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Top Ten Writing Tips #5: Let Me Tell You a Story

Monday, June 7, 2010

Why did we start writing in the first place? Was it so that we could get our wrists slapped and be told “no” and “don’t” and “you can’t do it that way”? So we could sit at the computer and stare at the screen and feel so inadequate and full of self-doubt that we’d never be able to do it “right” that we’re unable to write at all?

Of course not. We all started writing because WE LOVE TELLING STORIES! It saddens me when I go to conferences or speak at writers’ groups and see the majority of people who are more concerned about “crafting the perfect prose” so they can get a book contract rather than learning how to tell a great story. Which brings us to today’s tip . . .

Writing Tip #5. Story trumps craft.
Several members of my local group have had very frustrating experiences with their results from unpublished-author contests they’ve entered. It’s allowed them to see how subjective the publishing world is . . . but it’s also shown them that most contests are judged based on the “rules” of writing rather than on storytelling. After all, how can you really judge a story in only fifteen or twenty pages? I’ve read plenty of published novels that start out with a bang—the first two or three chapters (the ones the author worked on and worked on and worked on for contests and to submit to publishers) are fantastic—but then the story loses my interest. Sure, it may be a technically well written piece of prose, but is it really a good story? And it’s even more frustrating when these judges whose scores are based on judging whether or not the entrant “followed the rules” when each judge has a different/subjective/occasionally flawed understanding of those “rules.”

So when you receive critiques or contest scores back, carefully consider each comment you receive. My local writing group has adopted a line from Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean when it comes to comments received from critiquers or on contest entries: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” It doesn’t matter how many writing how-to books you memorize and how skillfully you apply the “rules” you’ve learned from them—if you don’t have a good story, none of the rest of it matters. Yes, the guidelines of good writing are important, but don’t let your story get lost in an attempt to “follow the rules.”

Does that mean you can ignore all of the guidelines about showing vs. telling, Limited Third Person POV, using active rather than passive language, varying sentence structures, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, not using embellished dialogue tags? NO, of course not. Just like a contractor needs an architect’s blueprints to go by BEFORE building a house, you need to learn the guidelines of good writing and current accepted style before you’ll be able to express your story in writing well. So do study the craft (but remember Tip #4: you learn more from reading currently published books in your genre than you do from reading craft books). Just think of the guidelines as a shepherd’s crook guiding you to a wide-open, grassy meadow rather than a dog catcher’s tight leash dragging you toward a cage.

In The Fire in Fiction, agent extraordinaire Donald Maass talks about two different types of writers he runs into at conferences: storytellers and status seekers.

Status seekers are the writers who see a contract (and hopefully a multi-book contract) as the be-all and end-all of their writing. They’re writing to sell. They’re studying and following the trends. They’re crafting their manuscript. They’re going to all the right conferences, making all the right contacts, going to all the right classes, entering (and finaling in/winning) the right contests, working with the right critique partners, and sending out the right number of queries each month. Of these types of writers, Maass writes:

At my Writing the Breakout Novel workshops, I again notice the difference between [status seekers and storytellers]. Some want to know how to make their manuscripts acceptable. If I do this and I do that, will I be okay? When I hear that question, my heart sinks a little. That is a status seeker talking.

. . .Status seekers rush me fifty pages and an outline a few months after the workshop. . . .

What the status seeker wants is a contract. He wants to know that his years of effort will pay off.

In contrast a storyteller is someone who is more concerned about crafting her story, about developing the characters and the plot, about conveying the story that resonates in her heart and soul every time she sits down and gets lost in the world of it. Of these types of writers, Maass writes:

A storyteller, by contrast, is more concerned with making his story the best story that it can be, with discovering the levels and elements that are missing, and with understanding the techniques needed to make it all happen. . . . Storytellers won’t show me their novels again for a year or more, probably after several new drafts. . . .

Can both kinds of writers get published? Sure. Can both be successful? Initially, yes. But for a status-seeker writer, the world of writing and publishing is about oneupmanship—about one-upping both himself and everyone else around him. If his last book spent five weeks on the bestseller list, he isn’t successful if his next book doesn’t spend six weeks on the list. For the storyteller, the measure of success is not number of weeks on the lists, but reviews that say things like “I enjoyed this book even more than the last one” or “The characters stayed with me long after I put the book down.” The status seeker believes that success in writing can be relayed in lists and royalty checks. The storyteller knows that success in writing is the intangible thread that connects the reader’s and writer’s hearts through the written word.

Is that saying that storytellers don’t want to make money writing? Not on your life! It’s saying that for storytellers, story trumps craft every time. This is why when you pick up a book by a bestselling author, you may be frustrated by the way the author seems to break all the rules you’ve had beaten into your head about the craft of writing. But the reason the bestselling author can do it? Because he knows how to tell a dang-good story (and because of that whole branding/name recognition thing—but that’s a different blog series).

Madeleine L’Engle put it this way:

Being a writer does not necessarily mean being published. It’s very nice to be published. It’s what you want. When you have a vision, you want to share it. But being a writer means writing. It means building up a body of work. It means writing every day. You can hardly say that van Gogh was not a painter because he sold one painting during his lifetime, and that to his brother. But do you say that van Gogh wasn’t a painter because he wasn’t “published”? He was a painter because he painted, because he held true to his vision as he saw it. And I think that’s the best example I can give you.

I think so, too.

  1. Teresa Lockhart permalink
    Monday, June 7, 2010 1:53 am

    So it’s roughly 2 a.m. I have just emailed by revised revised revised portion of my novel. I need some help with transition from where I am to the end of the story. Your writing tip was very, very useful, encouraging and inspiring. I am stuck though. I desperately need some feedback to know if I have a good story. What is the best way to get credible feedback?


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 9:29 am

      The best way to get credible feedback when you’re just getting started is to get involved in a critique group. You must be prepared to receive both helpful and unhelpful feedback during this process—to go through periods of doubts in your own abilities and your story. But I learned more about myself as a writer as well as my story through the critique process in grad school than I ever would have by just attending the seminars. You want to make sure that you have a certain level of trust and understanding with your critique partners—that it’s an edifying group rather than just throwing it out there for anyone to rip apart who wants to.

      Paid critiques at conferences are a great way to get feedback from published authors, too.


      • Teresa Lockhart permalink
        Tuesday, June 8, 2010 2:12 am

        I’m glad to know periods of doubt are normal. I will definitely make critiques a top priority. Thank you for the very helpful advice. I have learned so much from reading your blogs.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 9:30 am

      And I should say, contests are good for getting feedback on your initial few pages—but, again, you have to take those comments with a grain of salt, as the judge is only seeing a few pages of the story, not the whole thing (similar to the paid critique, which will probably only be 15 to 30 pages).


  2. Monday, June 7, 2010 6:44 am

    Love that quote from Madeleine L’Engle. 🙂 Thinking about that fact that Van Gogh sold only one painting is just amazing.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 9:42 am

      Jane Austen didn’t make enough from her writing to live on, with four of the six finished novels being published during her lifetime (P&P, S&S, Emma, MP—P and NA were published posthumously). They weren’t well received during her lifetime, and, though reprinted beginning in the 1830s and selling continuously since then, they were never bestsellers and were not compared favorably to bestselling authors such as Dickens and George Eliot. It wasn’t until the publication of her nephew’s biography of her, A Memoir of Jane Austen, in 1869 that the reading public began to take notice of her books. New editions of all six novels were released in the early 1880s and they became so popular, critic Sir Leslie Stephen used the term “Austenolatry” to describe the “popular mania” surrounding the books. These fans, on the other hand, called themselves “Janites” (taking it from the introduction to a new [1894] edition of Pride and Prejudice in which he coined the term).

      Even though it wasn’t recognized in her own time, she stands as one of the best storytellers of all time.


  3. Monday, June 7, 2010 8:19 am

    I needed that, Kaye. The contest comments I receive usually have nothing to do with the “rules,” and all to do with how quickly the story gets started – in fifteen pages or less. Sigh. When I was writing, and then in one of my revisions, I realized how much the story builds. That’s the way I see it in my head.

    Like the idea of the status-seekers and storytellers. Something to think about, definitely.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 9:49 am

      My primary concern when I judge unpublished-author contests is to as this question:

      Would I want to keep reading after the last page of the entry?

      While it doesn’t seem like we get enough story to base an opinion on the merits of the story in just fifteen pages, as readers, we all know we can form an opinion by the end of an excerpt that length (that’s typically about 3,000 to 3,500 words—the average length of the chapters I write) as to whether or not we’re intrigued enough to keep reading. But as readers, we’re looking at the macro—as the first chapter or two as an introduction to a whole. As contest judges, I think a lot of times we forget to look at the macro and focus far too much on the micro—especially when the micro isn’t the same for every story or every genre. For example, one member of my local group was dinged on her entry for not having the hero/heroine meet in the first fifteen pages—which is not a “rule” of trade-length romance (but is typically required in category-length, because of the lower wordcount). So why should she not be a finalist when she’s being judged unfairly—by structural rules that don’t apply to her—rather than the score being based on whether or not it’s an introduction to a good story?


  4. Monday, June 7, 2010 9:47 am

    Kaye, This is one of the best posts I’ve ever seen on writing. You have addressed some of my peeves with the process in a very specific, insightful way. Since I can’t possibly add anything more to such an excellent post, I’ll just say that, personally, rules flummox me as I think I’m an instinctive writer and “write by ear” much as my son plays the violin by ear. A lifetime of reading books has been my teacher. I’m not a fan of contests or bestseller lists. I write because I’ve been given a gift. I’d write even if I didn’t have a contract. It really is all about the writer-reader-heart connection.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 9:53 am

      This post ties very closely in with the Reading Ratio post—that we learn more from reading other novels than we do from craft-books.

      I asked this question at the writers group I spoke to last week: Why did we start writing in the first place? Was it so that we could get our wrists slapped and be told “no” and “don’t” and “you can’t do it that way”? So we could sit at the computer and stare at the screen and feel so inadequate and full of self-doubt that we’d never be able to do it “right” that we’re unable to write at all?

      Of course not. We all started writing because WE LOVE TELLING STORIES! It saddens me when I go to conferences or speak at writers’ groups and see the majority of people who are more concerned about “crafting the perfect prose” so they can get a book contract rather than learning how to tell a great story. (Which is the premise behind the “Feeding the Muse” workshop I’m going to be teaching at ACFW!)


  5. Monday, June 7, 2010 9:56 am

    I couldn’t agree more, Kaye. Story trumps all. The one thing that’s disappointed me since I’ve begun writing is that I don’t enjoy my favorite authors as I much as I once did. Now, I see them head-hopping & telling-not-showing & using backstory, & I’ve even read several books that lack a truly black moment . What I previously enjoyed from these authors was their ability to draw me into their character’s lives & join them on their life-journey. I didn’t see their mistakes. Non-writers don’t see the rules, they love the story.

    Yes, rules are important, and learning them has made me a better writer, but they’ve also strangled some of my passion.

    I love Madeleine L’Engle’s quote. I write because that’s what God’s called me to do. To write solely for publication would be limiting God, wouldn’t it?


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 6:37 pm

      It is hard to read books in which the author doesn’t have a good grasp of what well-crafted prose is. But it’s worse to read one that doesn’t have a strong story. That’s how I always know that an author is a good storyteller—because the story is so strong that I don’t notice the prose (editing, style, craft), I just get sucked into the world and the characters.


  6. Monday, June 7, 2010 10:16 am

    I almost want to get a “story trumps craft” tattoo.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 11:34 am

      If ever I were to get one, that would be a good one.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 6:37 pm

      Would you get it on a body part that rhymes with trump? 😉


  7. Monday, June 7, 2010 11:34 am

    Great post with lots to think about. I was glad to find myself in the storyteller category. That encouraged me. I try hard to be a rule keeper, but I’d rather that my story rule! And I loved the L’Engle quote.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 6:45 pm

      I’m pretty sure everyone starts out in the storyteller category—after all, if you don’t have a story you want to tell, why would you put yourself through writing in the first place? But so many people get caught up in the “formula” of writing (if I just follow the rules I learned at the last conference I went to—and make sure everyone whose contest entries I judge follows the same rules). After all, isn’t it easier to have a formula (rules) to follow to make this whole writing thing (and, therefore, getting published) easier?

      Of course, we all know that rather than making it easier, learning the “rules” makes it harder.


  8. Monday, June 7, 2010 3:41 pm

    Hahaha! I love the tattoo idea. 🙂 I skipped a couple recent contests, now I’m not so bummed that I did.

    A friend is rewriting her story to “fit” and IMO she has lost her touch. I had sass before and now its just another story.


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 6:47 pm

      I think rather than contests, it’s more important to find a few people who can commit to giving you feedback on your entire manuscript, rather than just the first couple of chapters. After all, it’s your whole story you’re interested in selling, not just the first couple of chapters.


  9. Monday, June 7, 2010 4:53 pm

    Yep, story matters most. And character. But when that’s combine with prose that sings, that has something of a poetic sensibility… wowzers. I’ve found it’s rare, but those writers who managed to combine all that (and that third element is subjective; what wows me might not wow the next reader) are treasures, indeed.

    Story and character are my uppermost concerns at this point in my writing journey. They’re the elements I labor over most, and find the most challenging. I never ever want to let down my guard in those areas and fall into thinking a string of pretty sentences will cover up plot or character weakness, any more than colorful sprinkles will camouflage a half-baked donut.

    One of your bests posts, I think, Kaye!


    • Monday, June 7, 2010 6:53 pm

      You’re right—what we enjoy when it comes to reading is very subjective. You like poetic sensibility, I like snappy and witty narrative and character-driven stories. Others prefer something that’s action driven, and, as long as the narrative doesn’t distract from or slow down the action, they don’t care if it head hops and tells. It’s kind of like food. We all have different favorite dishes, but, in the end, we all eat.


  10. Tuesday, June 8, 2010 1:08 am

    Great post, Kaye. I’ve steered several pre-pubbed writer friends to your site.


  11. Wednesday, April 25, 2012 3:27 pm

    I’m struggling on finding a group for.. well, anything! Nothing’s coming up on Google, and I don’t see anything anywhere else. I can go through a few friends, I suppose. I’m just struggling!

    I’m also finding I’m stuck between the status and the story telling. I’m sort of a perfectionist so anytime I find a list of “rules”, I can’t help but dig into them and end up depressing myself 😛 But I love a good story and more often than not that wins out.

    I’m also struggling on finding contests that don’t require paid membership to a club first (yes, I’m also poor 😉 ).

    Do you have ANY suggestions?



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