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Top Ten Writing Tips #5: Story Trumps Craft

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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Several members of my local group have had very frustrating experiences with their results from unpublished-author contests they’ve entered.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. But 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 oneupsmanship—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.

Works Cited:

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980. Print.

Maass, Donald. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

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