Monday, March 19, 2007

The Storytelling Gene

It takes more to be a writer than sitting your butt down for a few weeks and pounding on the keys. In truth, you can call yourself a writer because you love to write. But in reality, it takes more than giving yourself that title, to be a writer. I’ve been literally at my computer for the past five years, day and night, with few breaks, studying my craft and writing stories. Prior to that, it was ten to fifteen years of writing stories between punching time clocks. Still, sometimes I wonder if I have the right to call myself a writer.

In addition to writing non-stop for the past five years, I’ve been working the publicity machine and watching my book sales and giving two to three speeches a week. But it takes more than all that to call yourself a writer.

It takes more than crafting three-dimensional characters, raising the stakes, and knowing which word to use for the right amount of description. It takes more than that. It takes more than being inspired by people, places, quotes, songs, or poetry. It takes more than being a good editor and knowing the difference between affect and effect and whether you screwed up the syntax in your sentence.

I love the quote by Willa Cather ~ "The talent for writing is largely the talent for living, and it is utterly independent of knowledge."

Still, you enroll in every class, join writing groups, attend dozens of writer's conferences--sorry, it still takes more than that. With lots of practice, anyone can learn the craft of writing. You can read and reread every damn book on writing, all while you underscore and highlight, memorize, apply, and finally … the craft takes hold, sinks in, you have style … you have strong verbs … you have the right amount of ellipses.

And yet, there's something you must have that cannot be learned, in my opinion. It must be born in you. So many writers are born without a storytelling gene.

You have to be a great storyteller. To tell a great story is a talent that not all writers possess. Storytelling is the basic fundamental piece missing in many books we see on the shelves today. Unfortunately, many shallow writers (not shallow in person but in their writing) get published. Even find a small degree of success. Character-driven stories are wonderful, but unless there’s a story, the entire book is flat.

The dictionary says, story is a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader. To what degree does a writer accomplish that? Many books amuse, some provoke a degree of thought, and others have beautiful covers and look nice on our bookshelves. But then, there are some books that move us and keep us awake until we’ve read from cover to cover. In some stories the characters haunt us for days. The plot is so intricately woven, so filled with conflict, you wonder if the writer is telling a story or a truthful series of events. We’re transported. We’re in the story. We see it unfold.

That’s what I want to write. Those kinds of books.

That being said, no writer should ever give up their dream. They must reach for the missing storytelling gene, even if they weren’t blessed with it. Quite possibly that’s how shallow writers found their success. They didn’t give up.

These past five years, I’ve often been asked to critique stories by other writers. Within the first few paragraphs I can tell if the writer has the storytelling gene. They use the English language beautifully. It’s obvious they’ve had formal training. Their command of sentence structure is impressive. But after the first two pages (yawn) I’m ready to quit reading. In my mind I’m saying … try traveling writing. Try nonfiction. Be a journalist, even a food critic. Food critics write great prose! And yet, I can see it in their eyes. They want so desperately to be a storyteller. So I tell them to reach for the missing gene. Join the Storytellers Guild. Work on the story; let your already great characters tell you their story. Allow them to speak to you, don’t force them to do something they wouldn’t do or feel something they don’t feel. Plot it out on paper, raise the stakes, up the ante, make the conflict worse, take Donald Maass’ class, or read his book Writing the Breakout Novel. "That will help you, sweetie. That’s where I'd start."

Some writers have the storytelling gene, and just need to develop it. I read their stories and over time, and wow! They just pop. They improve in leaps and bounds.

And God knows, I don’t have all the answers. I’m sifting through piles of edits of my own work as I sit here. A boatload of edits on my novel from chosen editors kind enough to tell it to me straight. So the lessons continue on my end, as well.

But there’s one thing I’m sure of. I wasn’t meant to write cutesy tales with a funny or a semi-witty heroine that’s only slightly flawed. A character everyone resonates with. A character that finds herself in slight marriage woes, or becomes a part-time sleuth, or has a dreamy epiphany the beach. A character in mid-life crisis and all the familiar problems that accompany that. I wasn’t meant to write cheesy romances or cozy mysteries. Although I like those kinds of stories, (once in a while) it’s not what I write.

I don’t write beach reads. Some of those light stories have me skimming to the end. I want some meat. Give me story. Something to sink my teeth into. Give me … Gabaldon, Kingsolver, and Oates. Give me writers with storytelling genes. And then on top of telling me a great story, give me a message.

Ahhh … now that’s what I want to write.

Forgive me for those misplaced commas, my misuse of a verb, or if my apostrophe is in the wrong place. Let me show you my storytelling gene.

Unfortunately, publishers don't see it that way. They want the whole package. So today I shove aside my storytelling gene, do a search on words that end in ly, and take them out.

Blessings to you and your storytelling gene.

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