If you haven’t read Part 1, click here.
Lately there’s a recurring theme among the author blogs I frequent. The age old question of-
“When is a ‘Great Story’ NOT about The Writing?”
If that sounds like an esoteric cop-out “Fortune Cookie” saying, trust me, I felt the same way when I first heard it, too. (Truthfully, I still feel that way sometimes)
Last time, I touched on how there can be key differences between how writers read versus how lay readers who don’t write (to publish) read.
Today, I continue the conversation with a little help from a fellow blogger friend of mine, Janice Hardy, author of “The Healing Wars” trilogy, and writer of “The Other Side Of The Story” a blog for writers to learn discuss the craft and business of writing, from the perspective of authors at various stages in their career, from pre-published, first timers like myself, to those who achieved bestseller status and loyal readers.
In our e-mail blitz this time last year I expressed the new found gratitude and respect for her as a writer after reading/listening to the audiobook for “The Shifter” the first in a trilogy where Nya, a girl who can shift pain, has to face one moral dilemma after another to rescue her sister from a torturous fate, and while those who know my tastes as a reader would think I’d NEVER read that book, or even FINISH it-I did.
And you know what? I liked it.
But yes, it was HARD to read, and that’s not because I had issues with the writing (Whether function or style), I didn’t.
I’d been following Janice’s blog, The Other Side of The Story, for a few months before I finally relented and bought a paperback of “The Shifter.” But was too afraid to read until last year, when I took part in a book club online and that was the book chosen first.
I later had to buy the audiobook version because it’s easier at times for me personally to stay with an emotionally hard story by listening to it, than reading it on the page, and I promise you, her writing’s not “flawed” in the way you might think given the way I describe how hard a read it was for me.
It wasn’t hard technically, and not hard like the books in English class that were original pub date was so long ago that your grandparents weren’t born yet (Cough, Shakespeare and Twain, anyone?), it was hard for me because I cared so much about Nya, who at 17, was making decisions and facing down ethical crescendos and moral hurdles I could never handle, and I’m now TWICE her age (Turning 26 this year), and I can only imagine what Janice had to deal with in revising this story over and over, even BEFORE she got her agent and sold her Healing Wars Trilogy, of which “The Shifter” is the first book of this trio, and her first published book.
While Janice is probably a tougher writer than I am in this instance, she’s quick to say she still has her off days now, and that we’ll always have them, whether we’re pre-published or published.
That said, it doesn’t mean the answers we need to make our stories better reads, AND still satisfy agents and editors with concise query letters and/or manuscripts as close to publishable as possible, subjective as that is (BEYOND grammar, punctuation, and spelling’s concerned) are ALWAYS straightforward to learn or execute.
I asked her, “Why do you think seeing your writing as the reader is so hard for some writers and not others?”
Her answer pretty much spells out my reason for this and my previous blog post-
“Writers tend to look at the writing and technical aspects, because that’s what we need to get right to get published. Readers want a great story with great characters. But “great story great characters” is so subjective. All writers love their stories and characters or we wouldn’t be writing them. But what appeals to us doesn’t necessarily appeal to a large audience.”
This answer, among other factors, got Janice to write a post on her blog last summer about reading-
Janice later followed up with this post on why she believes story can trump great writing in the eyes of readers-
While my comments in that post were perhaps too biting, I still saw the truth in what she was saying, and I’m certainly not saying story doesn’t matter, but I don’t think it trumps all.
If our weak use of craft is getting in the way, no one will see what’s beyond that, well except our lovable beta-readers who help us there (Thanks for your feedback on my query letter, Janice, it helped me get it better, and had a hand in selling my first novel)
While it’s true many authors can still hook readers on story and voice alone, not everyone can, and it doesn’t mean they’re any less of a writer than those who can.
Besides, we all have our strengths.
While Janice is great at tackling questions of morality and giving the reader a fast-paced, yet thought-provoking read, I like tapping into my imagination and tell stories about heroes and heroines who may not fit in boxes, but are no less real and engaging to write about and hopefully for readers to be engaged with.
Now that doesn’t mean Janice can’t embrace her inner quirkiness anymore than I can write unflinching honesty (Even though I’m not ready to publish it yet…), it’s just that depending on the book and characters involved, writing, or rewriting, demands different things from both the author down to the end readers.
Still, we can’t produce our best work if we’re so conscious of the reader that it becomes crippling to where we don’t want to take risks, or give ourselves permission to write what we want, and let’s face it, some of the most championed books by lay readers and writers alike wouldn’t be published today if the author didn’t put the HEART behind it, not just the technical polish.
But as much as published authors and lay readers champion “Story above all else” to be read, and taken seriously for publication, writers can’t sidestep the quality of writing. Both in terms of style and technical matters.
Great writing can exist without a great story. Heck, I’ve written stuff described as such. Ask anyone in publishing and you’ll hear more examples than you might want to know…
But a great story ALONE can’t get us published in today’s market. That’s something I don’t think many story-centric writers want to accept.
Now I DON’T include Janice in this camp. She makes no bones about that on her blog, in the correspondence we’ve shared in private, and having read one of her books I mentioned above, she tugs at your heartstrings and moral compass tightly.
That said, I do think without meaning to, other more business savvy, plot-oriented writers who see the process in a FAR more pragmatic manner than I do, sometimes undermine that gray area between the passion and professionalism we need to meet our writing goals. It’s part of why I and other new writers misread them on this issue.
While it’s nice to know not all lay readers are “Über Critical” about the writing at a technical level, in terms of keeping our stress levels down (or at least in check), readers aren’t publishing us, and we need a certain level of technical competence in the writing just to get the chance to reach them.
While readers on average just want a great story (Even in nonfiction, well, unless it’s a phone book or something), writers want more, they want to tell a great story, too.
But in order to be published into today’s market, that great story has to be well written, which doesn’t mean it rivals (Insert bestselling author here) to do it.
Next time, I’ll discuss some of my favorite books that while aren’t the most flowery OR poignant stories ever written, they are fun stories, some of them even GREAT, even if the prose isn’t, but NOT a mess technically either.
May the Fantastic Fauna be with you.