You know the greatest thing about being a writer? I mean other than the unbelievable fame and fortune. The greatest thing about being a writer is the fact that you get to look back at the stories of your past and say, “You know, I wish I could go back and fix that.” And then you can actually go back and fix it.
So over the last couple of days, I’ve been going back over my very first book, Ella Eris and the Pirates of Redemption, trying to see how much of it is salvageable. I started by making an outline of the story as it is currently written, a step recommended by Chuck Wendig in his recent post about editing, and…well, let’s just say breaking down the story into its component pieces reveals more about my past writer self than I really wanted to know.
Because you know what I’ve realized? The characters in my story won’t shut up. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue, I’m all for that, but it really hit me when I was outlining upwards of three scenes in a row of “Ella goes and talks to Character X” that maybe it would be good if I had something actually happen in my book.
Not that there isn’t any action, but the outline made me realize that it wasn’t evenly spaced, and that there were large chunks of the text that served no purpose in the actual story. But back in the day I didn’t understand the proper ebb and flow of action in the story. I was so focused on getting the words right, but I failed to make the story right.
It’s an important distinction to make. If you’re a beginning writer, then chances are you’re in love with words, with the sounds they make in your head and the way they fit together. And you’ve probably picked up some bestseller or another, leafed through the first few pages and said to yourself, “I can write better than this.” And you may not believe this but, you’re probably right.
But fancy writing does not make for a bestselling book. Not that there’s anything wrong with fancy writing, but if there is anything that reading Michael Connelly has taught me it is that knowing how to tell a story well, is far more important than knowing how to construct a sentence that will make the angels weep with envy.
In my case the structure of my story is all wonky, and the pacing is terrible. Whole chapters turned out to be completely unimportant, and whole new chapters need to be written (hopefully with the characters doing more than just talking).
It took me five years to figure this out. I’m writing this blog post so maybe it won’t take five years for you to figure out what’s wrong with your story.
You’re good with words? Great. But don’t forget that words are just icing. You have to have a cake to spread them on.
This is my appeal to you: learn at least a little about structure, about the way scenes of action follow scenes of contemplation and vice versa. Learn about building tension. Learn about story.
Because that’s the stuff that really matters.
When you first start writing, you write badly. There’s no two ways about it. I think it improves as you read other people’s things and get tips on how to make it work. Still those first few days, months, years of awful help pave the way to greater things. You start seeing what’s not correct and you just get better at saying it. I still have lots of misses on stories, but I like to think that there are many more hits. Nice post.
I absolutely agree with you and it’s taken me about five years to figure it out: “knowing how to tell a story well, is far more important than knowing how to construct a sentence that will make the angels weep with envy.”
Not only must language serve story, and not the inverse, but I always think of Dean Koontz, whose language is so lush that I sometimes think he needs to write poetry to get it out of his system – it interferes with his novels at times.
Very good post. I’ve been saying things along these lines this past year in my two critique groups, where it’s easy to focus on language and almost impossible to grasp the structure (or lack thereof) of an entire novel when you bring in a chapter or two every few weeks.
In my opinion, if I can’t create a good one sentence, one paragraph, and one page synopsis of the story, I’m not ready to start writing.