Writing is a life-long learning experience, if you’re doing it right. (Write?) There’s never a point at which you’ve “arrived” in writing. It’s a lot like computer programming – there’s always something more to learn.
As a writer, I’ve changed my focus over the last several months. I’ve reset my sights on something less tangible, and because it’s less tangible, the path to that goal is more difficult to see.
There are a lot of paths to becoming a writer, and as many reasons for wanting it as there are writers doing it. Maybe. (There are a lot of writers out there.)
For some, the goal is to become a published author. The definition of “published” carries a specific meaning for those on that path. They want one of the Big Five publishing firms to pick up and print their novel and distribute it through the traditional Big Five channels to bookstores and online retailers across the country and/or world.
And so, for those writers, their writing becomes targeted. They can see the goal. Sometimes they see the path. They take advice and input from others on that path, and they take advice and input from those they consider industry insiders or experts, and they target their writing.
They essentially write for the industry. They want their stories to be noticed by that industry, inducted into the publication process by that industry, and so they write to conform to the guidelines and structures the industry and its various personnel forward.
Other writers are focused on other things. They set their sites on improving aspects of their craft. They learn structure, they learn genre and tropes thereof, they learn how to write interesting dialog and characters. They work hard to learn different aspects of writing, and they toss all of those things together to create a unique story.
What I think it boils down to is, most of those writers are focused on words. Being a better writer means writing better words. I agree…in part.
But my focus, at least for my writing, is different today than it was even as little as six months ago.
Six months ago, I wanted to improve my craft. I’d studied the heck out of story structure, and tried to find a magic template I could populate with my brilliance. I wanted some magical thing to happen when I did so, to make the stories become more appealing, more valuable to readers.
Make me money, in other words.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I learned an awful lot about story structure and didn’t do a lot of writing. For something like two years. When I finally did write something, the great structural framework I’d learned and adopted helped me…until the ending. Which I flubbed, completely.
So while some writers focus on making their stories more polished for the industry they’re pursuing, I stepped back and took a look at what was going on with my own writing. And I learned I’d been focused on the wrong thing. I’d been focused on writing, when what I really wanted was to improve my storytelling.
The difference in focus is changing what I care about in writing. I’m conscious of prose – the actual words I use to form sentences and paragraphs – and I’m still aware of story structure and necessary points along that structural framework. But I’m less focused on that than I was a few months ago. I learned something about where I am as a writer, and where I want to be as a writer.
Now, the goal for my writing is to become a great storyteller. Writers can be both, but I don’t think I fully understood that. I think I figured better words, learning how to put them in order on a page and be more…I don’t know…pleasing? maybe?…meant I was a better writer. If I liked the clarity, the simplicity, and the vigor and punch of my writing, then I was becoming a “better” writer.
And that’s true.
But it doesn’t mean I’m becoming a better storyteller.
Storytellers – really good ones – can hold an audience rapt. They can submerge the reader into the story very quickly, and keep them submerged throughout. They never break that fictive dream (thanks, John Gardner). They control everything the reader experiences from the get-go, and they know when a reader will have a question before the reader gets there. So they can provide the answer before the reader knew they wanted one.
Nice, right? And this is the explanation for some of those head-scratching books you find, where people are raving about the book, but you open it up and find the prose is less than stellar. The writer isn’t what I would call “good,” but the book is flying off the shelves and the writer is weeping all the way to the bank that I don’t think they’re very good.
Sometimes it’s because the author was a good storyteller, even if their words weren’t great. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code comes to mind. Maybe a lot of people thought it was bad writing, but Dan Brown knew how to tell that story, and millions of readers loved it.
I guess I’d rather be a great storyteller than a great writer. How I learn to do that, though, is the tricky part for me. Where to start? There aren’t a lot of “craft” books about this. How to be a better writer, yes; how to be a better storyteller? No. Why?
Maybe it’s because it’s less tangible. You can see prose improve. You can see someone’s knowledge of structure improve. You can view those things empirically, as a writer writes and you read the words, map the structure. But how well is the story told? How is the writer doing at telling the story?
That’s way harder to determine. In fact, I’m so new at the concept I don’t know how to measure it other than just…reading. If the story keeps me going, the writer’s doing it right. If not…well.
It’s far more difficult to measure how I’m doing as a storyteller. But maybe, just maybe, there are things I can do to learn more about it, to defog the mystique.
For one thing, I can learn to study books. Reading like a writer, not like a reader, and maybe doing some reverse outlining and reverse engineering. That might help, but I don’t know how much. What about looking at how my favorite parts resonated with me, and then working to identify what worked for me in those parts.
Amy Tan is a favorite author, because she writes the way I want to write. And I know she’s an effective storyteller because even though I’m not interested in her stories, I can’t put them down when I start reading them. So there’s one author. I guess Stephen King is another. What did I love about my favorite SK books? How did he do that magic he does?
The road is long. Some pick one path, some pick another. I’ve chosen one I think will be most satisfying to me, but I have little idea how to proceed, progress on it.
I wish only well for those who’ve chosen other paths than mine. Write what makes you happy, and work to make your dreams come true, whatever they are.