How Good Does Your Novel Have to Be?
By Larry Kahaner
When I was just starting my non-fiction writing career, I wanted to be published in the Sunday New York Daily News magazine. I had been born and raised in Brooklyn and to me the pinnacle of ‘getting in print’ was this publication read by millions. It was the tabloid newspaper for the masses and I wanted to reach that audience. For those who have not read the magazine, there was not much to the stories. They were mainly human-interest stuff, some sports, local color… you get the picture. Literary masterpieces they were not.
As much as I tried, I could not get them to buy my material. I tried for years and I was perplexed because I would read the stories and say to myself, ‘I can write better than this. Why won’t they take my stories?’
Fast forward to Boston University’s graduate school in Science Journalism where I met a professor to whom I was telling this tale. He said: “Maybe they don’t want anything better than what they have.”
The light bulb went on in my head. He was right. Not to sound cynical, but the editors were happy with the quality of the stories they printed. They didn’t want anything more clever, better written or exciting.
How does this to relate to novel writing? I read a lot of thrillers and some of them are what a reviewer friend of mine calls “perfectly fine.” They don’t blow the roof off the house or some such saying but they are enjoyable and satisfying to read. The most successful and bestselling authors know this. They don’t spend a lot of time concocting complicated phrases or sentences. They write simply, clearly and provocatively.
That’s the real secret of novel writing success. Fancy, witty and clever stories are okay… if you want to write them … but nothing makes readers happier than a compelling story, simply told, with a satisfying ending.
Leave the high falutin’ words for your dissertation. Just relate the story as if you were telling a friend. And, as I always say, you have only one job: make the reader turn the page.
This was a HUGE struggle for me as I started writing stories. I wanted the beauty of the words to shine, so I forgot to tell the story. It took years to un-learn that habit. Although I still try to have beautiful prose. It’s just simpler now, and I make sure not to sacrifice any story details to do it.
Thanks for your excellent comments and insight. Repeat after me: “It’s all about the story. It’s all about the story….”
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