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Writer’s Craft #128 – Beyond “Crack” Literature: Valuing Complexity in Entertainment

August 5, 2013
Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams, Author of Okal Rel Saga

Your host, Lynda Williams, is the author of the Okal Rel Saga (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing) and editor of the Okal Rel Legacies series (Absolute Xpress). She also works as Learning Technology Manager for Simon Fraser University and teaches an introductory web development course at BCIT. For a list of Okal Rel titles see: Lynda Williams on Amazon.com.


We’ve all been there, in the audience at a writer’s conference or at a blue pencil session, getting brow-beaten by the marketing mavens of the book trade who tell us:

 

* Make that first sentence so hot it’s irresistable.
* Connect your work to something famous that people recognize instantly.
* Summarize the whole thing in a sentence.

I hereby brand this phenomenon crack literature. Front load the bang. Ask nothing of your reader but the purchase.

My personal antedote this month is the wonderful review of Part 1: The Courtesan Prince, by Derek Newman-Stille on his blog, Speculating Canada.

Derek says: “The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.”

I’m proud of that.

* If someone buys my book, there’ll be something more for that reader beyond the first sentence. In fact, they might re-read the whole thing more than once.

* And while I recognize the need to speak in terms of connections to what is familiar, I’m proud of the Okal Rel Saga for being original. If that means readers have to do a little work up front, in the end the bang is so much bigger.

* As to summarizing the whole thing in one sentence, sure. Gene Roddenberry had to sell Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars”. But let’s not allow ourselves, as writers, to forget the goal is to produce something worthwhile.

What do you think?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2013 6:50 am

    Agree x 1000. When art starts down the road of having to fit into a formula, sad days are ahead. So little credit is given to readers when everything is distilled down to the lowest common denominator. I love a story that challenges me or surprises me. And while a writer does need to spark my interest, I do not need everything spelled out for me on page one.

  2. August 5, 2013 7:52 am

    Yes… but I’ve often heard this argument stated by writers (especially new writers) as a reason for not listening to any constructive criticism. I think there’s a balance to be struck here, and that applies whether a piece is literary or commercial or somewhere in between.

  3. August 5, 2013 3:44 pm

    Personally, I find a lot of value in being able to describe an entire novel in 30 words or less. I use Holly Lisle’s formula of including the protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, and the differentiating twist in one sentence. It’s great for elevator speeches with agents at conferences, or explaining to your (non-writer) family just what you’re trying to write, or simply keeping me focused on where I’m going with the manuscript. It can also form the basis for the back cover blurb and makes a good opening for a query letter.

    • August 6, 2013 1:07 pm

      All really good, solid business reasons for doing it. All you need to do is cook an entire, complex novel into a formula and make sure the wording is catchy. Doesn’t matter if it does a rich, deep plot justice or not. In fact, it doesn’t even have to have anything to do with the actual plot at all. The point is just to sell it, market it, get people to read it.

      And when I write something like that, I feel like I just played patty-cake with a slug. There is this huge, yawning gulf between who I am as a writer and what I need to do to become a published, successful writer. As near as I can tell, there is only a glancing resemblance between “that first sentence so hot it’s irresistible” and truly brilliant writing. It’s the difference between Shelley’s Frankenstein and a really catchy advertising jingle.

      I’d rather be known for the former, but that will never happen unless I hold my nose and master the latter as well.

  4. August 13, 2013 9:17 pm

    Thanks for the feedback. It’s all true. That’s the hell of the subjectivity of writing. Is it genius (in the non-pretentious sense of one’s muse) or just hubris? Is it professionalism or cheap tricks? And no matter what any of us thinks, someone who represents exactly what we find the most off-putting will succeed. At least lots of people we admire do, too.

  5. David Casperson permalink
    August 16, 2013 12:10 am

    I think that the contrast is in the intent. I’m sure that Lynda wants to do something more than write good first sentences; and no one sentence summary of Blade Runner is ever going to do the movie justice.

    That said, I’ll bet that Neil Gaiman was very pleased when he came up with “Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat” as the opening sentence of his short story Chivalry. … and no one can doubt that they aren’t likely to go anywhere near anything famously recognizable when they read Richard Brautigan’s, “In Watermelon Sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.”

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