Why Is Storytelling Ability So Important?

by Jami Gold on April 30, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Footbridge heading into woods with text: Tell Me a Story...

What makes some poorly written books fall flat on their face while others succeed despite their flaws? One common answer is “storytelling ability.”

But what is storytelling? The concept can seem vague and immeasurable—rather like “voice.” A recent experience with two poorly written books gave me insight into how a deeply flawed story can still hold our interest and be enjoyable.

For the first time, I’m judging a couple of published books for a contest. Most contests for unpublished work are judged on a portion of the full story, often the first so-many words or pages.

In contrast, this contest requires judges to read the entire story, and I’m learning that seeing the whole story makes me focus more on the big picture. In other words, that vague “storytelling ability” we hear about becomes more important.

A Narrow View Forces Us to Focus on the Superficial

When we read a partial, whether as a contest judge, critique partner, or beta reader, we see only a small bit of the story. We see a portion of the character arc (usually the beginning) but not the full arc to understand how the characters change. We see hints of the story question but don’t get the full schematic of intersecting plots and subplots.  We see some stakes but not how they escalate over the course of the plot.

That narrow vision of the story limits our ability to score or give feedback. The score sheets of unpublished contests tend to focus on mechanics (grammar rules), characters seeming believable, clear settings, smooth flow, realistic dialogue, etc.

All of those elements—mechanics, description, dialogue—are important to the quality of writing. Yet they can also be somewhat superficial aspects. They don’t get to the heart of storytelling.

Good Writing Doesn’t Equal Good Storytelling—and Vice Versa

As writers, we’re trained to see writing mistakes: too much telling, bad grammar, cheesy dialogue, etc. It can be hard to see past those to understand how storytelling ability could make those mistakes less important—or in some cases, completely irrelevant.

In a sample, we can’t see how themes develop. We can’t see whether there’s a successful resolution to issues. We can’t know if tension is held and increased throughout the story. With full stories, we can, and that lends a greater depth to our impression of the story.

Unlike a partial, full stories allow character arcs to show change, subplots to make plots more interesting, and escalating stakes to up the tension. All of those elements are ingredients of “good storytelling.”

The Tale of Two Stories

Two stories I read for this contest were poorly written. They both lacked voice, were too telling, had no subtlety or subtext, and had one-dimensional characters.

Yet I enjoyed one, regardless, and not the other. Why?

The differences—as minimal as they were—add up to storytelling ability. The story I enjoyed felt “bigger.”

Characters:

  • The characters seemed slightly more dimensional (one-and-a-half dimensions?) by being vulnerable (such as the stakes having real consequences for them), and therefore more likable and relatable.
  • Stronger connections to the likable/relatable characters made me care more.
  • The characters learned and grew (barely, but just enough).
  • Changes to the characters, due to their (tiny) arc, provided a framework for a vague theme.

Plotting:

  • The story structure was sound; turning points, Black Moment, and Climax were evident (that is, the story always felt like it was going somewhere).
  • Subplots enriched the main plot rather than distracted from it.
  • The plot was filled with real conflict rather than contrivances and conveniences.
  • The premise was more unique.

Conflict and Stakes:

  • Conflict organically flowed with the story rather than seeming disjointed and episodic.
  • Goals mattered to the story and characters (and thus to the reader), giving strong motivations.
  • The plot arc ramped up the tension with bigger conflicts and stakes as the story progressed.
  • Conflict needed real solutions rather than solving with coincidences.

So What Is Storytelling Ability?

The unsuccessful story’s conflicts and subplots seemed disconnected, never adding up to a bigger story or an interesting premise. The characters never grew, and the hero and heroine didn’t “complete” each other (as is typical in romance stories).

The lack of any growth prevented a sense of a theme. Themes require change. What a character learns over the course of the story is at the heart of a story’s theme. If a character doesn’t learn anything, neither can a reader. (Unless the character not learning is the point of the story.)

At the end of this story, I was left with no sense of why the author wanted to tell this story other than to make money. The formulaic story had nothing to say to readers. It had no purpose.

The more successful story had characters that grew and that I cared about and had arcs that made each conflict and subplot part of a bigger whole in a unique premise. In short…

The story’s arcs and themes made it feel like it had a purpose.

What Difference Does Storytelling Make?

Because I had to read both of these stories in full for the contest, I can tell you how I would rate them on Amazon or Goodreads. (I won’t actually review them in either location, as judges have to remain anonymous.)

The story I didn’t enjoy would end up around 1.5 or 2 stars. The grammar mechanics weren’t bad, or else I’d give it a solid 1 star.

The story I did enjoy would end up around 3.5 stars. Yes, the characters were all Mary Sue/Gary Stu’s and the voiceless writing style was too telling and head-hopping, but the story itself— how the characters, plot, conflicts, goals, motivations, obstacles, and themes worked together to create a unique, purposeful premise—was quite good. This story had something to say.

The storytelling added two stars to my rating. Fix the writing issues, and I’d probably have given it a 4.5 star review.

As writers, we have to learn and focus on many things. However, we shouldn’t let the skill of writing overpower the art of writing. Write stories you’re passionate about because they have something to say, and readers will be more likely to listen. *smile*

Have you ever enjoyed a story despite its writing faults? What made the story enjoyable for you? What do you think goes into storytelling ability? How would you define “storytelling”?

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62 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Buffy Armstrong April 30, 2013 at 7:02 am

It is hard sometimes to pinpoint just why you love one story over another, but I think you are right. It does come down to the story telling. I can give you a tale of two books – one beautifully written by an academic who knows her way around the English language and another not so well written by a woman who has no writing background whatsoever.

Now the first book was hailed as a smart woman’s paranormal romance. (Like only dumb women read paranormal romances. I should have realized the problem right there.) I couldn’t wait to read it. I ended up not finishing to stupid thing. Though everything was beautiful written (or at least correctly), I couldn’t stand the two characters. The pace was agonizingly slow and frankly, I just didn’t give a damn. Every time I pass the stupid book in a bookstore, my ire flares. It’s been two years and I’m still offended by this book.

The second book wasn’t so well written, but the author was able to write a story that grabbed the reader. I devoured that book and went on to read the other three books in the series in like a week. I can step back now and acknowledge the problems with the story and the writing, but I still defend the writer when someone criticizes her. She may not be a great writer, but she is one hell of a storyteller.

I think the crux of good story telling is the ability to make the reader care. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, there’s no point in telling the story.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 9:19 am

Hi Buffy,

Yes, at first, I had a hard time seeing why I enjoyed one story and not the other. I kept thinking about all the ways they were similar–telling, voiceless, flat characters, etc.

It wasn’t until I pulled back from the nitpicky things to look at the big picture that I saw the differences, specifically how one felt “bigger.” Then I just had to analyze how that one pulled together that impression. 🙂

“She may not be a great writer, but she is one hell of a storyteller.”

Yes, this exactly! As writers, we may not always want to like a poorly written book, but writing skill is separate from storytelling skill. 🙂

“I think the crux of good story telling is the ability to make the reader care.”

I agree! I’d say that it’s not just caring about the characters, however, as some genres are more focused on the plot than the characters. Those stories make the reader care about the plot, conflicts, or stakes instead. So I’d say the reader must care about something in the story. Period.

That passion for the story creates a point in telling the story for the reader. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your examples and for the great comment!

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Buffy Armstrong April 30, 2013 at 11:01 am

The funny thing is I’m now debating whether I would prefer to be a good writer or a good storyteller. Ideally, I could be both. But if I had to choose, I think I would prefer good storyteller.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 11:55 am

Hi Buffy,

LOL! Yep, I’m a perfectionist–I want both. 😉

I know what you mean though. I know my writing quality has reached a decent level (contest finals concentrating on the narrow view are good for that feedback 🙂 ), and now I want to focus on bigger picture stuff–the storytelling quality. So while I never want my writing to be bad, I’m trying to obsess over nitpicky things a little less. Thanks for the comment!

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Kim April 30, 2013 at 9:16 am

Thanks for another great post!

I just finished a book (YA historical fiction) that I thought was poorly written, but I read it in one day! The characters were flat, the dialogue clunky, and the history too obvious, but I still enjoyed it. I suppose it was the storytelling aspect of it. It was a good story despite the flaws.

I think the whole pantheon of the Great Authors is filled with well-written, but dull novels. I rarely want to go back and re-read anything I read as an English major in college. Sad, really. It’s as if college professors deem storytelling less important than fancy writing. In fact, I’ve even heard people say, apologetically about something they are reading, “It’s JUST a good story.” To me, storytelling is everything!

This also helps me to clarify why my son and I are not getting into Battlestar Gallactica. The story isn’t moving. Stuff happens in the episodes, but nothing seems to be happening to move the story forward or to flesh out the characters. I’m about to give it up.

This is something I definitely need to keep in mind when I write my own stuff! 🙂

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 9:25 am

Hi Kim,

LOL! Oh, I so agree with you. I’m a genre reader in general anyway, and I think part of it is because too many literary books I had to read in school focused on the writing quality or the “message” rather than the story.

The story is what carries us away and makes us forget about life around us. That immersion is why I read fiction. No immersion–no enjoyment.

Great observations! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm

*Eavesdropping on this conversation*

Oh! Speaking of literary books that focus on the “message”/ writing quality rather than the story, that reminds me of 3 books I read in high school English: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn, The Stranger by Camus, and Therese Raquin by Emile Zola (my favorite French writer ever apart from Hugo.) I thought Ivan Denisovich and The Stranger were really boring and a pain to read (even though both were very short–under 200 pages each), yet Therese Raquin was so good! In fact, many of my classmates, even those who didn’t like reading books in general, loved Therese Raquin.

The reasons were that I.D. and The Stranger’s characters were so flat and uninteresting (at least to me). Yes, I know that their psyches are unusual–Ivan is really tough, one of those fit to survive in the Russian concentration camp; and Mersault in The Stranger seems to be seriously psychologically disturbed. Yet, I just didn’t care. I wasn’t at all interested in what happened to them. But The Stranger was still slightly more interesting than I.D. At least the former did have a story where something dramatic happens. But I.D. was just….literally one day in the life of this guy (that I felt indifferent about.) I do sympathize with the harshness of his life in the concentration camp, but really, nothing happens at all in that span of a 100+ pages!! I very rarely dislike any books, but I.D. was just—I just couldn’t stand it, lol.

On the other hand, Therese Raquin was really fascinating. The main characters did actually change, even if it’s a negative change (from bad to even worse). And the plot was so engrossing, so exciting, definitely with some dramatic and shocking things happening! It was so suspenseful and mysterious too, and sometimes even chilling. What’s more, the descriptions, the metaphors were so beautiful!! Zola’s suspenseful plots and beautiful language, especially the latter, are what make him one of my favorite French authors.

Speaking of French authors, I just want to talk about Victor Hugo, my other fav. French author. “Les Miserables” has some very long sections which are basically just historical information, yet apart from these lecture chapters, the book was a really absorbing read because big and significant things happen, and the protagonist (and a few other characters) grow. The protagonist Jean Valjean especially changes all throughout, and it is his complexity and transformations that make this book so amazing. Jean Valjean is honestly the most complex, 3D, and dynamic story character I have ever seen. (Ambrosio in M.G. Lewis’s “The Monk” is similarly complex, but not to the extent of Jean Valjean.)

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Hi Serena,

Interesting! Thanks for the recommendations. 🙂

I’ve read bits and pieces of Les Miserables, but never the whole thing. *shuffles books* I think I have it in my to-be-read pile somewhere. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 1:24 pm

You’re welcome! I just want to talk about one more example: My friend recently downloaded a Chinese martial arts story (these are very popular in China and Hong Kong), and she told me it was crap and really poorly written. “Then why on earth are you still reading it then???” I asked. She explained that even though the writing was poor and there were a lot of cheesy things in it, it was really absorbing and she just wanted to keep reading.

So perhaps there was enough conflict, mystery, and suspense to make the story gripping enough to attract her—despite the poor quality of the writing? I find that conflict, mystery, and suspense (and maybe negative emotion) are the Big Three (or 4) for me, as these elements rarely fail to keep me hooked on a story, even if I despise it on every other aspect.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Great example. Exactly–storytelling hooks the reader, so even though we might read it with a wince or cringe on our face, we still read it. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 11:58 am

Interesting point about a good story having a purpose, where characters grow and learn, which creates change, which leads to themes, a premise, and a message or something to tell. I do myself like stories better when the characters (or at least the protagonist) grow or even transform in some way. Character transformations and how he/she becomes so different from before, when you look at them now and how they were like in the past, feel quite magical to me, if that makes any sense. Yet I always thought that stories with character change were the norm—and only really really rebellious stories have no character change at all, e.g. the Samuel Beckett plays.

William Faulkner’s stories (at least, the ones I read: “A Rose for Emily”, “Barn Burning”, “Light in August”, “Sanctuary”, and “The Sound and the Fury”–yes, I’m a Faulkner fan, lol) don’t seem to have any character growths either, yet I still really love them. Maybe because there are plots, even if they are from the past. Something actually happens, even if it’s told in retrospect or only hinted at. (The Sound and the Fury was particularly baffling as you just don’t know what happened, but you know something happened; you just have to try to figure it out from the clues scattered everywhere, without any order, in the novel.) Apart from the disturbing plot underlying his stories, the main reason why I like them is because they are so unsettling, and he makes such strange associations with some quite unusual images and metaphors. Sometimes the feeling of not knowing what’s going on is very intriguing in itself.

Also, though Faulkner’s characters don’t seem to change at all, many of them seem “complex” or “messed up” (I mean their life situations are messed up, not the writing), mysterious, or even dark, and therefore are really interesting despite their static-ness. So, static yet complex characters?

On the whole, I completely agree with you that I prefer stories that actually HAVE a plot (and therefore purpose and direction); and even if there’s no character change, I prefer more complex characters as well (or characters with a complex psyche/ psychology, if that isn’t the same thing, lol.) For some extremely avant-garde stories, like Samuel Beckett’s where absolutely nothing happens, with no character change (though there may be hints that the characters are complex people), I don’t fancy them much—but I still admire their bravery for breaking the norms by not telling the story in their stories! Avant-garde stuff like this really make me realize the kinds of stories that do please me, or that I enjoy most.

“The characters seemed slightly more dimensional (one-and-a-half dimensions?) by being vulnerable (such as the stakes having real consequences for them).”

Hmm, interesting point. This reminds me of many plays where the characters don’t exactly feel very 3D, but they don’t feel flat either. They all have something they really really want, and that they try everything in their power to get. So these “wants” in these characters (even if it’s just ONE want in each character) make them feel alive and human, even if they feel “flat/ undeveloped” in every other way. “Macbeth” is kind of an example of this, as is “Romeo and Juliet.”

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Hi Serena,

“I still really love them. Maybe because there are plots… Something actually happens…”

Exactly! Some stories derive their meaning or reason for existing from the plot. The plot can create a sense of theme or purpose as well. However, in the story I didn’t enjoy, the plot events were so disjointed, they felt more episodic than part of a larger whole. Also, the unending contrivances and coincidences drove me nuts.

The main source of “tension” (and I use that term loosely) in the story was that the main characters had to get from point A to point B “immediately,” even though “now” was inconvenient–just because the hero said so. Period. Nope, he didn’t have a reason for it to be immediate. The story just made him say that. *rolls eyes*

The subplot’s main source of tension was a big misunderstanding–on the part of the antagonist only–that could have been solved by a single line of dialogue. The main characters knew that the antagonist was unaware of the issue and that if they’d bothered to explain the misunderstanding, he probably wouldn’t be an antagonist anymore. The main characters had several opportunities to reveal the truth. But no. The author couldn’t have the characters do that because she needed an “antagonist,” as flimsy as it was. *sigh*

In other words, there was no sense of cause and effect. No, B happened as a result of A. Nope. Z happened because the story needed Z to happen, even though logically B would have happened next. Which meant there was no point to A then because it didn’t influence the rest of the story. Repeat 20 times and you have an understanding of the lack of a plot with any sense of meaning. 🙂

Plot events without consequences for later plot events or the characters are meaningless. That led to the characters feeling more flat (no consequences means no vulnerability) and the story being pointless.

I should note that this pointless story was written by a USA Today bestselling author with over a dozen books under her belt and the meaningful story was written by an unknown newbie. Really.

Great point about how clear goals from the characters can make the difference between a flat character we don’t care about and a flat character we do care about. Like the goal gives us a reason to root for them. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Ooh, nice example! It’s also good that your post shows me something that I’ve always taken for granted in stories, haha. I really thought that “the standard story” must have character change and a real plot. Suspense is very important too, at least for me.

Haha, coincidences and a forced plot lengthened by misunderstandings…that reminds me of “Camilla” by Fanny Burney. It’s 900 pages and I genuinely really really loved it; it was engaging all throughout and the characters were likable and grew, but it was rather annoying that misunderstandings kept the story going and going and going…lol.

“I should note that this pointless story was written by a USA Today bestselling author with over a dozen books under her belt and the meaningful story was written by an unknown newbie. Really.”

Hmm, that’s good because it encourages newbies like us (I mean me and my fellow still-not-published writer friends) that we can do just as well or even better than best selling authors. 🙂 (At least in this storytelling aspect.) Maybe this is why I really enjoy reading my friends’ stories even though they aren’t published works. Their stories actually sound like stories, i.e. with a strong, clear plot that make them page-turners. They didn’t do any elaborate metaphor or language techniques, and didn’t even have subplots, yet the plot was engrossing and made me want to keep reading. Sometimes I think the most important thing about a story is that it’s exciting and makes you want to keep turning the pages. Strangely, I actually find this page-turner skill easier to do than the technical writing stuff—I think the latter is really hard.

One reason why a best-selling author might write a pointless or plotless story instead of a good, engaging one, is that they might want to try something new or rebel against the norms. Maybe trying something more avant-garde. Or maybe I’m being too kind to them, lol. Rebellious works aren’t always liked by readers though. Stories without plots are just…not as interesting or fun to read as those with a plot, I’m afraid. ^_^”

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Hi Serena,

I’m not sure what happened with this author. I’m fairly certain she meant for the story to have a plot (it was more formulaic than avant garde), and it’s just that she never delved into the depths of the character or ensured a solid story structure.

After I finished the story, I checked it out on Amazon to see if I was way off base in my assessment. Many reviewers said things like, “I really love this author, but this story isn’t up to her usual level.” Some bestselling authors get lazy. In her case, I’ll be kind and say that I think this story was rushed to publication. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 2:23 pm

You’ve made me curious now. What was the name (and author) of this book? 🙂

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Hi Serena,

Nope, can’t say. Sorry!

I wouldn’t call an author out like that regardless, but especially because I have to stay anonymous as a judge. 🙂

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Aw! I forgot about the anonymity issue.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Yep, sorry, Serena! 🙂

Edith April 30, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Very interesting post with a lot of inspiring and helpful information. Having completed my first draft I’m now in the process of re-writing and this is where the serious learning curve begins! Right now I am juggling both elements and trying to balance one with the other. Hard as it is, and oh how frustrating it can get, I still love it! Maybe because it’s my first but a learning curve is a good place to be! 🙂 xxx

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Hi Edith,

I understand. 🙂 Feeling like you’re learning at least feels like progress.

Personally, beat sheets really help me with the storytelling aspect. They force us to look at that cause and effect element that makes the plot events meaningful. The Michael Hauge sheet helps with character development, and then any of the others (my favorites are the Story Engineering and my Romance beat sheets) are good for the plot. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Tamara leBlanc April 30, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Buffy, I’m still trying to understand why the publisher or the author would have thought saying “the smart woman’s paranormal” was an efective way to snag reader interest…seriously? What morons!
Jami, I feel you on the contest thing. It’s very hard to get the overall gist of a story when you’re only reading the first three chapters. it’s even worse when the contest doesn’t include synopsis. Grrr, how on Earth can a judge get any sense of the arc, romance, story in such a short word count? It’s tough.
I’ve judged many, many, many contests, and I’ve read some…crap, and also some truly brilliant work. I can think of one in particular that was INCREDIBLY enjoyable. The story telling was superb and I devoured every page, made a note at the end for the author that I wanted to buy the book the second it was published. But the darn thing had loads of grammar issues, I was constantly stopping to correct them and having to stall my enjoyment. I had to give it a lower score for that reason and it killed me to send it back that way, but…PROOF READ BEFORE YOU SUBMIT, PEOPLE 🙂
Now, that one was not published (not then at least) but I’ve read many published novels over the years that I couldn’t believe had been picked up by one of the big six houses. Who’s reading these novels and thinking they’re good enough to slap on a shelf? It boggles my mind that there’re so many truly badly written books out there (with perfect grammar mind you) that lack all of the things you mentioned that make a story a keeper.
Frustrating.
great post, Jami!
Have a nice afternoon,
Tamara

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Hi Tamara,

Exactly. The meaningless book was traditionally published, so where was her editor?

Actually, I’ve met her editor before, and wasn’t impressed. (After hearing my logline, she suggested I change my main conflict in such a way that would have removed all the conflict. “Oh, don’t have the villain be her father–have the villain be someone random.” Er, then the stakes would be lower, the motivations would be lower, etc. Um, yeah…) When I saw that name on the back page of the acknowledgements section after finishing the book, I thought, “Oh, that explains it.” Sad, really.

On the other hand, the better (yet still poorly written) book was self-published. So take from that what you will. 🙂

Yes, I’ve given very supportive remarks on great stories I judged for contests because I didn’t want their technical scores to make them tempted to give up. I try to be very helpful with those. 🙂 Thanks for the comment! *hugs*

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 2:29 pm

“On the other hand, the better (yet still poorly written) book was self-published. So take from that what you will. :)”

Yay! This gives us self-publishers a lot of encouragement. 🙂 About writing quality, the good thing is, I learned that CreateSpace lets you send an edited version of your manuscript for them to check, and you can reprint your book even after it’s already published. So, even when it’s out in print, you can still edit it and make the writing better. 😀 (This is especially helpful when we have to rush a deadline from the Nanowrimo CreateSpace self publishing offer that expires this June 30th!)

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yes, I think the issues with this book were too big to fix easily, but you’re right that the ability to fix errors after the fact can be a benefit to self-publishing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment! (And the reminder of the NaNo deadline–Ack!)

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Carradee April 30, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Actually, a book I just read by someone who’s otherwise a “favorite” author of mine fell into this category. The author wrote a trilogy, then years later, went back and wrote two sequels. The first sequel is the one I just read.

And if the book had been by an author or in a series I wasn’t already invested in, I don’t think I’d ever pick up book #5. As it is, I’m reluctant. Book #4 contained a lot more blatant theology…and it’s doctrine that I disagree with. Strongly.

But that disagreement isn’t exactly what bothers me. What bothers me is that the story has a particular focus…while denying and ignoring the implications of that focus. (It’s comparable to having a character who’s always after the next dollar to the detriment of everything else, but ignoring or overlooking that she’s greedy.)

To be fair, the specific focus involved is fairly common, in some denominations, though the author takes it to an extreme I’ve not seen before. But still…the dissonance between what’s stated in the text and what’s actually being implied bothers me.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Hi Carradee,

Ooo, interesting example of an implied theme not matching the theme the author thinks they’re exploring. Yes, the implied themes of the story I didn’t care for were awful–“do whatever you want and there won’t be any consequences.” I doubt that’s what the author was going for. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Renee A. Schuls- Jacobson April 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm

You realize I’m shaking in my shoes right now, right? Because I’m certain I’m the sucky storyteller. I’m trying to believe you are not talking about me. Gah! *insert choking noises*

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Hi Renee,

LOL! No, my friend–I wasn’t lying. These were both published books I had to read for a contest I’m judging. 🙂

Er, honestly, I haven’t gotten very far on yours yet because last week was Hell Week Redux for me. So I’m behind on everything. *sigh* Stay calm and thanks for the comment! 😉

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Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson May 4, 2013 at 10:49 am

*mops brow*

Jami:

Can you send me a reassuring tweet before you write stuff like this. I may be young(ish), but my heart can’t take this stuff. LOL! 😉

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Jami Gold May 7, 2013 at 9:33 am

LOL! Sorry, Renee. 🙂

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Lana Williams April 30, 2013 at 3:10 pm

What a great topic! The ability to tell stories seems so difficult to really pinpoint sometimes, but I totally agree with your thoughts. I especially like this comment: “Themes require change. What a character learns over the course of the story is at the heart of a story’s theme.”

Characters learning and growing over the course of a story (or a movie for that matter) is what really draws me into a story. Well said!

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Hi Lana,

Exactly! Something has to change–characters, plot, or both–or else what’s the point? I don’t need to waste hours of my time on a meaningless story. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Adams April 30, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I’m one of the people who read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed the story. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one because when a group of writers gets together to talk about it, they hit all the flaws. I didn’t even see the flaws because it was a good story.

Curiously, my critique group was discussing Harry Potter last week, and one member said it fell apart for her because the world building didn’t hold up. I didn’t even notice. It was a good story.

But I also ran across a story, self-published, about a woman Naval officer who would later in the story end up on a submarine. Fantastic writing, and yet, I only got 50 pages in and had to stop. The story wasn’t there.

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Matthew Jude Brown April 30, 2013 at 5:17 pm

I was going to mention Dan Browne as well; the literary world spends a lot of time sneering at certain “hack” writers who have “inexplicable” success, and I think what the critics are often missing is that, despite all their glaring flaws, said writers know how to tell a story and keep the reader reading.

Yet one so rarely sees anyone trying to seriously analyze their success. Often, there are many superficial, sneering analyses that are more an exercise in feeling superior to said author and their readers than trying to work out why they were successful for-real.

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Hi Matthew,

Exactly! That’s why I wanted to do this post. Sitting here sneering at poorly written stories doesn’t do us any good. Instead, I wanted to see what we could learn from those stories to improve our own. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold April 30, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Hi Linda,

Ooo, great examples! Yes, I think of stories like Da Vinci Code and Twilight for that storytelling ability as well. Although I hate the fact that poorly written stories can be popular, I also try to remind myself that I can aim for well-written AND good storytelling with my stories. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 30, 2013 at 9:18 pm

(Here I am snooping on other people’s replies again, lol. Guess this topic is especially interesting for me.)

Twilight is a very good example! Similarly to Linda and the Da Vinci Code, when people mentioned how Stephenie Meyer couldn’t write–that her books had a lot of language and grammatical problems, I was surprised, because I didn’t notice at all! In fact, a friend of mine said that one reason she hated Twilight was that the writing was so poor that she took seven months to finish the first book–whilst I took only 1 week to finish the whole series, LOL. So yes, I did actually enjoy Twilight because it was a gripping read; Stephenie Meyer knows how to tell a story and make a reader keep flipping the pages.

A similar example is Sundays at Tiffany’s by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet. Some reviewers on Goodreads complained that the language was childish and just bad, but yet again, I didn’t notice at all! I was so absorbed by the fast-paced, almost relentlessly intriguing story that I didn’t pay any attention to the quality of the writing. (It was so romantic too. Featuring my favorite kind of romance–the cross species kind, between a human being and her imaginary friend. 😀 )

In fact, I only notice the quality of the writing if it’s glaringly bad, or stunningly good. (Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charlotte Bronte are examples of the latter, in my opinion.) However, maybe Stephenie Meyer’s writing really was “excruciatingly bad”, but I’m just too insensitive to notice it, lol. My general lack of sensitivity to writing quality (and good rhythm) often bothers me, but I guess it can be an advantage too as I can easily enjoy more poorly written yet engagingly told stories.

Just a note on writing: I think “good writing” is also very subjective. People disagree on whether one should use a comma or semi-colon in certain situations where both are grammatically correct. I personally am very fond of semi-colons, and this drove one of my workshop critics mad (he even counted the number of semi-colons in my paragraphs for me, lol), and he told me that I better take them all out and replace them with periods. (One of those situations where both a semi-colon and a period would be grammatically acceptable.) He said that I should reserve semi-colons for special occasions because they create special effects. Maybe he was right, at least for modern audiences. The reason why I used so many semi-colons, was because many of my favorite writers (particularly the 19th century ones) used semi-colons so often, and I liked the rhythm and feeling of their semi-colons, so I tried to use them myself. I probably used them quite clumsily though, haha, but I have a feeling that his distaste for this was because modern novels don’t use so many semi-colons so frequently anymore. I’m out of date, lol.

There are similar disagreements between people on whether or not to put in a comma in places where using a comma is optional. I prefer using commas to split up my sentences into more manageable chunks—it’s much easier to understand and process, at least for me as a reader. But some others prefer a continuous, uninterrupted sentence instead.

Another random note: We tend to praise stories in how page-turner-like, gripping they are. Yet I recently think that such page-turners are kind of “unethical” in a way, because I find it impossible/ quite difficult to study for school if I’m part way through a popular novel. They are so addictive that they compel one to finish it asap. As a consequence, I can’t read popular novels during the school semester. I have to read slower-paced literary novels (or Lord of the Rings) instead, lol. So I’m thinking that it would be good if some people wrote more slow-paced stories for people who would benefit from less “compulsive” books and really need to focus on their schoolwork.

Of course, there are people who are capable of resisting and manage to read just a few pages every day of even the most thrilling novel. These people are amazing. I wish I could be like them, lol.

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Jami Gold May 1, 2013 at 10:02 am

Hi Serena,

LOL! I understand. I think I’m going to take some of the ideas from these comments and “front page” them on a new post. 🙂

Yes, the concept of “good writing” can certainly be subjective. As you said, some grammatical things are optional, or the author can choose to purposely break the rule. (Personally, I prefer commas after most leading phrases, as well as the Oxford (serial) comma, just because I find sentences without them harder to parse.)

Also, much of what’s called “good writing” is very poetic or lyrical. While I love a nice turn of phrase, I’ve found to exceptionally beautiful language can call attention to itself–which in turn pulls the reader out of the story and reminds them that they’re reading. So while I’d love to be one of those “beautiful writers” from one perspective, another side of me thinks good writing (that’s not too good, so as to be a distraction) is the better way to go.

And LOL! at your dislike of page-turners for the scheduling reason. I won’t read a book at night if I think I’m going to have to stop and go to sleep after I hit the 70% mark. Usually by that time, the story is ramping up to the big finish and I won’t be able to sleep until I finish the book. So I have to read the last third or so all in one day. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung May 2, 2013 at 12:46 pm

“I’ve found to exceptionally beautiful language can call attention to itself–which in turn pulls the reader out of the story and reminds them that they’re reading. So while I’d love to be one of those “beautiful writers” from one perspective, another side of me thinks good writing (that’s not too good, so as to be a distraction) is the better way to go.

This is a good point. Though if all of a book’s writing is so stylized and beautiful, I guess no beautiful phrases will stand out, haha. Yet if it’s all so lovely, it won’t sound modern/ it’ll sound too old-fashioned, lol! (At least, according to some readers.)

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Jami Gold May 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Hi Serena,

Very true. Some writers just have a lyrical voice. I don’t think I’m one of them. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins May 2, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Jami, while as a reader I agree there’s endless truth to what you said in this post, and Serena’s various replies in the comments before me, the writer in me just can’t embrace this as easily, which doesn’t mean I think you or Serena is wrong, but writers have to face this in ways lay readers who don’t write just don’t.

That’s not put away what you’re saying, Jami, it’s just fact as I see it.
I had to write my own blog post on the matter-

http://talkinganimaladdicts.com/when-is-a-great-story-is-not-about-the-writing/

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Jami Gold May 2, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Hi Taurean,

I understand. It can be very difficult to switch between those hats.

It’s a rare book that I read and don’t find disappointing in some way because I’ve learned so well how to rip writing apart. *sigh* So my reader side feels cheated of the pure entertainment it used to get from reading, and my writer side gets upset when reading some popular book that doesn’t “deserve” to be popular.

That said, I love writing–even if I have to remind myself of that every once in a while–and I certainly don’t wish I’d never taken it up. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung May 3, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Hey Taurean and Jami,

(Sorry that I’m still commenting on this post, LOL. Guess I’m being nosier than usual lately XD)

Hmm, for some reason, maybe I’m one of those writers who are fortunate enough to still be able to enjoy a lot of stories despite their flaws? The thing is, I’m someone who very quickly sees the positives in things (including writing) , but I’m quite blind to weaknesses. So this would make me a happy reader, as I can enjoy almost anything I read (the strengths stick out like gold stars to me). I do in truth rarely dislike a book, lol, and even if some aspect displeases me, I usually see redeeming qualities in the work. E.g. I was disappointed that in LotR, at least according to me, I didn’t feel emotionally connected to Frodo and co because I felt I didn’t know enough about Frodo and he felt so underdeveloped (the only character I actually cared about was Gandalf, lol.) Yet I forgave this shortcoming because I saw how beautiful the writing and descriptions are, how cool the plot is, and how epic and complex the series is in general. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have used LotR as an example of “redeeming qualities” XD, but you get my point.

However, despite my “ability to focus on the good things,” it’s to my constant disadvantage that I find it so hard to see the negatives. ^^ I really don’t know why I’m so bad at this–the woes of being an overly optimistic person, I suppose, haha.

So those are the two sides of the coin: you are lucky that you are sensitive to flaws and weaknesses in stories because you can use this sensitivity to improve your stories, and more importantly, help other people improve their stories! Seriously, it has been my continual concern that when my friends send over their stories, I’m only able to talk at length about the things I liked—I genuinely find it so challenging to find things they can improve on 🙁 And the few things I do find, I think are unhelpful, because I feel like my friend is aiming to tell their story in a specific way, and I can’t impose my ideas on them because that would be my style, not theirs. There are, of course, some obvious things I could tell them, like “this sentence was confusing. Did you mean X, or Y?” But on the whole, I feel like I’m not helping enough as a feedback partner. 🙁 Well, I just hope that making my friend aware of her specific strengths will be helpful enough to make up for my lack of negative feedback. ^^

Thus being so positive all the time isn’t always good, lol.

As for reminding ourselves about our love for writing, hmm, maybe one reason why this doesn’t seem to be a problem for me is that I keep telling other people how writing, reading, and drawing (as well as science and psychology) are my life. Continually declaring your sentiments on something to others makes those sentiments and feelings even more true. Try this continual public declaration technique. It really works!

But seriously, without writing, life would have no meaning for me anymore! Lol, yeah I’m so melodramatic, but I’m genuinely so madly in love with writing that I literally can’t live without it ^^ There were a few times recently when I imagined that something would happen to me that I wouldn’t be able to write or draw anymore, or even that the subject art would disappear from the world (!!!) The mere imagining of such a scenario scared me to death and made me cry. And I was bothered by the thought for a long time. 🙁

Related to this, I learned from my psychology class that if you imagine what your life would be like WITHOUT that good thing (or person), you would feel a greater increase of happiness and satisfaction than if you simply thought about how wonderful it is to have that thing in your life right now. Thinking about the ABSENCE of something good (writing) makes you feel even more grateful and elated than thinking about the PRESENCE of that good thing. This psych finding seems to be working for me—ever since crying from the terror that art (my favorite thing in the world) might be taken away from me one day, I cherished it even more dearly than I did before.

Taurean, maybe this “thinking about how your life would be like if writing was taken away from you” might help you rediscover your love and enjoyment of writing and reading again? 🙂

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Taurean Watkins May 4, 2013 at 9:55 am

Thanks for replying, Serena.

First let me say this, you needn’t be ashamed for having, Jami knows my comments/editorials are often just as long, some I dare say LONGER than yours here, as some topics make me more vocal than others.

Seriously, you should take a gander back the post Jami did about
How The Amazing Spider-man Rocks Subtext or the post about

The High Bar of Finding and Agent or Publisher (That you don’t NEED an agent for…LOL)

Amway, I do know what you’re saying, and while no one’s tried to take writing or reading away from me, there are times when I had to break from one or the other, and sometimes BOTH, and that was no less hard.

That said, just because you’re grateful for something you don’t want to lose, it doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges that get in the way of getting better with it, and I think that’s an equally valid stance.

Like I said in my post this week on the topic, some writers really don’t have problems with reading for pleasure/reading for craft/reading as you did before writing, and I’m glad some writers are spared that pain.

But I wrote what I did in my reply to this post and what I posted on my own blog for the simple fact that even if you, Jami or others don’t face this issue, I do and I’m not the only one.

So many writers give up the dream because they felt alone in what they struggled with, and didn’t know how to help themselves, but gladly do so if they knew what to do.

Which is why I hope writers who don’t have this problem read my posts on the subject anyway, because if you ever meet a writer from either your writer’s group or close network of friends with this problem, you will be sensitive and understanding of them where before you’d let your opinion of “I don’t have that problem” might lead the writer to think if none of the writers I know think this problem is real, “Am I just too weak to make it?”

Serena, while I’m genuinely glad you and many other writers I know don’t have this problem, I do at times, and that doesn’t make me any less grateful reading and writing wasn’t taken away from me, okay?

So, to directly answer you questions, I’d feel HORRID if reading or writing were taking away from me. I’d have two less outlets to channel my doubts and frustrations into something constructive and positive, even what I’m writing isn’t necessarily “positive.”

I don’t like dwelling on the negative, Serena, and I do have problem seeing positives amidst whatever issues there are, but you make a good point.

Not being able to see any negatives doesn’t mean-

A. They’re not there, at all (Which would be nice, though)

Or B. Won’t help you improve in areas you’re not strong at over others you do excel.

Thanks for replying, Serena.

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Serena Yung May 4, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Hi Taurean,

Ah, I’m sorry if I sounded unsympathetic or even boastful talking about how I didn’t have that problem. 🙁 I didn’t mean to come off that way. Rather, I hoped that my methods of making myself feel positive might work for others too and thus make them feel better. 🙁 But I guess not. 🙁

I did read your post, by the way, and I think I do understand your feelings on this issue, even if only intellectually, so please don’t think that I don’t sympathize, because I do. 🙁 Just hoping that my own solutions to the problem might be helpful to others too, but of course, this is not always the case, so I apologize here again 🙁

“Serena, while I’m genuinely glad you and many other writers I know don’t have this problem, I do at times, and that doesn’t make me any less grateful reading and writing wasn’t taken away from me, okay?”

I didn’t mean to imply that you were ungrateful either. 🙁 So please forgive me for expressing myself so unclearly that it led to this miscommunication. 🙁

“Not being able to see any negatives doesn’t mean-

A. They’re not there, at all (Which would be nice, though)”

That’s true.

“Or B. Won’t help you improve in areas you’re not strong at over others you do excel.”

That’s good to hear. 🙂

“First let me say this, you needn’t be ashamed for having, Jami knows my comments/editorials are often just as long, some I dare say LONGER than yours here, as some topics make me more vocal than others. ”

YAY! 😀 I’m glad I’m not the only long commenter, lol.

“Anyway, I do know what you’re saying, and while no one’s tried to take writing or reading away from me, there are times when I had to break from one or the other, and sometimes BOTH, and that was no less hard.”

That is definitely hard. I’ve experienced being away from either reading or writing before too and that felt really terrible. 🙁

“That said, just because you’re grateful for something you don’t want to lose, it doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges that get in the way of getting better with it, and I think that’s an equally valid stance.”

This is true too. And I agree that this is an equally valid stance, I was just wondering if we could think of solutions to conquer this problem though 🙁

“But I wrote what I did in my reply to this post and what I posted on my own blog for the simple fact that even if you, Jami or others don’t face this issue, I do and I’m not the only one.

So many writers give up the dream because they felt alone in what they struggled with, and didn’t know how to help themselves, but gladly do so if they knew what to do.”

I’m very sad to hear that. 🙁 If only they had help and moral support from other writers. Then such a tragedy would never happen. 🙁

“Which is why I hope writers who don’t have this problem read my posts on the subject anyway, because if you ever meet a writer from either your writer’s group or close network of friends with this problem, you will be sensitive and understanding of them where before you’d let your opinion of “I don’t have that problem” might lead the writer to think if none of the writers I know think this problem is real, “Am I just too weak to make it?””

I’m very sorry about this as well. 🙁 I was too focused on thinking up solutions and neglected to express my sympathy on this issue…And you are definitely not “too weak to make it”! 🙂 But you made a good point in that writers who suffer from this may interpret what I say as that their feelings are not the norm, and that therefore something must be wrong with them or that they must be unfit for writing. Argh, I’ll be sure to keep this in mind next time. Thanks for telling me this! 🙂

Once again, I apologize if my previous comment seemed unsympathetic or unfeeling, I really didn’t mean to imply any of that. 🙁 Guess I’m still not very good at online communications ><

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Taurean Watkins May 5, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Thanks for employing, Serena. I know you meant no disrespect, I just wanted to add another viewpoint to the conversation.

I also struggle with not getting people riled up at time.

I used to be a regular at AW’s forums and I had upset many a person because I get so emotional about things, and I was coming off a jerk times, but I also feel some of what said was taken WAY out of context, they would see attitude where I was just being HONEST.

I sadly knew authors who gave up their dreams to be authors because they couldn’t get over certain challenges and didn’t get the support they need.

Sorry if I sounded angry, Serena, I wasn’t, I just wanted to show a new side to this topic.

I think even writers who don’t have this problem need to understand and learn about it, so they can bring more empathy toward other writers, and if there comes a period in your own writing life when you have this problem for the first time yourself, even if it’s years down the road.

By then you’ll know how to fight through it in a healthy, since as writers often say, some books are harder than others.

After all, think about authors who worry FAR more over their second book after publishing their debut book. That said, debut and non-brand name authors have their trials to overcome.

As much as I don’t discount what it takes for writers to improve their craft, and avoid complacency, there’s more to being an author than what’s on the surface.

Well, it goes the same way with writers who struggle more with the business stuff than the actual BOOKS we want to write, something I feel highly pragmatic writers don’t always understand.

As much as I take my writing seriously and treat it like a business (Still, books will NEVER be products like toothpaste and makeup, that’s just how I feel), there’s more to this process than-

-Write a book

-Let it cool and write something else (NOT always that simple, which doesn’t mean we want to be “One Book Wonders.”

-Edit and repeat previous two steps.

Then we go through this with query letters ALL OVER AGAIN…

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Serena Yung May 6, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Thanks for your reply, Taurean. 🙂 I’m glad you weren’t actually angry, but was just honest. And it’s good that you’re providing another perspective as well, as you said, some (more fortunate) writers like me may not understand (at least not emotionally) the challenges some other writers face.

“so they can bring more empathy toward other writers, and if there comes a period in your own writing life when you have this problem for the first time yourself, even if it’s years down the road.

By then you’ll know how to fight through it in a healthy, since as writers often say, some books are harder than others.

This is a very good point. I’ll keep this in mind. 🙂

Also, I don’t blame you for getting emotional over tragic stories of writers giving up what they love because of some unfortunate difficulties, and a lack of support from other writers. (Or a lack of writer friends, perhaps?) I would feel very emotional over this issue too, especially if it happened to the friends that I know.

So I think it’s up to us “luckier” and “still happy” writers to encourage and give moral support to these struggling writers, to make sure they never give up no matter what! I believe we can avert such tragedies by believing in them, and encouraging them to believe in themselves too. 🙂 That’s why I like to ask my friends to send me their stories whenever they can (though a lot of them are a bit too shy to do so, lol), and I like to prioritize reading my friends’ stories first over published stories–partly because reading their stories really helps me understand my friends even more (I’m very curious about them), but also because I think it motivates and inspires them to keep writing. I know my friends reading my stories definitely motivated me even more to keep writing, so I think we should encourage each other! 😀

Hmm, I also admit the process is much easier for me because I’m self publishing and not aiming to market, or even promote, my books. Sorry. 🙁

By the way, I don’t remember if I told you this, but for the Nanowrimo free self-publishing offer, you’re allowed to publish ANY manuscript you have on hand, so not just your nanowrimo story. So, you could have an already thoroughly edited story you’ve written before, and publish that for free. 🙂 As for the worry that some publishing houses don’t approve of self publishing (not all publishers disapprove, though; I’ve heard that some prefer self-published authors to never-published authors), you can always set your book to “private”, so people in the public can’t see your book on Amazon. This could be a good solution to struggling writers out there. 🙂 As long as the Nanowrimo self-pub offer stays. (But since it has stayed for some years now, it’s likely to still be there for at least quite a while.)

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Taurean Watkins May 6, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Glad you knew where I was coming from, Serena.

Yes, you did mention Createspace, and I REALLY get you’re not limited to the novel you wrote for Nanowrimo, I really get that, seriously.

But unless I was writing a text only book, I still need
cover art for my books, and generic won’t cut it for me, I work too hard to skimp there.

I’d like to, but it’s just too expensive for me, and I don’t think Createspace offers as much for what I want to do, you know?

Maybe you could better explain what Createspace offers that I’m not keying in on, because my books need editing BEYOND what I can do on my own, and hiring out editors is beyond my limited budget, and I need cover art and illustrations for most of my books. Just to clarify, I don’t write picture books, but many middle grade novels use interior illustrations.

Before you say “Consult my writer friends” that’s not always possible, because the writers I know who I get great feedback from are now too busy in their own emerging careers that they’re not as available as they once were, and I certainly understand that, and there does come a point where you need feedback that just any ol’ reader can’t give you. I don’t I’m being snobbish when I say that.

More power to you for self-publishing, but I can’t do it the way I want without spending some money that I currently don’t have, and I don’t think that’s
me saying “It’s not going to happen. Ever.”

So, I can’t work around submitting to agents and editors, and I need some other ways to earn income to finance the book projects I want to self-publish.

Jami Gold May 7, 2013 at 9:57 am

Hi Taurean,

“I think even writers who don’t have this problem need to understand and learn about it”

Agreed. I appreciate when people express different viewpoints because, if nothing else (as I mentioned to Serena), seeing beyond our experiences will help us write characters different from ourselves.

I hope I provide a mix of advice, support, understanding, and sympathy to other writers. It really bums me out when I see writers go “off the radar,” and you’re right about how that’s often because they feel alone in their troubles.

I know I’ve been all over the map in my experiences, so I hope that makes me more sympathetic to the troubles of others. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold May 7, 2013 at 9:37 am

Hi Serena,

If it makes you feel any better, I’m often in that “want to help come up with solutions” mode rather than “sympathetic ear” mode too. 🙂

This is why I love my commenters–they force me to look beyond my experiences and see that my way of looking at things isn’t the only way. Getting better at this skill will only help me write characters of all types. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold May 7, 2013 at 9:31 am

Hi Serena,

Oh, I still enjoy stories, but yes, it’s harder to not be disappointed in a book in any way. 🙂 I understand what you mean about that being a good and bad thing, however. The ability to pick out WHY a story disappoints me means I’m good at beta reading, as I can find that one “off-note” in the story.

I just finished another couple of published stories (more for this contest), and they both were really good, but something held them back from being the equivalent of 5 stars. It turned out the crisis at the very end (mid-denouement) was missing motivation. (The characters had to make this high-stakes choice because so-and-so was going to die. Er, except the text only talked about a broken bone. Since when is a broken bone a life-threatening injury? This could have easily been fixed by making the extent of the injury clearer, so it didn’t come out of nowhere.)

No, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I forget my love of the writing itself. It’s more that the stuff around that–querying, publishing, marketing (sometimes editing 😉 )–buries that love and I have to dig it out occasionally. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung May 8, 2013 at 9:13 pm

“The characters had to make this high-stakes choice because so-and-so was going to die. Er, except the text only talked about a broken bone. Since when is a broken bone a life-threatening injury? This could have easily been fixed by making the extent of the injury clearer, so it didn’t come out of nowhere.”

Lol for this example XD

“If it makes you feel any better, I’m often in that “want to help come up with solutions” mode rather than “sympathetic ear” mode too. :)”

It does indeed make me feel better. 🙂 Thanks.

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Taurean Watkins May 4, 2013 at 10:02 am

Thanks for replying, Jami, and like you, I don’t regret being a writer, even if it makes me overly critical at times.

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Jami Gold May 7, 2013 at 9:33 am

Exactly, Taurean. 🙂

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Serena Yung May 7, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Hi Taurean,

Okay, I understand your situation now. 🙂 Yeah, professional editing and graphic design are so expensive!

Just a random question: for your cover art, if you have illustrations of your characters, are you really picky like me, that your characters have to look exactly the way you picture them? For me, I’m so insistent on this exactitude that when it comes to my characters, I draw them myself XD I’m not a great drawer, but I feel that even the most brilliant artist will never be able to draw what I want, because they can’t see that exact picture in my head.

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Taurean Watkins May 8, 2013 at 7:12 am

Thanks for replying, Serena, and for understanding my personal approach to self-publishing differs from yours, and that you’re doing what’s right for you, but if I have to spend money on something, it’s going to be for things I can’t do on my own or not without some guidance.

As far as your question on illustrator, I do have a specific vision, but I don’t entirely agree that other artists can’t see your characters as you do, I think that in part comes down to art direction.

Sure, you’ll hear about authors who aren’t thrilled with the illustrator that was chosen for specific books, but that’s a matter of faith and trust in your publisher via the traditional route.

If you’re going the self-publish route and hiring your own illustrator, there’s SO much more freedom in drafting the right style of illustration your book needs and how the characters are drawn and conceptualized.

Like you, I don’t draw, but as far as getting my characters look right-

That would be one of the advantages of self-publishing books where you want more creative control, you not only pick the illustrator, but you can communicate what you’d like and revise as needed, it’s just key to get the basic look right, before you finalize it for colorization, and since you’re footing the bill, it should be both right for the book and worth the time on the illustrator’s part.

For one book project (Unrelated to the novel I sold, that’s via the traditional route), I did give notes to the illustrator and she nailed just what I wanted, just be as sure as you can that your specifics are right for the book’s style and the characters involved.

The trick is to pick an illustrator who has a similar style to what that book needs, and there is a level of trust, but that’s why I like illustrators that suggest you send them various illustrations to give them a rough idea of what you’re looking for.

Most of my art direction involves getting certain facial expressions correct.

That said, I try to leave some room for the illustrator to make it their own, but still be what I’m looking for, so aside from upfront cost, communication is key.

I don’t try to draw my characters because it’s far beyond my skill set, and my taste in illustration is SO detailed and intricate that I’d need YEARS of practice to do it like I’d want it, and even author-illustrators don’t always illustrate their own books, sometimes it’s matter of style rather than raw skill alone.

If they need an art style beyond their skill set, they hire out illustrators or talk with their publisher about it and go from there.

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Serena Yung May 8, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Oh, when I said illustrators will never get what I want right (in my opinion, at least), I meant that I’m so picky that I will think things like: Noooo! The nose is 2 mm too high! Or the eyes are not in the exact shape that I wanted! (They’re the slightest bit too round, or the pointy parts or the straight lines are not in the right positions…) Or the overall configuration of the facial features aren’t right! Etc. Or simply—it doesn’t look like him/her! 🙁 Yeah, I care tremendously about the precise positionings and shapes of facial features, lol.

But I guess I’m less picky than you in that I don’t require that much detail in illustration.

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