The Language of Storytelling

Does posting a novel on the internet in order to get feedback help us improve our writing? After being involved in a writing contest for over a month now, I honestly can’t answer that question. I have received hundreds of comments, but there is no consensus. Some people love my story, others hate it. Some think my writing is stellar, others think it is dreadful.

I’m accepting all comments without argument and am planning to analyze them after the contest, but I have noticed that most contestants feel the need to justify their story decisions. If readers say the story is too slow, the writer says to be patient, it will get better. If the reader says it is front-laden with exposition, the writer says it’s necessary for the story. If readers say the conflict isn’t pronounced enough, the writer says it is subtle, but will be apparent later.

It makes me wonder if all this justification is turning us into sloppy writers. If we can explain our motivations as an aside, there is no reason to fit it into the story. A good writer, however, makes her justifications in the body of the work. If she wants the story to move slowly but wants readers to wait patiently for the good parts, she tells them this by foreshadowing what is to come. If the exposition is truly important at the beginning, she entwines it into the story so that readers get the necessary information while she is tweaking their interest. If the conflict isn’t pronounced enough, she bumps up the tension.

Tension is created when questions form in the readers’ minds: Who killed him? Why? How did the killer escape from the locked room? Without these questions, readers have no reason to continue reading, and they won’t. In a published book, there are no margin notes by the author saying, “Keep reading. Things will get better.”

There is truly nothing wrong with justifying our story decisions; we just need to learn how to write the justifications into our stories using the accepted language of storytelling.

(I am a semi-finalist in the Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest. You can see my contest entry here: http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977202263)

On Writing: Dealing with Compliments and Criticism

I feel as if I am a war correspondent on the front lines, taking flak and dodging sniper bullets. With only a few days left in the first round of the Court TV’s Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest, contestants are giving the top runners what are called drive-by ones – a single star without a comment to explain it – in the hope of lowering those scores. A futile activity at best, because only 10-star votes count. And then there are all the nasty comments that are being left on the chance that others will take heed and also give bad ratings.

See what you missed by not entering that contest?

You also missed some valuable lessons. I didn’t realize until today how much I have learned about evaluating criticism. If you’re like me, you will have been given some meaningless compliments and equally meaningless criticism on your work. Oddly enough, the criticism (or compliment) is more of a reflection of the criticizer than it is the criticizee. If it comes from a family member, you should ignore it, good or bad. Depending on your family dynamic, you will be treated contemptuously or as if you were the reincarnation of Hemingway, neither of which reflects your true skill.

A friend’s comment should also be discounted. Because of course they give you high praise; and if they didn’t, why are you friends? 

A comment from a stranger is more difficult to evaluate, but can be put into its proper place by a bit of investigation. Who is the person? What have they written? If you admire their writing, whether an article, a story, or a comment left on another contest entry, then pay attention. If you see that they are leaving a similar remark on all the entries, disregard it. If it comes from an agent who is trying to sell her services as a book-doctor, then definitely ignore it.

There is no point in beating yourself up for unearned criticism; nor is there any point in puffing yourself up with unearned compliments. If you are a real writer, you are in it for the long haul. Contests come and go. Rejection letters too come and go. What is left after all that is you, your writing, and how much you improve. That’s what counts.

Your Quest for Publication

There are eight days remaining in the first round of the Court TV Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest on gather.com, and I will be glad to see the end of it. It’s not just the time it’s taking from more important things like writing this blog, it’s that the thing turned sour. I thought it was bad that contestants were leaving overblown compliments on work that was less than stellar, but what’s even worse is that now some of them are spewing poison. That I have not been a victim of these unproductive remarks is immaterial.

Interestingly enough, the hate spewers are not good writers, though they think they are. I understand how hard it is to accept that readers don’t like your work, but in the end, aren’t readers always the final judges? They vote with their money, with their praise or denigration, with their recommendations. From that standpoint, this is a good experience. We can’t fight with every single reader who ventures an opinion with which we don’t agree.

There is also a lot of bitterness among the contestants because some of the entries at the top are atrocious. So the ones at the top learned early on that the contest is about gaining votes, not about good writing; more power to them. At least they were paying attention to the unwritten rules. As someone who has often been oblivious to unwritten rules, I am proud that for once I understood them. And, as I mentioned before, the days where a writer can sit back and wait for the royalties to come in are long gone. It is up to the author to participate in the process, and this contest is no different. The winner will be one who has participated and who will continue to participate in the marketing of the book.

Not that I think one of the top runners will win; the contest is all laid out in the written rules, and gather has control of it all the way. There is no way a bad novel will prevail in the end.

So what wisdom can I impart to help you in your quest for publication? Enter contests, but be aware that the true value comes from what you learn about yourself and your writing, not the prize. Listen when readers offer their comments even if you don’t agree with them. It’s one thing to be rejected by an agent or editor — you can always justify it by saying your novel does not meet their needs — but when a reader says it’s a little slow or hard to understand, pay attention.

In the end, whether published or unpublished, whether published by a publishing house or self-published, it all comes down to readership. And believe me, there are a heck of lot more writers than there are readers.

Lift Yourself Out of the Slush Pile

I feel as if I’ve had a glimpse into what it would be like to rummage through the slush pile at a publishing house. For years now, seeing the quality of books that are being published, I’ve thought that the best books were being rejected. If what I’m seeing is any indication of the contents of a slush pile, I have to admit that the published books, no matter how mediocre, really are superior.

I entered the Court TV Search For the Next Great Crime Writer Contest, and have spent the past several days trying to read the other entries, but they are hard to get through. The best ones read like rough drafts, the worst like sludge. Interestingly enough, ranking is no indication of quality. The ones at the top for the most part are no better than the ones at the bottom; the top-ranked writers simply have more friends or a greater ability to network.

I can see why editors and agents send out form rejection letters; it’s hard to find something good to say without sounding patronizing or without discouraging what might be a budding talent. And new writers, flush with the thrill of having finished their first book, do not want to hear the truth even if they say they do.

Is it better to leave an enthusiastic remark on an unremarkable piece, thereby undermining my own critical ability and giving a false impression of the work? Or is it better to tell a bit of the truth and risk making an enemy?

I’ve spent the day wrestling with this dilemma, and not having come up with an answer, and certainly not getting any thanks for the comments I have been writing, I’ve decided to opt out of rating any more entries.

But I will give you the benefit of my wisdom:

Rewrite.

Rewrite.

Rewrite.

When you are finished, set the work aside for a month or two or three, then rewrite it again.

That’s the only way to lift yourself out of the slush and sludge.

Is a Standard Publishing Contract Worth Aiming For?

I am having so much fun. I entered the Court TV Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest, and as of right this minute I am ranked number one!

The winner of the contest wins a $5,000 advance and a publishing contract. Sounds good, but the kicker is that the winner has to sign a standard publishing contract without any negotiations. I have heard such horror stories about the sneaky wording publishers use in those contracts, and how they can tie up your rights indefinitely even though they are no longer trying to sell your book. Is a standard publishing worth all the work it will take to win it? I don’t know.

Considering my ambivalence about the contract, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to solicit votes, but now I am really into it. It’s a heady feeling having someone you’ve never met comment on your story, and especially heady when they “get” it.

My novel, More Deaths Than One, is the story of a crime: identity theft. This theft is the actual theft of a man’s identity, not a paper one.

When Bob Stark returns home after spending eighteen years in Southeast Asia, he discovers that his mother Lydia Loretta Stark is dead again. When he attends her second funeral, he sees his brother, his college girlfriend, and . . . himself. Accompanied by a baffling young woman, he sets out to discover the truth.

You can find my entry here:

http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977138910

There are a lot of great entries in this contest, and I need every vote I can get. (A vote is a rating of 10 stars, nothing less counts.) I would appreciate it if you would take a look at it.

I want more fun!

And Lydia Loretta Stark Was Dead. Again.

 Court TV and Gather.com are searching for the next great crime writer.

My novel, More Deaths Than One, is not a detective story, and it certainly is not a cozy mystery, but it is the story of a crime: identity theft. This theft is an actual theft of a man’s identity, not a paper one.

When Bob Stark returns home after spending eighteen years in Southeast Asia, he discovers that his mother Lydia Loretta Stark is dead again. When he attends her second funeral, he sees his brother, his college girlfriend, and . . . himself. Accompanied by a baffling young woman, he sets out to discover the truth.

I am not asking you to vote for me; I am begging you. There are a lot of great entries in the contest, and I need every vote I can. (A vote is a rating of 10 stars; nothing less counts.)

Thank you.

You can find my entry here:

http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977138910

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