(updated from an original post on Goodreads long, long ago…)
I debated writing this post for a while.
Three things solidified it for me:
- A discussion about fast paced sci-fi reads. I made a comment and offhandedly shared that my library listed my picks – Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man – as Fiction, not Science-Fiction (FWIW, Wikipedia claims science fiction, medical fiction and thriller as his genres). The comments intrigued me. I didn’t see any definitions of genre (sci-fi, fantasy or horror in this case) v fiction/literature offered. Examples, yes, definitions, no. Why is something considered fiction or genre? I wondered if something about being fast-paced shifted my library’s cataloguing from sci-fi to fiction. Did a metricable difference between literature and any genre (let’s include mystery, gothic, spy, romance, military, medical, thriller, western, historical, et cetera) exist or if, as some claimed, was it anything from personal bias to outright snobbery? Basically, I want to know if literature v genre is quantifiable. (i think it is, although I’ll yield that how important the metrics are is based on personal bias.)
- I started questing for relevancy; I have reasons why I rarely read in my genres any more. Did anyone else have anything similar? That question led me to Chuck Wendig’s “25 REASONS WHY I STOPPED READING YOUR BOOK” post. It’s classic. I don’t share all of Mr. Wendig’s 25 reasons, simply most and as for the others, it’s not so much that I disagree as I’m not sure if I agree.
- I read Pushing Ice (Goodreads rating 4.02, my library casts it as SF) and The Golem and the Jenni (Goodreads rating 4.1, my library casts it as FIC) pretty much simultaneously. Both are first novels, the differences in several factors are so striking that I knocked off 50-60 pages of The Golem and the Jenni whenever I had the time and Pushing Ice…well…
Simple Metrics: Storytelling and Storycrafting
Did or do you have a professor or teacher who bored you to death? They may have been the definitive expert in their field but sitting through their lectures was the equivalent of having your eyes drilled out with an egg beater?
Then there was the other teacher or professor who you couldn’t get enough of. People talked about their lectures for days afterwards. You wanted to go to their class even if it started at 7:15am because it was fun.
Chances are you remembered more from and did better in the latter than in the former. The reason is the first professor/teacher knew their stuff, they didn’t know how to present it. The second professor/teacher knew their stuff and knew how to present it.
The first knows the story but doesn’t know how to make the story interesting. The second knows the story and knows how to make the story interesting.
That, to me, is the difference between story telling and story crafting.
Here’s the funny part; people may know how to make a story interesting but if they don’t have an interesting story to tell, I (and perhaps you) end up sitting there wondering when the good stuff is going to happen. I’ve read stories that were incredibly well crafted. The power and/or beauty of the writing keeps you reading but nothing’s holding your attention. It may be beautifully written and you don’t care. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale are examples of this (to me). My god what beautiful writing. My god will somebody do something.
This “tell an interesting story interestingly” is a delicate balance and is, to me, the difference between genre and literature. Genre may have interesting stories to tell but isn’t the best at making the stories interesting (it often relies on formula, genre-based constructs or plotlines, shared genre experience (ie tropes), et cetera). Literature knows how to make a story interesting and doesn’t always have an interesting story to tell. Diane Les Becquets’ Breaking Wild is excellent storycrafting but the storytelling didn’t keep me reading (poor telling, good crafting). Pushing Ice was an interesting story told poorly (good telling, poor crafting). The Golem and the Jenni is an interesting story told interestingly (good telling, good crafting).
Storytelling and storycrafting apply to all writing, me thinks. Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice is a non-fiction page turner. Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World‘s non-fiction pages became too heavy to turn about a chapter in.
And some people thrive on formula, genre-based constructs or plotlines, shared genre experience, et cetera. Good for them. I’m genuinely happy for them. They have plenty of books to read.
Deeper Metrics: Character, Voice, Dialogue, Atmosphere, Plot, Narrative, Scenes, Word Choice, …
A few nights back I finished yet another read of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories. Her stories don’t have interesting ideas: People don’t like where they live, don’t like their job, don’t understand what’s happening to them, have ridiculously petty ego-duels with their neighbors. Pretty much like lots of other people you’ve met. Don’t like your job or your home life? Can’t understand what’s happening and wish it would change or go away? Your neighbors are jerks? There’s a meeting for people like that. It’s held at the bar Friday nights after work.
What Katherine Mansfield’s stories do have is wonderful characterization. She describes people by situation (narrative), by responses to what’s happening around them (action, word choice, voice), through dialogue, through the words she uses and the words her characters use when talking with others (word choice). She only reveals enough to move the story along (plot), not get in the way of the story (theme, plot).
In short, she crafts. There’s not a lot of wasted space in her stories. Pretty much everything in her stories is there because it serves a purpose in the story. I feel the cold when her characters feel cold. I get anxious when she’s building suspense. My throat tightens when her characters want to scream but don’t. My heart aches when her characters’ dreams die. I hurt when lovers drift apart because of their own stupidity. I mourn when her characters experience loss.
People tell me they’ve skimmed whole chapters reading genre because nothing’s happening. Others say they only read the dialogues because that’s the only place something happens. Good storytelling (maybe), poor storycrafting (definitely).
Have you ever wondered why you care about what happens to some people and not others? Generally, we care about people we know and are familiar with. Whatever’s going on in their lives, regardless of how mundane, we’re interested because we’re interested in them.
We’re interested in them (usually) because we have a history with them, we live lives similar to theirs, we identify with them.
This ability to have a reader identify with a character, a character’s situation, a place, a time, is all due to crafting. An author may have an interesting story to tell, a great idea to share, but unless they’ve crafted their telling, I (and probably you) won’t care.
Or you’ll skim.
Or only read dialogue.
600 stories later
I read genre voraciously as a kid and into adulthood. I subscribed to all the top genre magazines, read them daily, was a loyal member of genre bookclubs…until some time in the mid to late 1980s. I stopped. I mean, I stopped! I realized that in a year’s reading of the top magazines I only liked three stories.
Three stories out of six-hundred (five monthly magazines over twelve months and a conservative estimate of ten stories per magazine)? A ½% hit rate? Blindfold me, stand me ten feet from a dartboard and I’ll get a better hit rate over six-hundred darts. One book out of twenty-four (I tended to buy two books/month) left me wanting more.
Three short stories and one novel caught my interest, made me pay attention, held my focus, engaged me, made me care, made me want more, worked on me like a deep body massage and left me spent and numb and alternately feeling good and vulnerable.
Okay, first part – not everybody wants that from a story. I do (it’s my personal bias). Sue me.
My personal bias has nothing to do with other’s evaluations of a story unless you want to discuss those metrics with me.
My genres have interesting ideas. I need more than interesting ideas to keep me reading. I recognize that “more” as metricable along the vectors of voice, dialogue, character, setting, mood, tone, et cetera. And there’s no standard of “this much of this, that much of that.” I think the “how much of this, how much of that” is based on how interesting the idea is, so the storytelling does matter. Open my mind to a genuinely new possibility/situation and I’m willing to bet you storycrafting can go out the window, I’ll keep on reading.
But that genuinely new possibility/situation doesn’t come along often in genre fiction. If it did, it probably wouldn’t be genre, it would be fiction or god forbid, even worse, literature.
Until it does, I don’t find the “more” I need in much of what’s in my genres.
That’s why I don’t read in my genres anymore.
I’ve read several anthologies this year. For that matter, I’ve contributed to several anthologies this year. And magazines (print and online). One consistent item between reading and contributing is my desire to ask the editors, “How come this story and not that one? How come that story and not this one?”
One publisher asked if I’d be interested in working with writers on the verge of being accepted. “Sure, I’d love to. Here’s my rates.”
They didn’t want to charge aspirants. Not a problem. I do. I have no problem paying for something I recognize has value. It’s that “recognize value” part that throws people. I know people who openly say they won’t pay for training, critiquing, and such.
Yeah, and their work shows it, too.
The current anthology I’m reading is huge. One draw back to being my age and reading a huge anthology is I’ve read most of the stories before…in their original publications. Back then I read them because, heck, they were in a magazine! They must be good.
Now, as the Apostle Paul said, I’ve given up childish ways. I’m persnickity regarding what’s good and what should be published. This includes my own stuff. Yes, I have lots of stories and novels circulating with publishers, and I have lots (lots!) more not in circulation because they’re not ready, might never be ready, shouldn’t be let out in daylight, that kind of thing.
And still, I wonder. Why that story and not this one? Why that one and not this one?
Today I received an answer, kind of. I sent a query about a self-pubbed book which has received 4-5 star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and received the following rejection:
We regret to inform you that we have rejected your submission under the grounds that your manuscript is not suitable for publication in its current state. Based on the sample, the beginning feels disjointed–several events occur, but very little is explained, which will leave readers feeling confused. For instance, a time skip occurs between the first two chapters, but at no point is it specified how much time has passed since the previous chapter. It may help to organize which information to convey when if the story were entirely in Jamie’s point of view so readers can learn any relevant info along with him. This should also provide a much more solid anchor for readers to focus on so they don’t feel lost. If you were to address these issues, you may submit your manuscript again for another review.
We wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.
You have to respect a publisher who doesn’t check their own emails, don’t’cha?
I don’t think I’ll edit and resubmit.
And do note; readers love it (so far).