The Space Between Writing and Storytelling

Kristen Nelson has an excellent blog post at PubRants regarding how “strong writing” alone isn’t enough to sell a novel. It made a lot of sense to me, but I was surprised at how many of the commentors just did not get it — period.

I’ve seen this elsewhere around writing fora, loops, and journals/blogs. Many writers assume that writing “well” is the most important factor in selling a short story or novel. These are often the same people who ask “How are Terry Brooks / Robert Jordan / Dan Brown / etc. best-selling authors? They can’t write for crap! They break all the ‘rules!'”

(Trust me. I’ve heard it. I didn’t understand, either, several years ago.)

The key here is story. An author doesn’t hit the NYT if the story sucks rocks. It might not be to some people’s tastes, but that’s going to be true of about anything, because personal likes and dislikes are subjective. Bestsellers have some quality in the story that captivates readers, otherwise they wouldn’t read it. (Outside of the controversy factor, that is, but I doubt that controversy alone can make a bestseller.)

I’ve been in critique / writing groups for several years now, and I have seen a lot of stories and novels that are technically perfect. The writing shines. But the story itself is often standard, predictable … “safe.”

This attitude is often encouraged in various sorts of writer’s groups. I’ve received far too many critiques from multiple different sources where the critiquer focused on the writing but ignored the big picture. I know other people who have received the same. Romance writers have talked about receiving crits from contests that focus primarily on writing “perfection” without looking at the story. Perhaps the intention isn’t to encourage people to focus on the writing first, but it’s often the way it comes across.

This isn’t to say that good writing isn’t important. If your writing sucks like a cheap whore who can’t figure out which end to blow, an agent or editor likely won’t make it past your query letter, much less take you on. (And by this, I mean truly horrid prose. If you’ve ever critiqued a beginning writer’s first novel or short story, you know exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.) Writing is important, too.

But. It’s a lot easier to fix a novel that has passable writing than it is to fix a story that’s at heart “ho-hum.” Line edits are a piece of cake. Rewriting the entire book because it’s competant but not good enough? Not easy. (I’m in the middle of it myself.)

Yes, it’s a delicate balance. But I don’t think it’s impossible. The Internet is an immensely useful tool for writers to commune and help each other along — but the “downside” to this is that there are more competant writers than there used to be. At one point, it was good enough to be “competant.” It isn’t anymore. You need to be good — and by that, I’m not talking about the technicalities of writing alone, but the quality of the story you’re telling. Though how to tell a story that’s unique and different while still being marketable is another matter entirely… 😉

Is it tougher for writers to get published nowadays than it used to be? I think so, though I couldn’t say for certain. I know there are some writers who get upset and worried about the competition, wondering whether or not they can “make it.” Me? I see it as a challenge. 🙂

What do you think? Are the expectations / standards for new writers unreasonable (as some people seem to think), or is it par for the course? Do you find it depressing — or just another obstacle to overcome?

10 Replies to “The Space Between Writing and Storytelling”

  1. I feel that new writers are expected to write “by the rules.” However, some of the best writers bent to the point of breaking the rules. Also we’re expected to write “what’s selling” versus what we like to write. Yet their writings are ground-breaking because they think outside the box. Innovative. Refreshing. Compromising little. Their stories are engaging because the authors believed in what they were writing. Not in “doing homework.” The funny thing is that sometimes it has taken them a long time to sell their first stories.

  2. I agree to a point. There are certain rules a new writer can’t just toss out the window. But, judging by what I’ve seen from new authors over the past few years, the publishing industry is nowhere near as strict about following “the rules” as some critique groups and writing communities are.

    I don’t agree that new authors are supposed to write “what’s selling.” If all you’re doing is trend-hopping, you’re not likely to get anywhere, because by the time you’ve finished your book and have it ready to submit, the trend is either waning or has moved on.

    Books that take chances and think outside the box are going to be more difficult to sell, yes. In some cases, it may take years. But a book that follows ground that’s already been covered without bringing anything new isn’t going to fare well, either. It’s a delicate balance between being too “out there” and too “mundane.”

    The danger with writing a book that follows all the “rules” and isn’t innovative, fresh, and new, is that sure, you might get it published… but there’s a whole ‘nother set of concerns once you get there, and that’s the way the bookseller computer systems work. Say they order 10 copies of your first book, but only sell 7. This is not a bad sell-through. But the computer system will automatically order only 7 copies of the next book, and down it goes, unless you happen to “break out.” If your books don’t sell well enough, they’ll eventually stop ordering.

    If you don’t have a book that really grabs people, you stand a pretty good chance of being computered into oblivion.

    Again, it’s a delicate balance.

  3. I agree it’s a different world nowadays. Talent isn’t enough. My dad’s cousin wrote regencies for many years. When she encouraged me to start subbing my writing, she said back in her day you could pretty much write a good book, send it in, and they’d buy it. There’s so much competition today. I did a similiar post on my group blog today. LLOO.

  4. Shelli, it used to be the same in science fiction and fantasy. Some of the stuff that got published in the 80’s — hell, even in the early 90’s — would likely never see print now.

    Personally, I think the internet has a lot to do with the change. These days, there are all sorts of websites, communities, critique groups, chats, workshops, etc, that anybody with a computer and a ‘net connection can access — whereas people used to be limited to their immediate location, unless they could afford to travel.

    So you have more information available to the general public, tons of critique groups/fora, and more ability to network. This results in more competant writers on the playing field — and more competition. It’s not enough to be just “competant” anymore. You have to be good.

    What’s the link to your group blog, btw? I don’t think I’ve seen it.

  5. I think it’s characters. If you don’t have characters that people can attach to, then the book won’t fly. Great writing doesn’t mean great story. I find that being able to have endearing characters (or really courageous characters or something that makes you feel SOMETHING)
    the writing doesn’t have to be perfect.
    I agree with you, Nonny. Bad writing can be fixed.

  6. I think luck plays a huge part in writing success, too. You have to write a good book, be in the right place at the right time.

    The writing journey isn’t an easy one. As you say on the whole, writers are more skilled and knowledgable than they were due to networking on the internet and with writing groups. There is lots of competition. It takes courage to step outside the “writing rules” and write with your own spin. The writing world is full of ups and downs. It’s hard to always rise above this and continue but well worth it when a sale is signed and sealed. I like to think I’ll keep going, fighting obstacles until that bit of luck I need comes along and propells my career to exactly where I’d like it.

  7. Jennifer, I agree. Plot is necessary, too, but people will forgive a weak plot and bad writing for characters that grab you by the throat and won’t let go. 🙂

  8. Shelley,

    Luck definitely plays a role, but there’s not much you can do about it. 😉 You can, however, do your best to write a gripping story with memorable characters and good writing. After that, it’s just the roll of the dice.

    FWIW, I’ve been submitting stuff for about six years now. I haven’t lost heart. 🙂

  9. It seems to me that agents want the same thing that’s recently selling, but with a twist. Something that makes it fresh. JMO, but if you write something really different, you might be better off querying e-pubs than agents. It’s not bitterness speaking. I’m still sending my recently finished book out, and I’m writing a new book that I’m excited about. Like you, Nonny, I haven’t lost heart.

  10. Edie said: JMO, but if you write something really different, you might be better off querying e-pubs than agents.

    Depends on the genre and how it’s “different,” exactly, I think. If you’re writing speculative fiction, for example, the ebook market for that is mostly nonexistent, outside of Double Dragon. But if it’s romance/erotica crossed with anything else — science fiction, fantasy, horror, whatver — then epublishing is probably a better idea. Even nowadays, the speculative fiction market doesn’t want stuff that’s “too” romance-driven, especially if there’s a lot of sex. (Despite what Laurell K. Hamilton might lead you to believe.)

    Generally, if it’s at all marketable to New York, I advise people to try submitting to agents and publishers before trying the e-pub route, unless that’s their preference. You’ll never know if it’ll sell there if you don’t try.

    Good luck on the novel submission, btw! I’ll keep my fingers crossed. 🙂

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