Just the other day an editor I like and respect – and have sold several stories to – wrote this on her blog:
“Some good stories but not good enough to send up the line. Most stories start too slow to catch my eye… if I’ve past the first or second page, I think, ‘This would’ve been a great story if it started here.’ In other words, get to the point already.”
And I know what she means. I do. I do, really. Yes, a story should have a point. Tales that meander all over the place – tales that go no further than internal angsting of the characters – tales that basically consist of a beautifully described setting – aren’t engaging.
I christened them ‘New Yorker stories.’ Every time I’ve dipped my toe into the waters of New Yorker ‘literary’ fiction I’ve kind of found myself swimming with these myopic literary sharks, taking random bites out of anything because they can’t seem to focus hard enough or long enough to actually be dangerous. I’ve read stories labeled as ‘literary’ that were deeply brilliant. But on the whole, I do prefer my stories to be going somewhere, and taking me there with them. A point is essential; a story has to have something to TELL me, and something within it to change the characters who inhabit it to the point that I can tell that this has actually happened.
But in one sense the editor conflates ‘slow’ and ‘badly paced and starting in the wrong place’ – and I have to take a step back here, and speak up in defense of ‘slow.’
Starting in the wrong place is most often a beginner’s mistake. You kind of wander into your story through a side door and poke around the place for a bit until you find yourself comfortable enough to get on with telling the tale which you meant to tell all along.
But this is a fairly specific problem, and ‘starting in the wrong place’ is not the same as ‘slow’ – because slow can be beautiful, and a story that is all point and nothing else is just as awkward and uncomfortable as one that has no point at all.
Slow is depth. Slow is taking the time to know your tale. You take your story out and ply it with wine and roses by candlelight, you don’t slam it against the wall in a back alley and have your wicked way with it without first asking its name. Slow is waking to a perfect tropical day in a beach resort, wandering out to the verandah and stretching languorously as you watch the sun glitter on perfect pale-blue waters… and then remembering that you came here with the love of your life, that he wasn’t in bed when you woke this morning, and that he said that he might be wanting an early morning swim before breakfast, and that you’ve just caught a glimpse of something thrust under your door and half under the rug, a note from resort management which, when you pick it up, warns you that a hungry shark has been seen close to shore and that you should not go into the water until the problem has been sorted out. Cue ominous music.
But without that slow – without that first glimpse of paradise – the point of the shark is kind of lost. Unh, yeah, sure, there’s a predator in the water. But far more importantly than that, there’s a PREDATOR in PARADISE – and without the slow, without the establishing shot that gives you that paradise to begin with, all you’re left with is the monster.
Think of all those horrible B-movie slasher films with bucketloads of fake blood and monsters killing for no particular rhyme or reason. There is no ‘slow’ there. No subtle. Nothing but the fake blood and the teenage scream queen who’s about to become hamburger. Now think of some of the more subtle Stephen King efforts, where you are lulled by slow, where the small and pretty and innocent and innocuous Maine towns which King loves to set his stories in hide some ghastly horror beyond imagining – made all the more horrifying because of the way that it comes in and leaves bloody footrpints of Point all over the carefully and painstakingly manicured lawns of Slow.
In other words, it isn’t the slow that the problem. It’s a lack of proper pacing, a lack of sense of just enough ‘slow’ to set up ‘sharp.’ Give slow a chance to catch you, because it is the slow that will hold you in the end. The point, however brilliant it is, is sharp and swift – it stabs, and is gone. The slow, it lingers, and twists, and prolongs the pain and the pleasure, both.
Speaking for myself, I build worlds with a loving touch – I like to think I am the kind of writer who can make a reader forget for just an instant that the story that they’re in is really just a stage play and all that surrounds it just painted plywood. To make the reader forget this just long enough to start believing in the truth of it all, to make that reader look at a painted forest and begin to feel the breeze picking its way between the trees, just barely stirring the leaves, lifting strands of the reader’s hair as though with tender fingers, to hear things rustle in the undergrowth.
I am a slow writer, a writer of slow and subtle. I’m kind of proud of that.