Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Stop Trying to Write Like a Writer

Here’s a good piece of advice I wish I would have gotten sooner in my career:

Stop trying to write like a writer.

I know it sounds silly, and many of you are probably scratching your head, but it’s the biggest hurdle many new writers have to overcome.

When you write like a writer, what you’re doing is focusing on the words, being crafty with the prose and thinking about vocabulary. You worry about word choice, grammar, punctuation, all those writerly type things most often expanded on in critique groups and writing forums across the cyberverse.

Of course knowing the basics is important. But if you want to be a fiction author, then you need to stop writing like a writer.

How should you write then?

If you want to write fiction, you need to write like a storyteller.

Now y’all are nodding your heads and going, “Ahhh, okay—I see where she’s going.” (I’m psychic, doncha know ;) )

If there’s anything that writing ten novels, dozens of short stories, essays and articles, does for a person, it’s discovering how to think like a storyteller. At times, I’ve mentioned training yourself to “think like a writer” but what I really meant was that you (and I) need to “think like a storyteller."

How many times have we seen not-so great writing have mega success and become franchised into film and merchandise? How many times have we picked up a best seller and wondered why our writing, which is on par with what we’re reading, is still being rejected?

Most often, once we’ve mastered the basics, it’s not lack of skill or know-how—it’s the neglect of our storytelling skills that keeps us from reaching our goals.

So how do you become a great storyteller?

Easy: You study great storytelling. What made M. Night Shyamalan such a huge success? Because he wrote a movie about a kid who could see ghosts? Or a farmer who sees aliens? No. He gained acclaim because he knew how to tell a great story.

Often I tell new authors to watch the movie Signs. I still say this is a wonderful illustration of great storytelling. Nothing in that movie—no matter how unimportant it might at first seem—is there gratuitously. Everything has a purpose. From the boy’s asthma, to the little girl being so picky about the water she drinks. Even the younger brother’s failed baseball career is important.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I’ll answer to the best of my abilities.


P.S. The totally awesome Alyssa Montgomery interviewed me on her blog here:


Milli Thornton said...

Jenny! Great stuff. And I love your advice stand. All it needs is some lemonade for nervous guests.

Now let's all go write like storytellers!

Krista said...

Advice worth remembering. The first time I mentioned to a friend from college that I was writing a book, she said, "Oh, I'm so glad, you always told such great stories!" It felt so good at the time, but I often forget it in the face of "writerly" folks who are so willing to read 4-6 pages and tell me everything that needs to be fixed about the manuscript.

J.R. Turner said...

So glad that you both found the advice to be valid :) It's a touchy subject because it's really, really, really, easy to tell someone that they have a missing comma or that they are using passive voice--but it's much, much, much harder to help with the craft of storytelling.

So what happens in critique groups, etc. is that everyone focuses on the mechanics, chalking up the storytelling thing to "having an idea."


Storytelling isn't about having "an idea." It's about having something to say--and a whole bunch of ideas about how to say it. That's what the greats do.

That's what I have to keep asking myself when I write--what is it that I'm trying to say?

I'll have to write another blog about that--maybe tomorrow, because I think this would be a good subject for Thrilling Thursday ;)

Those things that thrill us are exactly what we is bugging us to say.


Sue said...

I think my first person comfort zone has a lot to do with an instinctive desire to let my characters bear the burden of telling their own stories. I just type for them. ;)

My third person work, on the other hand, is more difficult to get done and seems to require much more planning on my part, so maybe I'm losing some of the story-telling aspect there. I'll have to think about this.

Great post, Jenny!