Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What you need . . .

I was writing along elsewhere, talking about what you need to get a first novel published.

The question was brought up as to whether anyone could work like the devil and learn lots of craft and become a wiriter . . .  or if it's a gift that you either have or don't have.
In short, a fairly standard discussion that comes up a lot.

I brought my posting back with me from that site, stuffed in me cheek pounch.

ISTM you need a couple three things -- I'm coming up with a list of six -- to be successful in fiction.

Three of these imperatives are out of your hands.
Three, you can maybe do something about.

-- You need to be a storyteller.

There are people who are natural storytellers. They spin yarns inside their head all the time.

In humanity's frightened and miserable prehistory, every other village produced some man or woman who would sit down to tell a story and the room, (or the cave or the market square or the dockside,) fell silent and listened and dreamed.

This is the heart of fiction. We, as readers, carp about how fast a submarine dives or speak knowledgeably about foreshadowing or complain that Hamlet should have knocked his uncle over the head a lot sooner.
But we do this carping only because the story matters. The object of carp does not matter. The story does.

Natural storytellers are fairly thick on the ground. Maybe one person in five hundred.

I do not think storytelling can be taught or learned.
There are lots of websites on POV or characterization of query letters.

No one sets up websites telling you how to become 'a storyteller' -- (though McKee's STORY does a pretty good job of teaching you how to harness what you may have. )

No one gives lessons in how to fall into a dream and 'see' the 'what if . . .' all around you. No one explains methods for carrying the same makebelieve world in your head, year after year, building and changing it and setting new stories there.
It's what you do, or it isn't.

If you walk around all the time, absent minded because you're making up stories in your head, you are probably one of these storytellers, you poor sap.

-- You need to love language.

Some people love words in the way other people love music or numbers or the solid crack of whacking a ball just exactly right. For language lovers, poetry can send chills up their spine. A clunky sentence can hurt like a sour note in music.

These folks have emotional relationships with words. They care about how words sound and where they come from and exactly what they mean.

I rather think this relationship with language is inborn as well. It's rarer than storytelling. Call it one person in two thousand.

If you can sit for ten minutes mulling over 'big', 'huge', 'oversized', 'hulking' and 'enormous', judging which one fits best based on ten or a dozen parameters, then language matters to you.

-- You need to know craft.

We have come to a requirement you can do something about.

Craft is what makes Janet Evanovich's first published novel, Hero at Large, different from, One for the Money, or Nora Robert's, Irish Thoroughbred, from, Naked in Death.

You need a minimal level of craft to ever get published.
You never stop working on craft.

-- You need stalwart character traits.

Self-discipline, patience, attention to detail, honesty, practicality, intelligence, perseverance . . . the usual suspects.

This is the same stuff that would make you a good pastry chef or rocket engineer, mother, fly fisherman, brain surgeon, history teacher, or gardener. When you come down to it, succeeding as a writer is not unlike succeeding at anything else.

Ummm ... I'm not saying I got all this stuff, btw, or even great heapins of any of it.  I'm saying a cerain sprinkling of this is needed or you'll just dream your dreams and never do anything about it.

-- You have to be lucky.

You have to be in a position where you don't absolutely need to make a lot of money.
Where you are not bowed under other responsibilities.
You have to not be sick and you have to not be crazy.

You have to have time and energy.

You have to drop a manuscript on the right desk, on the right day.

Your particular gift of imagination has to fall within a marketable field.

-- You have to want this very much.

photos are chipmonk public domain from USG, cat attrib elfincom  storyteller jjpixels creative commons here


  1. I'm always slightly terrified when people list "storyteller" under what it takes to become a published writer. I think it's because I think of storytellers as people who tell stories out loud. For instance, these people spin tales when talking to their neighbors, their coworkers, groups of children, etc. I can't tell stories out loud at all. It takes months of sitting in front of a computer (or hovering over a notebook) for me to create something engaging and understandable. So, I don't really consider myself a storyteller. I feel like storytellers and writers are completely different animals.


  2. Hi Sandy --

    Extemporaneous performance art and the private, introverted craft of the hermit-writer DO seem very different.

    But -- pulling a metaphor out at random -- the preaching friar and the cloistered monk writing on parchment may both see the same vision of the infinite. They express it in different ways.

    Josh Whedon tells his stories with sight and sound. He works as part of a large, interactive team. Osamu Tezuka used pen and ink. Jim Henson gave us puppets.

    All of them, storytellers.