Dazzling Scintillation?

My self-confidence, writing-wise, has taken a bit of a blow lately. This isn’t too surprising when six years of querying have brought me little more than form rejections. I have to decide where to go next – should I keep querying Silver, with the same query letter that’s gotten nothing so far? It could be that the writing and the concept are fine and I just haven’t found the right match yet. Or maybe I should write a new query letter. Maybe the current one is clunky and uninspired. I’ve edited it so many times it’s hard to even guess anymore.

Or maybe this just isn’t the book to be pushing right now. I really want it to be! I feel a pang of frustration every time I read another article about the injustice of older women being ignored, undervalued and under-represented, because I want to shout to the world, “My book is full of women over the age of 40! Powerful, thoughtful, passionate, wise, and dangerous women! Women whose worth is based on a billion things other than whether men find them desirable! Mothers, daughters, politicians, peace keepers and rabble rousers!”

But that isn’t how you sell a book. Sigh.

Then I start to question my writing prowess. A lot of agents ask for the first few pages in addition to the query letter. Maybe they think the concept is all right, but as soon as they look at the first paragraph, they find it unreadable. I’ve have quite a few readers for Silver, but maybe none of them have had a critical enough eye? I know that a lot of agents, after digging through slush piles for years, become so fatigued by lousy prose that they end up getting excited only by the really dazzling, scintillating writing that was always extolled in college literature classes.

Here’s the problem on my side: dazzling prose is kind of secondary for me. In my own reading preferences, I enjoy well-crafted writing, but only to a certain point. I don’t like the kind that feels like it’s showing off; like the story is just a vehicle for the writer’s brilliant word-smithery. I prefer writing that doesn’t draw constant attention to itself, that perhaps reaches heights of breathtaking beauty when it’s appropriate for points of high emotion in the story, but usually just does the quiet, unobtrusive work of telling the story.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like bad writing. But I feel like there’s two ends of the spectrum, with lousy, sloppy writing on one end and over-the-top poetic writing on the other. And both, for me, detract from the book. They distract, making it hard to concentrate on what I consider the ultimate point of a novel:  the story. For me, the ideal is somewhere in the middle – careful writing that gets the job done without being constantly flashy.

I’m not sure if there’s any way to truly quantify this concept. It’s ultimately a matter of personal opinion and taste. As a concrete example I’ll commit the sin, for someone who majored in English, of saying that I really, really didn’t like The Great Gatsby. I read it in my junior year of college and just could not understand what the big deal was about it. I hear people extol its brilliant writing, its lyrical imagery. All I saw was a story about a bunch of petty rich people. I couldn’t relate to it; I didn’t care what happened to any character, and all the beautiful word-smithery in the world couldn’t get me interested. On the contrary, it just seemed pretentious, showing off for no purpose. If I’d been interested in the story, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much, though I expect I still would have found it distracting. I don’t know.

I fear that this tendency is going to be a detriment to my own writing. I like to think that I have that quiet, unobtrusive style that tells the story without drawing undue attention to itself. But is it just coming across as unpolished or uninspired? I haven’t been thoughtless about it. I’ve certainly gone over Silver again and again, tweaking every sentence to try to make sure it’s fulfilling its purpose in telling the story in the clearest, cleanest, most thoughtful way I can. I’ve gone over it until it’s impossible to view it objectively. My readers have never complained that they don’t understand what’s going on or that it was hard to read. Is a book being hard to read, or “challenging” as some euphemistically put it, a compliment or an insult? I mean, I dug my way through Moby-Dick, every last page, even the chapters on whaling, and I loved it. But was that because of its abstruse qualities or in spite of them? I’m sure such a book would never get published nowadays without significant modifications. Tastes change; the conception of literary quality shifts, and it’s hopeless to try to chase it.

I’m trying to write the best books I can write. I hope that will be enough.

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2 thoughts on “Dazzling Scintillation?

  1. I think a lot of it is just about being at the right place, in the right time, and the agent thinking it will sell. The last part is critical. I mean, Dan Brown sold (sells?) in the millions and I don’t think even he would call himself a good writer. I think the issue with female characters is that people gripe about it but the agents you’ve queried may just not want to be the first ones to jump into the pool, or else they want to do with it a novel whose writing makes Gatsby et al look like freshman theme writers. These are just shots in the dark — my own personal specialty is getting short stories rejected, and agents aren’t relevant to that — but if you look at things that *have* sold it’s clear that the quality of the writing may have little to nothing to do with it. That being said, I would not be astounded if in 20 years your early tiny print run is being hailed as Ahead Of Its Time :).

    Agreed on Gatsby. I’ve read a fair number of books where jerks make up roughly 99% of the population and they’re enthralling, but Gatsby just didn’t hit the mark with me for some reason. I’ve reread plenty of high school books post-high school and liked them a lot, but with that one — nada, they were still all venal, shallow, and incredibly dull. I do like Fitzgerald’s short stories, though. Shallow rich people are much more fun in small doses.

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