Sometimes I wonder why I care so much about the quality of my writing. I wonder why books, magazines, workshop leaders and so on encourage writers to polish, polish, polish and to make their work the best it can be.
This morning I read something in an article in Writer Magazine. It said, more or less, that readers don’t really care about good writing. Yesterday I picked up “Death of a Squire” by Maureen Ash, and I have to say, it bears out the Writer Magazine article.
The dead squire’s fellow squires didn’t like him much, and Ash writes a scene in which the squires, talking privately, reveal this. Then she says (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Bascot’s questioning of the squires was unproductive”. The interview is over, Bascot is walking away, and Ash gives us us a summary of what went on.
I would have preferred to hear what the investigator asked the squires, how they answered, who was reluctant to speak against the dead man and who made his dislike clear, and how. In murder mysteries, as in life, a summary of what happened is a poor substitute for being there.
A storyteller is supposed to bring setting, character and plot alive for the reader. I’m one of those people who see a little movie in my head as I read, and summaries of the action are like “Last week our hero…” before we get to this week’s instalment.
At the same time as I’m reading this, I’m labouring over The Swan Harp to avoid some of these very things. In my first draft, a pivotal scene took place where the main character could hear it, but not see it. Several readers told me she had to be on the spot, and I’ve rewritten to put her there. While some summary is inevitable (“After they got home…” without every detail of the journey), summary of key events makes little sense.
But who am I to criticize, right? I’m not the one with four mysteries out with a continuing character and critical acclaim and a listing on Amazon. Okay, maybe not. But I’m a reader, too, and I find this kind of writing tedious. It’s not alive – it doesn’t take me there.
I suppose the question that follows from that is: why don’t I write a similar novel? Historical novels are hot stuff right now, especially those set in the Middle Ages.
I have two reasons. One, it’s not where my heart is. I’m much more interested in writing horror and YA fantasy. Two, I don’t think I could write like that. I’d be unhappy to have my sleuth walking away from a crucial conversation that my reader didn’t get to witness.
Most readers may not care; the evidence is they don’t. Other writers are cashing in on that. What’s preventing me from doing the same is that I do care. Maybe my readers won’t know the difference between good writing and good-enough writing, but I will, and I know which one I want to have my name on.