Gorgeous sentences, breath-taking images, metaphors that lead to a flash of insight… there are all great things. But are they the most important? Go read the series Lisa Cron is running at her site, Wired for Story, “Everything You Learned About Writing is Wrong.” At first, it bothered me. I love great writing, but she has a point: we read and tell each other STORIES. It is first and foremost about the story and we writers can forget that as we learn the craft of writing (and it is important to master the craft of writing – I still laugh at the image of a high school English teacher I know hurling The DaVinci Code across her living room after a few paragraphs, cursing the level of writing). My first pleasure in reading was getting swept away into another world. I was not crazy about the world I was in, so escape was blessed relief. Your readers want to get swept away into the world you’ve created. Tell them a great story. Then go back and rewrite it until your prose is sterling.
It’s not an either-or proposition – the great books are great stories well-written – but start with your story. Sometimes it will come to you in a piece and sometimes you will discover it along the way, but pay attention to Mark Twain, “I like a good story well told.” He went on to add, “That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”