Monday, September 17, 2012

Fifty Shades of Envy

I may be the last American 'woman of a certain' age who hasn't read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James. Even with all the hype, I probably won't.

But every writer, agent, editor and blogger who discusses the blockbuster trilogy agrees it's not well-written. The funniest critiques are the word counts: Holy Crap--38, Mutter/muttered--63, Murmur/murmured--100, and perhaps tellingly, Inner Goddess (James' euphemism for lady bits)--57.

So, like any writer seeking publication, I have to ask why this book is wildly popular, while others--and surely many with better prose--languish in some agent's slush pile.

The answer may be deceptively simple. What if the quality of writing is less important than the story?

To put it differently: Am I concentrating on the beauty and flow of my words, or am I doing my darnedest to tell a great story?

Think about it. What books have stuck in your mind over the years? Were they great literary tomes, or simple ideas that tugged at your emotions.


Writing from the viewpoint of an uneducated thirteen-year-old boy, Rawls uses common phrases and easy language to put us in the Ozark foothills, chasing raccoons with our beloved red hounds. And while the book may be considered Young Adult, I dare you to read it as a grownup without crying (or completely dissolving into sobs as I did a couple years ago trying to read aloud to my son. He actually took the book from me, saying, "Jeez, Mom. I'll finish this part if you want me to.")

Perhaps Ms. James effectively tapped into readers' emotions using simple (and often the same) words. Maybe the story is better than the writing...and readers made it clear which they prefer.

So, after all the fuss over Ms. James' poorly-constructed bestseller, I must admit I'm envious of her success. But envy won't help my career, and it won't make me a better writer.

Remembering that a good story trumps fancy prose will.


  1. But is there any reason you can't tell a darn good story in a way that's emotional, accessible and still well written?

    I haven't read WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS -- don't know how I missed that in school. But what you describe is what I would expect for a book written from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy. The characters in 50 Shades are a kazillionaire and a college student. I would expect more sophistication in the telling of their story than what I saw in the chapters I read.

    Books become best-sellers for a number of reasons -- because they're shocking, they've built up a buzz, they were featured on Oprah, they caught the attention of the right person at the publisher, etc. But writing is hard work. Why would anyone want to expend the sheer amount of time at the computer without doing their darnedest to write it well?

  2. Marilyn,

    While I totally agree with you (and believe improving my craft is critical) I personally struggle with what seems to be the balance between lovely prose and telling a good story.

    In other words: It's important to write well--but about the 'right' things. Sometimes I concentrate too much on the former.

    And if you need a copy of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, let me know ;)


    1. My former agent and I once had a conversation about my writing (it was hell at that moment, as my editor who hated me was making me rewrite my story to fit her idea -- for the third time). My agent said, "Don't you want to look back in ten years and know that this book is the absolute best you're capable of writing at this time?"

      My response was, "No. I want to look back and say, 'Hey, that's a darn good book, and thank God I protected its story from the editor who wanted to turn it into something else, and an extra thank God that I didn't let her destroy my confidence so thoroughly that I gave up writing."

      The editor and I were history soon as that book was done, and the agent and I parted ways soon after.

      I think my point is that it's a balancing act. You don't want to spend hours trying to create a new simile or metaphor when an old one will work as well (I saw a lit author bragging about this in an interview. 8 hours to come up with a half dozen words??)

      But at the same time, you don't want to settle for good enough or, in a some cases, less than good enough. It's a hard balance to find, and I wish you luck with it.

  3. I haven't read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY either...and I don't intend to.

    There is something to be said for a story that tugs at your heart...even if sometimes it isn't well written. I have a fave book that I've had since I was 17 and the story is NOT written well at all, but the heroine, at the time anyway, just pulled me in. I still have that book and tried to read it after learning to write...all I can say is LOL. But I can say the emotion is still there. :)

    Everyone writes differently T.D. So maybe after you get the story out, then you can go back and add the prettier grammar. I think the best thing to do is have the reader fall in love with your characters. I can forgive some occasional bad grammar if I love them. Just as long as its occasionally. ;)

    1. Ashlynn,

      I agree. In the end, our job is the help the reader FEEL something. Sometimes the 'correct' way isn't the best--as in the case of any sentence that contains the phrase '...had had...'--which is correct, but oh so wrong. ;)

      Another of Elmore Leonard's rules is not to let proper grammar get in the way.




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