Thursday, March 18, 2010

Don't Be a Writer.

What a week we've had on Novel Matters. Patti kicked us off by helping understand how important it is to protect our writing time. Writers write, right? Sharon blew our minds with the
ethos of writers - multi published authors who were universally slow to wear the badge. Both posts got me thinking about being a writer. And it occurred to me that maybe being a writer isn't the point.

When it comes to writing fiction, there are six billion things to know and learn. I counted. Stayed up all night once just counting and counting.

Inevitably, the question arises: What is the most important thing? What matters most when it comes to fiction. It's a good question, one I've been thinking about for awhile now. And I'm going to share my answer with you.

Yes, I have an answer.

Really. I do.

Stop smiling, I'm serious.

In order to tell you my answer, I first need to tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was sitting at a kitchen table reading part of a manuscript. Across from me was the author of said manuscript. She watched me read, picking her nails, crossing and uncrossing her legs, trying to be quiet while I read.

All the time I was reading I was thinking this writer wanted my opinion on the quality of her writing and what I thought of her work in general. I was wrong. She wanted something very different. Very impossible. But I didn't know that at the time, so I put the manuscript down and started talking to her like a writer. She nodded, yes, yes, all well and fine, good, good, I agree with you.

I pushed the pages across the table. She pulled her hands back fast, like the papers might be poisoned. She wouldn't touch them. "Should I keep writing?" she asked me. "Am I good enough? Or should I just forget it?"

I pulled the pages back and glanced through them again. I understood what she was asking. Her writing was good. Technically, nearly perfect. Her transitions were smooth, her characters well defined. She had nice, clean descriptive and her grammar was enviable. Nicely done.


Hmmm. What was missing? Something.....oh......something like - a plot? No, no, that wasn't missing. She had a plot all plotted out with plot points and pointed plotting. That wasn't the issue. Some else, less tangible, but important. More important than anything else.

The story. Something about the story itself. No, no, it was a good story.

Hmmm. What then? Why was I so willing to put the manuscript down and not pick it back up? Let's go over that again:

Writing skill ............... Check!

Clean manuscript ......... Check!

Good plot ................... Check!

Yet, the thing just laid there, like a dead mackerel, staring up at me with its one good eye.

Then it hit me! (the answer, not the dead mackerel)

She was a skilled writer, not a skilled story teller.

I grinned at her. "You are the only one who can decide if you should keep writing. My advice is to stop writing and start telling stories."

Have you ever picked up a latest bestseller and thought, "Jeepers, this isn't the best writing I've ever seen?" If you have, you're probably a writer - because no one else is worried about the writing. Readers want a great story told in an interesting way. They want to be engaged, have fun, get lost, fall in love, feel something new, and forget time and place.

But doesn't great writing help all of that to happen? Yes, of course it does. But good writing means seamless writing - writing that is so good the reader can forget about it and just have a ball in the story.

What's the most important aspect of writing? Storytelling. How you tell the story matters more, carries reader further, and, in the end, sells more books than technically great writing ever could.

Want to test my theory?

Find a familiar story to tell. Could be Goldilocks and the Three Bears, could be an old fashioned ghost story, could be a famous work - something you like. Get a friend or two or three gathered around. Then tell the story. I mean tell it, all hands on deck, no holds barred, tell the story. Make mental (and later concrete) notes on the people's reactions. Did you hold their attention the entire time? Did you hook them with your opener? Did they laugh when you thought they would? Did they smile at an unexpected time? Did they cry?

Later (say, in a week or so) ask your friends what they remember about the time you told them that story.
No one is going to say, "I remember that you used just the right words at just the right time and your characterization was spot on, oh, and when you got to a tricky part in the plot you made it so easy to follow!" Nope, they won't say that. They'll say, "Oh, that was so fun! I love that story."

Writing is the means. The story is what matters.

I wonder what would happen if we stopped trying to be writers and just worried about being story tellers?
Tell me a story.


Heather Marsten said...

Great post - I think what you are saying is that a story needs heart.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Bonnie! You really made me think.

I think for me being a storyteller required that I give myself permission to do that. After a career of writing nonfiction that is no small task.

I have found that people react most positively to what I've written that might qualify as storytelling has happened after I revved up my engine, roared out onto an unobstructed road, pressed the accelerator to the floor and put my head out the window and yelled, "Wheeeeeee!!"

Nicole said...

Bingo, baby.

Evangeline Denmark said...

This is so true! I get embarrassed when people knock a well-loved book for the author's "poor writing." I just want to say, "Hey folks, the bottome line is people love this story, and that's what really matters."
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Bonnie Grove said...

Heather: Yes, a story needs a strong, pumping heart. And a rollicking good voice to tell it. Great point!

Latayne:Why is it so easy for me to picture you driving just that way? Because you are a great story teller, a gifted writer, and I happen to know you love fast jets. :)

Nicole: Spanks.

Evangeline: So often, knocking a well-loved book is sour grapes talking. Although, I admit to reading a few books that are considered "classic" and thinking, hmmm...what is all the fuss about? I've learned that in those cases, it's usually because I'm not within the intended audience.

Patti Hill said...

Yes, yes, yes! Thanks, Bonnie, for reminding me. I was too caught up in the 6 billion to know and learn about writing. I'm telling a STORY. Hey, that's fun! Maybe that's how you tell the difference between writing and storytelling. One is definitely more fun than the other.

Gotta go do some storytelling!

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, you nailed it, girl. Love this post. Hey, I wonder if we spent the same night counting... counting...

"I want to be a storyteller, storyteller, storyteller." That's my new mantra.

Lynn McCallum said...

Thanks for the very informative post, Bonnie. You gave us a lot of inspiration to tell our stories.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

So very true, Bonnie. And it reminds me of the quote by Robertson Davies: "I think of an author as somebody who goes into the marketplace and puts down his rug and says, I will tell you a story, and then he passes the hat."

The amount of change in our hat at the end of the day depends on the story, not how pretty the rug is.

Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you, thank you Bonnie! It's too easy to forget this is supposed to be fun. I've said before that it was something I saw in a book by Wangarin that changed everything for me. Looking back, I think the un-named thing I saw in his writing was that he was first of all a storyteller.

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti: It is FUN to be a storyteller. And you are a wonderful storyteller! Congrats on being named a finalist in ForeWord's book of the year awards!!!!!

Sharon: I bet we did. And, for the record, you are one I come to with my doubts and questions, because I KNOW you will wonderful answers for me.

Lynn: So glad you enjoyed. And thank you for stopping in today! Good to see you.

Ariel: Love it. Writers as buskers in the marketplace. PERFECT. I'll be using that quote in future!

Katy: It always is the storytelling. Story is my first love. It's what we all react to. And I know I react so strongly to your stories. I'm a huge fan of yours.

Laura J. Davis said...

Thanks for that Bonnie. I've been so worried about the technical aspect of writing that I haven't been enjoying it lately. Now I know why!

Gossip Cowgirl said...

Thanks for this great post. I posted you on my blog as one of my "Best of This Week". Loved this post!

I have sometimes read my own writing and sat back to think, "there's something intangible wrong here". Something I can't quite put my finger on. I usually come down to the idea that I haven't told the story in the right way, but it's been a long road to figure out how to correct it. I'm still not convinced I'm as good at correcting those spots as I want to be, but I think you've hit the nail on the head here, for me. Great post!

Bonnie Grove said...

Laura: Glad it was some help. Get back there and have some fun, girl!

Rebecca: Thanks for the shout out. I appreciate it.
It can be difficult, when our day's work doesn't sing the tune we wrote for it. And it's so true, it often isn't the same problem each time. It can be very difficult to figure out why the words feel like so much dead fish.
My editor has a habit of calling me out whenever I get too "writerly". She does it in red. With flashing arrows and grumpy faces.

Steve G said...

So... I loved how you made this post explain itself with a story. Very clever Mrs Grove. I think everyone should have a sticky note on their monitor saying something like, "The story, ma'am, just the story" cause those guys from Dragnet could come and get it out of you then.

A well crafted story contains all the good stuff in its layers and themes. I think you hit the nail on the head too. Good thing you got a hammer and not a block plane.

Word verification - gommess: What the Adam's Family mother called her husband when she was slightly drunk.

Marybeth Whalen said...

Loved this one Bonnie! I linked to it on my blog in fact... I think you are right on! Actually I hope so-- I am not sure I am a great writer but I do love to spin me a yarn. (Said in my best southern accent.)

Unknown said...

This is so true! Writers, especially the wannabe's, get so caught up in the technical aspect that they forget the story. So many potentially great stories are lost as a result. I would much prefer writing a story that captivates the reader, pulling them into my world. In my world, not everyone talks like an English major and maybe I meant to put that where I put it proper or not.

BrennaLyons said...

I've always said it... You can learn to edit. You need the gift of telling a good story that's worthy of editing. You can practice and hone that gift, but you have to understand the art of it first.

Thanks for writing this.


Anonymous said...

I think I've just had a road to Damascus moment. So much so, I am sitting at the keyboard, fingers poised not being able to concentrate. What you say is so true. This is why I love Colin Forbes, isn't it? So that, even when the writing is so poor, I feel like screaming, I keep reading, because he tells the story so well. And, what's more, I usually have a Forbesfest once a year, so I keep re-reading his books. I'm going to type a big notice that says, stop writing and start telling the story and hang it on the end of my glasses - well, above my screen. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie you crack me up. I love the humour and you are dead on about the storytelling. Just listen to Robert Munsch (probably spelled that wrong) sometime. The man is so technically incorrect it could make wallpaper peel but he tells a spellbinding story. Which likely explains his popularity with children.

Donna Fawcett writing as Donna Dawson

Bonnie Grove said...

Steve: You crack me up.

Marybeth: And you spin wonderful yarn! Keep those wheels turning!!

T: Now more than ever, fiction writers are free from formal novel structure. Great use of innovative and organic storytelling will always get a great response! But you are wise when you say to use it purposefully. Great storytellers are both gifted and skilled - great point! Thanks for dropping in!

Brenna: Thanks for stopping in! That mix of skill and talent - determination and calling. That's where the magic happens. I so agree!

Anonymous: Wow! So cool to have a small part in your Damascus moment. Now I can't wait to discover what you write after such an event!

Donna: I won tickets to see Robert Munsch!!! Hubby, kiddos and I will see him live June 7th! I'm so excited! And you are SO right. His technical skill is astounding, but all people see (and need to see) is his amazing enthusiasm, love for kids, and awesome storytelling.

Jay Hudson said...

Great job,Bonnie!
Voice says it all!
Jay Hudson
Jay's Writer's World.

Jeff Adams said...

I've been writing for publication for more than twelve years. I want to spend the rest of my life telling stories.

Jaleta Clegg said...

It really does come down to the story. Thanks for expressing what I've been struggling with. I've spent so much time editing and marketing and all the other things newly published authors end up doing that I forgot how fun it is to just tell a story. I'll worry about the technical stuff later, after I've told the story. That's what editing is for.

So shut up, internal editor. I'm telling stories! You can talk later, when it's your turn.

Bonnie Grove said...

Jay! Thanks for stopping in today!

Jeff: Me too! Sounds like heaven! I hope it happens for you. Drop in again and let me know!!

Jaleta: "So shut up, internal editor. I'm telling stories! You can talk later, when it's your turn."
LOVE this!
There IS a time for editing to come in and sharpen and structure...but first let the story take center stage. Well said!

Anonymous said...

That's what we've been told, after all. Get the story written, then clean it up afterwards.

I'm a storyteller, and I like to watch other storytellers deliver their stories, not by reading, but "telling" the story from their hearts.
So climb into that story and give it heart.
A note to Donna. Robert Munsch is amazing in action as he delivers his stories.

Bonnie Grove said...

storygal: There's nothing like a campfire storyteller. Even when there isn't a campfire in sight. :)

Thanks for dropping in!

Terri Tiffany said...

Thank you for this post. Sometimes I worry about getting all the technical parts of writing down that I forget to tell a good story:)