The Business Rusch: Storytelling

Business Rusch logo webI really hate the term “writer.” It’s not accurate. Yeah, I’m a writer. But honestly, what I really am is a storyteller.  I tell stories, and I use fiction on the page (digital or paper) as my medium.

I mention this, because for the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I’ve also been doing a lot of teaching. I’ve helped Dean with some homework for the online classes, and I recently taught a science fiction workshop in October. The science fiction workshop is my second craft workshop of the year. The first, mystery, took place in June.

Craft workshops always teach me something. Usually, they get me to think about what I do, why I do it, and how I can improve. They also teach me about my own reading biases. There are just some things I don’t want to read—ever. Workshops force me to read those things, and while I may not like what I’ve read, I often appreciate it.

Confession time: I adore beautifully crafted sentences. The ideal novel for me is written in a clear, somewhat unique voice, one that startles me with its originality—while (and the while is important)—telling me a fantastic story. Given the choice—beautifully crafted sentences or a good story—I’ll pick the good story every time.

A year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the problems that writing workshops taught by people who do not make a living at their writing have caused the writing profession. Those people, very few of whom know how to capture and hold an audience, focus on the words, the sentences, the metaphors, and the “craft,” of writing, ignoring—or failing to understand—the importance of storytelling.

These teachers, some of whom have sold one or two things (or a handful) and some of whom have not, teach incorrectly as well. They teach by critique, how to deconstruct, how to disassemble.

No one ever learned how to build a house by taking one apart. Sure, you can learn a lot by taking a house apart—what the builder did, but not how the builder did it. And by the time the house is in ruins, you can’t exactly remember what it looked like or the elegance of its lines—how it flowed from one room to the next. All of that got destroyed.

Try to rebuild a house after tearing one down. Just try. You won’t even know how to use a hammer, let alone when you need one instead of a Phillips screwdriver.

I dealt with all of that in the earlier blog posts, which became my book, The Pursuit of Perfection. (You can still get the blog posts for free on this site. Start with this post, and be sure to read the comments.)

Storytelling is a craft. It’s something that can be learned. Some people have more of a gift for storytelling than others, but you’ll find that those people who display an early gift usually had exposure to stories and good storytellers earlier than others.

The teachers I mention above don’t teach storytelling because they don’t know it’s important. They don’t understand how the words and structure that William Faulkner uses in one of my favorite stories, “Barn Burning,” reinforce the story, and that Faulkner did not choose the words consciously nor did he figure out the structure consciously. It came from his subconscious in service of the story.

The preponderance of these writing schools, in universities, colleges, and even some high schools, has created an airless room filled with lovely things. This has led to a literary culture that praises those lovely things, and appreciates those airless rooms.

For example, last spring, I read a highly acclaimed novel that I won’t name. The sentence-by-sentence writing was so astonishingly good that there are still things I know my subconscious will learn from it. The prose was vivid, the details crisp, the scene setting tremendous.

But I slowed down in the middle of the novel, and forced myself to the end, which was even  more dissatisfying than I had thought it might be. The novel’s story was simple: set half in the present, half in the past, a character hides a secret from one of the other characters. That secret, known to a third character, was going to get revealed as this third character made his way to the other two.

We readers knew that the reveal would happen. We waited for the moment of revelation, and then we wanted to see the fallout. How would these characters survive something that vast, that awesome, something kept secret for nearly fifty years that changed all of their lives?

Well, honestly, we’re still wondering. The reveal happened in final chapter and then—get this—everyone went to bed (and not to have sex). To sleep and live another day. The end.

I damn near threw the book across the room. The entire novel was just a beginning. All the writer had was a conceit, and he wrote to the end of that conceit, and no farther. What happened next? How would everything resolve?

Apparently we were supposed to guess. Or write our own damn novel. Because this author—this highly praised author—had two-thirds of a novel left to write.

However, in the rarefied world of literary fiction, this author’s book was called one of the best of the year. Not because his story was any good. Because his prose was so stellar, no one called him on the lack of story.

Hollywood has come calling because one of the characters in the book is Hollywood itself (the film industry likes fiction about the film industry), and you can bet if this thing actually gets made into a movie, the movie will go waaaaaaaay past that little opening section. Or will pad the front. Or will add a storyline.

Otherwise, there can be no movie. Screenwriters—especially screenwriters who focus on big budget movies—have to include a story or the audience will disappear.

This novel is not unique. I’ve read dozens just like it, with a good idea buried under lovely prose, with good characters (albeit characters who suffer from the author’s contempt of their actions) and some marvelous setting.

Such stories abound in the literary mainstream.

They also exist in science fiction and women’s fiction. The demands of both the mystery genre and of the romance genre prevent such things from happening there. In both, a plot is essential. Something has to happen, whether the author’s prose is lovely or not.

The writers who write such things will never be remembered. Their work won’t be considered art one hundred years from now. If anything, they’re the Bulwer-Lyttons of the future, the writers whose style is so dated that future generations make fun of it.

We read Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne even though, their work is also stylistically dated, because all three of them told great stories. We’re reading for the story, not for the sentences or the beautifully constructed metaphor. Hell, most of those metaphors are lost on us because they refer to things that are no longer part of our every day lives.

Technically, these writers aren’t remembered because they wrote “art,” but because they wrote “story.” Compelling stories, even now, which hold our attention despite the antiquated style.

Just like so many bestsellers hold our attention despite the thinness of the prose. I’m not saying all bestsellers will be remembered 100 years from now, but some will. The storytellers whose books get handed from adult to child—like J.K. Rowling—will survive much longer than the writer with a mountain of accolades and not a memorable story in her oeuvre.

For years, Dean and I have taught professionals whose careers have plateaued. Mostly, we teach business, because most careers stall when business intrudes. But every now and then, a writer’s career stalls because something is wrong in the craft.

I have devised a series of exercises that have to be done fresh as stand-alones, things that look at each aspect of the writing from character to dialogue to detail. These exercises pull a person’s writing into its individual parts. I do this so that I can tell a professional writer what he does well and what he needs to work on.

The reason I had to devise the exercises was this: professional writers are great at hiding what they don’t do well. They’re like the Wizard of Oz. A good professional writer can get the crowd in the room to look Oz the Great And Terrible, and ignore the curtain in the corner.

That’s great when stories about Great and Terrible Ozes sell, but if the market for G&T Oz stories disappears, the writer might not have the chops to write something else. Chops can be learned, but sometimes it takes someone to pull the curtain back and look at the levers before the learning can begin.

Just think of me as Toto.

I’ve done this for years, and the exercises are edifying. Mostly, though, professionals have all the skills. They’re just better at some things than they are at others.

I use the exercises with professionals to take them to the next level, to an aspect of craft they might not even know exists.

But recently, Dean and I have used these exercises to help newer writers, folks who haven’t been at it long, or folks who have tried repeatedly to sell their work and keep failing for some indefinable reason.

And I learned something that is, to me, a bit horrifying.

To a person, these writers have learned how to imitate the features of a story without learning how to tell a story. For the first time in the 14 years I’ve been using these exercises, I’m seeing beautifully written prose pieces devoid of character or real setting or any hint of voice.

A couple of writers wrote lovely, lovely, lovely sensory detail without ever sinking into a character’s head. Great word usage, wonderful thesaurus work, but no living breathing character and without a character, no story at all.

Dean and I are seeing things like this from writers all over the country, and it’s worse in writers with a pedigree. If they have an MFA or if they had been to the weeks-long summer writers workshops taught around the country, the writers can dash off beautiful prose with the best of them.

What they can’t do is tell a story.

And worse, they don’t understand that they need to. They have no idea what story components are.

No one is teaching storytelling in these writing workshops. No one seems to believe it’s important. In fact, a lot of workshops ridicule the writers who tell great stories. Most of those writers are long-time New York Times bestsellers. Their prose might be plain, but their stories are phenomenal, which is why so many people read the books.

Right now, there are more stories being told in the culture than ever before—not just in books, but in movies, games, television, comics and more. When Dean first started live-blogging his daily routine, I bitched a little because I said it sounded like all I did was watch TV. He and I watch at least an hour of television per night. With the exception of The Voice, which is filled with business advice for anyone who wants (or has) a career in the arts, we watch stories. We don’t deconstruction them—that’s not the point. (See the house metaphor above.) We watch for enjoyment, and with luck, we watch to learn some storytelling techniques along the way.

I have several friends who are great verbal storytellers, and again, I often listen with a thought to picking up technique. I listen to radio pieces all the time, from news to puff pieces, again, searching for story.

Story is everywhere—except in so much of what passes for “quality” fiction.

So many people write to me to ask what they need to do to have a career in writing. I generally tell them they need to learn business.

But after this experience in the last nine months, I’m going to add one more thing: they need to learn storytelling. Storytelling is an art. It has patterns that have survived for hundreds of years, expectations that readers/listeners have that must be met. The old forms aren’t something to be sneered at; they’re something we should understand, because they go deep into the human psyche.

The more I try to help writers who feel trapped, stuck, or lost in their work, the more I want to break the red pencils of writing teachers everywhere. These teachers aren’t mean-spirited. They’re just misguided. They don’t know how to tell stories either, so they teach what they do know: sentences.

That’s like saying your house is only composed of boards. Houses built that way would have no foundation or wiring or plumbing or even shingles on the roof. They’d only have boards, sometimes nailed together in beautiful ways. They’d look like houses, but no one would want to live in them.

Some carpenters would create lovely shells, but no one would remember those shells years later. And most carpenters would slap up the imitation of a house that would leak and wouldn’t hold together in a windstorm.

I feel for these writers. So many of them have spent tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, to learn how to nail boards together. They’ve learned how to be “writers,” but they’re no better at storytelling than they were the day they handed over the first dollar for the first class.

Stories seem deceptively simple, and they’re not. The simplicity comes in the repetition.

Boy meets girl is still compelling, even thousands of years after the first couple met. We’re still interested in murder, betrayal, political intrigue, war craft—even though Shakespeare did it all and did it all better than any of us ever could. And what about those lovely Deal With The Devil stories? They still fascinate, hundreds of years after Goethe’s Faust stamped its mighty fist on the genre.

A lot of times people want to know why their indie-published ebooks aren’t selling, and often the answers are based in business: the cover is awful or it doesn’t brand the book by genre; the about-the-book blurb is passive or it isn’t written like ad copy.

Once a writer has repaired those things, however, then it’s time to buck up and face this possibility: the books aren’t very good.

Oh, the writing is probably lovely. The sentences are beautiful. The metaphors gleam and glisten. But the characters are thin or clichéd, and the setting non-existent. Mostly, though, the story isn’t compelling. Or, more likely, there really isn’t a story.

In the early days of e-publishing (all of four years ago), the bestselling indie book titles were novels riddled with spelling and punctuation errors. Sometimes the formatting sucked. But the storytelling by writers who generally had never gone to a single workshop was absolutely fantastic. Why would readers buy books two and three in a series? Not for the riveting prose, but to see what happened next.

If you finish a story or a novel, and everyone tells you how lovely the writing is, then you’ve probably screwed up. If they demand the next book, you’re doing a very good job indeed.

Stop calling yourself a writer. The label writer is a misnomer.

Call yourself a storyteller.

And then prove it—over and over again.

I’m in the process of telling a huge story, and taking time away from that project is actually painful. I haven’t missed a business blog post since the beginning of April, 2009, however, mostly because I know you folks will show up from week to week.

Many of you have commented or given me other incentives. The donations help as well, reminding me (and you) that this is part of my business, however much it pulls me away from the fiction writing part of my career.

So, thank you all for returning. And thanks for the support.

And please, if you learn something or value the blog, leave a tip on the way out.

Thanks!

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“The Business Rusch: Storytelling” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.

So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m particularly interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.

I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.

I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.

I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this.

If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)

Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.

 




91 responses to “The Business Rusch: Storytelling”

  1. Patti Larsen says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’m a main-stream, pop culture writer(storyteller!) and have never claimed to be anything but. I love what I do–and my readers do, too. Yes, of course, I do what I can to be a better writer with every book I put out–but for me, story is everything. Connecting with the characters, running along with them to the end of their conflicts, sitting on the edge, breathless to find out what happened… this post reminded me I’m doing it right.

  2. wim says:

    Hi Kris,

    Long time reader of your blog, but this is my first comment. 🙂

    I completely agree with you about the need to be a storyteller first and foremost. Over the years, I’ve both cursed at many so-called literary masterpieces and bestsellers for not delivering on that front. As a reader, I want to know the story, period. If you tell it to me in a way that makes the experience of discovering it rich and therefor more rewarding, then that’s awesome. But I loathe beautiful writing that hides the fact that the story, well, sucks.

    No idea if you’re aware of this but Jim Butcher has been sharing some of his storytelling craft for years on this page:
    http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/

    He recently did a couple workshops about this topic too:
    http://youtu.be/oiKmP-tL4vo
    http://youtu.be/nQWDZp05leA

    In there, he states clearly that he’s a storyteller first and the language shouldn’t get in the way of the story.

    Maybe his system doesn’t work for everybody but it sure seems to work for him. 🙂

    Back to lurking in the shadows. Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks for the links, wim. I will check that out. One of the things I like the best about Butcher is the voice he has achieved with Dresden. And it’s nice to know he’s thinking story first as he does so. I suspected as much. 🙂

  3. Dave Raines says:

    I’m an English major who failed as a high school teacher, so I went to seminary, without really knowing what seminary was about. My first semester, I took my first New Testament course. My (Ph. D.) professor sat in front of the classroom on a stool. The very first thing he did was tell nine stories from the Gospels, from memory but nearly word by word. Then he said promised that we would learn to look closely at the details, which warmed my English major heart. But, he said, the most important thing we’d learn was story. We too would memorize the stories, we would learn them “by heart.” It transformed my understanding of Bible, and of storytelling. St. Mark may be the clunkiest best-seller ever, stylistically. It shows even in translation. I just want to tell him to stop using the word “immediately”! But wow, can he tell a story.

  4. I have to admit I find it bewildering to see all this emphasis on story but a distaste for deconstruction. (How do you know what a story is if you don’t analyze stories?) Perhaps you do have specific elements of what makes a good story that you share in your workshops and simply don’t want to give away for free here. But I’m getting the impression that what you’re saying is to read/watch a bunch of good stories and absorb elements by osmosis. Which, yeah, I mean, that works. And we all do that.

    I just don’t see what’s the big deal about analyzing and deconstructing the elements of a story. I feel like the biggest leap I made as a storyteller was when I learned about conflict. I stumbled onto Holly Lisle’s site and read about conflict: stories are all about characters wanting something and obstacles being in the way of their getting what they want. It was like a revelation. I’d been reading and watching stories my whole life, but I had yet to absorb this critical fact of how stories operated. Thanks to her deconstruction and analysis, I started writing better stories immediately.

    Anyway, maybe I’m misinterpreting you, but I’ve gotten this sense over the years, from both you and Dean, that you’re very cautious about ever articulating what makes a story tick, and I just… well, I find it bewildering. However, I think the world of both of you and love your blogs.

    • Most teachers tear stories apart. They don’t say, “This story works.” Pointing out that conflict exists in a story and what that conflict is, is quite different from showing each element of the story and how it appears and how it’s used. Writers learn by osmosis, absolutely, and by trusting the process, not by rewriting and tearing things apart. You have to read for enjoyment before you can understand what the story does. If you approach a story from the point of view of “what works here?” “what’s wrong here?” you miss the point entirely, because that’s not what the story exists for. It exists for entertainment. So you must be entertained (whatever that means) as a reader before you can ever understand what the story does.

      If you finish the story and think, “wow! How did he do that?” then you can go back and try to see if you can figure it out. But approaching things completely critically before you read them or while reading them misses the point of reading/stories/entertainment altogether.

      It’s really not a mystery and I’m not withholding anything to promote the workshops. It’s very simple. Doing it, on the other hand, is quite hard.But you have to read for enjoyment first, and then, maybe, you can deconstruction. Of course, if you do, you’ll ruin the story for yourself and others…

  5. Jodi says:

    I think pretty writing is a bit like cool special effects or great visuals on a TV show or movie. Sometimes these things can distract you from a mediocre or cliche story, but not from a boring one.

  6. antares says:

    Once upon a time, Ian McDonald was my favorite writer. His prose was lyrical and his stories touched my soul. Examples: ‘The Catherine Wheel’, ‘Vivaldi’, ‘Christian’, ‘Electric Avenue’, _Desolation Road_. In these stories he was both storyteller and wordsmith.

    Then he began the ‘Chaga Saga’ and the lyrical prose fell away. When that happened, the stories lost their inspiration and became forgettable.

  7. At an Oregon writing conference, I overheard some storytellers making fun of literary writing, and I said, “You know, I think we could learn a lot about description, details, and setting from them, and they could learn about plot and character from us, and we’d all be happy.” I still feel that way. It’s all good.

    I recently re-read the beginning of one of my first short stories before submitting it, and I was surprised how lyrical the writing was. No, I didn’t edit the story. I just thought that could be one of my goals in the future, to bring richness to my words without sacrificing the character or plot, which would satisfy the poet in me.

  8. antares says:

    The Passive Guy reports the feds support the Deconstructionists: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/11/2013/federal-bureaucrats-declare-hunger-games-more-complex-than-the-grapes-of-wrath/

    By the scoring system they use — Lexile — Sports Illustrated is better than To Kill a Mockingbird. Or Huckleberry Finn.

    Coming soon to a school system near you. Whether you like it or not.

  9. Ginny B says:

    Wow, I am so the opposite, Kris. Great writing will always feed my soul, will always give me something in return for my time. And though I, too, get extremely frustrated and disappointed when beautiful writing is combined with poor storytelling, at least I get something out of it…whereas if a great story is told badly, with no craft at all, I can’t get through the writing to even FIND that story at all. I’m a craft snob, I admit it.

    Note, though, that by “craft” I don’t mean “pretty writing,” either–I love Sandford as much as Conroy, and I love them both because while each of them has a completely different stylistic approach, they both know their craft and handle telling their stories exceptionally well. Mind you, if I want to get well and truly drunk, there’s nothing like cracking open a Conroy to get utterly stoned on the sheer beauty of words. But he tells a great story, too, and it’s often the contrast of gorgeous verbiage and horrifying stories that is his trademark. And maybe that’s why I like to read writers who are so good at style. It doesn’t matter what the style is–from lyrical to utilitarian–as long as it tells the story in a way that showcases that story. Matches it, enhances it, amplifies it. Most of all, that it doesn’t get in the way of the story. Clunky writing–that doesn’t match, that doesn’t showcase, that doesn’t unfold the story skillfully–gets in the way for me. But to me, clunky can be anything from the flower-to-gritty spectrum that just doesn’t serve the tale.

    The story is still the ultimate point, but I will always love the writers who take pride and joy in HOW they tell the story as well, and when the expression of that story equals the quality of the story itself–there’s nothing better. It’s like you said in last week’s post, about how people have to learn their craft in music–that just getting an A in high school choir doesn’t mean you’re a pro like Beyonce. Pitch-perfect is a voice that matches the song. Take a fabulous song and have Beyonce sing it, and her style–her craft–is going to make that combination great. Get me up on stage (as a fourth cousin to Ringo Starr) and have me sing the same song…and my voice will ruin that song, no matter how good it is. To me, that’s how writing works, too, at least at its best.

    I can’t read a great story that isn’t written well. That being said, there’s something for everyone out there and taste as to what’s “good” varies incredibly. I could never get past JK Rowling’s style enough to read the Harry Potter series, but there are millions who could and did. And I’m glad someone did, because I love the movies, where I can enjoy her imagination without grating at her style. Taste in “style” is as wide as the world itself, and thank God for that or very few of us would hit any mark at all. But I don’t think anyone who wants to be a writer should ever feel that an either/or choice between style and story is ever good enough. A good story deserves the best delivery we can provide, and the best delivery should enhance that story instead detracting from it. Craft and style is part of how we make that happen.

    As for the “literary” world’s sins, they do teach story, but their concept of it is so foreign, most readers outside of their extremely rarified environments would not recognize it. In universities, in “literary” circles, “art” is often isolationist for its own sake, written deliberately to only the other literati who recognize the signs and tokens. (Ask anyone who’s had to read Ezra Pound AND all the footnotes provided for “insider references” and they’ll know what I mean. Those people wrote to one another, not to us; many of them still do.) It’s not that the literati don’t write story, they just don’t write to the “uninitiated” masses for whom story is expected to contain certain elements–like the walls, roof and foundation of the house you mentioned. For those of us who do write to the masses–who want our stories to reach out, touch, and resonate with many instead of a select few–the best classroom is hidden in the books we love to read, because you’re right: They subconsciously guide us to the right balance of story and expression.

  10. Great post, Kris! As a writer of literary fiction, I so, so agree with everything you’ve said here. It doesn’t matter how pretty your sentences are if you can’t spin a good yarn. And even literary fiction needs a solid story behind all the prettiness.

    Reading your post made me even prouder of the reader who said in a review of my book that he found the book to be like Paul Harding’s Tinkers, but with a story. 😉

  11. Judy Goodwin says:

    I think I was lucky in that in my Creative Writing degree at University of Arizona, my writing instructor actually focused on plot rather than writing. Then I took one of your and Dean’s workshops in Spokane at a convention. I remember Dean going over the basic formula of a plot, looking at fables and fairy tales. That lesson stuck with me. I may still struggle to sell stories, but I’ve sold enough now that I feel I did get the clue. It’s the story. Without the story, you’re just writing an essay. And essays are generally boring.

    Great post! I always look forward to your Thursday postings.

  12. John Sauls says:

    As you note so effectively, for most readers good storytelling is the essential element. The other writing skills (writing pretty sentences, for example) can either enhance or detract from the story, depending on how they are utilized. Cormac McCarthy’s novels provide excellent examples of both. No Country For Old Men is a terrific example of great storytelling supported by his style. “They sat.” One of my favorite sentences in the book. He made it work. The Road likewise. Some of his more “literary” works make much larger demands on the reader because the storytelling is overwhelmed by his peculiar techniques. Sometimes the experience provided is absolutely worth the reader’s effort. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! for example. So many others, not.

    Thanks so much for all the terrific advice you and Dean provide. I treasure your candor.

  13. antares says:

    If readers bought perfect prose vice stories, Henry James would be better known than Mark Twain; Dan Brown would still be a prep school teacher.

    What say you, Toto? Is this Kansas?

  14. Kate Pavelle says:

    Just a FIY: the most excellent oral storyteller, Syd Lieberman, put all his audio recordings online for free download. He is a real mensch for doing that. For a short story, I’d suggest “The day the Nazis came” (and it’s not what you think it is), and for a longer listen, I suggest the story of the Johnstown Flood. My husband, who is a better and more dramatic teller than I am, learned by copying Syd Lieberman’s stories to see what works and why. Of course there is always a structural difference between an oral story and a written one (an oral story transcript will feel very different from the same story as written down for the reading audience, even when done by the same author).

    Syd Lieberman’s stories can be found at: http://www.sydlieberman.com/, under “Recordings”. My favorites include “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Beowulf” as well. He encourages the sharing of his recordings under a creative commons license.

  15. Kris, when I was a kid and something happened at school that I wanted to tell my mom about when I got home, I would think up the best way to tell the story for maximum impact. I don’t know why–it just came to me naturally. I guess I thought it was what everybody did. For my entire life (I’m now 63) I’ve soaked up storytelling techniques from every movie, every book, every TV show–even TV commercials. I can’t help it. 😉

    I’ve still got a long way to go before I reach my full potential as a writer (I’m halfway to my first one million words), but the storytelling part seems easy–probably because I’ve been doing it all my life.

  16. Ken Talley says:

    Hi Kris,
    A craft question. You note the importance of “living, breahing” characters to a story, that “without character there is no story.” So my question: How do YOU create that character (in 25 words or less!!)?

    Here’s why I’m asking. I’m doing a little “mini-Dean” writing challenge, writing a story a week (so far so good for the last nine weeks), keeping track of “new words” and getting the stories ready to submit. When I re-read some of the stories, though, I worry about my characters being too thin, one-dimensional. I contrast those with some of your stories. Smokey Dalton, for example, is a really well-rounded “live” character. Same with Larissa Johanssen in Bleed Through. And then there are all your characters in your short stories, which I’m reading week by week. Those characters are all individual, “live” people, fully rounded.

    So (finally) the question: Do you make notes, write mini-biographies of your characters? Or is the character in your head and you wing it and put the character together as you write? I have a playwrighter friend who writes huge, long biographies of his characters before he sets a word down in his play. Is that the way to go for fiction? It seems sort of like putting a wet blanket on the fun of writing. Yet, character is so important to story that I would do whatever it takes.

    And thoughts?

    Thanks,
    Ken Talley

    • Am going through these latest comments fast before dinner, but thought I should answer you, Ken. Good heavens. Outline? Do you diagram your neighbor’s life? Your best friend’s? No, and yet they’re real people. Empathy. Empathy and warmth and asking, “If I were raised like Smokey was, how would I feel about this?” Characters must be real people in your heads before they’re ever real on the page–and real in the way that your wife is real or your son or your grandmother. Not someone you diagram.

      As for tricks–well, you might try Dean’s Character/Voice/Setting workshop in January. He has clearer instructions than I do. I tend to get a bit woo-woo about characters. http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=7474

      I hope that helps.

      • Phaedra says:

        Woo Woo? LOL

        Oh great. Now I’m doubting every story I’ve ever written, including what I’m working on.

        o.O

        • TXRed says:

          Don’t doubt anything but your sanity. 🙂 I started a little “change of pace” story that turned into four novels because the main character, her friends, and her mule, would not leave me in peace. I thought I’d gotten away with the end of the trilogy, but I was very wrong. Maybe I’m nuts to wake up with a character standing there, arms folded, patting her foot and saying, “What do you mean you’re finished? I’m certainly not!”

  17. Marion says:

    Kris,

    This was a great article. Storytelling is so important and has been relegated to second-class status in contemporary fiction. Thanks for the reminder about importance of storytelling.

    BTW, I just finished The Disappeared and it was a good story. I’m posting a review on my blog and I’m looking to reading the rest of the Retrieval Artist Series.

    Marion

    • Nancy Beck says:

      Marion,

      You won’t be disappointed with the rest of the RA series. I have them all, except for 1 or 2 short novels.

      I’m now eagerly awaiting the next one! 🙂

  18. Yes!!!

    I’m currently reading a book (“Longbourne”), which I had been looking forward to based on the incredible concept (“Pride and Prejudice” told from the servants’ viewpoint), but the author is so enamored with description (describing motes of dust glimmering in the light and putting in every fact she knows about household cleaning in the nineteenth century, etc…) that I’m having a hard time getting through it. What’s worse, none of the characters have any character. I can’t get a sense of them at all.

    I’m going to keep reading because the cool concept and the accolades must mean there’s a good story in there. Right?

  19. Tori Minard says:

    Right now, I’m studying craft simply by reading a very popular romance novel into my dictation program (I write romance). Reading it aloud and as dictation (including punctuation) is very different from reading it silently, and it’s even different from typing. I’m a very fast typist–83 words per minute accounting for errors–so I often zone out when I’m transcribing. Afterward, I’m not sure what I typed. But dictation forces me to pay close attention. The first time I did this, my writing–oops, storytelling–skills seemed to take a huge leap forward. I am taking some notes, focusing this time on cliffhangers and hooks, but mostly I’m just reading aloud.

    • I recently typed a short story by one of my favorite authors into my computer, to force myself to see how he crafts it. Yes, that means I am paying attention to the very detail Kris decries here: sentence structure, word choice. But as Samuel Delaney has often said, word choice influences what happens in the mind of the reader. In this case, I know the story very well, and have figured out (yes, deconstructed!) how the plot goes from A to B to C, and why it does so. But now, I’m learning letter by letter how that author made it work. So, not to contradict Kris too much, there is some value in deconstruction. And as a veteran of both Clarion and Turkey City, I do see value in writer’s groups. But I absolutely agree with Kris that the emphasis has been wrong for decades: dissecting a novel, like dissecting a corpse, can teach you where the bones and muscles are, but it won’t teach you to sing or dance.

      • Tori Minard says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that I’m dissecting it. I’m just noticing stuff and focusing my noticing on cliffhangers. But mostly I’m absorbing, at a level that goes a lot deeper than my conscious mind. I have a theory, completely unsupported by science as far as I know, that reading stuff aloud engages the mind differently than reading silently.

  20. Sally says:

    Maybe these workshops should force writers to tell their story without recourse to their manuscript and carefully polished sentences. Write the Reader’s Digest version. The Just The Facts Ma’am police report version. The Explain It Like I’m Five version. The Screenplay version. The Elevator Pitch version. The Back Cover Blurb version. The TV Logline version. Give them a 3×5 index card for notes and make them stand in front of the class and just tell it. “And then what?”

    I can’t count the number of reviews of ebooks that say that the punctuation isn’t right or the tenses wander, but people bought them anyway because they got swept up in the story.

  21. I have to stick up for teachers. I was lucky in both my parents. My father, an artist who taught other artists, was the best raconteur I’ve ever known. He needed an editor (his stories went on and on), but they were fascinating. he taught me what it takes to hold an audience’s attention. My mother taught English at the college level for many years, so she is a good editor and critic of sentences. Between the two, I got a great grounding in storytelling. Oddly enough, it was my mom, who does not write fiction, who told me the “secret” to a good story: character and conflict. 🙂 Not a very big secret, but so many writers tend to forget it.

    My other great “teacher” was Hollywood. When I was learning to write scripts, the idea was hammered into me that each and every scene had to have conflict. Good advice, even if it’s not always possible.

  22. Great post, Kris! Personally, though, I’ve always preferred the term author. However, what most people don’t realize is that this word is actually a homograph, spelled the same as the more commonly heard term but pronounced quite differently (like the word lead). An “author” is anyone who has published, but an “Oh-thaw” is someone who has published, believes himself endowed by his creator with vast amounts of talent that mere mortals don’t have, AND who considers himself to be vastly superior to all other lower forms of authors (who often go by the more pedestrian terms like “novelist” or “storyteller” or, God forbid, “writer.”)

    It does take years of practice to get the pronunciation right. If you imagine yourself wearing a tweed jacket and holding a pipe, plus give it a vaguely British accent, you’ll probably be in the ballpark.

    ~Scott

  23. Bob Mayer says:

    I call them gurus– those who teach/tell/lecture authors on both craft and the business, while they themselves don’t make a living from their own writing.

    It was always easier to be the Ranger Instructor than the Patrol Leader in Ranger School. Easier to critique others than do it ourselves.

    I look at the ranks of presenters at many conferences and wonder why authors should listen to people who aren’t doing what the presenters themselves aren’t doing. I love social media experts whose social media presence is nil. The writing craft instructor who has published on or two books in 20 years.

    Bottom line is we’re story-tellers, the oldest profession. Doesn’t matter if it’s told in a cave, written on papyrus, published in hardcover or digitized.

  24. Jason M says:

    IMO, the best writers are the ones who marry great storytelling to amazing sentences. For my money, Tom Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren (as well as Stephen King and others). They’re my heroes.

    I simply can’t read a book with a cruddy, blocky, eighth-grade style, no matter how beautifully crafted the plot.

  25. J.A. Marlow says:

    Wow. I loved this. Yes, give me a story to enjoy!

    Now the question becomes, am I doing it as a writer? I’ve had readers tell me I have, and I’m constantly getting the “Where’s the next book?” mantra (Usually shortened to a simple “BOOK!” demand. Hehe.). So, I think i’m on the right track. I’ll soon find out more, as I’m in the last Strengths class. Erk. Here it comes..:braces:

    😀

  26. It’s about knowing what business we’re in – and what our customers, our readers, are actually buying. Most of them aren’t buying beautifully crafted prose. They’re buying whatever a good story gives them – excitement, escape, whatever. It’s our job, as storytellers, to give that to them in whatever way the most want to experience it. If 10,000 readers emailed me today and told me they were dying to experience the Faeland, where my novels are set, as an online interactive storytelling adventure, you can bet I’d be on the phone with a game designer and a programmer first thing tomorrow morning. If they came and told me they wanted my stories in haiku, then that’s how I’ll give it to them. The medium isn’t the goal – the medium simply serves the story, and ultimately the reader.

  27. Erik K says:

    Kris, I’d like to request that you and Dean consider doing a blog series OR book on writing practice and exercise. I know that I’ve benefited tremendously by doing some of the exercises y’all have had us do in your workshops, and I just wish I had more of them to focus on other aspects. I know that the personal feedback in the workshops is also extremely valuable, but I think that just having a collection of them out there would be helpful.

    What do you think? Is this something you’ve already considered and discarded?

    Thanks a lot for this blog. It’s always a bright spot in my Thursday routine.

    • Thanks, Erik. I will discuss with Dean. 🙂

    • I love this idea so that those of us too broke to attend could buy the book(s) and do some self-study at home. I hope you and Dean consider it, Kris!

      • Shannon Gonzalez says:

        Absolutely agree! I was going to ask if you would consider writing a craft book teaching this, until I read your reply above when asked about teaching storytelling. I can’t afford the workshops either at present but would definitely buy a book! Please consider this!

        Many thanks for your blog posts, they mean so much to so many of us!

        Shannon

        • Please write a storytelling book! I wouldn’t mind if the best stuff was exclusive to workshops and lectures. The book would be great marketing for the workshops and lectures, and a way for us poorer writers to show our gratitude for all you do.

  28. TXRed says:

    In academic history, the final question is called “the big ‘So What’.” OK, you found a new way to approach the history of X, but so what? Why should anyone read this book/article/attend this lecture? Part of this is a reaction to the deadly dull academic writing of the past.

    I wonder if fiction is going through a similar phase, where story faded because of critics looking for academic-style literary products. “Impressive” beat out “gripping”and as a result we get the lovely, spiritless writing that everyone praises and no one buys.

    In fiction or non-fiction, I see myself as a story-catcher and story teller, even if some stories are much, much easier to tell than others. Water law will never be gripping. Fisticuffs in the street and insults hurled in state legislatures over water laws? Well, now . . . 🙂

    • I think the academic Big So What started in the 1930s, when the deconstructive creative writing “workshops” started. And it’s sad, really. I’m hoping it will change. Some of the bigger in-field workshops are finally inviting professionals who make a living at it instead of professionals who have sold one novel, and that will help new writers as well.

  29. Thank you, Kris, for another awesome post. I found myself nodding often and even shouted out Yes! a couple of times. (Fortunately, only the cats are here to hear me.)

    I decided not to be an English major in college because of all the analysis we’d done in high school, which ruined several books for me. There was no discussion of why we liked them, just endless deconstruction.

    Last year I took a class, supposedly on Story. It was only after a couple of lessons when I commented that what the instructor was teaching wouldn’t work for series mystery, and she didn’t get it, that I tried to find what books she’d published. Answer: none. (My bad. I should have done this exercise before signing up for the course.)

    Six months before that I’d taken a class (on the same site, different instructor) which taught me a lot about composing beautiful sentences. There was more than that, but the focus was on language. (I knew that going in and that was what I was looking for at the time.) The assumption was that you already had a story.

    I have to agree that education is not going to teach you the craft of storytelling. Years ago I was in a group with another writer who was just starting out. He barely finished high school. He worked as a janitor. His punctuation was terrible and his grammar was often bad. But he was the most fantastic storyteller. His story was riveting. I would have traded all my knowledge of where the comma goes to be half as good at storytelling as he was.

    Thanks again for a great post.

    • I used to teach with a long-time editor, and he could never understand why I encouraged people who could barely craft sentences. Beneath their cruddy grammar were story techniques that many great literary masters never learned. Now, those writers who stuck with it from that group, have learned grammar and their stories sell. It’s nifty to see.

      • When I was student teaching Sophomore Composition, I found a guy with a really compelling voice. He was really struggling with the mechanics, but I kept defending him to my overseeing teacher. She dubiously said I was finding something in his writing that spoke to me. Of course, he two weeks later he turned out to bodily threaten me, rape a middle school girl, then shoot a state patrolman, but man, the guy could tell good stories.

  30. Perhaps I missed this from the post, but are these exercises the same ones taught in the #9 lecture series? I haven’t paid for that lecture yet, but if it’s the same thing as these exercises, please take my money! Your lecture on Short Stories and Dean’s on Dent’s formula were great.

  31. Kris,

    What you are saying is, interestingly enough, analogous to writing software (what I still do for a living).

    There are folks that know the language, keep up with every change, every single nuance, and can do it all from memory. They create beautiful code and pick and pick at it forever. Some get so enamored with building pretty things they don’t get much done.

    Then there is the programmers that care about how the code looks, but much less than they care about getting the thing working.

    (Personally I care not at all for knowing everything or memorizing everything–that can easily be looked up. What I care about is making it work.)

    Guess which type of programmer makes a living year in year out in all kinds of economic environments? Yup, the ones that get things working.

    Style is important in programming too, but not a the cost of functionality… never at the cost of functionality. Just like the books you talk about, that kind of software won’t last.

    Realizing this is great for me, because I get it in my profession and this will help me get it with my story telling.

    Excellent as always, Kris.

    Thanks!!!

  32. Kyra Halland says:

    This is so true. I recently read a couple of self-published novels where the writing was, well, “problematic” is one way to describe it. Long, tangled sentences, awkward sentences, strange verb tense shifts, words that weren’t used quite right, problems with other conventions such as paragraphing and dialogue punctuation.

    But these novels were also gripping, exciting stories with vivid, memorable characters. Every scene had a purpose – not a static, pointless scene to be found. And both novels were centered around a compelling story question or goal that kept me completely engaged to the end. These two authors certainly hadn’t mastered beautiful sentences, but they sure knew how to tell a good story.

    Granted, these fantastic stories would be easier to read if the sentences and other mechanics (such as punctuation and paragraphing) were more functionally correct. But that can be easily fixed. A novel with no story in it is a lot harder to fix.

    • walter daniels says:

      Oh, you means like Stanislaw Lem? His books, IMO, are impenetrable.

      • Keep in mind, however, that unless you read Polish you’re reading a translation, and even the best are less than what the author intended. I’ve done enough translating to know that choosing the right word in English to convey a concept that does not have an exact equivalent can result in “long, tangled sentences”. I always cut Lem a little slack because he wasn’t writing in my language. I am in awe of writers like Joseph Conrad, who do write in languages other than their mother tongue.

  33. Raymund Eich says:

    Great reminder of what’s important and what isn’t. Your statement about standalone exercises got me wondering, will you and Dean be doing a Strengths online workshop in 2014? Perhaps reconfigured to make sure participants know how to tell stories?

  34. Mercy Loomis says:

    Whenever someone asks me what classes they should take in college if they want to be a writer, I tell them to take folklore classes.

    Folklore (if you’re paying attention) will teach you a TON about story; story elements that show up again and again, archetypes, what kinds of stories get told all over the world regardless of culture, which bits are culture-specific, how they have changed (or not) over time. You study what makes a story endure.

    One of the other things I love about folklore is (as one of my professors put it) that history studies what happened, but folklore studies what people believe to have happened, and sometimes why they believe it.

    I love hearing about traditional oral storytellers and how they will tailor small details to their audience, but if you ask them if they told the story differently one time to the next, they will (usually indignantly) say no, they tell it the same every time. Because the story was the same, even if this time they didn’t have time to include all the details of the feast, or whathaveyou.

    • Great suggestion! I can’t believe I never thought of that. It seems so obvious in hindsight. Thank you! Great advice.

    • Kate Pavelle says:

      I’m an oral storyteller, and of COURSE you have to tailor each telling to your audience! It’s that special teller-audience interaction that creates extra frisson of energy in the air. It makes the adrenaline spike of being of stage bearable, and I channel that energy right back to them, hoping that my words, gestures, and tonality make my audience happy and repay them for the gift of showing up. Furthermore, when I tell a story I already wrote and am not all that sure about, the oral presentation and the audience feedback forces me to focus on the important parts, and skip the chaff. The performance is like a gestation chamber. I am often surprised by what I leave out – and I never miss it again!

      • “I’m an oral storyteller, and of COURSE you have to tailor each telling to your audience! It’s that special teller-audience interaction that creates extra frisson of energy in the air.”

        Boy, do I agree!

        Last WorldCon, I was invited to join a panel of writers to read portions of our books aloud. Some of the names on that panel were world-famous. All of them sat behind a table, facing the audience, reading in a near-monotone with their noses nearly in the book or touching the paper.

        When it came my turn, I *stood up* to read from my book. (When I was in theatre, and later as a member of a choir, I learned that it is easier to project the voice while standing.) I read clearly, with expression, and had chosen my stopping point ahead of time at a dramatic moment in the story. When I finished, I got a standing ovation. I sold out of every copy of that book I had at the WorldCon, and had dealers asking me where they could get more. Does it mean it was a great book? Not necessarily. It was all about the presentation. Oral storytelling is not the same as reading quietly at home, but hearing a story told aloud wakens something in us. Probably atavistic memories of humankind’s youth, when storytelling was the first art form.

        In any case, oral storytelling is not only a great way to “rehearse” your stories (read your stories aloud to yourself!), but a good marketing tool.

    • Michael Peck says:

      I love the entire column, as usual, but couldn’t agree with this folklore point more. Even the simplest retellings are wonderful learning tools. A children’s book I read in fifth grade, Mollie Hunter’s The Haunted Mountain is like a primer for this kind of thing. Great advice indeed.

  35. Christie Rich says:

    Hi Kristine,

    I grew up loving stories, and I still do. Thank you for reminding me why I write. Words mean nothing without the foundations of a great story.

    I’m very interested in which workshops you and Dean offer that address story telling. I write paranormal romance with high fantasy elements, and I’m eager to learn more about the art of story telling and where I need to improve. I think your workshops might just be what I’ve been looking for.

    Thanks again for all the wonderful advice and for being here every week. It means a lot to me. You and Dean are the first resources I seek when I need to make a business decision about writing.

    Thank you,

    Christie Rich

    • Christie, below I mentioned a lecture I did on how to read like a writer: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=8597. All of Dean’s lectures on plot address story in one way or another, as do most of our craft workshops online. The ones I teach in person (and the ones Dean teaches in person) also focus on story. I’m a more intuitive teacher. He goes more for rules because he’s really good at explaining things clearly. So, it just depends on your preferred method of learning.

  36. Amy Keeley says:

    I’ve been wondering why movies have been my go-to for examples of good storytelling. Now I know.

    It also explains why some of the most helpful writing books I’ve read don’t use books for their examples. They use movies. It’s not just familiarity. For cryin’ out loud, I’ve been reading like crazy because I came to the fantasy genre with mostly fantasy movies as my story stock. (I’ve read almost all the big names, but I haven’t read as widely as I should.)

    Oh, oh, and one more thing. To support what you said about storytelling being derided, I put off reading Harry Potter for years because even the people who loved it in my writing circle, when it first was taking off, said that the writing wasn’t very good. Plus, it was a “children’s book.” When I finally tried reading it, I was floored at how good it was/is. I could kick myself for listening to anyone who said it wasn’t worth the time.

    (BTW, I really appreciate the time you put into this series. I look for it every Thursday morning.)

    • Lynn says:

      I often wonder what people mean when they talk about “good writing.” Do they mean flowery sentences that read like overwrought poetry? Philosophical tracts that describe one’s soul as a moss-covered tree in the darkling woods? Now, I like beautiful descriptions in a book, but that’s not why I read. I read for story. Right now I’m immersing myself in Roald Dahl books. He doesn’t have a single poetic description or sentence that I feel compelled to read over and over again for their sheer beauty. His is an efficiency of language that is simple without being simplistic. He tells a story in a very compelling way, without letting writing style trump everything else. I am immediately sucked into his stories and continue to be enthralled to the very end. So when people were telling you that Harry Potter was not well written–that’s sheer twaddle! Like Roald Dahl, she tells her story in a very compelling way, without unnecessary poetry and literary padding.

    • walter daniels says:

      Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up reading EE Doc Smith, RAH, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, etc., but I learned to “tell a story.” “The rules” I learned from 12 years of basic English grammar. I can still diagram a sentence in my head, and do when the grammar checker whines. Even so, it’s still “yes, I meant to do it that way, shut up.” 🙂

  37. Well Said. I have encountered something similar in critique groups. When it take months (or years) to read through a book with your group, then of course the focus goes to paragraphs and sentences, easily missing the greater picture. It is a “can’t see the forest for the trees” kind of thing and the storytelling can suffer for it.

    • Karen Nilsen says:

      The storytelling certainly can suffer for it. Well-stated, Eric. Novels were never meant to be read one chapter a month at a time and then picked apart paragraph by paragraph. In fact, if I’m reading a novel that I’m struggling that much to enjoy, I put it down and find a book with a more compelling story.

      Great post, Kris, as always.

  38. Zelah Meyer says:

    Hi Kris,

    I’m going to be doing the online Character Voice & Setting workshop in January. I know that we can deconstruct the bestsellers to learn from them – but I suspect that it is easier to study something as overarching as ‘storytelling’ if you’ve read or studied something that highlights some of the basics so that you know what to look for.

    I know that when I studied hypnotherapy, I’d seen relaxation scripts in books, but until I did my first course, I didn’t really ‘get’ what the scripts were, how they worked, or how to read them aloud and make them work.

    Do you know of any books or courses that would address the details of storytelling? As in, how to bring your audience with you and get them to feel the story the way you want them to feel it? I know the tips about getting inside the character’s head and using plenty of sensory detail (and I’m hoping that the January workshop will really help me solidify my understanding of that) – but obviously the techniques of storytelling will go much deeper.

    One of the improvisers I admire is a master at taking a whole theatre full of people exactly where he wants them to go. I would love to be able to do on paper what he did on stage before he got ill.

    I shall be doing some Googling on my own accord, probably for materials aimed at people doing spoken storytelling. However, I know that you’ve read loads and loads of books on craft, so I figure it’s worth asking you if you’ve found anything particularly apt! 🙂

    • The flaw is in your question, Zelah. You don’t want to buy craft books on storytelling. You want to read stories by world-class storytellers. Read, read, read. I have a lecture on this through WMG if you’re interested. It’s called “Read Like a Writer” and it shows you how to get this information to your subconscious. (Although I suspect the information is already there. you just have to trust it.) http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=8597

      • A.C. James says:

        No matter how much I read, and I read every day, it seems like I get stuck with the same problem. The story – or plot – is thick, and rich, but the characters that drive it seem lacking. I close my eyes as I type, picturing myself in the scene, and give them details, but the plot seems more intricate than the character in it. That’s terrible because my genre is romance. And romance is all about the character. I stick with the gals at my local RWA, which is a pretty long drive. But before I discovered them, I was critiqued to death. The writing by the rules, and know the rules before you break them makes me feel like I’m being smacked with a ruler by a nun as if I were a petulant child. Why can’t I switch point of view within a scene if it makes the story flow and it’s organic? Head-hoping, the most cardinal of all writing sins, has been done beautifully by a few of my favorite romance authors. Joey W. Hill does it so fluidly that as a reader you’d never notice, but as a writer… well we notice these things.

        • Nora Roberts switches POV in the same sentence. It hasn’t hurt her career any. Ignore the rules. If your characters seem boring to you, then you’re probably doing it right; they’re close to someone you care about, and that’s familiar. Just trust your instincts.

    • Years ago a friend who wanted to write asked me to recommend a good writing text. I suggested Orson Scott Card’s book Pastwatch – which seemed to me at the timeto be one of the best stories I’d come across: I sure felt like I learned from it. Sadly my friend looked at me with the kind of stare that suggested he was sure I hadn’t understood his question.

    • One of the neatest tools for checking ‘voice’ for me was discovering the Celtx software for screenwriting. It had a device that allowed you to select one character and just extract all his dialogue in one chunk from the whole play. It was a great way to see if that character even had a distinct voice and if it remained consistent throughout, no matter how much the dramatic circumstances changed.
      Now I don’t use Celtx for novels, but it’s possible. It used to be free software. And even with Word, I try to do one ‘finish edit’ by bouncing for one single character through the whole manuscript to make sure her voice stays true. This was especially important when mixing English and American characeters in one scene for ‘Love and the Art of War,’ or replicating Voltaire for ‘A Visit From Voltaire.”

  39. Suz Korb says:

    I think my stories and prose both suck and that’s why my books don’t sell. I had dreams that they would sell when I started writing like a berserk maniac three years ago. Now my writing mojo is gone. I’m bereft I tell you! But what’s the point in writing if no one’s going to buy my shit? I’m just fed up. Tired of being a dirt poor writer who tunes out everyone and everything just to try and make this stupid profession work.

    • Most writers think their work sucks, Suz. I know I do quite often, and then I soldier on. The key is finding ways to stay enthusiastic about storytelling. It’s not an easy profession, unfortunately, but it is rewarding. It just takes time. I hope you continue.

  40. I’m wondering how much of this is the result of the internet’s intrusion on writing. People are looking for “tips,” or quick fixes and eager for rules to follow. I started writing when I was eight. I didn’t have much in the way of any resources to learn how to write other than what craft books I found at the library (not many) and reading books. I had one creative writing class in high school, but really not a lot of other education. I didn’t have any exposure to other writers (in one respect, this hurt me because I wound up with a bad habit I’m now having to break, some decades later).

    Once the internet was around, I signed on with the usual writers message boards and looked at blogs. It was great at first, but I kept seeing some odd trends. The writers tended to focus on rules. Rules work really well with sentences, taking things out, concrete things. They don’t work so well with the more abstract, like character and story. I kept seeing writers tell other writers who were experimenting in those abstract areas either “It doesn’t matter if Writer John Doe did it. You have to know the rules before you can break the rules” or “Don’t do it. It’s hard and most writers screw it up anyway.” We’re supposed to learn from reading other writers, but we can’t do what they’re doing because they’re published? How do you learn storytelling techniques and characterization if you can’t experiment?!

    The worst is that the writers themselves often reinforce this. I was in a critique group, and we had this one writer who was great at writing sentences. The problem was that he had no story. He’d done 70K and had yet to actually start the story. The other writers always praised the writing, and I was the only one who kept focusing on the story. Of course, he ignored me because I was the only one saying there was a problem.

    It’s terribly easy to ignore working on what’s hard because it’s challenging — but that’s where you get the great storytellers from.

    • It existed long before the internet. I’m reading a history of Farrar, STraus, Giroux now and it’s clear what was valued there like other places were beautiful writers, even as the storytellers made all the money. I do think that the internet reinforces everything, but it also makes good information available as well.

    • Laura Kirwan says:

      It way predates the internet. I got a BA in English, focusing on writing, in the early 80s and it was already happening then. The old guard professors had actually worked in publishing outside of academia, and they taught professional copyediting and magazine feature writing along with fiction, and appreciated strong story telling. They were elderly then and I’m sure the University let all that real world experience go when those professors retired and hired MFA/PhD’s to replace them.

      This article that I originally read in 2001. It’s pretty scathing but sadly accurate. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/07/a-readers-manifesto/302270/ I was really hating “important” fiction at the time and couldn’t articulate why until I’d read this. Now if a blurb describes a book as “beautifully crafted” or “evocative” I don’t even open it.

  41. Alan Spade says:

    I know you and Dean don’t like the name, but I have always called myself an author rather than writer. We all have our interpretations or misinterpretations, but for me, an author is someone who does an act of the mind, who makes a story. A writer writes beautiful sentences.

    • I think it’s a cultural difference, Alan. In the States, Authors are people who have written, mostly. Anyone with one publication can call herself an Author. At least that’s how I hear it. I like your definition. 🙂

      • Eric says:

        In Germany it’s indeed switched. The term “Autor” is used as a general term, denoting authorship and bears the same meaning and connotation as “writer” when used as a job description. Literary types prefer “Schriftsteller” which has much clearer artistic undertones in modern times. It replaced “Schöngeist” (“beautiful spirit”) about the time Schiller was around. Schöngeist is now used as a mocking term for people who believe that doing nothing at all is art.

  42. David Lang says:

    the classic Radio dramas are great examples, they didn’t have high quality audio sound effects, all they had was story.

    A great example, I happened to catch teh 22 min radio version of Stagecoach with the John Wayne and Clair Trevor that was produced shortly after the movie version came out.

    It’s a great example of how to cover a story with limited time, no pictures, and extremely limited special effects.

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