Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Things that make me feel better...

...and also make me worry. Because I'm just that kind of person.

Over the weekend I read a blog post that profoundly effected me. The kind of blog post I wish I was smart enough and experienced enough to write. It was by successful author Kristine Kathryn Rusch about Modern Writer Survival Skills. The post is number 19 in a series (I haven't read the others) and while previous installments talked about non-craft related skills, this one focused on two skills of the actual writing that authors need to have. Rusch maintains that the two most important writing skills you need are...

1. Storytelling Ability 

I've thought this same thing before but wasn't able to put it into words as well as Rusch. She says:

It’s long past time to stop calling ourselves “writers” and start calling ourselves “storytellers.”  The word “writer” is misleading.  The craft of producing good fiction is not about the words.  In fact, it has never been about the words.  Fiction is about the story.
Writers need to focus on the elements of storytelling—great characters, great plots, real emotions, cliffhangers, fascinating settings and situations—rather than lovely words.  Lovely words might get you admirers, but lovely words won’t get you readers.  Readers will put their dollars behind the person who moves them seamlessly from chapter to chapter.

Those of you who spent all of your time learning how to make pretty sentences, stop now.  Focus on telling compelling stories.
How do you learn to tell stories? Simple.
First, shut off your critical brain.  Storytelling is entertainment, and criticism is the opposite of entertainment.
Second, find story everywhere.  Movies, television, books, short stories, and your favorite raconteur all tell great stories. Find them, enjoy the story itself, and absorb it. Don’t think about it.
Third, play.  Writing is fun. Telling stories is fun.  Have fun.  If you have fun, your readers will too.
 I cannot express how much every fiber of my being cried out "Yes! This is good! This is real!" upon reading these words. Now don't get me wrong, I love words. But words do not equal story. Words are merely a medium for story. The story transcends words and we aspiring authors must often struggle with them to make them convey the ideas and images in our heads which are the story. But it seems to me that there is a tendency in writing circles to elevate the words themselves from tool to end product. In particular the anti-adverb movement and the vilification of the non-said dialogue tag bother me.

Why? Why do we consider the adverb bad? What, inherently, is wrong with it? What is fundamentally wrong with non-said dialogue tags? I cannot think of a sufficient answer. I realized recently that for years and years I have been reading books which abound with these two devices and never been any wiser. It was only after I started reading with a more writerly point of view that I began to notice on my third or fourth reading of the Harry Potter books, for example, how often J. K. Rowling uses adverbs and non-said dialogue tags. Before it never made any difference to me. I didn't even notice.

And I really don't think that most readers notice. Most readers don't care. All they want is a good story. And you know what adverbs and non-said dialogue tags do? They make things perfectly clear to the reader in a very short space. I admit, I like that. I like clarity when I'm reading. I don't want to stumble through your extended metaphors and vague imagery when a simple adverb would tell me everything I need to know. I don't think you're smart for making it harder for me to understand what's going on because you can never just say anything without using some literary device you learned about in your college creative writing class.

Get over the words, writers, and focus on the story. Because focusing on the style of your words will give you trouble with the next writing survival skill...

2. Voice

Voice is one of those things you see talked about ALL THE TIME but never, ever defined well. Most people say something like, "It's just that elusive something, ya know? Gotta have it though." Oh, thanks. How helpful. Which is why Rusch's explanation hit me like a bolt of lightning from the gods (in a non deadly way).

Okay, now I’ve just confused you.  I tell you to stop being stylists and become storytellers. Then I tell you that the writers who will survive in this new world need voice.
How can you have voice without style? Simple.  Voice is the opposite of style.
Style is something you fake.  You think from your critical brain—ah, that looks lovely, I should put that word here. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, putting in your stylistic flourishes.
Or so you think.
What you’re really doing is removing all trace of voice.
What is voice? Voice is you.  It’s authentic and real and to you, the writer, voice looks bland.
When I was in college, I had a creative writing class from a marvelous writer (not a professor) named Lawrence O’Sullivan.
Because on day one, O’Sullivan walked into our class and said (without saying hello), “There are seven plots.  Shakespeare did them best.  If that scares you, get out of my class now.”
If O’Sullivan was right (and he was) and I just told you to be storytellers, then what differentiates your story from my story, especially if we have the same plot?
When you’re telling the same plot as someone else, you differentiate that plot from the other person’s only by making that story personal, making it something you care about.  You write honestly, without stylistic flourishes at all.

If you do it right, that story will be compelling—and here’s the weird thing. Everyone will mention how strong your voice is.  You won’t see your voice in that piece at all.  In fact, you’ll think that story’s prose is colorless, unoriginal, and rather mundane.
Ever since you learned the language around your first year, you’ve been thinking precisely that way.  That’s how you think. That’s how you talk.  That’s your perspective.  It’s old news to you.  In fact, it’s normal.  But to everyone else—especially people who’ve never met you—that perspective is new and vivid and memorable.
I've seen so many people talk about having to "learn" or "find" your voice. But if Rusch is right, and my gut tells me she is, then Voice is something you have all along and the struggle isn't to "find" it but to not lose it.

Authors are pounded over the head with the advice to revise, revise, revise. Edit, edit, edit. But how much is really necessary? I'm not saying you shouldn't edit. For the love of all that is good, you need to at least edit for grammar and structural errors. But when we go back and constantly pick over our words, getting rid of adjectives and adverbs, trying to make our prose stylistically gorgeous, are we really just removing our voice, our selves from the work?

It's something to think about. I know that I feel a lot better now about trying to be a storyteller rather than a writer. I am more confident now knowing that Voice really just means me and maybe it doesn't seem special to me, but it will to others. I need to embrace it. (My husband keeps telling me this, but who ever listens to their husband? They're obviously biased.)

On the other hand, I'm going to be so paranoid anytime I start rethinking my words. (Which one more me?!?)


  1. Great post.
    I love words, and I daresay I collect them. When I learn a "ten-dollar word" I want to use it and share it. However, given all the no-noing of adverbs I suppress my urges.

    I feel sometimes certain adverbs can help make something more clear to the reader, but too many and our writing quickly becomes convoluted. I think the proper application of an adverb or two is like adding a secret spice to a stew. It gives a particular sentence or paragraph an extra bite.

  2. As a "lazy reader" I appreciate this post. I find myself skipping big portions of description and prose because I want to know what happens next in a story I am enjoying. I know some people like to be dipped into lots of details and immersed into the world created by the author, so I know all this exposition has a place, but I personally dislike having to wade through the author's descriptions in order to find the meat that I am looking for.

  3. Just like any tool, adverbs can be used badly. I recently was reading a book that had a sentence that went something like "The captain looked at him puzzledly." I put the book down at that point and haven't picked it back up. But just because sometimes you might hit your thumb with a hammer is no reason to reject the hammer. Adverbs are still a valid and useful tool in my book.

    I find that I prefer the books where the prose is clear and easy to understand. And I think some authors get so caught up in words that their stories become hard to follow. I was reading a book by a well know fantasy author where one scene began with an extended metaphor and after reading it I found myself thinking "what the heck was all that supposed to mean?" I don't think it's about laziness. I'm a smart cookie, if I do say so myself. But novels are meant to entertain, not prove how clever the author is.

  4. First off, I saw your comment on Pimp my Novel and I had to come over and say, Bravo! Exactly what I was going to say, but said better. I didn't even catch horrible incorrectness of the apps comparison. You're so right.

    I'm going to self publish, and my concern is not all the bad books out there, but all the good ones. (There are so many.)

    Second, I don't necessarily agree with this post completely, but at the same time I do completely agree with this post, lol. What?

    I agree with the storyteller bit. Yes, exactly. I think of myself as a storyteller first, and I'm way more concerned about that than the words or crafting a perfect sentence.

    But adverbs are bad because people use them as a crutch. The same with non-said tags. They can so easily be placed into a story and used to explain/tell rather than painting a picture of the scene and letting the reader figure it out.

    As a reader, I prefer to have there be some leeway for me to interpret actions in the story and discuss it further. I don't mean picking it apart, but just going, "Hey, did you see that? He looked away from her when she asked that question. Do you think that means something?"

    I shared a short story online that was this way. I made it first person, so actions of the other characters were important. Not only were people entertained, but their imaginations took the story even further than I had intended. We had some amazing discussions about possible motivations for the other characters. The readers made the story better than I alone could have.

    But I'm not completely against adverbs or non-said tags. It really just depends on a person's individual style and what they do with them.

  5. Adverbs are not bad, but sometimes people use them badly. There's a whole world of difference there.

    I think the rejection of adverbs is really just a telling symptom of a more general and very problematic way of looking at storytelling that has been cultivated for decades now. One of these days I'll do an elaborate and very boring post about it.

  6. I look forward to that post! I'm enjoying reading what you have to say so far. :)


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