a good chance of achieving success.
The analogy, like most, is not perfect. With cleaning, for example, the evaluation of the results is fairly objective. The evaluation of the success of a work of fiction is less objective – at least on an individual level. You or I might deem a work a failure because the language skills were not there, or the story was not compelling, or we just didn’t feel like turning the page. But someone else might have a different but equally valid opinion about it.
As readers, some of us are drawn more to one or another of the three forces than are others. In my case, for example, the power of the story itself is less important than the language and narrative skills, as evidenced from my shift in reading from Stephen King to Moore, McEwan, MacDonald, and others.
However, my thesis still stands. The “success” I refer to is in terms of the aggregate. In other words, fiction that meets these criteria for success will find a readership.
It should be noted that another difference between cleaning and fiction writing is that, as I have stated, the cleaner can completely omit one or even two of the forces by increasing the strength of the others. This is less (but not entirely) true of fiction writing.
With fiction writing you can rarely, if ever, get away with a complete removal of one of the forces. All three need to be there to some degree. Rather, the shifting of the scales from one force to another merely shifts the focus of the success of the novel from one group of readers to another.
There. Now you have no excuse. Start writing. (Or cleaning.)