Thursday, October 15, 2009

Story Big? Story Small?

It began upon the following occasion: It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present Majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor, his father, published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. - from Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

Much like the dispute between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscuians there is a religious dispute among novel enthusiasts. Over in reader land, we find people who believe a good story is the most important thing. Over in agent land, we find people who believe writing is the most important thing. In reader land, people pick up a book, read the back cover and if the story looks interesting they buy the book. In agent land, people read the first few paragraphs and if the writing holds their attention, they ask to see more.

As authors, we are often caught up in the middle. As much as we would like to produce great writing and a great story, it doesn’t always work that way. Gulliver’s Travels, for example, isn’t particularly easy to understand. It contains sentences that run on for miles. We may contribute part of that to the writing style of the time, but when you consider that it has never been out of print and is still popular, that doesn’t even matter. Gulliver’s Travels is competing with books written in modern English and is still outselling most of them. So, if there was ever any doubt that the strength of the story trumps writing, there you have it.

But here’s the problem. Agents see themselves as gate keepers. Imagine that you are approaching the castle because inside you know there is a beautiful princess who is bored with the books she has in the royal library. What she wants is a great story. Outside, the guards don’t mind hearing a great story once in a while, but they aren’t going to let you pass unless you are eloquent. Most of the time, they won’t even let you say enough for them to know if the story is good until they first determine if you can write well. That’s fine, if it can be said that great writers produce great stories, but most people get so focused on producing great writing that they forget to tell a great story.