Which Is More Important, The Story or How It Is Told?

Open book

In contemplating the craft of writing, I have been drawn to what may be a very old question: Which is more important to the reader, the significance of the story or the way that it is told? If you had to rate the two components on a percentage scale, would story get 50% and telling get 50% or would one greatly outweigh the other? Of course, the type of book affects the answer. Non-fiction is typically more subject-matter driven. If I want to read a biography of Winston Churchill, I am not inclined to be as concerned with the quality of the writing as with the accuracy of the content. Still, familiarity with the author will influence my decision.

In general, I believe the quality of the telling can overcome a mediocre storyline. Do we tend to read books based on our experience with the author’s style or with the subject matter. In fiction, I think the author drives the interest–at least if the author is known. When I want to read a mystery or thriller, I don’t necessarily search for a book with a particular murder plot or terror threat. If I like the writing of a specific author, I am likely to go for that name on the cover before I even notice the book title. Publishers realize this. It is not uncommon for the name of a well-known author to take up more space on the book cover than the title does. Even so, I have been disappointed in that method at times. We have all probably really enjoyed a book by an author only to be underwhelmed by a subsequent offering from the same author because the story failed to hold up. Read the rest of this entry »

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All Writers Should Be Amateurs

The word amateur carries several meanings–some positive, some negative. To some an amateur is an unskilled participant. To others amateur connotes an unpaid participant. An amateur may be a hobbyist. The term could reflect an avocation as opposed to a vocation. Is amateur the opposite of professional? Perhaps it is in some uses, but not in this case.

The word amateur comes from the French, ultimately from Latin and means “lover of.” In its most basic sense, it captures the motivation for an endeavor. I suppose most writers at least begin as amateurs. It is difficult to imagine someone’s sacrificing his time, energy, fingertips or pencil lead for something he does not care about. The ability to endure the frustrations and (in many cases) the rejection a writer experiences goes beyond the professional pursuit. It takes the spirit of the amateur.

I heard an interview of a successful professional author once. He confessed that he hated to write. I suppose the monetary benefits of the successful, published author can motivate that person to continue to write, but I suspect it wasn’t the writing he hated so much as the requirement to write, to fulfill publisher commitments. Becoming a professional author doesn’t mean giving up true amateur status–a lover of writing.   

 There are things about writing that I could say I hate. I hate the effort I have to make to get started, and I hate the effort I have to make to stop. As for the actual writing part–I am all amateur. The writing is its own reward. I think the most successful, the most published, the most skilled writers have reached that level  because of one thing–they are all a bunch of amateurs. God bless ’em.


Writers Are First Readers

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When someone tells me he wants to be a writer, the first thing I say is that he has to be a reader first. Well, okay I’m not that quick, but it is the first thing I should tell him at any rate. I don’t know if it is at all possible to be an effective writer without first doing a lot of reading. I don’t mean just reading for fun, although that is the primary thing. If reading isn’t fun for someone, why in the world would that someone ever want to write? It would be like someone who hates food wanting to be a chef. Reading provides not only the motivation to write but a lot of the education to do so.

Let’s take a fiction writer for instance. Reading a lot of good fiction helps the writer understand what makes good fiction–just as reading bad fiction shows what to avoid. Writers ultimately write what they would like to read. Most people like to read good fiction. Therefore, if they have some skill, they can glean from others what they themselves enjoy and re-create it for their readers. Reading a variety of authors and genres provides the ability to develop an individual voice. I dare say if all I ever read was Faulkner, I might lean toward the tendency to write in a similar manner by stretching and stretching my sentences until they reach the equivalent length of a common paragraph under the pen of other authors who broaden their perspective by engaging a larger pool of literary resources. Reading not only helps us hear other writers’ voices, it enhances our vocabulary–at least for those who have the perspicacity to recognize that benefit (somebody is going to learn a word today), and it exercises our imagination. These are critical to good writing.

Reading is essential for other reasons as well. The discipline needed to sit for long periods of time turning the pages of a book is precisely the discipline required to write one. If a person can not be bothered to invest hours reading, how will they ever invest even more time in writing. The time it takes to read a paragraph is likely a fraction of the time it took the writer to create it. Read the rest of this entry »


Describing Description

Writing is just reading before it’s written to be read…. As a writer, I am concerned with what makes good writing. As a reader, you (and I) are also interested and affected by the quality of writing. While people will have different opinions about what represents good writing, most would likely agree that the quality of the writing–and therefore its effect on the reading– depends on good description. Even non-fiction suffers if it fails to bring the reader’s mind to some visual association with the subject. I have written for technical manuals and I have written fiction, stories. Each has its challenges and rewards. One thing they have in common, as far as I am concerned, is the need for good description.

My hand copies the pages that are turning in my head… Description in a technical manual does not carry the same purpose as description in a novel, as you can imagine. In a technical manual one might say something like Remove the red wire from the positive terminal by loosening the terminal lug (counter-clockwise) with a small Phillips head screwdriver. In a novel one might say something like Phillip rubbed shaky fingers across his damp forehead as he stared at the red wire. The screwdriver slipped in the grease and grit that covered his hands and now smeared his forehead like war paint. The smell of hot metal and plastic warned him to hurry. They did tell him it was the red wire, didn’t they? The former describes the steps in a process. The latter describes details for the purpose of drawing the reader’s senses into the scene. The task for a writer is to develop the appropriate type and amount of description without over doing or under doing it. Read the rest of this entry »


The Art and Science Of It All

There is almost as much availability of stuff and words about stuff as there is a thirst for knowledge about stuff, its origins and endings. Much of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is devoted to satisfying our need to discover new stuff. That information can be presented in a multitude of forms through a host of media. As with most disciplines, there is both an art and a science to writing–the subjective and the objective. We tend to evaluate what we take in by a sense of how these two seemingly conflicting components should be proportioned. One writer may choose to emphasize art by choosing to leave quotation marks out of his dialogue. Another may stress science by strictly adhering to certain conventions in structure or formulas in plot. I think that somewhere in the middle most readers are satisfied as long as they learn new stuff. Read the rest of this entry »