The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story


First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

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In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

[Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

[Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
– emphasis mine

I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.

The Art of Storytelling, Part 7


This is probably the last in this series. The February issue of Writer’s Digest has fueled a lot of my thoughts and I’m reaching the end of the articles dealing with fiction.

The one I read today reaffirmed some of the things I’ve learned about plot, but also said succinctly what I think inhibits some writers. From Steve Almond‘s Fiction column, this month’s article, “The Great Plot Test,” in which he discusses common problems he runs across in teaching fiction:

The truth is, we often can’t see the bad decisions in our own work because we’re too narcissistically attached to it.

Yep, the truth hurts at times. But he said what I bumbled around a few days ago. “Too narcissistically attached.”

Years ago, in a long forgotten article or writing book, an author wrote a well-remembered statement that if we have lines in our story that we really love, those probably are the first we should cut. I disagreed! Vehemently! Why would you cut something you knew to be good?

Finally, finally I get it. The lines themselves were standing above the story, and that’s backwards. The writing, as much as the characters, plot, setting, foreshadowing, description, symbolism, dialogue must serve the story.

If I write a pretty line I refuse to cut, I am no longer serving the story with that line. That’s not to say I need to cut a line because it is pretty. But I do need to be willing to cut it.

Lo these many years later, I’ve been lopping off favorite lines right and left.

Writing fiction really is odd. I mean, it is a form of communication, so it’s me writing something I want to say to … an unseen and unknown group of people “out there.” And, if I do my job well, those people won’t think about me at all. They will feel attached to my characters, perhaps, and after the fact become aware of me, but if I intrude in the story, they very well may put the book down, or at best skip the pages where I am visible.

The point is, those lines I love just might be the ones that intrude. At least, I need to consider that possibility.

One more line from the article. Two of the common problems Almond finds in his students have to do with plot/character issues. The first is plot drift, in which the action is not driven by the character trying to achieve his greatest desire. The second is plot shallowness (my term—Almond says the author fails to push hard enough). Here’s the crux of this last point, and I’ll end here to let you mull it over:

My point is this: Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forching him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm  Comments (6)  
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The Art of Storytelling, Part 5


I realize today I have a little more to say about fiction techniques. In a recent Writer’s Digest, Mort Castle wrote an article about mimicking other writers, entitled “Write like Poe.” In the section “The Elements of Style,” Castle said this:

Authors’ styles grow from all the basic elements of prose: vocabulary, sentence length, structure, rhythm, narrative point of view, imagery, figures of speech and lots more. Style reflects a writer’s line-by-line, moment-by-moment decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out, what tone to adopt and what mood to induce in the reader. Style is the summation of “how” a story is presented … Many popular writers aren’t considered stylists, and they seek what’s termed a “transparent style” that focuses exclusively on plot.

It is this “transparent style”—really a whitewashing of style—I referred to as “stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling.”

For much of the history of fiction, authors wrote in such unique manners that readers could tell who created the work without seeing a name affixed to it. In contrast, I won’t say that today such individuality is frowned upon. Rather, style is rarely discussed.

In numerous writing conferences, writing books, writing discussions, fiction techniques come across like how-to components—there is a right way that editors and agents are looking for, and other ways lead authors to the unpublished ranks. This impression feeds into the tender author psyches (like mine was) that suspect there is a secret to grasp which will lead to the promised land of publication.

Understandably, authors scramble to put their story into the “right” style, much as they do to put their writing into the required format, and the result is the equivalent of white bread.

Do publishers want this type of writing? Castle said “many popular writers” seek a “transparent style.” After all, rye bread has a distinct flavor, and not everyone likes it. Won’t a “transparent style” appeal to the widest possible audience?

I suspect that is the thinking, but millions read Tolkien and millions read Lewis, though neither of those authors wrote in a “transparent style.” The argument, of course, is that those writers would never be published today. And that could be true.

But my point is, they’re being read today. In other words, a transparent style is not requisite for a work to be well liked, even loved. Granted, I have heard some people (certainly not everyone) complain about Tolkien’s style, even admit that they skip parts. I’m not advocating a return to a style of yesteryear.

I am suggesting, however, that readers have a far greater tolerance for varied styles than what many in the business give them credit for. Frequently here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, I say that story trumps all, and I believe that completely. Style, on the other hand, can be transparent (stand out of the way), be opaque (get in the way), or highlight (add and enhance).

If we writers keep learning, I think it’s within our grasp to do more than learn to get out of the way.

Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 3:47 pm  Comments (7)  
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The Art of Storytelling, Part 4


If you haven’t voted for the CSFF Top Blogger for December yet, please take some time to look over the posts listed here and vote. By the way, voting is not limited to CSFF members. Anyone reading the posts is free to voice an opinion.

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So on Friday I said tomorrow I would tackle one of the branches of storytelling I think will improve as an author is teachable. Yeah, I forgot about that not-posting-on-Saturday thing. Sorry if I misled anyone to think that I was writing on an off-day.

Back to the discussion. As I see it, we writers need to be teachable the same way teachers do. At the end of every school year, I would do an evaluation, formal or otherwise, thinking of the ways I wanted to improve the following year. Sometimes I focused more on discipline, sometimes on content, and sometimes on the organizational mechanics. The thing is, I needed all three to be as good as I could make them if I was going to teach to the best of my ability.

So with writing. Fiction is first and foremost a story, but the author also chooses and/or develops a style of writing, and of course, the writing is conveyed with established mechanics—grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the like, but also with good fiction techniques.

I believe a writer needs to continue learning in all three branches. From what I’ve seen at writers’ conferences and in online writer communities, even what I’ve heard from some editors, it seems to me that an undue emphasis is placed on the last category, the mechanics.

I’ll reiterate, I think we writers should constantly strive to improve, even in what I’m terming mechanics. Grammar, punctuation, capitalization, formatting, spelling—these are important, even deal breakers, according to a number of agents and editors. So writers do need to pay attention to these basics, but they must be kept in balance with other parts of storytelling.

Even the last segment of this category—good fiction techniques—can be emphasized too much. Certainly I believe in good fiction technique, things such as a proper point of view, showing vs. telling, vivid descriptions using the five senses, foreshadowing
, avoiding cliches, repetition, redundancy, and a number of others. But an over emphasis of these can suck the life out of a story.

I’ve heard and read writing teachers decry the use of -ly adverbs, was, -ing words, to the point that some writers come to believe using an adverb is actually wrong. Oh, sure, we say there are “no rules, only guidelines,” but the implication is still that “good writing” doesn’t use any of those undesirables.

The result seems to me to be stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling. Where is the art, if everyone writes in the same structured, lean, prosaic way? OK, fiction is prose, but must it be prosaic?

So here’s what I’m suggesting. Maybe, just maybe, we writers need to learn these techniques so that we can venture away from them—on purpose. Not for the sake of thumbing our nose at the conventions. Some writers seem to do that, and the result, quite frankly, is alienation of the intended audience.

But I think this might be one place where art resides in fiction—the choosing to venture away from the “proper” techniques on occasion in order to strengthen the story.

Tomorrow, a look at another branch of writing we can continually learn about.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 7:15 pm  Comments (5)  
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The Art of Storytelling, Part 1


Some people know how to tell a story. They just do. I had this one friend who worked as a nurse, and she could make changing a bedpan into the funniest story I’d heard. My former pastor could give an illustration in the form of a story that had the whole congregation holding our breaths.

Certainly the key component to these great oral storytellers is holding the attention of the listener, whether that comes from humor or suspense or whatever other technique. Ah, there’s the key word. There are techniques that make some stories more interesting than others.

Can these techniques be learned? Certainly authors who attend writers’ conferences think so. Or do they? More and more it seems as if conferences are filled with marketing and promotion seminars to complement their beginning and intermediate writing instruction.

So, are intermediate writing skills enough?

Before I became a writer, I worked as a teacher and coach. One year I had this seventh grader on what amounted to our basketball team’s practice squad who was a sharp, sharp girl, but not very athletic. She had good endurance but wasn’t very fast or strong or aggressive—qualities a basketball player really needs.

Still, she worked hard, listened to instruction, and went about implementing everything she learned. Consequently, she had a cross-over dribble, could do a lay-up with her left hand, knew how to set a screen—all of it. Except she had those athletic deficiencies.

The following year she made the varsity and continued to improve, though she didn’t play much. At the end of middle school, her family moved, but she wrote me to let me know that in her large public high school she made the JV team as a freshman. A couple years later she decided to leave basketball and use her time for other endeavors.

I wasn’t surprised. She had the basics for the sport and was an exceptional learner, but there were those athletic things, the ones we so often say can’t be taught.

Except some of it can be. Trainers can work on an athlete’s running style and strength to make them faster, enable them to jump higher. And certainly weight training has proved to be a help for any number of sports’ programs.

What does that have to do with storytelling? I’m convinced some people are naturals in the sense that they know how to deliver a good story even though they’ve never been taught, just like some athletes are born strong and fast and aggressive. Can those people improve on their God-given skills? Absolutely, if they will take the time to learn the playbook and work on the basics.

There are some writers, however, who have a desire to write though they don’t have those natural skills. Can they become great storytellers? Perhaps. Unlike basketball, no one seems quite sure what makes fiction work, so it seems tougher to learn, but not impossible. Above all else, reading good stories seems like a requisite, but taking apart good stories and studying the components ought to help a writer, too.

A third group seems capable of learning intermediate writing skills—the junior varsity level. They can write really, really good junior varsity stories, and they are content, not considering what it would take to move up to varsity or work for a spot on a college team.

Is it possible some will never reach that level, no matter how hard they try? Unfortunately, it seems inevitably true that not all will reach the next level. But a sure-fire way not to make it is not to try.

Published in: on January 7, 2009 at 11:59 am  Comments (4)  
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