The Business Rusch: More Modern Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part 19)

The Business Rusch: More Modern Writer Survival Skills

(Changing Times Part Nineteen)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This week hasn’t been quite as heady as last week was in publishing, but part of that is because the industry is trying to face the reality of the Borders bankruptcy filing.  Most of the publishing blogs that I’ve read this week have dealt with the potential impact of that filing.  Some have been defensive (with one editor saying on Twitter that she has 9 deals pending, so everything is fine) to gloating (some writers claiming again that the end times are upon us) to vaguely worried (including me).

Other pieces of news that floated past my desk went from the ridiculous to the surprising.  My favorite in the ridiculous category? Publisher’s Lunch’s discussion of the New York Times e-book bestseller list which mentions that the Times had to remove a bestseller from the previous week’s list because the Times discovered (horrors!) that the book was self published.

Which leads me to wonder…did those sales figures that put the self-published book on the Times bestseller list vanish when the Times voiced its disapproval?  Because the book remained a bestseller whether the Times acknowledged those sales or not.

On the surprising side of the equation is this post from Dominique Raccah, the founder and publisher of Sourcebooks.  She states that the dollars her company made off e-books in January represented 35% of the dollars sold for that month.  She says that she now believes the tipping point—where e-book sales equal 50% of the market—might happen this year, rather than in 2014 as claimed at Digital Book World.  She also says that publishers will have to reassess their e-book figures at the end of the first quarter in 2011.  The e-book numbers, she believes, will be higher than expected.

For some companies, maybe.  But for others, it might take some time. Their inventory has to hit e-format first.  More than one publisher has shared with me in private e-mail that getting their inventory from the past 2 or 3 years onto the various platforms (from Kindle to Sony to the Nook) is both labor-intensive and headache-inducing.  The publishers—rightly—want their books to look good in e-pub format, and getting the interiors replicated in some of those formats is proving harder than advertised.  We’re talking about formats with specific arty fonts or icons for section breaks and so on.

In order to sell on these platforms, the publishers need to have inventory on the platforms.  It’s a mad scramble in Big Publishing to convert titles to e-books—and no company is willing to hire employees just for that in this rough economy.

Finally, so much news has crossed my desk that I almost forgot this tidbit in the middle of Barnes & Noble’s earnings report, which was released on Tuesday. B&N is being cautious, refusing to pay dividends to its stockholders and hedging its bets on where it will spend its corporate dollars in the future.  Most financial outlets reported the bad news from the earnings report, burying or not even mentioning this tidbit (which I found on Marketwatch.com):

“At its company Web site, Barnes & Noble said it sells twice as many books for its Nook device than it does physical books.”

That’s interesting for two reasons: 1) The Nook hasn’t been around as long as the Kindle and has fewer users, and 2) B&N is comparing website sales to website sales, not paper book sales in its stores to electronic book sales in general.  So the statistic, while encouraging for e-books, is not that surprising given the way the information is reported. Of course web site users will order more e-books than physical books.  The web site is the only place to get books for the Nook, even if you order those books while sitting in a physical B&N store.  I’d love to see the statistic from B&N comparing physical book sales from all of its venues to e-book sales.  Then we’ll have a really meaningful statistic.

The weekly news wrap-up leaves me with the same impression that last week’s wrap-up did: Things are changing rapidly and it’s hard to get a handle on what all of the changes mean.

Just a few years ago, it was easy to advise writers on the paths they should take.  With all these changes, however, paths are harder to find, and they branch off depending on who the writer is and what his concerns are.  Rather than try to give blanket advice to new writers on what to do in this changing world last week, I instead decided to write about the skills writers would need to survive in this modern marketplace.

And, not surprisingly, I ran out of space.  (I try to limit these blog posts to about 3,000 words—which is probably too long for a blog, but tough.  I can’t make any cogent points without going at least 2,000 words.)

If you haven’t read last week’s post, please do so now, so that you’ll be up to speed with all that I’m discussing.  For those of you who did read it, here’s a short review.

I said that to survive in this modern era, writers need:

1. Flexibility

2. Forward-thinking

3. Business Savvy

4. Entrepreneurial Spirit

Then I moved away from the business aspects for a moment and moved to some craft considerations.  I only got to one of those.  I said I believed that the new system favored the writer who writes fast for both business and for craft reasons.

5. Write Fast

So…let’s move on from there, and consider a few other craft things that a writer will need to survive this brave new world of publishing, before we return to a few more business attitudes that a writer should have.

Here goes (drum roll please)…

6. Storytelling Ability.  It’s long past time to stop calling ourselves “writers” and start calling ourselves “storytellers.”  The word “writer” is misleading.  The craft of producing good fiction is not about the words.  In fact, it has never been about the words.  Fiction is about the story.

My favorite example of this comes not from the novel from but from playwriting.  Most people consider William Shakespeare to be the best stylist in the English language, and noted scholars repeatedly call him the best writer who ever lived.

If that’s the case, then how come Shakespeare (whose plots were recycled from other popular works) can have his plays successfully performed in languages as different from ours as Japanese?  Well, methinks t’would be because of the storytelling, milady, not the language itself.

If you look at the bestseller lists over the past century (and I have, thanks to Michael Korda’s Making The List, which I’ve mentioned before), you’ll see that most of the writers on that list were storytellers first and stylists second.  Those who were known for their style and not their stories, like Edward Bulwer-Lytton have become jokes in our time.  Sometimes (usually) we read these storytellers in spite of their prose, which is often dated.  If you need an example, open any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and look at the actual writing.  By today’s standards, it’s bland, passive, and turgid.

But the characters—and more importantly—the stories come through so strongly that the strange (to modern readers) prose style vanishes.

Why am I saying that storytellers will rule in this new environment?  Simple.  Sampling.

In the past, the only way to sample a writer’s work without buying it was to either go to the library and read there, or to scan as much of the book as possible in the bookstore.  In the 1990s, with the rise of the coffee shops inside the chain bookstores, sampling became a bit more common.  You could sit at one of the tables and read a book before buying, provided you weren’t a klutz who dripped your latte all over the book’s interior.

Amazon tried to get publishers to allow sampling before e-books with the “Look Inside This Book” feature, but many publishers wouldn’t sign on.  (Fears of piracy made some writers refuse as well.)  But sampling is a fact of e-book life.  I currently have 19 pages of material on the home page of my Kindle and 17 of those pages are samples.  I read a review or saw an ad or heard about a book from a friend, and I immediately downloaded the sample.

On nights when I’m not sure what to read next, I start reading samples.  If I find myself reading feverishly when the sample runs out, I buy the book.  Often, though, I delete half a dozen books based on their samples simply because the book didn’t catch me.

In electronic book form, it’s not the cover or the back cover copy that entices me to buy a book.  It’s the writer’s ability that does so.  In fact, I still prefer paper books to my Kindle, so once I discover an author, I often go to the store to buy her next book.  More than once, I’ve physically recoiled from the product when I saw it on the bookstore shelf.

I had the rather startling revelation that book covers can repel me from great writers as often as the covers can lure me in.  This experience has made me wonder how many writers I’ve missed because someone in the publisher’s production department slapped a cover on the book that I simply loathe.  Twice now, I couldn’t get over my package prejudice and while I was standing in front of the paper copy, I hauled out my iPhone and downloaded the e-book instead.

To be fair, let me say that the package has enticed me to buy the paper book more often than not.  I’m a sucker for a beautifully made book, and if publishers return to investing in production values on their paper books, I’ll buy them—for the writers I already know I like, of course.

Sampling favors the storyteller.  Once the reader hits a story she can’t put down, she’ll order that book no matter what price the book is.  These price barriers that beginners often discuss are irrelevant in the face of good old-fashioned storytelling.  Of course, readers won’t buy past a certain price point (generally about $12 for an e-book), and readers might read the entire sample of a more expensive book than they would from, say, a really cheap one.

But readers aren’t just limited by their budgets or their own unknowable price barriers. Readers are limited by the amount of spare time that they can devote to reading.  Readers want books they’ll enjoy.  Sampling from a vast catalogue makes finding those books easier rather than harder.

Writers need to focus on the elements of storytelling—great characters, great plots, real emotions, cliffhangers, fascinating settings and situations—rather than lovely words.  Lovely words might get you admirers, but lovely words won’t get you readers.  Readers will put their dollars behind the person who moves them seamlessly from chapter to chapter.

The book that keeps you up all night when you have an important meeting in the  morning was written by a storyteller, not by a stylist.  And it doesn’t matter what the genre is.  Some of the most compelling books I’ve ever read have been romance novels in which the plot is predictable (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl) and the actual events that occur are so minor that they would take about five minutes to film.  But the emotional story is incredibly compelling, and even though I know that the story will end happily, I turn pages because I want to take this particular journey through some pretty dark stuff to that happy ending.

Those of you who spent all of your time learning how to make pretty sentences, stop now.  Focus on telling compelling stories.

Oh—and um, those of you in peer workshops of unpublished writers? I’d say it’s time to leave.  Those writers know no more about storytelling than you do. All they can do is focus on the words and the grammar.

The best stories are controversial stories.  A peer workshop will divide over those stories with some members hating the story and some loving it.  Or the peer workshop will hate it in general. Because the story makes them feel something.  The stories everyone agrees on in a peer (unpublished) writers’ workshop have lovely sentences, but are familiar and bland, and will never keep a reader up all night to see what happens next.

One final thing on this point: storytellers often write sentences that can’t survive a grammar checker.  Storytellers will do all kinds of things in service of the story that will make an English major’s lip curl.  One-word paragraphs, comma splices, run-on sentences, you’ll find all of that in a good storyteller’s work.  Because those things improve story.

This, my friends, is how “terrible” prose writers hit the bestseller list.  (That judgment, by the way, comes from critics who are so wrapped up in their critical reading [which is not how readers read books] that they miss the story altogether.)  Writers who write sentences that won’t make it through an English 101 class and whose books sell 1 million copies know more about language than the stylist whose sentences reach English major perfection.  Those writers know how to sling the language like a weapon.

(And if you really want your brain to explode, take a look at a classic by the number one bestseller of  his day, Charles Dickens.  Take that first sentence of Tale of Two Cities and run it through your grammar checker.  I dare you.)

How do you learn to tell stories? Simple.

First, shut off your critical brain.  Storytelling is entertainment, and criticism is the opposite of entertainment.

Second, find story everywhere.  Movies, television, books, short stories, and your favorite raconteur all tell great stories. Find them, enjoy the story itself, and absorb it. Don’t think about it.

Third, play.  Writing is fun. Telling stories is fun.  Have fun.  If you have fun, your readers will too.

The next thing the writer needs in her craft arsenal is…

7. Voice.

Okay, now I’ve just confused you.  I tell you to stop being stylists and become storytellers. Then I tell you that the writers who will survive in this new world need voice.

How can you have voice without style? Simple.  Voice is the opposite of style.

Style is something you fake.  You think from your critical brain—ah, that looks lovely, I should put that word here. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, putting in your stylistic flourishes.

Or so you think.

What you’re really doing is removing all trace of voice.

What is voice? Voice is you.  It’s authentic and real and to you, the writer, voice looks bland.

Let me back up a bit.

When I was in college, I had a creative writing class from a marvelous writer (not a professor) named Lawrence O’Sullivan.  He was a former CIA operative, quite a character, and he was a manly man who chomped on cigars while he talked.  I got two things out of that class. The first was that I met my lifelong friend, now bestseller, Kevin J. Anderson.

Second, I got a great quote.

Because on day one, O’Sullivan walked into our class and said (without saying hello), “There are seven plots.  Shakespeare did them best.  If that scares you, get out of my class now.”

If O’Sullivan was right (and he was) and I just told you to be storytellers, then what differentiates your story from my story, especially if we have the same plot?

Voice.

To best understand this in a modern context, watch American Idol. Critics, who don’t understand what’s going on, call Idol a karaoke contest.  But it’s not.  Idol is, as Randy Jackson repeatedly says, a singing competition. The goal of that competition isn’t to find the most beautiful voice or the loveliest technique.

The goal of the competition is to find a superstar performer.  The competition fails more often than it succeeds, but it does one thing right: It searches for voice.

And the way it does so is to have its contestants sing songs we’re already familiar with.  A karaoke singer will try to imitate the original song.  A performer will do something new with that song.  A superstar will make that old classic her own, make it so memorable that you might actually forget the original version.

How does she do that? Not by stylistic flourishes, but by being authentic.  By putting herself into the performance.

It’s the same with writing.  When you’re telling the same plot as someone else, you differentiate that plot from the other person’s only by making that story personal, making it something you care about.  You write honestly, without stylistic flourishes at all.

If you do it right, that story will be compelling—and here’s the weird thing. Everyone will mention how strong your voice is.  You won’t see your voice in that piece at all.  In fact, you’ll think that story’s prose is colorless, unoriginal, and rather mundane.

Why?

Ever since you learned the language around your first year, you’ve been thinking precisely that way.  That’s how you think. That’s how you talk.  That’s your perspective.  It’s old news to you.  In fact, it’s normal.  But to everyone else—especially people who’ve never met you—that perspective is new and vivid and memorable.

How do you get to your voice? Write fast.  Do not rewrite.  Write new material every week. Eventually, you’ll strip all the stylistic crap from your writing habits and get down to who you are.

Why am I saying that voice is important in this new publishing world? Because you need to stand out from the crowd.  And one way to do that is confident prose. Writers who write in their own voice have a confidence that writers who try to be stylists will never ever have.

You know you’re in the hands of a master when a voice reaches across the page, grabs you, sucks you into the story, and won’t let you go.

It’s like this: You have just walked into a crowded party.  Conversations hum around you.  Across the room, a group of people laugh.  You focus, hear a voice you’ve never heard, one that says something startling.  You make your way across that crowded room, past conversations whose topics might interest you more, just to get more of that voice.

Well, readers are always inside that giant party, looking for a compelling voice, hoping the speaker will tell a memorable story.  Voice grabs the reader.  Story makes the reader stay.

It’s that simple, and that hard.

Once again, I’ve hit my word count for the post, and I’m still not done with the skills a writer will need to survive in this changing publishing world.  I have only a few left, and I’ll get to them next week.

I know I’ve been provoking quite a bit of discussion on other blogs.  That’s good.  We all need to be thinking about the changes ahead.  This week, I’m teaching a class and trying to finish up a novel, so taking the time to write this post was a true imposition on my schedule.  If the post and/or the series is valuable to you, please consider making a small donation to keep encouraging me to take the time from my increasingly busy life to write these things.  If you can’t donate, then please link to this or tell a few friends about it.   Thanks!


“The Business Rusch: More Modern Writer Survival Skills (Changing Times Part 19)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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54 Comments

  1. Kris,
    Thanks again. A wonderful post. And the part about voice really resonated. When I was young and trying to be a writer I was so imitative everything that came out was crap; I just didn’t know what to say. To be honest, I had to get away from it all for a while (which I accomplished by getting out on the road) so I could clear all those other voices out of my head. Eventually, of course, the writer will come out, and I began to scribble in notebooks as fast as I could – and lo and behold, those words I scribbled with the critical or imitative part of my mind completely off turned out to be the best words I had ever written. All those other voices had to be stilled so I could find my own. Even now, when I am fast and furious in the middle of a story, oblivious to all else, what comes out is my best work.

    As a reader I have discovered writers with unique voices, and I went after them with a passion and devoured their work. Writers such as Harlan Ellison, JRR Tolkien, Henry Miller, James Tiptree Jr., and more recently Jhumpa Lahiri have caused me to seek out more of their work so I can continue to hear their mesmerizing voices.

    Reply
  2. I remember, several years ago, someone with the initials KR wrote and spoke about the need for a return to adventure stories to revitalize the science fiction world. It made sense then and even more so now.

    As I read this post I couldn’t help reflect on those articles and podcast interviews of yours as, in effect, they are one and the same.

    Thanks Kris.

    Cheers — Larry

    Reply
  3. Excellent post, Kris. I’ve been following this series closely and I must say the information is invaluable and your voice shines through! *grin*

    Thanks so much.

    Reply
  4. This was an awesome, awesome, awesome post, Kris. I save all your posts, even the ones that don’t seem that important to me at the time because I never know when they WILL become important, but this is one of those posts I NEEDED to hear TODAY! Many, many thanks.

    It reminds me of something Somerset Maugham once said (and I paraphrase): Of the four greatest novelists in the world — Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy — not one of them could be considered a great stylist in their own native language.

    That surprised me — especially about Dickens, who *seems* to be a great stylist — so I asked a friend of mine who has a Ph.D. in British literature from Penn, and he said, “Oh, that’s absolutely true. Compared to the greatest stylist of the time (John Henry Newman), Dickens was a hack.” He then went on to talk about how great Dickens is, and how it’s a privilege to read him, and how he wished more writers today could tells stories as well as Dickens.

    And something about American Idol. I have some friends (not the one with the Ph.D.) who’s daughter has a fantastic voice. She tried out for American Idol but was rejected because she “sounded too much like original signer” of whatever song she chose. My friends and their daughter were upset, of course, because she’s really good and they couldn’t understand the judges rationale. When they told me about it, I commiserated with them, because that’s the thing to do, but I was thinking that sounding just like another signer is a *bad* thing. Who wants to listen to someone who sounds like Roy Orbison when you can listen to Roy Orbison. And now that I think about it, it really has nothing to do with how *good* a signer is, but what makes them different. It’s the only thing that explains the success of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty — three of my favorites.

    Anyway, thanks for the great post! A lot of things finally came together for me. Can’t wait for next week’s installment.

    Reply
    • Ah, yes, Jeff, the singers who “can’t” sing. Particularly Dylan who occasionally slides out of tune on his own albums. What is it that makes them work? Their voices. I had a vocal coach (I got my start in music) who had strict rules about ways to sing things, and he used to make fun of pop stars who broke those rules. He had a small band that played bars on the weekend. I still hear music from those pop stars (Ironically, Steven Tyler [now in Idol] is one), but this guy’s band never broke out and neither did he. Still, I hear his rules being broken on occasion and I wonder if he cringes.

      Anne Marie, John, glad the stuff about voice resonated. And yep, Larry, I still think sf needs more adventure stories, although things are a lot better than they were even a few years ago.

      JR, lose the “just.” There ain’t no “just” in “storyteller.”

      Thanks, guys, for making the morning pleasant.

      Reply
      • Quick shoutout to Debora Geary. Couldn’t find your e-mail address, and wanted to say thanks. Thanks! (I hope you see this.)

        Reply
  5. I needed this post. I really, really needed this. I recently had a token/semi-pro writers group tear apart one of my stories due to an angry character voice. Maybe it’s wrong, maybe it isn’t, but it’s how I wanted to tell it. Maybe it will sell, maybe it won’t. I’ll let the reader and the editor decide. Sometimes, I think critique groups just try to find something to tear up because they feel they have to. Write what you want and let the reader decide. Thanks, Kris.

    Reply
  6. Your point about the difference between style and storytelling, and how stylists don’t get it, reminded me of a critique of The Wheel of Time I read a few months back. I’m a big WOT fan, and when I found the link to this guy Adam Roberts’ review, I went on over to his blog. He went through each book in detail and lampooned them, pointing out each bad metaphor, each quirk of, what he considered, poorly written prose. And completely missed the story. And he was very snarky about it. Now, I enjoy being snarky, but I was sitting there reading through his critiques and couldn’t help but wonder “Who the hell IS this guy?” Turns out he’s an English professor or somesuch. I got the image in my head of he and his buddies smoking pipes in tweed jackets, sipping congac and chuckling amongst themselves as they scoffed at how Robert Jordan could possibly be taken seriously as a writer. His stuff is total rubbish, by God! Then I shook my head and went to a different site. That guy was missing the forest for the trees. So caught up in sentence structure and “proper” word usage that he missed the reason people read books to begin with. Beyond that, if he was so much better, how come he wasn’t selling millions of books himself? Oh wait, that answers itself.

    A very long winded way of saying I totally get what you’re saying here.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Reply
  7. Kris,

    This sentence is precious: “It’s authentic and real and to you, the writer, voice looks bland.”

    I have observed this in regards to my own writing, and have begun to suspect the truth of what you said. I am very happy to have it confirmed.

    It, of course, makes sense. The words are coming out of your own head, and what is more mundane than your own voice? It is a tough thing to reconcile, and comes down to trust, and that’s hard.

    While I was reading this post, I heard Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold.” I know this is a Sting song, but Eva so owns it for me, I can’t even imagine him doing the song. Her “voice” is clear.

    And to drive your point further home: I love Eva’s singing, so much so that I will listen to her sing songs that I normally wouldn’t, and love them. It is quite literally her voice that I am attracted to.

    Wow, great post. Thank you!

    Reply
  8. Have I commented recently on how much I love these posts? No? I LOVE THESE POSTS!! :)

    You are completely correct. As a reader I can think of only one book series that I purchased for the authors writing style, the rest of my massive book/ebook collection has all been purchased for the stories. I wanted to know what happened next. I thought the story was interesting. I loved the characters. etc. etc. (The one series I picked up for the authors use of the english language is The Phoenix Guards by Steve Brust, check it out.)

    I have a vivid memory from college. I, along with 4-5 others, ran RPG’s on campus (D&D and the like). The other DM/GM’s and I would get together and discuss scheduling, room availability and trade tips. My games were significantly more popular than others. I remember one night pounding on the table with my fist and explaining the popularity of my games were due to “Story, Story, and STORY!”. Nothing else. The major plotline of my games during those years was the relationship between one player and his pretend girlfriend. Yes, that’s right, at one point I had 20 people playing a RPG based on someones relationship with his girlfriend. That is the power of “story”.

    Reply
  9. Brilliant, Kris. Thanks again!

    Something that’s always thrown me for a loop is the reader comment, “I love your voice.” I’ve been getting that a lot on my latest mystery-in-progress. Which is wonderful.

    Sort of.

    I kind of know what they mean, and kind of don’t.

    When I first started getting that, it made me very self-conscious. “Wait — what part did they like? That turn of phrase? That joke? That cliffhanger moment? The description? The pace?”

    It took awhile to let those questions go and not to worry about them. The “I love your voice” comment is so general, it’s not really helpful, except as a sign that I’m on the right track.

    Now I just smile and say, “Thanks.”

    And go back to writing.

    David

    Reply
  10. Great piece Kris. Your husband pointed me here and I’m really glad he did. B/t/w … there has to be a great story in how you two met. (as DWS would add (grin))

    To add to your point re: importance of story/voice and what we should call ourselves – I’m creating my own science here but hey, it’s my world – I think of storytellers, songwriters, artists, sculptors, engineers, etc. – all of the genus: Creators.

    This is my Judeo-Christian faith speaking now but I consider all who create beauty (the definition of beauty is in the eye of … well you know) to be doing something our Creator does (hence calling Him Creator) and that is very powerful!

    My point and what I’ve learned from a few decades of creating music, machinery and stories is that the very best creators never focus on the tools … and to a creator EVERYTHING becomes a tool that they may use to create their works.

    I learned this as a journeyman mechanical engineer from one of the greatest inventors of our time (his name is Venerio J. Rigolini, an Iwo Jima Marine who holds 22 patents in everything from cameras to plastics). What I found fascinating was how he utilized everything around him as a potential tool, in order to create/invent.

    At first, his cavalier attitude towards the way he treated his tools really upset me. For instance, he would be staring at something on a machine he was inventing and without even looking up, he’d grab basically anything resembling the tool he needed. So in order to pry a gear loose, he may grab a brand-new shiny phillips-head screwdriver (that he just had me clean) and proceed to bend it by using it as a crowbar. The bottom line … he fixed the jam, the machine started working and that’s where the beauty (and profits) came from.

    In other words and something I learned … the bent screwdriver didn’t matter (I still battle with that). My point: to storytellers, words are merely tools, just like the programs, machines or pens we use, the paper we use, the reference materials, etc. So there is NO misusing of words (grammar, punc., blah blah blah) IF their misuse produces beauty.

    As old William S. would say, … the story’s the thing!

    Words for storytellers, musical notes for songwriters, clay for sculptors, paint and brushes for artists – all just tools of our creativity.

    I shall now return to the top of the mountain upon which I was sitting and meditate some more (grin).

    On another note – this may be a ‘greenie’ problem but you mentioned it above, and I really do struggle when someone asks me what I do for a few reasons (maybe you can help). First, I’m not even sure what they mean by ‘do.’ Do they mean, ‘do to pay my mortgage?’ or ‘do to pass the time?’ or ‘do when I’m not watching Star Trek reruns?’

    Then I stumble over my answer. I tried ‘I’m an author,’ but my wife, in her South Philly bravado and wit added, “So, now your a friggin’ author?” I confess, I don’t feel worthy to say I’m an author, since people like you and Dean and Tom Clancy and WEB Griffin can call themselves that.

    Then I tried ‘I’m a writer,’ but every time I said that, this mental picture of my wearing a fedora with a press pass sticking out of the band and rushing towards a phone booth with a little note pad and pencil in my hand made it feel … wrong.

    So I’ll try your idea Kris, the next time I’m asked, “What do you do?” my reply will be “I’m a storyteller!”

    Then I’ll ask them if they wouldn’t mind dropping a nickel into my tin cup. (grin)

    Keep up the great work!
    g

    Reply
  11. Kris,

    Delurking here.

    I just wanted to thank you for all of these articles; I appreciate it so much that I just made a teeny-weeny donation. :-)

    My problem has always been editing the crap out of my stuff. I did manage to have one short story published about 8 years ago, nothing since.

    But I’m getting to the point where I think writing fast is the only way to go. Still not sure about the not editing part, simply because I write so sparsely to begin with, I don’t think there are enough details for people to be able to properly place my story.

    The sparseness? That’s from being in the corporate world for over 20 years, where the high mucky-mucks want you to make your point quickly, with a minimum of words.

    Writing with more detail the first time out is going to take some time. After all, I’ve been doing this office thing for so many years!

    I’m enjoying this, and I enjoy your husband’s site, too. Keep it up!

    Reply
  12. Too much to think about. I believe me brain exploded.

    On the other hand, I *always* said I was just a storyteller. So… maybe I can survive. I’ll try creeping out from under my desk and see.

    Reply
    • I gotta say, folks, that when I got to my desk and saw 13 comments before I’ve even announced that the piece is up, I thought, “Here it comes.” Dean read a quote to me last night as he was first-reading this piece, and said I was about to get hammered. Well…I’m pleased and surprised. I’m glad this was the right time for most of you, and I’m glad you get what I’m saying. I very much appreciate it.

      Lots of great comments and observations here. I suggest you go back and read them. Love the bit about creativity, Gerard. Exactly. Now that bent Phillips will be in my head as well. Good point.

      Nancy, spare can be quite good. You just need to figure out the right detail, not all the details. I would suggest that for a while, you practice overwriting. You’ll feel uncomfortable, but it’ll probably help. Overdescribe, and you’ll probably hit what you need (and people will still call you spare). :-)

      When people ask me what I do, David, I tell them I work in publishing. They have no idea what that means, so they just blink and move on.

      When I was in college, Christian, I read all of the books assigned for my (now ex) husband’s English classes because he never did. I was struck at how accessible they were, and how the essayists in the Norton editions of the book (essays placed after the story) never seemed to understand the books. I used to think I was dumb, then I realized they were just justifying their jobs, trying to find something “new” in a classic work.

      Robert, I’m heading to google to find a way to listen to Eva Cassidy. You have me intrigued.

      Michael, yep. Exactly.

      Reply
    • Amanda, sounds like a group to ignore. When I put on my “critic’s” hat, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with both Romeo & Juliet, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. There are some serious plotting flaws in one and in the other, some terrible structure issues. Does it matter? Heck no. Those plays will continue to be performed long after I’m dead. But had I been in a workshop with Shakespeare, would he have ruined those plays because I told him to fix them? Run now and keep your vision.

      Reply
  13. Very thought provoking and great information, as always. You know, this makes me think about some of the biggest best sellers in the business. When I think about the numbers Stephany Meyers, J K Rowling, and Dan Brown pushed, it makes me chuckle when their detractors say “those were horribly written books.” Now, not everyone is going to like the same thing, and some people genuinely didn’t like them, and thats cool. But the ones who complain that the writing was horrible and that they are horrible writers used to confuse me. I enjoyed all those works, and found them incredibly engrossing. Thanks to you, Kris, I now have a much clearer idea why.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Ramon.

      Reply
  14. Thanks, Kris, for the suggestion re overwriting. It’s going to be a tough thing for me to do, but I think it’s worth a shot.

    And I do tend to ramble on and on when I post on my blog, lol.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Reply
  15. There’s a discussion over at kindleboards about this post:

    http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,54346.0.html

    It does include some of the complaints you probably anticipated: “Stop writing pretty sentences? What horrid advice!”

    But to a storyteller a turn of phrase is less important than a turn of page.

    David

    Reply
  16. I have a question about voice. Is it also true that voice repels certain readers?

    I just recently finished reading a book from one of the big indie sellers (I won’t mention who, that would be rude), and I was left wondering how they hell they sold so many books.

    The book wasn’t in my genre, which is a factor, but moreover I didn’t like the protagonist and didn’t find the story engaging at all.

    Perhaps it was this author’s “voice” that didn’t work for me (although it does quite apparently work for many).

    So, with that in mind, perhaps this wasn’t a bad book, just not a book for me.

    Reply
  17. “Storytellers will do all kinds of things in service of the story that will make an English major’s lip curl. One-word paragraphs, comma splices, run-on sentences, you’ll find all of that in a good storyteller’s work. Because those things improve story.”

    Beg pardon, but no, not always. I recently wrote a review (http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Station-Matthew-Reilly/product-reviews/0312971230/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_next_3?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar&pageNumber=3) of a book so atrocious that it ruined the STORY for me. I don’t mind a sentence fragment or two, especially in an action scene, but when

    Every other sentence.

    Is not only a fragment.

    But stands by itself in its own paragraph.

    It completely throws off the rhythm.

    Of the story.

    This is plain incompetence. Yes, story counts. But the point is not just to tell a good story, but to hook the reader. Story alone CANNOT DO THAT.

    John Gardner was right: we need to entice the reader into the fictive dream, into the story-world we have created AND THEN KEEP HER THERE. It’s pointless and stupid to lure a reader in with a great hook and then constantly throw her out of the story because one has not mastered the basics of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Only when one has mastered these tools can one begin to *break* the rules. That, frankly, is what those semi-pro writer’s workshops are good at: teaching people who slept through English class what grammar and spelling are all about.

    I love a good story, and will overlook much for the sake of a tale that won’t let me put the book down. But there are also writers like Bruce Olds; I will buy and read anything that man writes, for the sake of the sheer bliss of his prose, regardless of the story. I know that puts me (and him) in a minority, but let us not, in the race to commercialize our art, forget that it IS an art. When your grandchildren read your books, what do you want them to be proud of?

    Lest I seem too negative here, allow me to offer my thanks and congratulations on this very compelling series of essays. I look forward to this blog every Thursday with fear and trembling: you are shaking my world, or at least my paradigm, and forcing me furiously to think, as Piglet once said.

    Reply
    • Robert M. & Sarah, I’ll answer you in the same post because you’re of a piece.

      Robert, yes–voices (and stories) turn off readers all the time. Just like there are singers whose voices you don’t like or people whom your friends do that you don’t, there are writers whose voices don’t resonate with you. There are also story types that are the same thing. For example, post-human stories (in sf) have to really, really, really work for me to even acknowledge them. I hate that subgenre. But that’s my problem, not the writer’s. I just don’t buy those stories. So if one came through a workshop I was teaching, I would have to preface with the fact that such stories don’t work for me at all, and my opinion might be 100% wrong.

      Sarah, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog, but in this instance, you’re flat wrong. I happen to love that prose style. I’ve seen Stephen King use it to brilliant effect, James Patterson as well. All you’re discussing is a technique that doesn’t work for you. It’s a matter of taste, that’s all.

      If a writer doesn’t know grammar or spelling, take a course at a community college and learn those things. Don’t go to a writer’s workshop. You do need to know the rules before breaking them.

      But to tell people not to use one of the best techniques in the biz (it’s a pacing technique) because it bothers you is one of the things that I find destructive in workshops. Writers often confuse their personal taste with quality and will use “the rules” to defend their opinion. Chances are you didn’t like this writer’s storytelling, so you noticed the style. (Dean calls it “watching the furniture move.”) I’ll wager there are half a dozen writers whose work you do like who use the same technique and you don’t even notice.

      The only way that art survives is to have readers. The only way to get readers is to tell a good story. That’s why the art we read now from previous centuries belongs to the former bestsellers who (most of the time) broke the rules of grammar in service of the story.

      I am glad I force you to think. Folks, you might disagree with me on everything that I write, but if I get you to reconsider your firmly held opinions even if you arrive at the same conclusion you had before, I have done my job. And if you get me to reconsider mine, all the better.

      Reply
  18. Ouch!

    I’ve never tried to be a stylist, and if someone asks me to beta-read for them, I try to only pick at someone’s commas if they make the sentence confusing. (As opposed to my day job of copyediting/proofreading, when I’m being paid to fix them.) However, I get an awful lot of rejections that say, “This is well written but . . . ” or “I love the texture of your prose; however . . . ”

    I’ve sped up a lot in the last year, and I’ve stopped editing. Now let’s hope the story comes.

    Reply
  19. Hi Kris!

    I loved this one! Your advice on being a storyteller and having a voice is great! I’ve noticed, by looking at the bestsellers, that it really is about the storytelling and the voice. I’ve seen so many critics slam a bestselling book just because of the style and yet the book continues to be a bestseller. Interesting …

    I’ve discovered that I can find my voice the best after I’ve had a glass of wine. For some reason, probably because I am such a logical thinker, a glass of wine shuts off my critical thinking brain and let’s the artistic brain rule. And your right, it does end up being an English major’s nightmare.

    Anyhow, loved this blog. Looking forward to the next one …

    ~Melissa

    Reply
  20. All I did was nod my head in agreement when I read this post, Kris.

    You writers just starting out and putting words down, don’t get lost in the wilderness for years like I did! Listen to Kris and Dean’s business advice and WRITE NEW STORIES. That alone will save you from anything else.

    Storytelling and making readers turn the pages is a requirement for selling stories. Pretty words and an adroit turn of phrase—les bons mots—are nice, but not necessary, unless your goal market is the tiny slice of fiction called “literary” fiction. For the rest of the 99% of fiction, it’s all about the story.

    Thanks again, Kris!

    Reply
  21. Again, thanks for this series. I remember your editorials in F&SF about storytelling. I also remember some people not listening then.
    I liked your advice about rewriting. I suppose it’s one thing if you inner storyteller isn’t happy with the story, and another when your inner critic tries to trip you up over every phrase, sentence & paragraph. I’m going to try to keep that in mind as I look over a couple of my novel manuscripts next week.

    Reply
    • You’re all welcome for the series. I appreciate the comments & the responses. Robert M., thanks for the link. I shall follow. And I will answer your other post along with Sarah’s in the next post.

      Robert C….um, well, not quite. I have yet to meet a highly successful writer who knows the difference between their inner storyteller and their inner critic. Better not to let the critic a seat at the table by not rewriting. Of course you should fix typos and spelling errors, etc, but once the draft is finished, let it go. The critic hijacks “story” and lets you think you’re doing just fine in critical mode, and you’re not. So it’s better for writers to simply skip that step.

      By the way, the inner storyteller is the experienced one. You’ve been listening to stories since you were preverbal. You learned criticism in high school or college. Guess who works out of the subconscious and has 15-20 years more experience? The storyteller. Why let the amateur mess with the pro’s work?

      Reply
  22. David: the quote you pasted is a perfect example of an audience member who needs to remain in the seat, watching the performance than behind the scenes where everything happens…

    Reply
  23. Frankly, you are one of the few people speaking rationally and intelligently about this entire topic while at the same time dispensing invaluable advice, and I for one want to thank you for that. :)

    Reply
  24. Thanks for the push on voice. It gets a bit disheartening for me, sometimes, because my voice is not the standard of best sellers–even though it’s mine. I too often feel like an Albert Brooks movie opening on Memorial Day weekend up against the blockbusters, except it’s always Memorial Day weekend. That doesn’t mean there’s no audience for my voice, and it doesn’t mean that changing my voice to something more blockbusterish would work.

    (Though come to think of it, having Albert Brooks replace Schwartzenegger in some films like True Lies or The Running Man would be hilarious).

    The emphasis is good. Thanks.

    Reply
    • I dunno, Ed. Your voice in that post is both strong and amusing. :-)

      JR, it is amazing what we do subconsciously, which is why I say don’t mess with it.

      Sean, I’m not saying people should stop learning their craft. But rewriting won’t fix the problems you mentioned above. It just means that whoever samples the story–be it a reader or an editor–won’t buy it. Nothing wrong with that.

      A lot of you folks still aren’t getting the difference between style and voice. (Which is fine; I just hit you with that.) You need to learn the rules. Then you can break them. But learning the rules in a workshop from other unpublished writers is deadly. Learn grammar, punctuation & spelling. Try typing a chapter from your favorite author into your own writing program. See the differences, try to figure out why they put a comma in that place–what story function does it serve? Stephen King is a master class in all of this. His writing sounds just like his speaking voice and vice versa, and he does it with punctuation, paragraphing, and grammatical errors. Fascinating stuff.

      Alex, glad the post came at the time. :-)

      Reply
  25. Amazing what we come to believe without realizing it. I didn’t realize I had said “just” a storyteller until you pointed it out. Somehow, I had absorbed a feeling that there is something wrong with that.

    You’re right, as usual. (Annoying habit that you and your husband share) There is no “just” about it. A storyteller is what Homer was, what Shakespeare was, what Dickens and Austen were, and it’s a damn fine thing to be.

    Reply
  26. Several years ago I read an article about Stephen King where the reporter interviewed the editor of King’s college newspaper. One of the things the editor said was that King would come in an hour before deadline and pound out a thousand word article that was fit to print. ISTM that your advice is perfect for people like him.

    On the other hand, as a recovering English major who took more than a few creative writing classes, I have to say that there are many writers out there who I pray will never see this article. Some writers really, really, REALLY need critique groups to tell them, “Hey, you know this bit where you’re trying to say that the kid who got hit by the car was knocked out of his shoes and his iPod went flying through the air? Yeah, the way you have it phrased, you’re actually saying that the iPod was knocked out of its shoes.” (That is a real example.)

    Reply
  27. Kris, I think you and Sarah are closer together than either of you admit. You made a caveat that is rather important: the former bestsellers who (most of the time) broke the rules of grammar in service of the story.

    Yes, they did…

    But, I have often seen writers break rules when it didn’t seem to be in the service of the story, but because they were ignorant (inexcusable), careless (well, we all have our moments), or maybe because they just felt like rule-breaking at that moment. Some seem to be convinced that rule-breaking makes them somehow special–or teddibly literary. With me, leaving out quotation marks, for example, gets a novel tossed across the room and likely stomped on.

    So I understand your point and agree that you’re right that in service of the story, breaking rules is just fine. But I’m not so sure that when I see it, that is always what it does.

    Ha. I did some rule breaking myself. Just because I could. *grin*

    Reply
  28. As I have a very small apartment, I now only read on my Kindle and I don’t read book blurbs or look at covers. I download samples of everything new in YA Fantasy (what I read most) and then decide from the samples. Most I stop after the first few sentences but there are some that drag me in and drown me in the story that I HAVE to click Buy Now without looking at the price.

    And thank you for the bit about finding our own voices boring. I read my stuff and as much as I love it (a writer’s gotta love his own stuff or why send it out there), I read other people’s stuff with much different voices and think “If only I could do that” – You just gave me the re-boost of confidence. Thank you!

    Reply
  29. Kris, the post about typing a chapter from your one of your favorite authors into your writing program and studying what they’re doing really forced me to post. Especially the part about King. =)

    I’d personally recommend doing your suggestion with Bag of Bones because: 1) It’s an awesome, heart wrenching novel. 2) It’s one that King reads himself on the audio version. (And he’s a good narrator, I can’t say that about all of my favorite authors).

    It’s also pretty instructive to see what you want to change when you type it up. And then ask yourself why you want to change it and what that would do to the story.

    I’ve done this a lot with Dean Koontz and was surprised at how much versatility a lot his writing has. Sure, there will be similar elements in all of his work but, it seems to me, that he changes things up based on the needs of the story.

    For example, compare chapters from Life Expectancy to chapters from What The Night Knows to Darkest Evening of the Year to By The Light of the Moon and you’ll get a very, very interesting cross section of technique. Lately, a lot of people have made the comment that in the last few years Koontz has been overly descriptive, almost to the point of purple prose.

    I disagree.

    Some of his books do tend to be extremely descriptive but then others are very spare and favor short sentences and paragraphs. IMHO, like I said before, he varies things based on the book. You’ll even find books where chapters featuring one character are longer, more descriptive sentences and the next one-with a different character-will have short, punchy sentences. Or one chapter is very reflective while the next is humorous and fast paced.

    Okay, it’s late and I should probably stop but I had to add my two cents and say that I totally agree with Kris. =)

    Reply
  30. Kris, I think the Marketwatch report may be misinterpreting what B&N said about their sales of ebooks. What they ACTUALLY said, near as I can tell, it that they sell twice as many ebooks as physical books on B&N.COM, not overall or in their physical stores (where they obviously don’t sell ebooks at all, directly anyway).

    Still, that’s a significant number, and whatever the actual breakdown, management there clearly thinks that’s the way things are heading.

    One other significant bit of new this week. B&N has hired a new agency to handle an aggressive “rebranding” ad campaign. That’s where a lot of that unpaid dividend money is going. It’s going to be really interesting (and possibly telling) to see what form that rebranding takes. Will they even call themselves a “bookstore” any more?

    Don’t laugh. It could happen.

    The closest analogy (that I’m familiar with anyway) to this situation is the Radio Shack chain, which saw its traditional customer base of hobbyists, computer geeks, ham radio operators, and home-audio customers disappear, go to discounters, start buying on the web, or be drawn into other (usually proprietary) products.

    The zillion pegs full of electronic parts started to shrink, and the emphasis was more on niche electronic gadgets and accessories for all the things people were buying in other stores. They even deemphasized the word “Radio,” simply calling themselves “The Shack” or “The Technology Store” in many ads.

    I think something of the sort could happen with B&N. They could be “The Information Store,” or “Food for Your Brain,” or “Smart Fun,” or who-knows-what.

    Reply
    • Steve Y, yes, I know about the problem with the Marketwatch article. I mentioned it the blog post, which is why I said that the number is not statistically meaningful at the moment.

      But thanks for the other stuff. I think you’re probably spot-on about the Radio Shack/B&N analogy. Good thinking and good spot. Thanks!

      Reply
  31. This was a very liberating read. I write fast during Nanowrimo and really enjoy writing. Editing, however, is my nemesis. I often feel like I’m supposed to cut all the fun out of the text. When I was a kid I used to tell multi-chapter stories to my friends on the school bus. I’ve been trying to capture that fun and creativity in my novels.

    Any advice for editing with the points you’ve made above in mind? I mean, I know I need to spell correctly, but where does one draw the line? I’ve agonized over one comma before, and that seems silly.

    Reply
  32. There’s a difference between adding dissonance to a solo (listen to the jazz greats) and flat playing out of tune – but I’ll tell ya, the difference between what’s brilliant and what is banter fodder is in the eyes and ears of the folks.

    I played a show at the Broward County Convention Center one time to a sold-out crowd and I was a bit ‘tight’ as they say (starting celebrating before the show, big mistake). Anyway, our bass player dedicated a song to his wife, Steve Ray Vaughn’s ‘Pride & Joy’ and I decided to take the guitar solo in the key of B … a pretty cool one too, except the rest of the band played the song in its normal key of A (yikes). After getting some dark stares from my band-mates and crew, I was surrounded by audience members praising my ‘wild & crazy’ solo. haha… I think you know the point I’m making.

    It brings to mind a skit they used to show on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in – “Veerrry Interesting, but STUPID!

    For me, all forms of art would be dull if we all used the same brushes, brush strokes, melodies, words said the same way, punctuation, etc.

    p.s. Did you hear the one about the artist that dropped a bottle of paint on a portrait he just finished … it sold for a million dollars at auction as a brilliant piece of avant garde realisism!

    (I made that up, I’m a storyteller, ya know!)

    B/t/w… I enjoy everyone’s comments and learn something from all of you – thanks & cheers! TGIF!

    Reply
    • After I logged off last night (and didn’t have time to log back on), I realized that many of the comments yesterday were about the words and not about storytelling. Who cares if the grammar is wrong, folks? Seriously. If someone doesn’t know grammar and tries to write, the reader will quit. So stop worrying about the words.

      That said, let me respond to today’s comments so far. Steve L, thanks for that Koontz observation. It’s a good one.

      Gerard, yes. Writers who want everyone to write grammatically are taking away 99% of a writer’s toolbox. Stories should not “sound” similar. They should “sound” different. Punctuation, pacing, paragraphing, word choice–that’s all about “sound” If that doesn’t make sense to you, then go back and forth between something King is reading and something he wrote. That’s a master class in punctuation as sound.

      Glad to help, Bryan. As for the points, just write, finish, spellcheck and mail. Maybe have a trusted (anal) friend read for continuity only–no discussion of the words at all. Then only fix those points that the anal friend mentions, and only if you agree. Do not reread, do not revise. Just finish, spellcheck, mail. Oh! and read. A lot. Not critically because the average reader doesn’t read critically. Readers read for enjoyment, so you must too. You’re feeding the subconscious, and learning at the same time. Then repeat. A lot. The more you read other people’s stuff for enjoyment and the more you write, the more practice you’ll have. You will improve. I promise. Without agonizing over commas.

      Reply
  33. I read quickly and missed that somehow, Kris.

    Yeah, Radio Shack is an interesting example. I don’t know how well they’re doing right now (I get the impression it isn’t great), but at least they’re still going, which isn’t bad when you consider this kind of total transformation of the market.

    Looking around at the bigger business picture, I’m seeing a radical across-the-board transformation for retail over the next 5-10 years as more sales go on-line or into alternate marketing models.

    It’s already happened in some niche markets. Traditional hobby stores, for example, are dead or dying in many parts of the country (I don’t know about the mid-west, which seems to be the hotbed of many traditional hobbies, probably because of basements and long winters.) Some of this is a cultural change to other kinds of hobbies and activities, but a lot of it is the inability to compete with on-line stores that offer much larger selections and big discounts.

    And this week, Wal-Mart reported soft sales, in toys (no surprise, since Wal-Mart almost single-handedly destroyed the toy business in this country and now can’t figure out what happened) and to my surprise, in housewares and soft-goods. Some of that is the economy, but it isn’t an across-the-board decline, which means that’s only part of it. The cheap clothes and housewares Wal-Mart sells aren’t luxury goods.

    My theory about retail was that the areas that would best survive would be things that were too bulky to ship (appliances, building supplies), too perishable to buy on-line (some groceries), where things are needed quickly or are bought on impulse (food, pet supplies, baby supplies, drugs), and where people like to see, touch, and try-on before they buy (clothing, housewares, home decor, and to some extent, toys).

    The Wal-Mart news seems to contradict that, but I may have explained it already. In a soft economy, when people do buy clothing for things for the home, people may tend to go for value over price whenever they can. And when they have no choice but to go price over value, they want it dirt-cheap, dollar-store prices.

    But everything is subject to on-line contradiction, and if Amazon can work out its sales-tax and deliver-to-door problems, others may follow them and run a virtual bulldozer through retail. Not that retail is going away, but there will be fewer and different stores in ways we can’t anticipate now. Wal-Mart is ripe for a major implosion. (Major companies go in waves anyway. K-Mart pushed Sears off the top, later merging with them, Target and Wal-Mart pushed out K-Mart, and now it’s time for something new.)

    Reply
  34. I agree the storytelling is paramount. I also agree that breaking the rules is sometimes that absolute *perfect* thing to do. Patrick Rothfuss is brilliant at it, as is King and countless others.

    However.

    I completely bloody disagree that new storytellers/writers should disregard the prose and the grammar and just go wonky willie at it. My brother is a painter. My sister is a photographer. They’re both known over the world, and they’re both *extremely* successful at what they do. If I went to either of them and said, “Hi, I’ve got this buddy who says they don’t need to learn how to use brush strokes for maximum effect, and they don’t need to learn how to use lighting to draw something out.” Well… no, it doesn’t work that way.

    *Ignoring* those elements of storytelling like punctuation or POV rules doesn’t do anything at all to make you a stronger storyteller.

    I’m a mechanic in my daily job. Grammar is a tool, just like the 10mm wrench I use to take off a valve cover. Now, if I don’t know how to USE that tool, how the heck am I supposed to get the valve cover off? I can’t. It flat out won’t work. Now on the flip side of that, sometimes the bolts are rounded off, and I can’t get them out even *with* that 10mm. So I use a torch. Or a big bloody hammer. Basically, I break the rule that states I should use a 10mm wrench to take off a 10mm nut–because it didn’t work for that situation. But both of those things are in my toolbox, and I KNOW how to use them.

    Storytellers craft stories with words. I know that’s a fairly simple statement, but it goes deeper than that. The words are our tools. The sentences. The commas. The dashes and question marks and periods and ALL OF IT are our tools. Well, as a writer and storyteller, I’d like to learn how to use those tools to the absolute best of my ability. I don’t want the three drawer craftsman toolbox that’s on sale at Sears. No. I want the 25,000 dollar Snap-On toolbox. And I want to know how to use it. In addition, any storyteller that DOESN’T crave that very same toolbox, and who doesn’t care to perfect their story in every sense of the word, well… they don’t hold my attention very long. The reader knows when something is done with a purpose, and when it’s not.

    If you don’t think King, or Rothfuss, or any of the other ‘greats’ know EXACTLY what they’re doing, then I would agree to disagree. Respectfully, of course :).

    In the end of my rant (this was fun :)), I’ll say this: Should the rules be broken in an attempt to make the best story possible? Absolutely. Every single time. But at least understand how to USE the tools of storytelling. Then, once you’ve learned that, feel free to break all the rules you want.

    Thanks for the blog post, and sorry to be one of the dissenters :D.

    Reply
    • I agree, dt, as I said below, they know craft in service of story better than anyone. We agree 100%. And as I said below, typing in King’s work is a master class in punctuation, etc.

      I also say, in the comments, that if you don’t know grammar, spelling, etc, then go learn them at community college. In a grammar class. Not in a writer’s workshop. Writer’s workshops are the worst place to learn that stuff. Absolutely the worst.

      You don’t learn how to use a wrench from other beginners. You learn it by doing. Someone can tell you that you need a crescent wrench for this particular job, but if you’ve never held a crescent wrench, you have no idea how it fits in your hand. You might be better served with a different tool.

      Nowhere did I say not to use those tools. I am saying do NOT rewrite.

      Folks, if the manuscript doesn’t tell the story well, no amount of “tweaking” will make it work. Toss out the manuscript and write the story again. If you can’t punctuate or spell, no one will ever get to your story. But if the story fails, it fails. Tweaking the language will not make the story work ever. Start over from scratch.

      So not once have I said that the writer shouldn’t learn those tools. I am saying that you can’t learn how to use those tools by rewriting.

      Reply
  35. [i]Storytellers will do all kinds of things in service of the story that will make an English major’s lip curl. One-word paragraphs, comma splices, run-on sentences, you’ll find all of that in a good storyteller’s work. Because those things improve story.[/i]

    Thank you particularly for this. I’m always horrified when critique groups/forums reel off a list of “show don’t tell”, “don’t use abverbs”, don’t do this, that and the other, and forget that important qualifier: _unless it makes the story better_.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Laura & Andrea. I’m so glad that this is helpful. And you’re right about the qualifier. Nice. :-) And thanks for the blog post, Laura.

      Reply
  36. @Steven York

    Amazon can work out their sales tax problems as soon as they decide to obey the law that other online retailers obey. There are many online retailers who manage to collect state sales taxes just fine (Target actually uses Amazon software to do so!). Amazon just doesn’t want to give up that price advantage over bricks and mortar stores and is willing to shaft their affiliates and business partners wherever necessary to maintain it. (full disclosure: I’m one of those shafted by them).

    I think there’s a niche for bricks and mortar stores that you also slightly touch on, which is high personal touch/high community involvement. We have a local toy store and it’s not very big, but we love it to death and steer as many of our friends there as we can. Why? The owner is one of those uber-knowledgable retailers who is so involved in the community (free game nights at the library and elementary schools, organizes toy drives at Christmas, etc.) that people love going to the store and spending time with the guy.

    Finally, re: Radio Shack. A friend who used to be a manager at one of their stores told me once that they make 90% of their sales in December. Who da thunk? That’s certainly not a hobbyist store anymore.

    Reply
  37. “You know you’re in the hands of a master when a voice reaches across the page, grabs you, sucks you into the story, and won’t let you go.”

    This article is so absolutely spot-on that while reading I wanted to stand and cheer! (Instead I posted a link on my blog.) Kris, thank you so much for sane and intelligent encouragement.

    Reply
  38. Kris,

    Absolutely amazing comment to dt. I think that far, far too many people get attached to one particular manuscript as the perfect way to express their story when they would be better served by telling it in the best way they can right now and moving on. If they want to come back to that same story and express it from a different angle at a later point, then they can do it then. Like Algis Budrys said in numerous articles and in his book Writing to the Point: The manuscript is NOT the story. Or put another way: Write and release! =)

    Reply
  39. If I’d read this post before the class I took from you and Dean last October, I would have been shocked–shocked!–at the thought of never rewriting and tweaking, shocked at the thought that rewriting and tweaking take out voice rather than put it in, shocked at the thought that writing fast without any rewriting could result in anything someone else would want to read.

    Fortunately, I did take your class in which I had to tell you a story in a specific word count written in a set number of hours (a very short number of hours, I thought at the time) and never change a word once it was typed or written down, and because of that experience, and because doing that repeatedly over six days created not only the habit of writing that way but also a craving to write that way, my voice is clear in my writing, and my writing is telling the stories I also wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell them.

    It’s very liberating. It’s very wonderful. And I will always be grateful to you and Dean.

    Reply
  40. I think by rewriting you mean overhauling the story, which is usually a waste of time. But nothing wrong with fixing grammar that doesn’t work, right? However, the best is to know the grammar in the first place. As far as Stephen King is concerned, read one of my all-time favorite books about writing, “On Writing”. As I remember (because it’s very late at night and at the moment I can’t hunt up my copy) he has a section in there called “The Toolbox” or something like that, and he makes it very clear that a writer has to go into the game with a basic knowledge of grammar, spelling, syntax, and so on. The carpenter has his hammer and saw and other tools, the writer must have what he needs to do the job. But once you have those basic skills, King recommends around two thousand words a day as a good pace. And he, the master, is indefatigable – he just keeps going on and on.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Steve & Sharon. Yep. That’s right.

      John, once again, I am not saying that a writer should ignore grammar, punctuation and spelling. The writer must learn these things.

      I am saying that rewriting is bad. And yes, I am saying this: If you already know grammar, punctuation & spelling, and you write fast, and you commit a “bad” sentence grammatically (which I might be doing right now), do not rewrite it. There might be a story reason for that terrible grammar that your subconscious knows and your critical voice doesn’t. I am saying do not tweak.

      I am assuming that you writers, both professional and beginner, have learned your craft already. And part of your craft–but by no means all of it–is line by line writing.

      Once you have learned grammar, punctuation and spelling, for heaven’s sake, trust the process. Trust your writing brain. It knows what it’s doing. Let it work.

      Reply

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  1. Survival Skills for the Modern Writer | - [...] week’s post, on the importance of the writer as storyteller, is absolutely spot on. While reading I wanted to …
  2. Writing Fast « Djmills's Blog - [...] This thought of mine was made clear in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog post on Modern Writer Survival Skills. [...]

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