Tag Archive | Stories

Are you a writer or a story teller?

readerI’m doing a workshop on Storytelling this August — the idea for it came out of reading a lot of manuscripts where the writing was really good, but the story just didn’t work. Either the characters didn’t really make sense, or the story itself went off the rails about midway through and became a bunch of actions instead of a story arc that worked to really explore the characters and their relationships. This is something we all have to work on (constantly it seems). So what makes a good story compared with good writing?

1- Good writing can make you stop in awe. This is actually a problem in a story. A good story keeps you turning the pages, not stopping to admire the scenery. I find if the writing stops the reader for any reason, it’s a place the author needs to look at to see if the writing is just getting too “writerly” and getting in the way. Truman Capote said you want to be that voice by the fireside telling the story–invisible but compelling.

2- A good story sweeps you away. This means the reader doesn’t stumble over complicated sentences, or even more complicated plots–instead the reader is pulled into a fully developed world where the characters all make sense as people who work in that world. And the world all makes sense (things don’t just happen because the author thinks it would be cool or a great twist, but they happen within the rules of that world–and that takes a lot of development).

3- Good writing can be intellectually pleasing, but a good story catches your emotions. This is something I see a lot–the author has gotten carried away with a story that is just too much about the author being clever and not really enough about the author digging deep into both their own emotions and their characters’ emotions. This is where the story is just flat. You can overthink stories–and you can overwrite them, too.

4- Good writing is perfect; a good story may have flaws, but you just don’t care because it’s great as it is. This is where someone has edited out the emotion from the page–we all do this at times. We get so caught up in dotting every period and worrying over every comma that we forget that it’s the flawed characters and it’s the story that a reader wants. Ever come out of a movie and suddenly you realize there were a lot of plot holes, but you never noticed them during the movie? That’s a story that did it’s job–it engaged you on an emotional level. That’s a story teller’s job.

5- A good story needs great characters, and good enough writing that the writing comes second. This again is a place where I see less experienced writers struggling–their technical skills are weak enough that they have to focus too much attention on untangling sentences. The more I write, the more I tend to love simple, clean prose. The reason for this is that if I don’t have to fuss with craft, I can focus more on the characters and getting them on the page.

6- A good story has an arc–it goes somewhere. Good writing can wander–you can have beautiful prose that doesn’t really go anywhere. Story telling goes way, way back in the human psyche, and if when you break those rules we all love in stories (even without knowing what it is that makes a story work), the risk is that you’re creating a story that readers will put down.

7- A great story is one that must be told, but it’s rare that a writer really must produce great writing just for the sake of the writing. A great story is the one that burns in you, the one you can’t ignore, the one that you have to get on the page because the characters won’t leave you alone and you know that you’ll write this one even if only your mother reads it. You want to look for these stories.

You can be a good story teller and sell well–Edgar Rice Burroughs, to me, is a perfect example of this. Not a great writer, but it’s really hard to put down one of his books once you start reading. You just keep turning the page. There are other writers who are both great story tellers and really good writers–Stephen King is a good example of this (boy, can he write!). However, there really aren’t any great writers who are not great story tellers on any fiction best seller lists–and even the best non-fiction writers know how to spin a yarn.

So are you a great story teller–what stories are the ones you must tell?

Throwing the Reader into the Deep…

SeaThere’s a recent trend in the contest I’ve been judging, and not a good one. And I think the confusion comes from the idea that you want to open fast and with action. This can be a good thing…or very, very bad.

First, let’s look at some wrong ways to open a book with a fast pace.

Action that’s just action for the sake of the characters doing something does not help your readers. The opening needs to set reader expectations about the tone of the book—so just action ends up giving the reader a mistaken idea about the book. Much better to open with your main character in a scene where something key about the character is show—and even better to have the action relate to the main plot.

Characters piled into the first few pages is another way to confuse readers and make it hard to get into the story. This is like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone—you tend to want to walk out again. Start with main characters and ease the reader into introductions.

Setting skipped past is yet another way to leave readers wondering about the story. This one is easy to if you’re busy with just a fast-paced happenings—but the reader has to known where and when the scene (and the book) starts. What’s the time of day, is the weather cold or hot, and the world like? The reader needs a little time to settle into the scene and the book. Every book needs this, but this is vital with historical, paranormal romances, or any book with an other-world setting.

Danger is often put into the first page and that can work, but only if the reader cares about what’s going on. A better way to think of this is that conflict and tension do not have to be instantly dialed up to ten—an opening scene with something as simple as a child’s lost shoe can involve the reader in the story if you first take the time to establish characters the reader can care about.

Dialogue can lead to a good or bad opening—this one can be tricky. You might have a great line—but if it feels stuffed into the opening, it’s not going to work. I’ve seen scenes that were obviously twisted to try and fit some clever dialogue into the opening. Instead, the scene came out stiff and as if it didn’t belong with the rest of the book.

Backstory, if laid in too heavy, is also going to kill your opening. The thing to remember here is that if you’re going back in time to put in stuff that happened in the past, you are not moving the present story forward. This is where you have to find the balance between weaving in enough information to keep everything clear and understandable, but not so much that you give the reader huge chunks of the past. Keep it to a sentence here and there. Not paragraphs. (Unless, of course, they are utterly brilliant paragraphs—and do not lie to yourself and tell yourself they are brilliant when they are not.)

Those are the main ways to do it wrong. How do you put in an opening that grabs the reader?

We all know these openings when we read them. Go out and read them. Take them apart and see how others do this. Dick Francis, the mystery writer, is a master of the fast opening that sets up the world and gives you an immediate likeable, sympathetic character. Nora Roberts is another writer who always starts her stories at the right place. When you find writers who give you great openings, don’t just read the rest of the book. Stop, take the writing apart. Look at the descriptions, the balance of narrative to scene (telling to showing), look at the viewpoint control, the words used, the sentence structures, the metaphors. Then look at your own work. Are you applying the same techniques? (Techniques, not same word—your writing will come across as stale if you try and put in sentences and phrases already used by others.)

Most of all, keep in mind the question—are you leading your reader by the hand into a nice swimming hole. Or are you pushing them into the deep end without so much as a lifeline? No one likes to be shoved into something, least of all a reader. Introduce your characters to your readers. Set the stage. Make the world come to life with just enough of the right descriptions (the ones that matter most to the story and the characters). Readers everywhere will thank you.

Christmas Stories

It’s Dicken’s fault–he started the trend. Now, maybe there were Christmas stories around before A Christmas Carol (favorite film version being the one with Alistair Sim), but Dicken’s became the one trotted out every year with the trees and holly and mistletoe. And why fight success. But I actually never set out to write a Christmas story.

Under the Kissing BoughUnder the Kissing Bough started life as a short story. It was supposed to be about 100 pages, and I actually didn’t start out with a time of year, but I did want to see if I could do a novella. I’d been writing a lot of novels and hadn’t done any shorter fiction in a long time, and I actually really, really like the shorter format. It’s a challenge to work in, but can be rewarding. I forgot one thing–you cannot do a short story with lots of characters. Not and do all the characters any kind of justice.

You see, I love to give every character a ‘star turn.’ I think of them all as actors, and every actor–even ones with bit parts–loves to have that great screen moment with wonderful dialogue that moves the story (and the audience). All this mean that with large families (heroine has two sisters, and her parents; hero has father, two brothers, and a former love interest who is now married), I knew that by page seventy, no way was this story ever going to fit into 100 pages. So I put it aside.

And then my then editor at Kensington asked if I’d like to do a holiday book–a Christmas story. “Sure” is always the immediate answer I provide in such situations. And then I had to figure out what I could do for Christmas. Because I can’t just stick on some holy and call it holiday. To me, if an element is not important in the story–and to the characters–it’s got no business being stuck in.

This mean research–as in I needed to dig into English Christmas customs (not difficult since I had a grandmother from Yorkshire and a lot of handed-down family traditions). And I dug out my short story to take another look.

The December setting suited my characters very well–I’d already set up a ‘marriage of convenience’ story (always a wonderful plot to use for historical fiction). Now I could weave in the holiday customs, make them part of the plot and the story (because, in England, you really, really need a very good reason to get married in the cold of winter). There were a few things I couldn’t quite fit into the story due to the limitations of page counts (from the days when that mattered so very much in print)–as in it would have been fun to do more with Twelfth Night celebrations. But I did get other things in there that I loved adding.

And I ended up with a Christmas story.

I’m toying this year with rereading it. I don’t often reread my own work. When you’ve spent a long time writing and revising, another read seems more of a burden than a treat. But it would be fun to do another holiday story. Mmmm…maybe Guy Fawkes day.