Friday 24 May 2013

It’s the language, stupid.

Bill Clinton rode to office on the back of “It’s the economy, stupid.” The gift of a well-turned phrase dumping untold numbers of votes into his lap. It was of course, like all pithy aphorisms, a gross simplification... and so is my title for this blog post.

Stephen King observes that popular novelists are never "asked about the language" when queried by admiring fans. He slapped that in the forward and went on to write a whole book on writing called... “On Writing”

It’s a pertinent observation from the author’s side of the signing table and worthy of note to would-be writers. It’s also perfectly reasonable behaviour from the reader in the queue. After all, few music fans on cornering their pop-star in an elevator proceed to interrogate them about notes and key changes.

Prose is the story-delivery mechanism and the story is king. People talk about the story years later, the plot, the characters – they’re less likely to swap lines from the text. In the Author Top Trumps I ran recently the two highest scorers in ‘prose’ (Rothfuss and Gaiman) were the two lowest scorers in ‘wow factor’.

And yet...
               ...prose is the story-delivery mechanism rather like wine/beer/spirits are the alcohol delivery mechanism. Getting drunk isn’t the only reason to drink. Some people really do like the taste. Similarly the story isn’t the only reason to read.

Poetry leaves many people cold. Poetry books do not sell that well. Poetry readings rarely pack arenas. But poetry is a very condensed and powerful form that few chose to consume neat. If you add poetry to prose it’s like moving from along a scale from light beer toward whiskey, and when it’s all poetry then that’s absinthe right there, and not so many have the stomach for it.

However, there are many people (like me) who are tone deaf... but we still love music. Similarly there are many people who wouldn’t read poetry for pleasure but would rather the prose in the stories they read was seasoned with a little of whatever sets poetry alight.
The reader may not notice the language. In most cases it’s a good thing that they don’t. But well written prose, powerful and evocative prose, does its work invisibly, sinking the story hooks deeper, placing the reader in the scene, making them taste it, smell it, making them wince, making them care. 

Lewis Carroll advised, “Take care of the sounds and the sense will take care of itself.” Oscar Wilde that, “Behind the perfection of a man’s style, must lie the passion of a man’s soul.” The words deliver the story – the prose carries the passion. Poetry is a spice, to be added with care, neither under nor overused. T.S. Eliot, master of the prose poem, said, “prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel reader is not prepared to give.” Which is fine and well if you’re not hoping to sell many books – but if you’d like the ordinary novel reader to have a good time reading your work then balance is required.

In the end it's the story, stupid. I know this, and as an author I want to write a great story. For me though (personally as opposed to financially) I want to write great lines, great paragraphs, and great pages. This labour of love is wasted on the large majority of readers. I know this, but it doesn't stop it being of prime importance to me. There's a magic that can be injected into a single sentence and give that handful of words space in the imaginations of a million people. I have found few pleasures greater than the search for that magic.

I leave you with lines from Tolkien that will stick with this reader as long as the story:

“But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?"


  1. Time and time again, best-sellers or should I say mega-sellers show us story and character or king. People want to be swept away and feel some emotional connection to the character. They want to care.

    Is prose a tool to accomplish this? Of course, but it's not paramount.

    This is why they are called stories, not proses.

  2. I definitely agree that, without a compelling story and compelling characters, no amount of beauty in the language or extensive language skills of a writer can save the read. However, there is a turning point or threshold where, even with a compelling story and compelling characters, the flatness of the prose or the failure of the prose to put forth the story and/or characters in a manner in which I can relate to or care for them, I still regretfully find myself putting a book down.

  3. Mmmm...absinthe. Just looking at that bottle makes me feel decadent.

  4. How old is Makin in Prince of Thorns?

  5. If the "labour of love" is not wasted on me, I don't think it is wasted on a majority of readers. I'm not the brightest bulb in the box but I recognize when I'm reading something special.

  6. I'm with Mia. I have to have both ... I want a good story but the writing has to be good too. How many books with interesting narratives have I discarded because the writing was so ordinary? Too many to count. How many "literary" novels have I also abandoned because they are just so boring? Stacks and stacks of them. But when I get both? Its like hitting my sweet spot of a lazy Sunday afternoon with the languid sun on my back, the memory of a deep winter forgotten. And your books, Mr Lawrence are just that kind of book. Your labour of love is not lost on us that want that (its astonishing how few books really do have both). Thank you for taking care with your words.

  7. An interesting article. I think your idea of stealth prose is about right in that one of the reasons a person would enjoy your book, for example, is because you have thought hard about sentences/paragraphs so that things flow nicely and most of us don't realise that's part of the reason we enjoy it. I know I often describe your work as fast paced and I'm sure that has as much to do with the language you use as the plotting.

    I have to admit that I find purple prose really annoying but i guess that isn't really "good" use of language either. I think it was one of the Beatles who said some of their best songs have no more than three chords.

    That said, I do enjoy when a sentence or paragraph leaps out as being particularly elegant. Jon Courtenay Grimwood has some beautiful sentences in his work and I used to have fun comparing how he would describe someone getting a bullet through their head to how Richard Morgan would. Both are very good at it but approach it in completely different ways.

  8. Favorite Wilde poem...

    Out of the mid-wood's twilight
    Into the meadow's dawn,
    Ivory limbed and brown-eyed,
    Flashes my Faun!

    He skips through the copses singing,
    And his shadow dances along,
    And I know not which I should follow,
    Shadow or song!

    O Hunter, snare me his shadow!
    O Nightingale, catch me his strain!
    Else moonstruck with music and madness
    I track him in vain!

    Wilde had the capability of being an absolute executioner with his prose/word usage and structure. Phrases that can strike you in the chest and resonate so fully that you cannot help but feel a personal connection with written word. Honestly, this rare quality is something that I noticed right-off about your writing style when I first started reading Prince of Thorns. This explanation probably sounds stripped down and simplistic, but your "voice" really penetrates the first two novels (can't say or wait for the third!) Perhaps it sounds odd, as all of your characters are beautifully developed and have their own unique voices and characteristics...but the undercurrent of emotional tone, the dealings with the complex and often flawed (beautifully chaotic- as you have shown!) nature that is the human condition, seems distinct to you as an author, in a way that I have rarely experienced with other authors. Let's not forget these "fancy-pants" philosophical ideals are depicted in a rich fantasy-scape, all of which sprang forth from your imagination..all the while you managed to pepper in amazing phrases of razor-wit, dark-cunning, and volatile anger.

    Damnit. I just really love these novels. You make fantasy fun. I never once felt the sensation of overly cumbersome reading that can be a multi-destination/multi-character fantasy world.

    Sigh! Thank you, so much:)