Friday, July 27, 2012

Storyteller or Status Seeker?

Yesterday wasn't what I'd planned. It was day five of a rip-roaring migraine that required a trip to the doc and the ER. And I had such a perfect follow-up to Katy's beautiful post on Wednesday. Well, this is a rerun of a post I wrote way back before most of you joined our writer's community. I still like the point that Donald Maas made about the difference between Storytellers and Status Seekers, so let's revisit it, shall we? 
It's a common experience among readers. We discover a new writer and devour everything he or she produces. After the first few offerings, the writing drops off. Storylines aren't quite as compelling. Gaping holes plague the plot. Language and style become mundane. The endings die and, quite frankly, stink.
Donald Maass, known in writing circles for his The Breakout Novel, has written another writing must-read, Fire in Fiction. Maass has been watching this phenomenon of mediocrity for thirty years. According to Maass, the decline can be explained by motivation. He classifies writers as Storytellers or Status Seekers.
A Storyteller has a passion to spin stories while the Status Seeker's desire is for publication. Oh, the Status Seeker talks about the desire to polish craft in the beginning, but if they are thwarted by rejection, they follow the common wisdom of getting the manuscript back in the mail and keeping it there. They get frustrated and consider landing an agent or contract a matter of timing or luck. A Storyteller is likely to pull the manuscript after a rejection slip. They see rejection as evidence that something is missing. They take the time to develop skills to write a superb story. Once contracted, the Status Seekers are most interested in what kind of blurbs they can acquire, and how much will be spent of the cover, and how much support the publisher is willing to ante in.
If you feel like you're being poked with a stick, I'm rubbing sore spots too. But Maass isn't finished yet. He goes on to say that Storytellers spend their time writing, not endless promotion:
Storytellers have a more realistic grasp of retail realities. They may promote, but locally and not for long. They'll put up a website, maybe, then it's back to work on the next book. That's smart. The truth, for new authors anyway, is that the best promotion is between the covers of the last book.
Whoa! This is counter to much of what we learn at writers conferences. We're pushed to have an Internet presence (ahem, like this blog!) that works like a net to bring in readers. Build a platform, we're told. Send out newsletters and e-blasts. Market to libraries. Twitter. Facebook. Market, market, and market some more. Maass redirects that focus:
Storytellers ignore the ephemera. Their mid-career focus is hitting deadlines and delivering powerful stories for their readers. The issues that come up are about developing their series or what to write as their next stand-alone.~
Maass wants writers to stop waiting for the "magic" that will push their novels up the best-seller list and embrace the passion of the art. Success doesn't depend on the publisher. It's completely up to the Storyteller.
Where have you seen decline in quality in novelists you've followed? Tell me what you think of Maass' delineation between storytellers and status seekers? Is he right? Wrong? If you're a writer, could you turn a deaf ear to all the marketing madness and focus more on your craft? How would you do that? Let's talk about this! I'm dying to hear what you think.


Laura J. Davis said...

Personally, I hate marketing. I'd rather just write the book, put it out there, be done with it and go write something else. I'm inclined to think that most writers think the same way, but realistically it's just not possible. As for the decline in novelists that I follow, I have noticed maybe two very well known authors who continue to put out the same stories every year, with different places and character names. But the majority of authors I follow just keep getting better and I look forward to new works by them.

Patti Hill said...

Laura: I wonder if anyone has measured the effectiveness of the marketing done by authors. I doubt it. Most of it is immeasureable. And yet, we keep adding things to our plate that dilute our creativity. Can you tell? I'm no longer flattered by all the extraneous things ask of me as a published author.

My husband owns a retail garden center. He second-guesses himself about how he spends his advertising and marketing dollars, mostly because only a returned coupon can be measured as to effectiveness. What he never equivocates on is quality. He strives to produce the most beautiful, healthy plants available. Somehow, I think that's what keeps his customers coming back. And it's what they tell us that keeps them coming back. So...?

I think authors have to chose wisely what they allow to diminish their writing time. I'm cutting back, drawing lines, setting limits. And shivering in my boots!

What kinds of limits do you set for yourself? I could use some wisedome here.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those readers who follows an author I like. If I read one of their books and really enjoy it, I definitely go back for more. And, yes, I've noticed this "phenomenon of mediocrity" that Maass writes about. John Grisham was one of those writers whose new books I looked forward to until The Brethren (which I really disliked). When I finished reading it I actually said out loud, "What, did you run out of paper?!?" Aside from not liking the storyline, its abrupt ending was ridiculous.

I barely have my nose in the publishing world. I've never yet had a looming deadline that kept me at the keyboard for hours. But I've experienced enough to know how important meeting those deadlines are and how demanding the requirements of marketing are. Put those together and what you get is an author who no longer has the luxury to write at the "sane" pace at which she produced her first or second novel. Now, that author is under the pressure of having to perform, and divide her time between writing, marketing, and publicity. Maass is right that after a novel is launched you get on to the next one. But it's not practical in this day of publishing to think that a writer's job is merely to write.

It's my belief that this, more than anything, contributes to the decline in quality of an author.

Judith Couchman said...

I think this decline also happens to nonfiction writers. We feel the push to meet publisher and reader expectations--and for some of us, to make a living. I'm wrestling with the time to write vs. the time to market. So much more is expected of an author than when I first started publishing. It seems like there should be a balance somewhere, but foremost, we need to protect the quality of the work or there will be no contracts for us. We tend to go overboard when we think something works--like social networking and other electronic publicity--but we're also in danger of imploding. I hope the pendulum eventually swings back a little, and we refocus on what matters most: good writing for discerning readers, followed by well-targeted marketing.

Patti Hill said...

Sharon and Judith, thank you for your thoughtful replies. Technology has definitely changed how writers can market themselves. I suppose the question is: Just because we can Twitter, MySpace, FaceBook, blog tour, podcast, and YouTube, should we? That's a question I'm still wrestling with by day and night.

Anonymous said...

Patti, I'm in the same place as you in trying to decide what's working and what's not. Little by little, I'm getting followers on Twitter who have "found" me through other people they follow. Now whether or not they'll visit my website or check out my books remains to be seen. There are so many social media sites that I've opted not to participate in because of the time they take. I haven't heard that they're particularly effective in boosting booksales, so I try to use my marketing time in things that might be more effective. It's a tough balancing act. This is a good topic because it affects all of us as writers.

Carla Gade said...

As an aspiring author, I have found that the expectations that are continually explained to me in my valuable network in the field that writing is only a part of the deal. There is such emphasis on the whole publishing experience that it is overwhelming. At times it has even stifled my creativity. My loved ones are constantly asking why I don't just "send in" one of my "stories" - it is difficult to explain to them that if one wishes to be published in this day in age that one must not be simply a writer. I have been working for years now to become a well rounded candidate for this industry by learning my craft, nurturing my creativity, developing marketing skills, networking with industry people, and so much more. I do not simply wish to be a "status seeker", I wish to be a storyteller with status. I mean, I want to put my best foot forward in what is expected of me as a potential author by promoting the brand that is me to bring glory to God for the work that he is doing in me through my writing. I have had to move out of my comfort zone to do this, I do not like being in the spotlight. But it is His spotlight. And if he wishes to shine on and through me in the process I am trying to be a willing participant. I don't think it is black or white, storyteller or status seeker. I do hope my love of storytelling will always be evident and that I will always put my best into every work as if it is the first, but adding to it experience. What is frustrating though is that it takes different skills to be an author than it does to be a book promoter. I would prefer to spend more time telling stories than selling them. Ironically, if I wasn't so consumed in all the peripherals perhaps I would be published by now. All in His time.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I enjoyed your post, Patti. I'll admit that I'd prefer to be researching and writing, but I sometimes find marketing to be a nice change of pace. We write for so long, juggling our ideas in the air and balancing one word against another, that the process involved in setting up blog tours or writing press releases, for example, are short-term goals that make me feel as though I've accomplished something. But add a new contract to the mix, and I could change my mind!

Lynnette Bonner said...

Wow, I'm going to have to get that book. I, too, have noticed the "phenomenon of mediocrity" mentioned. And with my first novel coming out in a couple months, I've been juggling working on the next book while trying to publicize this one, and still holding down my day-job and making sure my kids and husband don't forget who I am :). (And a clean house? What's that? :) ) All of that lends itself to a little less energy being put towards creativity.

Personally, I'd love to just write. And, like you and your husband, I wonder if all the marketing I'm doing is really worthwhile. I read Pyro Marketing by Greg Stielstra not too long ago. He talked about finding the driest tinder to start your "fire." In other words, your target audience is who you should focus your marketing on - and then if the story is good enough they will talk it up to their friends. Much easier said than done.

It is a conundrum - but I hope to be a story teller, and not a status seeker. With all the push toward marketing we hear at conferences, it's hard not to fall into the status seeker trap. What we have to remember is that God can get our stories into the hands of those who most need to hear them without the book being a runaway best seller.

PatriciaW said...

I was thinking along these lines just the other day. Because when I think about the long-time authors whose works thrill me time and time again, few, if any, have much of a web presence. They do some basic promotion and might have a website, but that's about it. Almost none of them blog. I wondered about that.

But I think they broke into publishing at a different time, and now have established audiences. Sure, they can grow the audience, but they'd rather focus on the work. New authors, unfortunately, don't have much choice. They have to write and build an audience. If they don't, no one will be eagerly awaiting their books ten years from now.

And the ones who don't keep up or grow the quality of their writing, well, no one will be looking for their books ten years from now either.

Unknown said...

I just don't think of any of it as marketing. For me, I LOVE LOVE LOVE connecting with people and sharing ideas. Yes, there is a book involved, but in the end it is about connecting with other ideas, opinions, thoughts, hopes, dreams....well, you know what I mean.

I love every opportunity that allows me to share an experience with readers. It's fun for me. Do I love writing one sheets? Nope. I guess that's why I don't have one. :)

I wrote this book about how to find your strengths and apply them in every area of your life. I did it myself and I've learned how to approach marketing my books out of my strengths - so, honestly, it is a joy for me.

Nicole said...

How do you explain that some of my favorite authors do next to no marketing, if any, and I found them by accident or, in other words, just searching the shelf for a new book. Occasionally it's because someone who knows my tastes in novels recommended it to me, but it's usually me doing the recommending once I gain some knowledge of a reader's likes and dislikes.

I hate marketing as a writer because selling myself (and, hey, that's what it boils down to) isn't my thing. Pushing anyone to buy my novel when they aren't even the target audience? No thanks. I admire the creative touches some authors incorporate, but mostly, honestly, the bulk of it nauseates me and I find it overkill and embarrassing for the author. All the time it's sell, sell, sell. Give me a break. Please. It turns me off.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Can I rant a tiny bit? Pretty please?

What bothers me is the incessant marketing of some authors. They comment on something via Facebook, only to push their blog, book, etc. They make friends just to gain something to further their career. It all seems so cold to me. And, truly, turns me off from that writer.

And I am working so hard to not to become that. To have real friendship wherein I don't have a sense of entitlement.

But, I'm with Bonnie, I can't wait for the interaction. I read her Facebook post about going to a book club the other day. I was so excited for her! And then I started dreaming about maybe being able to share with some clubs once my book is out.

Thanks for poking us with your stick, Patti. I needed this reminder! And I hope you are feeling better soon.

Patti Hill said...

Susie, you're doing just as you desire, making genuine friendships for the sake of friendship and serving your community through The Manasseh Project. You're the real deal--sister, friend, and writer.

Megan Sayer said...

Ohhhh Patti I'm so sorry to hear about your migraine. I've only ever had one, but it was Horrible! Praying yours is truly dealt with and over!

Interesting post. Yes, the push into marketing is enormous, so yes, it does smack up against everything newbie writers like me hear.
The thing I'm finding personally though is that the best marketing IS storytelling. Does that make sense? It's why I LOVE LOVE LOVE Facebook, and love blogging - I get to tell stories to people, and read theirs. The best Facebook statuses are tiny, one-sentence stories that contain all the promise of emotion of longer stories, and through these you build up a picture of people, and their bigger stories. And when people connect to these tiny little stories, and get interested in those bigger stories, suddenly they're interested in you, and suddenly they want to read your books.
Well, that's what I find, anyway.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: I've done many book club appearances over the years (many of them via the phone, or Skype) and they've all been variable degrees of good. But that last one I mentioned on Facebook? Did you notice I didn't follow up on what happened?

Wow. It wasn't good.

It was so not good that Book Clubs and readers are the topic of tonight's Novel Matters conference call. It was such an eye opener for me! I know I'm being vague, but I haven't had the chance to tell the other NM women about the details. BUT! Watch the blog in coming weeks--there will be all kinds of helpful stuff for writers and readers regarding book clubs.

Patti Hill said...

Megan, Take my advice and stay at one migraine. More than that is just plain annoying. This one was a doozy, which I think is related to this out-of-control feeling I've had lately about setting up my cover shoots. Cover designers, in my estimation, are worth their weight in gold. Hope to be able to afford one for my next novel. In the meantime, I'm adjusting expectations and laughing off the fact that not everyone marches to my double-time beat. Slow. It. Down, Miss Patti.

Also, I so agree with you. I love stories, short or long, complete or open-ended (I like writing the rest of the story).

Bonnie: I can't wait until tonight's call. To hear all of your sweet, loving voices! We'll definitely be able to pass on some from-the-trenches advice about book club appearances. Stay tuned, Novel Matters friends!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Patti, you are so dear. Thank you for that encouragement.

Bonnie! Oh no! Did you forget the chocolate? ;) I'll look forward to that NM post. Oh boy.

sadie crandle said...

Well, since I'm not published, I must still be a storyteller! However, as an avid reader who does devour everything by an author I've just duscovered and love, I have to say that I don't seek out their online presence. I don't care about their blogs or their facebook profiles.

For me it is always about the books. As long as the stories continue to deliver that which attracted me in the first place, I'm guaranteed to keep buying their books and that's all the promotion I need from any author. The rest is just stuff.

Pamela King Cable said...

Pay attention to Donald Maass.

Studying under him on three different occasions and then graduating from his BreakoutNovel Intensive in 2005, I can attest this is one Literary Agent who knows the heart of the industry, as well as the heart of a writer. He told me once that it takes ten years to become a breakout novelist. His guidance and influence has followed me for years.

Thank you for this post. Students of the craft will be quoting him for decades to come. His love for a well-told story is evident not only in his words, but in his work on behalf of writers everywhere ... and the life he leads.

Cherry Odelberg said...

There once was a best selling Bethany House author whom I stumbled on simply because my friend loaned me books loaned to her. I was so captivated, I devoured the series and wrote a gushing letter to the author (never sent). For awhile, I read everything I could get my hands on by that author - including a previous series. The first series was not as well written or fleshed out, so I am glad I jumped in during the sweet spot writing. The author is prolific. At one time, I think I had read everything written to that point. Now, I am kind of, ho hum. It seems that every series starts off grrrreat, but becomes kind of formulaic.
For that reason, I favor one book wonders - authors who write great stand alone books - again and again and again.

Part of the blame for formulaic or increasing mediocrity belongs to the publishing houses, I am sure. They encourage or insist on more of the same. This happens with non-fiction, too. I have known of textbook publishers who insisted their author put out a new edition every two years. While this might be more than necessary when writing about technology, it is certainly does not apply to history, classics, etc.