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It Comes with the Best of Intentions

Monday, March 22, 2010

I’ve been talking about critiquing a lot lately at writing groups, so it’s necessarily been on my mind. After staying up until almost 6 a.m. today to get a project finished, as I lay in bed trying to get a few hours of sleep, I realized one very important point that I didn’t emphasize in the two workshops I gave—mostly because I didn’t have time in the first workshop (I only had a 45 minute slot) and because the second group, Middle Tennessee Christian Writers, has heard me talk about it before.

I included this in the presentation:

Carefully consider each comment you receive. My local group has adopted a line from Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies when it comes to comments received from critiquers or on contest entries: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

Back before I was published, I was one of those critiquers, one of those contest judges, who was so certain that I had to follow every single rule of writing that had been drilled into my head (and between graduate school and the multiple conferences I’d attended, those were a lot of rules!)—therefore, everyone whose stuff I read had to follow those rules as well. Because there was no way I was going to see someone else get published without following the rules if I was knocking myself out to follow them.

But then I got published—and I started working as a freelance editor for a couple of publishing houses—and I learned a very important lesson:

Story trumps craft.

What that means is that the reason we see books being published, whether by multi-bestselling authors or first-time novelists, that break the writing “rules” is because, for the most part, they are good storytellers. (Yes, sometimes it is just because they’re a big-name author and, even though the story is mediocre, the book is guaranteed to sell at least 100,000 copies.)

For those of us just breaking in or trying to, it’s important to learn the guidelines of good writing—tight/strong POV, showing more than telling, using active verbs, using the five senses, etc.—because no matter how good our story is, if we can’t put it down on paper in a manner close to what a publisher is looking for, they’ll never acquire it.

But be very cautious about feedback that says you have to write something this way, or you can’t write something that way. “You can’t use the word was, ever” is a huge one that I know so many people struggle with.

I’ve never actually heard an editor or agent say that. I have heard them (mostly published authors who tried to articulate this in workshops for newbies which then got taken out of context) say to “prefer active verbs” (as Strunk & White put it in the Elements of Style). All that means is that if you can use the active form of the verb (walked) instead of the passive form of the verb (was walking), then use the active form of the verb. It tightens your prose and makes your action seem more immediate. It doesn’t mean you have to do verbal gymnastics to try to eliminate every instance of the verb was from your writing. Sometimes a good was is just what you need!

I’m going to share with you something I’ve said to the MTCW group a few times. Some may find it controversial, but I believe it’s true:

You can teach someone how to be a better writer; you can’t teach them how to be a better storyteller. You’re either a storyteller or you aren’t—and no matter what level of expertise in the craft someone reaches, if they’re not a natural storyteller, they’ll never be a good writer.

That’s why story trumps craft. Story is king. And the unfortunate thing about most writing conferences is that this concept gets lost in all the talk of the craft of writing (which can be taught) and industry talk. We don’t focus on developing the story or imagination or creativity. Sure, we’ll talk about the structure of a story, of making sure we have all the elements of the story—but those things are just the braces holding the framing up. If an architect doesn’t have a complete vision for a house, starting from the foundation, it doesn’t matter how much framing and drywall and siding the contractor puts up—it’ll never be a house. If we don’t focus on developing our story first—the heart, the soul of our story—it doesn’t matter how tight of a POV we can write, how many different active verbs we can come up with to substitute for sat, how lyrical our prose. If we don’t have a good story, none of those things matter.

Have we been lied to all this time?

No, of course not. These comments come to us out of the commenter’s best intentions—but out of a misconception that says, “As long as I follow all the rules, I’ll get published.” A misconception that makes unpublished authors increasingly frustrated when they read people’s debut novels in which rules are broken—or novels (like Love Remains) which opens with a were in the first sentence and a had been in the second sentence. As someone from MTCW said, if I were entering that in Genesis, they’d ding me on both of those.

Rule-breaking doesn’t always work. And it’s better to know the rules and understand why you’re breaking them (because it’s your voice as a writer, because it fits your story) than to not know them and just be a sloppy, lazy writer who can’t be bothered with improving his/her skills.

And this isn’t true of just writing. There are other areas in our lives in which we’re constantly told should and can’t yet, when we learn all of those shoulds and can’ts, we discover that we might and can because we’ve learned why those “rules” were there in the first place—we learn they’re guidelines for improvement rather than actual rules.

Look beyond the “rule” to the intention behind it and see if it isn’t more of a “guideline” instead.

  1. Monday, March 22, 2010 1:00 pm

    I wish you’d written it before last week. I spent the last week knocking myself out trying to “de-was” the first three chapters of my WIP to send to an agent for a critique at Blue Ridge. Completely shut down my writing work in the last week and really made me feel overwhelmed to re-work large sections of the text solely to eliminate that one word. It made me feel like my WIP wasn’t mine anymore in a sense.


  2. Carol permalink
    Monday, March 22, 2010 1:21 pm

    LOL-sounds like nursing school! Real life looks like a completely different creature.


  3. Monday, March 22, 2010 2:06 pm

    Thank you, Kaye. I’ve gone through my manuscript, I THINK, five times, and at least three of those five times was to follow some really picky rules that should be guidelines. Oh, I got rid of “was,” “-ing,” and a myriad of other “no-no’s”, but you know what I’ve been doing this last time? Adding CONFLICT. Adding to my CHARACTERS.

    I think we pick out those other things because they’re easy to pick out, and we can be so righteously legalistic about it. I know. I’ve been there, too.

    Right now I’m not in a critique group, but I have a group that I can brainstorm with. And isn’t that what will improve our stories the most? After all, most of us have a grasp of the written English language, or we wouldn’t be attempting this thing called writing.


  4. Becky Miller permalink
    Monday, March 22, 2010 2:16 pm

    That’s really good. It frightens me a bit, because I’m not sure I’m a good story-teller. I am technically a good writer, but I’m not sure about story-telling. Maybe I should continue to stick with non-fiction…

    I DO think that to some extent you can learn to be a better story-teller. A lot of that comes from learning to tell stories verbally, learning to tell jokes better. I think practicing engaging an audience in every day life as you share anecdotes with friends can make you a better story-teller.


    • Monday, March 22, 2010 3:41 pm

      More specifically, I guess what I mean by saying one can’t learn to be a storyteller is to say that either someone has the ability to come up with stories others want to hear (or read) or they don’t. There are some people who just can’t make up and relay a story to save their lives. Those are the people I’m talking about who can’t be taught to become storytellers. They just don’t have the ability to do it. Just like I don’t have the ability to play a wind (woodwind or brass) instrument. I know, I know, it should be easy, as I’m full of hot air, right? 😉 But I have no talent for it. I accept it and move on. I don’t torture myself by learning how the instrument works and what technical breathing and blowing skills are needed and where to place my fingers in order to make the correct notes. There are a lot of non-storytellers out there who are torturing themselves by learning and trying to practice the craft of writing without actually having the talent of storytelling.


  5. Monday, March 22, 2010 6:51 pm

    Can I give you a big hug?


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