The Business Rusch: Storytelling
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.
“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.