Some time ago, I asked on Facebook - which is where I do a lot of my writerly networking - why so many people I knew were being told that some of their work was 'beautifully written, but too quiet.' It had happened to me too. At the time, it seemed a little unfair, and there were those who said that it was 'just one of those expressions' that publishers or agents use when they have to turn you down, but can't really think of a valid reason. Which is comforting, but not, I think, entirely true! One friend and well-published fellow writer, however, said that she was sometimes told the same thing. She said most publishers and/or agents are looking for the holy grail of the beautifully written, stonking great story, but if they can't have both in the same package, they will settle for the stonking great story any day. I'm sure this is absolutely true, and as time has gone by, and I've been working on the latest (big, Polish, historical) novel, The Amber Heart, I have started to see just how right she was and how very much story matters.
We are, after all, creatures who love to listen to stories. It is one of the things that makes us human. From the time when we can first talk, we are enthralled by narrative, by the act of listening, or turning the page, (even little children are fascinated by the physical act of turning over, long before they can read) or watching the screen, to find out what happens next.
I've come to realise, therefore, that we ignore this natural instinct at our peril. We can craft our elegant prose till the cows come home, but if the reader doesn't care what happens next, then we aren't going to get anywhere. Which is not to say, of course, that honing the prose doesn't matter, because it does. It matters a lot. But if we are writing for other people, as well as for ourselves, we also have to be aware of the need to hook the reader into the narrative so that he or she is desperate to turn the page, desperate to know 'what next', and may even stay up all night, if need be, to find the answer.
I've been thinking about this a lot, recently, because it strikes me that Firebrand, Gillian Philip's wonderful and deservedly well reviewed new novel, has exactly this quality. It is beautifully written, it is hugely imaginative, it is involving and surprising and original - but, above all, boy does it have a stonking great story. Not only that, but when you get to the end of it, you're left thinking 'so how quickly will she have finished the next one, so I can find out what happens next.'
It's a gift, this extraordinary storytelling ability and Philip has it in spades.
But it is also - to some extent at least - a craft and one which, as writers, we should all be aware of.
It isn't possible to teach somebody with no talent how to write. But, given that somebody has a natural talent, a natural curiosity about human beings, and the desire to learn, they can be helped towards an understanding of what makes a good story. And I sometimes think it is an aspect of the craft of writing that is all too often ignored in creative writing classes, because teachers (and I don't necessarily excuse myself here) concentrate a little too much on the beautiful prose, and not quite enough on the nuts and bolts of plotting, the generation of excitement and drama, and the sheer skill of telling a great story and telling it so well that - as with all the fine storytellers you can think of - Dickens, Stevenson, The Brontes, Austen, Hardy, M.R. James, E.F. Benson and so many more - the joins between the wonderful prose and the wonderful story don't show at all. We read the book, we are in the reality of the tale and - as I recently did with Firebrand - we finish with a sigh compounded of satisfaction, regret that it's finished and anticipation for what might come next.