A couple blog posts back I mentioned a potential replacement to the late, great Michael Crichton. His name is Warren Fahy and his first novel, Fragment, is full of scientific excellence and enough thrills to keep any Crichton fan happy. But is his writing good? Would any college-level creative writing workshop applaud his efforts or tell him to keep trying? Does it matter if the conventional opinion of ‘good writing’ is not what he was going for?
Let’s talk about the positives. This guy really did his research, and it shows without falter whenever anything remotely scientific. Like Crichton, by the time I was done I had learned a great deal. And (even more important when living in this world of imagination) I came away convinced that the most unreasonable, bizarre, and off the wall aspects of the novel could actually happen. I felt the same way about Jurassic Park (and still do): I’m just waiting for someone to put the concepts in to action. If I see a dinosaur in a zoo when I’m an old man, my only question would be: What took you so long? Crichton laid the road map years ago!.
On top of making you feel like the world is not only believable but also full of its own life (the descriptions are right-on), Fahy packs on the action. The scenes are intense, gory, and leave no doubt that Fahy was fully immersed in his own creations. Throughout, this book screams: movie adaptation!
Sounds awesome, right? Well, if you’re a writer you’re probably wondering about all the other aspects that makes a book into a good book. And, honestly, Fragment is lacking a lot of those.
I think of this book like I did Avatar: the world is amazing and exemplifies a deep imagination that, in my opinion, is just as impressive as the writers/screenwriters who win all of the awards. Putting plot aside and simply exploring these worlds would be entertainment enough for me. It’s like taking a trip into the jungle: nothing at all could be happening, but just to observe the intricacies of nature and soak in all of the things you never knew existed is worth the plane ticket.
But without that . . . without that I don’t see much to value. Let’s look at IT as an example. The plot was intriguing, the characters were all complex, explored in depth, and had storylines the reader grows to care for. The writing was rich, the dialogue spot on, and the novel as a whole had an ambitious theme. But if you were to take out any one of those elements, the book would have still been sufficiently entertaining. In Fragment, I found myself laughing at the dialogue, yawning at the characters, and after a certain point disregarding the plot as merely a sideshow. As I’ve said, I enjoyed the science aspect of the book immensely, but during some of the long tangents into biological theories, descriptions, and explanations I fully recognized that a casual reader could easily fall prey to boredom. I honestly can’t remember any significant distinctions between the cast of characters (except for who became the main antagonist), the last third of the book entered the land of misfit plots, and the ending lacked satisfaction.
But I still enjoyed it. It was a good book, so, in my eyes, it can’t be comprised of bad writing. That’s like an excellent restaurant having shitty food. And that makes me wonder: when does ‘good writing’ take on a different meaning? Can one element of your storytelling be so great that all other elements can–for the lack of a better word–suck and it not matter one bit? Think of it like this: would Fragment be any better if more time were spent fleshing out the characters? Cleaning up the dialogue? Not taking the concept of ‘a picture is worth a 1000 words’ and flipping it around everytime a new person is introduced? Most likely. But would it really matter for what he was trying to do? Would my entertainment levels have changed that much? Probably not.
I put a lot of value in to writing, but I think it is time we broaden our thoughts on what can be constituted as good writing. For example, on the Internets I read a lot about R.L. Stine being considered garbage when it comes to writing. Having grown up on Goosebumps and having read three of the originals in the last 4 days (don’t ask), I’d have to disagree. No, he’s not winning any literary awards. Yes, his dialogue is cheesy. Yes, sometimes the plot is predictable. And yes, it can be simple at times. But the books are fun, especially for kids. And if you asked many of the top, distinguished writers out there to write a book a kid would love, they probably wouldn’t be able to do it. At least, not as well as R.L. Stine.
I’m not encouraging becoming complacent, or praising mediocrity. I’m simply opening the floor to discussion on what it means to write well. Does it change depending on what you’re trying to accomplish? Can someone be spot-on with all the components of writing and still have a sucky product?
Your thoughts? You have mine.
Response from Warren Fahy, posted on May 6, 10:34pm
Just wanted to write in and show my appreciation for Scribophile and the intelligent discussions the site offers for aspiring writers, and also to offer a few words of my own to this topic that readers may find interesting or useful.
First of all, I appreciate the smart commentary and questions explored in the above post. As the author of FRAGMENT, I may be able to shed some light on these questions and my approach to the writing in the book.
While writing the novel, I set myself a few very clear goals. I posted a card over my computer screen with one three-letter watchword I promised never to stray from during the creation of FRAGMENT: fun. That was the one and only standard by which I judged everything in the novel.
The next thing I decided was that the WRITING would NOT be the focus. The writing for a great and gripping thriller I decided should be like a camera lens – clear to the point of invisibility. I never wanted the reader to get caught up in the writing or notice the writer in the room. That would interfere with the suspension of disbelief, which I felt was necessary to take people on a wild adventure cruise through a jungle unlike anything they ever imagined. I wanted them to forget about ME. To my mind, nothing could deflate the goal of the novel more than calling attention to the writing. My intent was to report, journalistically, what was happening, relaying the action almost like a live television camera. There was no room for stylistic flourishes, or even lingering explorations of the participants’ internal states other than those happening inside their heads at the moment. Each thing that each character says and does is in character—but reported as though the writer was not making a special note of it or possibly even aware of it, as though it was happening externally and not inside the writer’s mind.
Now, of course, I consider science and the process of scientific thinking “fun.” The scientific topics explored at length, however, had to be intrinsically interesting to all human beings, so I chose as the topics explored at length in the book “sex” and “death,” from an evolutionary perspective. Naturally, there are many readers who are not interested in scientific explorations of anything, even the origins of sex and death, but the book was written for adventurous minds as well as for those minds interested in adventure, which are the two kinds of fun Michael Crichton always dazzled us with. I respond to both and feel cheated if I only get one or the other. In addition, one of the important frames of mind I wanted to prime in readers was the kinetic process of scientific reasoning in the face of mind-boggling discovery. I view the “lecture” scenes in the book as a kind of limbering up exercise to get everyone on the same page, and inside the mind of a scientist, or the scientist inside themselves, as they plunge through the jungle on Henders Island. This is a secondary effect of those passages. It seems unrelated to the action and even a break in the action that threatens to bog down the experience. However, it was designed as a mental scene-setting trope which is the equivalent of the scenes before a battle when you see the combatants gearing up and arming themselves with the weapons they will take into the heat of the action. The “weapons” in this case are the broad horizons of the scientific mind, not just in terms of knowledge but in terms of agile imagination and the power of hypothesizing and discarding hypotheses in the midst of a welter of new information while on the run. This is not something one can point to in terms of writing. There is no sentence or paragraph or even section that can be pointed at. It was a gestalt that I was after there.
Some have criticized that I used brand names in describing the clothing of characters. This was a nod to the fact that reality shows are sponsored by brands and everything everyone wears is a product placement. In the case of the antagonist, he was as image conscious and publicity-minded as a reality show. For other characters not affiliated with the reality show, the odd reference to a “Polo shirt” or other commonplace clothing item was meant to ground in everyday reality a story that very much seems like it is taking place in another world.
At any rate, I thought these inside baseball notes might be of interest to the readers of Scribophile. Thanks for discussing my book!