Monthly Archives: April 2008

Good Writers, Bad Storytellers

315994_half_1.jpgI was reminded today that good writing isn’t everything. It was four in the afternoon and I was stuck at a turning point in one of my manuscripts, and it hit me that everything I’d done to improve my writing did not matter then and there. I could have just as easily messed up the entire project by tackling the scene the wrong way, even if I did write it beautifully. This wasn’t a matter of description or style or clarity of thought – it was something more. It was story.

Story is that extra something we writers don’t really understand. Take a stroll through any bookstore today and you’ll find writing titles jumping out at you: The Elements of Style, for instance. Or On Writing, that highly popular craft manual by Mr King. But pause for awhile and note that Mr King didn’t write a book called On Storytelling. Nobody has, in fact – I’m still looking for solid works on storytelling alone.

What I’ve realized is that writing is actually the easy part of the craft. The other part – the harder one – is the ability to create a mind-blowing good tale. And that isn’t something that can be captured in a book – I’ve yet to see manuals entitled How To Write Like Steinbeck, or Where To Find Story Ideas. Things like that fall from the sky, or they don’t fall at all.

I read an article last year by a writer turned editor complaining about how hard it was to filter short stories for a collection. She quickly identified two kinds of submissions – the first was by a good storyteller with bad writing (which she could work on), and the other was by the writer who could write beautifully but had nothing to say. The first needed a lot of polishing; the second, however, was impossible to work with. These 2nd category stories were beautiful on the outside, but in the end the aforementioned editor found them to be empty. Rotten apples. Hollow cores.

So I took a break from my manuscript today. I didn’t know how to go on from that turning point – the possibilities were just endless. But that’s not the point here. The point here is that I’m thankful for the storytelling department. For my storytelling department. There are people out there who can’t pull a good yarn even if it was staring them in the face, good writing or not. And I know my writing’s not perfect, but I’m working on it.

I’m just thankful I’ve got something to say.

The Form and Function of We Tell Stories

So far I’ve been very, very impressed with the way Penguin has been doing We Tell Stories. I thought week one was a nifty idea, presenting a narrative on Google Maps, but it wasn’t something mind-blowing because I’d seen it done on a blog before. My lack of faith was exposed two weeks later, with week 2 and week 3’s stories. Both blew me away. Here’s a look at the various forms We Tell Stories has been done in the past few weeks.

Week One’s story is a thriller built around Google Maps. This presentation style allows Charles Cumming the freedom to dispense with lengthy setting description and focus on the action. It works. I found myself impatiently watching the main character moving from point to point on the map, and the snappy, sparse narrative kept me glued to my seat. There’s a plus side to all of this: Google Maps has provided Cumming with a visual element and an easy level of realism not available to normal books. I could see how the main character escapes from the police in a dinghy, I could tell how far away the locations were from each other, I could even follow the character on a (very lengthy) train ride around London. Promising stuff, this. Technology used: Ajax, the Google Maps API, lots and lots of javascript.Slice - Penguin We Tell StoriesWeek Two is done in a medium familiar to Novelr: blogs and twitter. Nothing particularly revolutionary going on here – both the blogs had cookie cutter templates and weren’t very enjoyable to read, and the story wasn’t good. But the interesting thing about these two blogs were the way the characters interacted with the readers. Some twitter posts were made in response to reader questions, and comments were answered in the blogs, in character. Since Lisa (the daughter) went missing in the middle of the story we had a few readers helpfully pointing out her blog and giving suggestions as to where to look for her … which they responded to. Technology used: Twitter, WordPress and Livejournal.