I’m still muddling through learning to be a writer. If you haven’t been following along for the last few months – or simply don’t care – then I’d recommend you click away, right now, before this gets any worse.
Now. NOW! Click away NOW, dagnabit!
Still here? Okay, so here’s what’s been going on.
I’ve been trying to move from being a writer who’s worried about words – are they “good,” are they “strong?” Does the prose flow, is it minimalist enough to make Hemingway smile? Clear enough to make Amy Tan proud? Would Stephen King read my book and remark how much like him I write?
Those were the concerns. Really. I worried about words, and focused on them.
But lately – say, the last six months or so – I’ve been focusing on trying to become a better storyteller. We’ve all seen those books, where the sample we get online is so poorly written and amateurish we don’t do much but roll our eyes and move on. Yet, we look and see the author has two hundred and some-odd reviews, most of which are 4- and 5-star, and all of those praising the story and the author.
How can this be?! I rail. How?! This is GARBAGE! I’ve written better fifth grade book reports!
Well, that may be true, but the fact is, the readers were engrossed in the story, and didn’t mind so much the flaws in grammar and style, the freely-flowing adverbs, the stilted or forced dialog that didn’t flow well. They didn’t care about those things except to comment, “The author could use a good editor and the formatting might need some help, but overall…”
So that author, whomever they may be, cries all the way to the bank that I don’t like their prose. That I didn’t buy their book. That I rolled my eyes and clicked over to my KDP dashboard where my sales blip hasn’t moved since sometime in August, which was the first time in something like a year.
Oh, and it moved from zero to one.
Why does someone who is clearly inferior to me in craft outsell me in cash?
Because, dear readers, they understand something about storytelling I don’t.
I didn’t figure it out either. I never did. I just sat, teeth grinding while I gripped fistfuls of hair and seethed, wondering at the injustice of someone like that getting sales and reviews while my books collect virtual dust on the Internet, unloved and unknown.
Well, flash-forward some years to my discovery (and subsequent reading) of Dean Wesley Smith’s blog. And I started reading it a little while before he began a blog series about his process of Writing into the Dark. It inspired me as I’ve not been inspired in quite some time. He followed that one up with the Stages of a Fiction Writer series, wherein he discussed what stages writers go through on their journeys as writers, and how to know where you are on the path.
It helped me tremendously. It showed me where I was, and gave me some idea of what’s required to move up, to the next level. And what he defined there showed me a difference between being a writer – someone who crafts words – and a storyteller, someone who can craft stories.
See, storytellers control what’s in the mind of the reader through every stage of the story process. They don’t let the reader out of the fictive dream, they anticipate what the reader needs when, and they basically control the reader through the entire book. Those are the people who cause the reader to cry when they should, laugh when they should, and keep the lights on far too long into the night because they can’t put the book down.
DWS explains it like this: When you first start writing, it’s like coming into a huge building and being in the lobby. There’s a ton of people milling around and moving back and forth, the general din is incredible. But gradually, you become aware of the shops and little rooms around the perimeter of the lobby. You notice things like the elevator bank and the security desk. Then the clocks on the walls, the tile patterns, the woodwork start becoming noticeable.
When you realize you’re on the lobby floor, when you recognize there’s so much more to the building than you’re seeing, you start looking for a way up. And that is the transitioning from one stage to another.
There are ways to know which stage you’re in, and I was squarely at the beginning, probably somewhere between Stage One – where everything is about the words – and Stage Two, where the writer starts becoming aware of other aspects of the story. (There’s a lot that goes into this, and it’s easy to see how to identify where you are, but you have to be honest.)
I’d started this transition a few years ago without knowing it was a transition. I started worrying a lot less about the prose. I wanted to be a minimalist; that’s what pleases me. Okay, so use the fewest words you can to convey the meaning you want. Then find ways to make that work, and move on. I stopped losing sleep over “ly” adverbs. I stopped worrying about stupid things that held me up for so long before. I started trying to write with the distinct voice of each story. I had no idea how to do that. (Still don’t.)
I was still concerned with the words, the actual prose. I didn’t let that go, and in truth, still haven’t, but I’m less worried about that than I was say last year, or the last five years. So now, I’m looking at things like character development, and how to get deep into the character’s POV. This is something storytellers start doing. Learning how to get the reader involved deeply in the story as soon as possible.
Mastering this is a big thing, and takes years. In fact, writers never stop learning, and to be honest, I’ve only just begun that learning.
So, now I’m standing on the stairwell to the next level of writing, but I’m still in the dark a little. I know there’s more up there, I just don’t see where the stairwell goes. Or, you know, the treads.
So it’s a process, and in that process, I’ve started taking steps. They weren’t as dramatic as I hoped, but the steps I’ve taken are going to pile up like stairs in that mysterious building. Each step carries me up, so long as I don’t ever come to the notion that I know what I need to know. There’s no destination here. It’s always learning, always growing, always becoming better at storytelling.
Right now I’m aware of where I want to go, but I’m still scratching my head over how to get there. That’s the next step, I guess. I just don’t know where it is.